Ephesians 1:3-14 New International Version (NIV)
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
I recall preaching on this very text twelve years ago when I was just beginning at Staunton Mennonite Church. It was my second week on the job. I remember it so vividly because someone said to me, “Really, you’re going to try to tackle predestination in your second sermon at this church?”
I said, “Yes, I am.” I then proceeded to give what I assume was a really bad argument for the concept of freewill.
My conclusion has not changed over the years, but I hope that my argument has improved.
Allow me to share with you something that I have found helpful as I have struggled through this and other challenging teachings in the church. It is really easy to tear down someone else’s perspective when you misrepresent it. But when you actually have a discussion with someone who holds a perspective, it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss their point of view.
One of the biggest eye-opening experiences of my life was studying at a Presbyterian seminary. There is so much that we Mennonites have in common with the Presbyterians that I had no problem talking about social and political issues. But Presbyterians are Calvinists, so we disagree on the freewill vs. predestination debate. However, in my discussions with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I found that there are many ways to approach the debate that didn’t fit into my simple categories.
I say all of that to recognize that when we compare theological beliefs and traditions, we often put our best expressions of faith up against another group’s worst. So I want to give this idea of predestination, or divine election, as it is often called, a fair consideration. And I will try to note throughout my message when I am deviating from a critique of mainstream thought on predestination and considering an extreme version.
The first thing I want to do is to define the term that we are using. Predestination is defined by dictionary.com as: “the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others. It has been particularly associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Calvin.”
In that definition I find two different concepts. The first is what I often think about when I hear the word “predestination.” That has to do with salvation. God has decided, perhaps even before the beginning of time, who will be saved from their sins and spend eternity with him, and who will not. This sometimes called “monergism,” from mono, which means one, and erg, which means work. It is God alone who is involved in selecting who is and is not saved. Contrast this to synergism, which means to work together. Synergism requires something from the person.
So predestination can refer to God’s predetermining who is and is not saved. The other aspect of predestination that is present in that definition is that God foreordains all that has happened, is happening, and will happening. God has predestined the unfolding of history in a specific way, like an author who writes a book.
Like most controversial topics, there are multiple understandings of how God relates to historical and future events. Most Christians would say something along the lines of God created the world, God regularly intervenes, and that God has an end plan. But God doesn’t micromanage every detail. I like to think that God has a big plan that we can choose to participate in, but I don’t think God cares one bit if I choose to eat eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. I think God allows us to make decisions on our own, including whether or not we will serve him.
Yet there are those who believe that nothing happens without God actively willing it to happen. They argue this from a point of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a reference to a person or being’s amount of power. In an absolute monarchy, a king is sovereign. I think most Christians would agree that God has absolute sovereignty, he is the highest power. But just how that works itself out, that’s another question.
One megachurch and its popular founding pastor adhere to the concept that sovereignty means that nothing happens without God willing it to happen. (I don’t name names when critiquing.) Writing on Isaiah 46, he says, “Therefore, what God means in Isaiah 46:10 is that nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.”
What does Isaiah 46 say? “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’”
Yeah, I believe that God knows the end and has since the beginning. I believe that God has a purpose, which will one day be fully realized, but does that mean that everything that has or will happened was God’s purpose? So God caused Adam and Eve to break the one commandment that they were given and be expelled from the Garden? God caused Israel to turn their backs on him and enter into exile? God caused humans to sin, then entered our world as Jesus, and suffered and died…for the sins that God caused? I honestly don’t know how anyone can believe that God causes all things that happen to happen. And haven’t even mentioned things like the Holocaust, famine, or war.
Some people argue for this understanding of sovereignty because it makes God seem even more powerful to think of him as controlling everything. But that’s not true. It makes God out to be petty, violent, and disgraceful. I have no interest in worshipping that God.
I took a class in Seminary, a book study on Isaiah, led by my advisor, Jim Engle. Jim is a great guy, smart, compassionate, and kind of erratic. I remember sitting in this class over a decade ago, and Jim saying, “The problem with predestination is that it is biblical.”
In our study of Isaiah, what Jim was referring to was God choosing Israel. God had chosen a certain group, predetermined, that he would work through this group for the good of the rest of the world. And this isn’t the only time we find God choosing one person or group over another. God chose Saul to be the first king of Israel, while rejecting his brothers. God then chose David, passing on his brothers. And in our scripture for today, God seems to choose some, while rejecting others.
In Ephesians 1:4-5, “Paul” writes, “For [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
It isn’t difficult to see how John Calvin arrived at his understanding of predestination. Since before creation God predestined some for sonship and daughtership. And if you predestine some, you necessarily exclude the others. This is sometimes called “double predestination,” or “double election.” If God predestines some for heaven, he necessarily predestines some for hell. This isn’t foreknowledge of who will and will not accept the gift of grace in Jesus Christ. Calvin believed that God chose before we were even born just where we would be spending eternity.
So God created some just to condemn them forever?
I know a couple who after having their first child decided that they would stop there. It wasn’t because they didn’t like being parents or didn’t enjoy their daughter. They decided that they shouldn’t have more children because their daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a disease that causes a thick mucus to develop in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Those affected require frequent treatment, including some painful attempts to help the person clear their lungs well enough to breathe. With advancements in treatment, the average life span of a person with cystic fibrosis is just over 37 years.
Cystic fibrosis in an inherited disease, and it is a recessive gene. This means that in order for a person to have cystic fibrosis, both parents must carry the gene and pass that gene on. So the odds that their offspring would have cystic fibrosis is 1 in 4.
My friends who have the daughter with cystic fibrosis said that was too much of a risk for them. They had seen their daughter suffer, and they weren’t going to risk any more children having the same struggles.
So if my friends would choose not to have additional children because there would be a ¼ chance that they might have cystic fibrosis, does it really make sense that God would create people knowing that they were destined for eternal damnation? My friends are not more ethical or righteous than God!
Additionally, when I hear people talking about nothing happening unless God causes it to happen, I wonder how that will affect their daily actions and how they view others. At its worst, our history books reveal that slave owners have used this argument to justify slavery. They would claim that God created people with black skin to be slaves. God predestined some to be rulers and some to be servants, and if this is how God ordered the world, who are we to question God?
That is why I reject predestination. I use reason and logic.
So what do we do with all of these references to God choosing or even predestining some events? My first response is to say that even though the scriptures say that God chose someone to do something, it doesn’t say that God forced them. I think we frequently choose not to follow God’s calling. And there are plenty of times when someone starts off well, only to choose another path along the way.
Consider again the case of King Saul. God chose Saul as the first king of Israel, and Saul accepted that calling. But then Saul turned his back on God and disobeyed God. That was a choice. The passage that Sonya and I chose to include on our wedding bulletin (15 years ago this Thursday!) was from Joshua 24:15, “…then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
For every time you find a passage about God choosing someone, you can find another passage where the person is faced with a choice as well.
And passages like our text for this morning from Ephesians can be cleared up by simply asking, “Who is ‘the we’ Paul is referring to?”
In verses 3-12, Paul consistently talks about we. We were chosen, we were redeemed, we were predestined. Then in verses 13-14, he switches to the plural version of “you,” or “you all.” Verse 13: “And you [all] also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of you [all’s] salvation. When you [all] believed, you [all] were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”
The “we” is the church. God predestined the church for salvation. God chose before the beginning of time to work through the church, the gathered believers, the community of the faithful. Now “you all,” the Gentiles, have believed and have been added.
My favorite metaphor for predestination is that of a train. A train has a destination, and that destination is predetermined. You don’t just jump on a train and decide where you are going after 30 minutes of chugging along. No, the train is going to Charlottesville. That has already been determined.
But you have the choice. Will you get on or not?
Let me conclude with one more story from the Bible, and I’ll share with you why it is significant. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is visited by three travelers. We are told that these men represent the Lord and in the Christian tradition we often think of them as the members of the Trinity. God reveals to Abraham that he is going to destroy the city of Sodom, and Abraham begins to bargain with him. Abraham asks, “What if 50 righteous people are found in Sodom? Will you destroy the city if there are 50 righteous in that place?”
God says okay. For 50, I’ll not destroy the city.
Abraham responds, “What about 45?” Then, “What about 40? 30?” They go back and forth until Abraham gets God down to 10 righteous people. If there are 10 righteous people living in Sodom, God promises not to destroy the city.
Some have said that God already knew that there weren’t 10 righteous people in the city, so this was really not an example of God changing his mind. But I don’t think God would be so misleading; it doesn’t seem within his character. Instead, it seems as if Abraham was truly able to affect God’s plan.
There are all sorts of weird things going on here, but I want to emphasize the point that in talking with God, we can change things. Otherwise, why would we pray? It would be a total waste of time to ask for healing, ask for guidance, or ask help if everything was predetermined by God and nothing could change it.
If everything was predetermined, there would be no reason to evangelize. Your eternal destiny is already decided. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to work for justice. If a group is being abused, it is God’s will for them to be abused. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to feed the poor, clothed the naked, or care for the sick. That’s just their god-determined lot in life. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no need to pray. Prayer would change nothing. I’ll go so far as to say that if everything was predetermined by God, then the teachings of Jesus would be worthless.
But I believe we have a choice. And I believe that much of what we see in this world that isn’t as we think it should be is the result of our choices and the choices of others. And that is good news! Because if God had preordained all the crap in the world, there would be nothing that we could do about it. But because the crap of this world is a result of our choices, we can also choose to make it better, to make it right. We can choose, in the words of Jesus, for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, one earth as it is in heaven.