Blessings of the Saints
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 1:3–1:6
Unconditional election is a basic tenet of Reformed theology. Indeed, it is the second point of the famed “TULIP” acronym which has been widely used to define those who subscribe to a “reformed” faith. My belief in election, however, does not stem from what is frequently called “Calvinism” or even the Canons of Dort from which the so-called “five points” are believed to have derived, although I do subscribe to both. Rather, my belief in God’s sovereign choice regarding salvation comes from the instruction of Scripture; and there is no place in all of Scripture that states the case for divine election more clearly than do these words that are found in verses 3 through 6 of Ephesians 1. Please look at theme with me:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Divine election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. His choice is unconditional in the sense that there is no condition than man must meet before God chooses to save him. As Paul will reveal in chapter 2 of this letter, man inherently is “dead in...trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). And being in a state of “spiritual deadness,” there is no condition he could possibly meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.
Not even our faith is a condition for election. Just the reverse...election is a condition of faith. It is because God chose us “before the foundation of the world” that He purchases our redemption through the death of His Son, gives to us spiritual life through irresistible grace, and brings us to saving faith. Ephesians 1 does not simply support this doctrine...it, along with other Scripture, is the very foundation for it.
Lengthy definitions and descriptions of Divine election have been written. For example, the Canons of Dort, dating from the 17th century, express it this way with language bearing the stamp of Ephesians 1:
“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race...a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ...(and) to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification...(and) finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace.”
Without meaning to overly simplify the richness of this doctrine, we might refer to “unconditional election” as “God’s sovereign choice.”
To some, election—as well as its companion term “predestination”—can be a frightful topic of discussion. But for those who are truly “in Christ,” I know of no biblical truth that provides greater assurance, security, and comfort. And I am confident that is the reason why Paul includes this teaching in his letter to the Ephesians.
Following his opening greeting, which we looked at last Sunday, Paul leads us into a lengthy doxology of praise to God. In the original Greek verses 3 through 14 of Ephesians 1 comprise one long sentence made up of over 200 words. There are numerous relative clauses and phrases whose relation to one another is at times difficult to determine. If you are familiar with the thirteen epistles of Paul in the New Testament, then you know that lengthy sentences are not unusual for him. There are, in fact, eight of them found in Ephesians alone (cf. 1:3-14, 15-23; 2:1-7; 3:2-13, 14-19; 4:1-6, 11-16; and 6:14-20). As for the one before us this morning, we are actually going to invest two messages in it. That is because there is so much here...too much, in fact, for us to digest in a single serving.
Verses 3 through 6 speak of the blessings of the saints. God has blessed us, Paul begins in verse 3, and then offers an explanation for that blessing before elaborating more fully on the nature of that blessing in verses 7 through 14. So, we’ll start our journey where he does.
Like an expanding telescope having various stages or sections, verses 3-6 reveal three things with each one adding to the previous. First of all, we see that God has blessed us by choosing us. Then secondly, we learn that God chose us in order to predestine us. Were Paul to have stopped there, you and I would be able to bask in the delight of our salvation. But doing so would be to miss the main point, which is to realize that God chooses and predestines so that His glorious grace will be praised. You see, even our salvation is not about us...it is about God getting the glory that He alone deserves. And until we see that we will never be able to appreciate our life in Christ to the degree that we should.
So, let’s take these points one at a time. In verses 3 and 4, we are told that...
God has blessed us by choosing us (1:3-4)
Let’s look again at how Paul begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
You will notice that the apostle begins with the word “blessed” (“ευλογητοs”). Literally, the term means “a good word.” It can refer to “speaking well of someone.” When used of God, as it is frequently in the Old Testament (LXX), it is a declaration of His being “worthy of praise.” What a seemingly obvious way to begin a letter...by declaring “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” as praiseworthy. It was clearly the first thing that Paul wanted to establish with his readers...God is worthy to be praised.
On that we may agree, but the writer is not content to let that be simply a hollow expression. He wants us to understand why God’s worth is being announced. So, he follows up that initial declaration by telling us that God is worthy to be praised because He “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
Observe several things about that statement. In the first place, these “blessings” are said to come to us “in Christ.” This is an expression that recurs throughout the letter. It speaks to the source of our blessing as well as our position as His followers. Regarding that designation within the context of Ephesians 1, John Calvin wrote, “If we are chosen in Christ, it is outside ourselves. It is not from the sight of our deserving, but because our heavenly Father has engrafted us, through the blessing of adoption, into the Body of Christ. In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything men have of themselves; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ, it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy.”
Next, notice that the blessings which have been bestowed upon the followers of Christ—and, yes, they are said to have been given in the past tense—are called “spiritual” (“πνευματικοs”) in nature. Although some of those “blessings” will be considered in momentarily, they will be more fully expounded in the verses we will look at next week.
But something we can observe now is that these “blessings” are said to be “in the heavenly places.” This is not meant to imply that they are unable to be entered into in some measure here and now, but that the full experience of them awaits our heavenly abode. The expression “in the heavenly places” is used only by Paul and only in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where he employs it five times (cf. Ephesians 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10, and 6:12).
Perhaps a helpful way to consider the meaning of “spiritual blessing(s) in the heavenly places” is to think of them being on “layaway” or being “reserved” for us. The hymn writer speaks of “a foretaste of glory divine.” Elsewhere Paul said that “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). That’s it! These are blessings that can only be experienced by the follower of Jesus Christ, but even they can know them only partially here and now.
As we move into verse 4, we clearly see that these “blessings” come as a result of God’s sovereign choice upon whom He would bestow them. We must start with the realization that without His providential selection, every last one of us would be without mercy and hope. That He would choose any of us is an expression of His grace alone. That is what the Reformers meant when they spoke of “sola gratia”...“only grace.”
The root word for “chose” (“εκλεγω”) is the word from which we get our English word “elect.” It means literally “to choose out” or “to select from among.” As J.I. Packer explains, the term “expresses the idea of picking out, or selecting, something or someone from a number of available alternatives.” The ground on which God chooses from among a world of guilty sinners who will be the objects of his mercy is solely the good pleasure of His will, as Ephesians 1 will repeatedly remind us.
This is alluded to in the next phrase, where we are informed that God’s sovereign choice of who would be “in Christ” was made “before the foundation of the world.” This remarkable statement predates Genesis 1:1. Long before any of us saw the light of day—and even before there was such a thing as “the light of day”—the Lord made an autonomous choice of who would be His for all of eternity. And while we may anthropomorphically say that God looked down through the corridors of time, it was not—as many presume—that He “foresaw” faith in some but not in others, but rather that He sovereignly selected the ones to whom He would grant faith to respond to Him.
God’s blessing is expressed in His sovereign choice, and there is a purpose toward which all of His chosen ones are directed. That purpose is stated in the last full expression of verse 4: “That we should be holy and blameless before him.” If you have been chosen by God, here is your mandate: “That (you) should be holy and blameless before him.” In other words, the purpose for our selection is that we live pure and holy lives, thus demonstrating His righteous character to others. Paul will invest the final three chapters of this epistle explaining to us what that looks like in our various human relationships, including the church, the home, and the workplace. For now, be aware that the sovereign choice of God has a far greater goal than merely getting us to heaven. More importantly, it is granted because we have been called to emulate Him and to demonstrate His character. It is no overstatement to say that His reputation in the world is at stake in those who are His. To state it theologically, the followers of Jesus Christ have been called to holiness and sanctification.
Verses 3 and 4 not only reveal that God has blessed us by choosing us, but we are also given the source (“in Christ”), the nature (the “blessings” are “spiritual”), the location (“in the heavenly places”), the means (God’s sovereign choice), the time (from “before the foundation of the world”), and the purpose (“that we should be holy and blameless before him) of those blessings. Clearly, Paul wanted his readers—including us—to have a firm understanding of our privileged position as followers of Christ...in other words, what it means to be a Christian.
But there is more to be said. In verse 5 we learn that...
God has chosen us in order to predestine us (1:5)
The last two words of verse 4 more properly fit with verse 5, so let’s start there: “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”
Right away we are told that it was God’s love that motivated His sovereign choice. Our Lord’s “αγαπη-love” is a central theme of the New Testament. We much prefer to talk about that than any discussion of “election” and “predestination,” and yet here we find “love” right in the middle of a discussion of these two doctrines. That tells me that there is a relationship between them.
Predestination is not a separate doctrine from election, but is rather as aspect of it. Every evangelical church that is worthy of the name has offered an interpretation of the doctrine of predestination. That is because the Bible clearly teaches it, and those who want to be biblical must address the topic if they are to remain biblical. Paul used the term rather freely in Romans 8(:29-30), 1 Corinthians 2(:7), and here in Ephesians 1(:5 and 11), and never does he try to explain it away.
The word “predestine” (“προοριζω”) means “to mark out a boundary beforehand.” To reiterate, predestination does not imply that God foresaw any good in us and then responded by showing grace. Rather, it was He and He alone who initiated the process by “marking out beforehand” those who would be His. And what’s more, He “predestined” us “according to the purpose of his will.” There was a sovereign purpose. And what was that purpose? We are told right here that it was “for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains it this way: “The omniscient God has determined everything in advance, both persons and things in salvation history, with Jesus Christ as the goal...The goal of our predestination is divine sonship through Jesus Christ.”
But what does it mean that God has “predestined us for adoption as sons”? Simply stated, “adoption” is the act of God whereby he makes us members of His family. Literally, the word means “sonship” (“‘υιοθεσια”), which is why Christians can be called “sons” or “children of God.” The word speaks of our relationship with the Father. But there is even more meaning to this term that we might initially attach to the word “adoption.” In addition it speaks to having all the rights and privileges that are accorded to family-members, including the right to inherit the blessings. Here is the way Paul expressed it in Romans 8:15-17):
“You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
And lest we forget, Paul adds that God’s gracious act of blessing us by choosing us in order to predestine us to be adopted as His children was “according to the (express) purpose of his will.” God’s actions on behalf of the elect are motivated and initiated by His “good pleasure.” Never is He constrained by any outside force or influence. That is what it means for Him to be “sovereign.”
Verse 6 adds the exclamation point to this section, as well as serves to transition us into a further description of the blessings of the elect in verses 7 through 14. That is where we will be next Sunday. For now, however, let us peer just a bit more intently upon one additional point made by the apostle. It is the most important point, for here we see that...
God has predestined us so that He would be praised (1:6)
This is not just a summary of what has already been said. A specific aspect of God’s manifold character is emphasized for praise...namely His “glorious grace.” As with John Newton, God’s “amazing grace” was Paul’s “shield and portion as long as his life endured.” He never ceased to speak of it, referring to it no fewer than eighty times in his thirteen New Testament letters and twelve times in Ephesians alone.
“Grace” has been defined—and rightfully so—as “God’s unmerited favor.” But that really doesn’t go far enough. It would better, certainly within this context, to consider “grace” as “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only judgment and wrath.” As we have noted, “grace” is completely unmerited. It is freely given by God at His good pleasure. I cannot emphasize that strongly enough. To not so would be to misrepresent the very nature of salvation.
The Reformers wrote of “irresistible grace.” By the use of that phrase they did not mean to imply that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. What is meant is that God, whenever He chooses, can and will overcome all human resistance and make His influence irresistible. When the Lord undertakes to fulfill His sovereign purpose, no one can successfully resist Him. As relates to all of us personally, “irresistible grace” refers to the sovereign work of God to overcome the rebellion of men’s hearts and bring them to faith in Christ so that they can be saved. In addition, were it not for the continual exertion of saving grace, we would live in a perpetual state of resistance against God. The reason any of us come to Christ is not that we are smarter, wiser, or more virtuous than others. It is because the Father overcame our resistance and drew us to Christ...by “grace!”
This has all been possible because we are, by God’s sovereign choice, “in the Beloved,” or as He put it in verse 3, “in Christ.” Next week we will be looking more specifically at the nature of those “blessings” that the Lord has given to His elect. Paul refers to them as our “inheritance.” It is a reading of a will that, if you are “in Christ,” has you as a beneficiary.
For now, let’s be unmistakably clear as to what Paul is saying in verses 3 through 6.
God the Father has blessed us
with every spiritual blessing
by choosing us
in order that
He might predestine us to sonship
He might be praised
for His glorious grace
given to us in Jesus Christ.
Although the doctrine of unconditional election is difficult for our finite minds to fully comprehend, it is important for us to wrestle with it and to accept it by faith. A seminary professor was reported to have told his students, “Try to explain election and you may lose your mind. But try to explain it away and you may lose your soul.” That is because the Bible teaches it. These four verses in Ephesians 1 emphatically make that point.
God has chosen those who are His in order to predestine them to become heirs with Christ so that both now and in the ages to come His glorious grace may be praised and that He receives all the honor that He alone deserves.
One of the charges that is sometimes leveled with regard to the doctrine of election is that if salvation is the sovereign choice of God, then does it really matter that a Christian shares his faith with others. The now famous story is told that when William Carey, “the father of modern missions” expressed his sense of calling to take the Gospel to the unreached of the world, he was abruptly rebuked by a senior minister who said, “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine.”
Hear me carefully: Divine sovereignty does not exclude human responsibility. The truth is, God is pleased to convert the heathen, and His plan is to do so through messengers like you and me. With that in mind, John Stott has emphasized three points relative to the doctrine of election that we do well to hear and to apply:
First, the doctrine of election is a divine revelation, not a human speculation. We must not reject the notion of election as if it were some strange fantasy of men, but rather humbly accept it (even though we do not fully understand it) as a truth which God himself has been pleased to expose us to.
Second, the doctrine of election is an incentive to holiness, not an excuse for sin. God chose us in Christ in order that we should be holy and blameless before him. Therefore, the process of sanctification begins here and now. So, far from encouraging sin, the doctrine of election forbids it and lays upon us instead the necessity of holiness because that is the very purpose of our election. In the final analysis, the only evidence of election is a holy life.
And third, the doctrine of election is a stimulus to humility, not a ground for boasting. The very fact that God has chosen us, removes any reason for human pride. Salvation is of the Lord and not of ourselves.
Warren Wiersbe has well-said of the believer’s privileged position that “We inherit the wealth by faith, but we invest the wealth by works. There is, therefore, incumbent upon those who are among the elect to not only claim their inheritance in Christ but to act upon it as well. To express it another way, “we have been saved to serve.”
So, what is the purpose of our being blessed to have chosen by God? It is that He might predestine us to become His adopted children, so that (and if you miss this you miss it all) His name might be forever praised!
If you are a Christian, you are one of His “chosen people.” And what’s more, you have been chosen for a purpose...that purpose being that you would glorify His name forever.