Ephesians 1 —
election and predestination
It isn't only what a man says that matters; what he means to do with what he says is critical to understanding him.
This is a commonplace truth though we don't always pay attention to it. Look, Bildad speaks a profound truth in Job 8:3-7 when he insists that God does not pervert justice and will do what is right in regard to wickedness and repentance. How could that be wrong? What was wrong was what he used that truth for (see 42:7-9). In 22:2-3, Eliphaz says (essentially) that God is not in the least in need of humans. How can that be wrong? What was wrong was his use of that truth to indicate that God couldn't care less what humans do—it doesn't affect him one way or another, he said (22:4 and see 42:7-9).
We don't understand Bildad, Zophar or Eliphaz just by processing what they said; to do that only gives us some of the truth. We must uncover what they meant to do with the words they used. The fact is, that on their way through to hanging the irate Job they spoke of God's sovereignty, his justice, his power, his wisdom. To judge their meaning only on those truths they proclaimed on the way through would put God in the wrong (see 42:7). We must pay attention to what they meant to do with what they said.
Ephesians like every other book in the Bible—taken as a whole—is about God, of course! The NT is about God as he has shown himself to us in Jesus by the Holy Spirit, of course! Both OT and NT are about God but they come at him in their own (but interrelated) ways. Individual books give their own stress and develop truths that other books don't and even when the same truth is under discussion we have them developed in different ways and different directions by different writers.
All of that means what?
It means we shouldn't homogenize scripture; we should allow each book or section or text in a book to make its own particular point.
What did Paul mean to do with the truths in Ephesians 1—3?
It's common knowledge that in Ephesians Paul is centrally concerned about the nature and identity of Christ's Church.
He assures them that whatever else it is, it is the creation of God in Jesus and by the Spirit and is the body of the exalted Lord Jesus (1:23, 2:16, 3:6, 4:4). In it God continues the purpose he pursues in raising Jesus from the dead (1:19-20) and in that one body the Spirit of the risen Lord dwells, uniting once rebellious sinners from all nations and giving them gracious access to God (2:1-21).
This "in-one-body" reconciliation to God and one another of divided humanity was (at best) hinted at in the ages before Jesus and was only now revealed in people like Paul (3:1-13). "You want to see God's unfolded plan of reconciliation?" he asks, "then look at the church!" The sovereign, gracious and holy God eternally purposed the existence of the Church of Jesus Christ and brought it into being to be the body of Christ and the Community of witness not only to the entire human family but to the authorities and powers of worlds beyond us (3:9-10).
But—and this is an important but—he is talking about the body of Jesus Christ and not about all the people of all the ages! The body of Jesus Christ, the Church, is a Spirit-created Community that began with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus! It is a community of witness that has its place in history, in this world subsequent to the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. It began on Pentecost (Acts 2) and its members are the body of Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 6:15, chapter 12 and elsewhere).
The ancient worthies (like Abraham and Moses and Hannah) are not members of the Church of Christ! They had their place and role in salvation history but not as members of the body of Jesus! These were right with God and they were elect people but their elect role was not the same as the role of the NT elect.
In Ephesians Paul is addressing the nature of the eschatological people, the body of Jesus, the Community of witness in this penultimate act of God's drama. The final act is the personal return of Jesus and until that happens the Church of Jesus is the dwelling place of his Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God's Son (Galatians 4:6 and Ephesians 2:21-22).
Paul is identifying this peculiar people in Ephesians. He is saying (among other things) that this new Temple of God (2:21-22) was no ad hoc divine response to the failure of his creation purposes! This new Elect People was not something God came up with because the Jews turned out to be a failure! This re-defined People of God was an integral part of God's unfolding eternal drama and not some hare-brained doctrine dreamed up by a renegade Jew (Paul, and see 3:1-4).
This body of Jesus (the NT Church) was God's plan. He graciously ordained its existence before the world began and gathered its people together—Jews and Gentiles—by the preaching of the gospel about Jesus (1:11-13). These chosen ones, these people whose existence God ordained, were NT people and not the saved of all the ages. These were to make their appearance at the end of the ages, these were the "end time people" whose appearance on earth was destined and in whom the witness to the finality of Jesus is borne (see Hebrews 11:13, 39-40, 12:18, 22-24 and 1 Corinthians 10:11).
Paul is teaching the Ephesians who they are! They are not another little religious or philosophical society that has sprung up overnight—as so many did. They were not just another little group with another message of: "Here's how to save yourself." They were not the result of God's disappointment and his gathering up the fragments of yet another failure. They were nothing less than his eternally planned "chosen in Jesus". In the 4th century BC Alexander tried to have his name inscribed on one of the pillars of the famous temple in Ephesus (see Acts 19:23-28) but the city fathers turned him down (they placated him by saying Artemis (Diana) would be jealous to see the name of another god on her temple). The most powerful mortal on earth couldn't get his name on a pillar in a stone temple dedicated to a godess but the Ephesians were the temple of the Almighty God.
Paul is teaching about the nature and identity of the NT church! To use his words to establish a doctrine of "election" (and implied reprobation or "passing by") relative to the entire human family is to get carried away. He isn't discussing universal salvation under the heading of "election" and "predestination" (in a Calvinistic setting). The elect ones here are NT elect and don't even include ancient worthies! The people in this teaching whose existence was ordained before the world began were not "all the saved people of all the ages." The Church of Jesus Christ is an historically peculiar body of people, with a unique role in history. In history they bear witness to what God has done in Jesus according to his eternal purpose and pleasure.
He taught them: "You are an elect people according to God's eternal and gracious purpose. You didn't spring up man-made in accordance with the vagaries of history. Your existence was foreordained by God in view of his Son Jesus in whom he eternally purposed to embrace everything. Your existence as the People of God, the Body of Jesus, the witness of God's all-encompassing reconciling work with creation, is part of the Divine Drama. You aren't like any other group or any other nation!"