Election Texts - Part VII
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Next to Romans 9, Paul’s comments in Ephesians 1 are generally regarded as the most important information we have about divine election. I want to consider four truths concerning election that Paul emphasizes.
First, election is pretemporal, or, to use the apostle’s own words, it was “before the foundation of the world” that God the Father chose us in Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 1:9-10; 2 Thess. 2:13). Although some would disagree with me on this point, I am persuaded that one reason Paul describes election as pretemporal is to emphasize that the divine decision concerning human destiny is wholly unaffected by human deeds. To say that God chose us before the existence of all created things is to say that he chose us without regard to any created thing. It was before, and therefore independent of, the birth and behavior of the twins that God chose Jacob but not Esau.
Election is not something that awaits some event in human history, either the cross-work of Jesus or the faith of man. It antedates all human history. What we see unfolding in time-space history is the progressive fulfillment of a divine purpose that was conceived in eternity past. Jesus himself declared that his redemptive sufferings at Calvary were specifically designed to accomplish the salvation of those God had already given (elected) him. And as we observed, the faith of individual men and women is not the beginning, cause, or foundation of their election, but its fruit (see Acts 13:48). The religious implications of this are profound, for either a man thanks himself for his faith, because it resulted in his election, or he thanks God for his election, because it resulted in his faith.
When we reflect upon our election in this light there cannot help but well up within our hearts a virtual flood of wonder and worship. To think that our election proceeds from a grace that was “born” long before we were is glorious indeed. Charles Spurgeon perhaps put it best:
"In the very beginning, when this great universe lay in the mind of God, like unborn forests in the acorn cup; long ere the echoes awoke the solitudes; before the mountains were brought forth; and long ere the light flashed through the sky, God loved His chosen creatures. Before there was any created being --- when the ether was not fanned by an angel's wing, when space itself had not an existence, where there was nothing save God alone --- even then, in that loneliness of Deity, and in that deep quiet and profundity, His bowels moved with love for His chosen. Their names were written on His heart, and then were they dear to His soul. Jesus loved His people before the foundation of the world --- even from eternity! and when He called me by His grace, He said to me, 'I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee’” (Autobiography, vol. 1, The Early Years, 1834-1859 [reprint ed.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973], p. 167).
The second thing we observe is what Paul says about the purpose or goal of election. God chose us in order that we might be “holy and blameless” in his glorious presence. These two words have been the cause of considerable debate. Some have thought they refer to the daily experience of each believer, what we call progressive sanctification. If that is true, the goal of election is to secure for Jesus Christ a people whose lives are characterized by purity and obedience to his will (an idea that is certainly substantiated by other passages in the New Testament: see Titus 2:14; 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Peter 1:1-2).
No one doubts that the word “holy” is frequently used to describe the character of Christian living, but what about the word “blameless”? It is a word that sounds as if it means “sinless perfection.” Such, however, is not necessarily the case. In Philippians 2:15 Paul urges believers “to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (cf. Rev. 14:5). Therefore, it is surely possible that in Ephesians 1:4 Paul is referring to the holiness and blamelessness of the Christian in the here and now of daily life.
On the other hand, this Greek word translated “blameless” is used in Ephesians 5:27 of the church in its final state of perfection and glory. This is also the case in Colossians 1:22 and in Jude 24. The only other occurrences of this word in the New Testament are in Hebrews 9:14 and 1 Peter 1:19, both of which refer to the blamelessness of Jesus Christ. We should also note that in Ephesians 5:27, Colossians 1:22, and Jude 24, as in Ephesians 1:4, we find the notion of being presented blameless “before Him,” that is, before God.
All this persuades me that Paul is referring to that absolutely sinless, holy, and blameless condition in which we shall be presented to God at the second coming of our Savior. Of course, this by no means excludes the notion of progressive sanctification. Indeed, experiential purity and holiness in this life is but a prelude to our ultimate glorification in the next. The latter is but the consummation of the former.
In either view, the fact remains that if our personal holiness and blamelessness are the goal or end for which we were chosen, they cannot be the ground or cause of our election. It cannot be the case that God foreknew any degree of holiness or blamelessness in us and on that basis chose us in his Son. It would be absurd for Paul to say, “God chose you to become holy and blameless because you already are holy and blameless.” If this verse does not preclude the Arminian view of election, it surely wreaks havoc with all forms of Pelagianism!
The third important point to be made concerns the relationship between election and being predestined to adoption. What is the connection, if any, of verse 4 with verse 5? Is Paul saying that God elected us because he predestined us to adoption? That is certainly possible, but not likely. I believe his point is that God elected us in this way, by predestinating us to adoption. Therefore, election, at least in part, consists of or perhaps is even synonymous with being predestined to become a child of God.
The fourth and most important point of all is Paul’s statement that we were chosen “in Christ.” Arminians insist that an individual is chosen for salvation because and only after he puts himself in Christ by an act of free will. God foreknows that we will fulfill the condition, as a result (or should I say “reward”) of which we are put “in Christ,” and on that basis he elects us. Other Arminians insist that it is not so much individuals who are elect, but Christ himself. It is only because we are in Christ (by free will, of course), who is himself the one true elect person, that we as individuals may be said to be elect ourselves.
It must be admitted that the clause “in Christ” is ambiguous. By itself, it says neither that we are elect because we are in Christ nor that we are elect in order that we shall be in Christ. Contrary to what some Calvinists would say, it is unlikely that Paul means we were chosen “to be” in Christ, insofar as the latter part of the verse declares that we were chosen “to be” holy and blameless. But even less can it mean that we were chosen because we, before our election, put ourselves in Christ by free will. This is reading into the passage what is conspicuous by its absence. Besides, the ground of our election is said to be God’s good pleasure, not ours.
Others suggest that Paul means that Christ is the foundation of election, or perhaps the sphere of election. But what do those terms mean? What is their theological significance? Maybe Paul means that it is “in union with Christ” that we are chosen. I have no problem with that, but the question remains, how did we come to be “in union” with Christ: by free will or by free grace or by some other avenue? Did our union with Christ precede or follow our election? Was it the cause or the consequence of election?
Or is our union with Christ simultaneous with our election, perhaps even synonymous with it? In other words, simply saying that God chose us “in union with Christ” does not tell us how or when that “union” came about, or whether it has anything to do with the basis for our being chosen.
Perhaps “in Christ” simply means “through Christ,” or, to say it negatively, “not apart from Christ.” Charles Hodge opts for this view and explains it this way:
“It was in Christ as their head and representative [that] they were chosen to holiness and eternal life, and therefore in virtue of what he was to do in their behalf. There is a federal union with Christ which is antecedent to all actual union, and is the source of it. God gave a people to his Son in the covenant of redemption. Those included in that covenant, and because they are included in it – in other words, because they are in Christ as their head and representative – receive in time the gift of the Holy Spirit and all other benefits of redemption. . . . It is, therefore, in Christ, i.e., as united to him in the covenant of redemption, that the people of God are elected to eternal life and to all the blessings therewith connected” (31).
In other words, when God elected a people from the fallen mass of humanity, he never intended to save them apart from his Son but only by means of what his Son, the Lord Jesus, would accomplish in his redemptive work. Jesus is therefore the means by which God’s electing purpose is put into effect as well as the goal of that election, inasmuch as it is God’s purpose through election to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
Paul says much the same thing in 2 Timothy 1:9. There we are told that God saved us and “called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” If we are given anything in grace it is by virtue of who Jesus is and what he has done and will do, not by virtue of who we are or what we have done or will do. Therefore, we are elect “in Christ,” not “in ourselves.” It is because of God’s love for His son and his desire that his Son have a people through whom he might be glorified and honored that God chose us. Therefore, we are chosen “in Christ” in the sense that this Son to whom the Father has given us is he through whom this election to life is made ours in experience. His sinless life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection were the means through which God’s electing purpose was put into effect.
2 Thessalonians 2:13
“But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”
As is the case in other texts dealing with election, Paul begins by thanking God. In Ephesians 1:3-4 he declares God “blessed” for having chosen us in Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5 he again thanks God for the Thessalonians because he knows they are chosen to life. In brief, election evokes gratitude. It is God’s gracious and loving action to which we contribute nothing and for which, therefore, God receives all the glory.
The apostle says that God chosen the Thessalonians “from the beginning.” There is some manuscript evidence for the reading first fruits (an idea that in itself is certainly biblical; see Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15; James 1:18). But this is unlikely for at least two reasons. In the first place, nowhere else when he discusses election does Paul use this term. This verse could be the exception, but then that is precisely what it would be: exceptional.
Then again, as Charles A. Wanamaker points out, “Paul nowhere else uses ap’ arches to denote ‘from the beginning of time,’ which is what it would have to mean here (cf. 1 Cor. 2:7; Col. 1:26; Eph. 1:4), and only on one occasion does he employ arche in a temporal sense at all (cf. Phil. 4:15)” (The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], p. 266). Second, and more important, the Thessalonian Christians were not, in point of historical fact, the first fruits in Macedonia. The Christians in Philippi were.
But if the correct reading is “from the beginning,” the question remains, from the beginning of what? Some scholars suggest Paul means “from the beginning of the preaching of the gospel in Thessalonica.” What might mean? I suppose it would imply that God’s elective choice in some sense emerges from within history rather than predating it. However, if Paul had intended to direct our attention to the inception of the gospel proclamation he would probably have been more explicit (see, for example, Phil. 4:15).
Furthermore, even if this were true, it would not help the Arminian case. To say that God elects when the gospel is first preached is not the same as saying he elects only after and because of a person’s faith. Also, if God’s choice of the Thessalonians occurred when the gospel was first preached, what becomes of those who did not believe until some time subsequent to the initial proclamation? When did God choose them?
Are we to conceive of election not as a singular decree, but as a series of isolated and independent choices scattered throughout history, coincident with every proclamation of the gospel in every age? Is this what the Bible teaches? I am more convinced from Paul’s language that God’s election antedates faith. And elsewhere he explicitly places that moment in the pretemporal, which is to say “eternal,” counsel of God (see Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; cf. Rom. 9:11; Rev. 13:8; Acts 17:8). Even I. Howard Marshall, an Arminian NT scholar, recognizes this and links 2 Thess. 2:13 with Eph. 1:4. See his comments in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 207.
It is more than a little significant that this election is said to be “for [or, unto] salvation, because often one hears that if we are elected it is only to external privileges, historical tasks or prominence, or some such other idea unrelated to the forgiveness of sins. But Paul’s emphasis cannot be denied. It is unto deliverance from our sin that God has chosen us.
Although it is pretemporal, election must take effect in history, in the experience of those who are its objects. Thus, Paul says that God has chosen them from the beginning for salvation “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” Here we see the means by which that salvation to which they were destined is secured or comes to pass in their hearts. Paul may even be describing the shape or form that their salvation assumes when they come into the experiential possession of it.
In any case, Paul is not saying the Thessalonians (or we) were chosen to salvation on account of sanctification and faith. The two phrases are governed by the single preposition en and are related to the salvation for which one has been chosen, and cannot be construed as positing the condition on which election itself is based. In other words, Paul is not describing what happens before election (its cause), but what happens after election (its effect). His point of emphasis is not the condition but the consequence of God’s elective decision.
Is there any significance in the fact that “sanctification by the Spirit” precedes “faith in the truth”? Perhaps it is because of something we noted before, namely, that even faith is possible only after the activity of the Spirit in us, enabling us to believe what we formerly hated. Or perhaps the “faith” in this context refers not so much to that initial act of saving belief as to the continuous habit and daily experience of dependent trust on God.
This affirmation of divine sovereignty in human salvation has a profound impact on Paul’s view of the gospel, but not in the way an Arminian might think. Those whom God has chosen do not come to faith willy-nilly, no matter what, as some mockingly suggest. Rather, they are called through the preaching of the good news (v. 14). The elect are not saved irrespective of faith, but always through the Spirit-induced response of repentant trust in the Son of God.
In virtually the same breath that he asserts divine election Paul requests prayer for the success of the gospel (3:1-2). The philosophical certainty inherent in the former truth did not, in Paul’s mind, reduce the moral urgency or the practical necessity of the latter. Let’s look more closely at Paul’s request.
He exhorts the Thessalonian believers to “pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored” (v. 1). The imagery is to the point: “The Thessalonians are asked to pray that the gospel may run well, run fast, and that, wherever it goes, it may have a glorious reception” (Stott, 185). When the gospel came to Thessalonica it was happily received in the midst of much tribulation (1 Thess. 1:5-6). Paul asks that the believers pray such would be the case elsewhere as he proclaims the offense of the cross.