Synthesizing Election and Free Will in Ephesians 1-2

Olive Tree at Sunset

Olive Tree at Sunset

Christians spend generations mired in debate over what the right answer is to the wrong question. This may be the most poignant example.

Ask a good Calvinist and they will tell you that Election, or Predestination, means that God does all the work of salvation. Yes, that means if you aren’t saved then he didn’t do the work and that leads to distinctions between 5-point TULIP Calvinists who believe that God also chose who he would reject and send to burn in hell and 4-point Calvinists who will say that he didn’t actually choose who he would reject, he just didn’t choose to save them so it’s nothing personal that they’re going to hell.

The issue of hell is a whole other topic, but go with me here, please.

Ask a good Wesleyan Arminian and they will tell you that because God gave us free will and has said he desires all to be saved, it is the response we have to God’s Prevenient Grace (the grace that goes before that empowers us to have a response to him) that allows us to choose salvation. Anyone can be saved, they must simply choose to respond in love and acceptance to the offer extended to them.

Then the Calvinist starts yelling “Works Righteousness!” and the Wesleyan Arminian starts declaring the Calvinist God a rapist when everyone knows God would never force himself on people. Then someone throws their coffee or cake at the other (it’s my birthday today so I’ve set this imaginary dialogue at a birthday party. I probably should have said that up front).

I skipped over some of the middle dialogue there and it doesn’t always end with throwing cake and coffee but I’ve seen it come close almost every time people get going on it. That’s because salvation is such a foundational issue. You know all the issues that most reasonable people will eventually admit aren’t really salvific (having to do with salvation and how it happens)? Well salvation and how it happens is definitely salvific. So the war rages on through the generations!

When I’ve sat down and had reasonable dialogues with people they will usually acknowledge that at the end of the day these are probably two sides of the same coin. Calvinists will admit that at some point the person being saved does have to acknowledge that salvation and maybe that’s what the Wesleyan Arminianists are calling Free Will. Wesleyan Arminianists will acknowledge that the person being saved is only able to be saved because of what Jesus did so in a sense it is God who does the saving. In those dialogues no one throws cake or coffee.

This is what I walked into when I chose to respond to God’s irresistible call to ministry (see what I did there? I had to think for awhile to find that transition so I don’t want you to miss it 😉 ).

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up going to Air Force Base chapels and all manner of denominational churches around the world so I was taught all of these ideas long before I knew the names of them. I also have a personality type that sees all the options and, wherever possible, seeks to synthesize seemingly opposite ideas and find the common ground. I admit I had to wrestle with this one for some time, asking God to help me see what was going on that people who all love Him were reading the same words and walking away with such fundamentally different understandings.

Then one day I was reading Ephesians and I had a major aha moment.

So I read it again.

And again.

And WOW — there it was!

I should mention that this moment came after years of studying Scripture from a Hebraic perspective and trying to understand the Jewish doctrines surrounding different ideas in my goal of understanding Paul as a Pharisee of Pharisees based on what he would have learned before his experience on the road to Damascus.

So let’s break down Ephesians 1 and 2 and see what he had to say.

vv 1-3 Paul starts with a beautiful greeting

vv 4-12 use of word predestination with regards to ‘us’ and all of the blessings and privilege that come with it (bold added by me)

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 without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.

vv 13-14 statement that ‘you’ trusted after hearing the gospel (bold added by me again)

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

I am convinced no other verses so dramatically highlight both the conflict and the evidence that this issue is honestly one of not understanding the context and the people involved in writing and receiving this letter.

What we need more of today, in order to resolve this generational conflict, is really some what Paul does next.

vv 15-21

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Paul doesn’t start telling them that their understanding of how they got saved is wrong wrong wrong and start using analogies to convince them. He doesn’t say they aren’t saved. He says he heard that they are saved and he rejoices daily! He prays for them! And before anyone suggests that praying for them to have wisdom and revelation is just another way of saying he prays they sort out their wrong understanding of how they got saved, he clarifies that it’s because now that they are saved he wants them to understand the calling on their lives and what this means!

Here is where I’m going to skip ahead a bit. Paul starts chapter 2 talking about the fact that God saved everyone involved and how they will sit together in heavenly places and other awesome things.

In verse 8 he says this,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

By grace through faith would seem to be free will but then he ends with not of yourselves, it is a gift from God and not of works which would seem to be predestination. No wonder no one can sort this out!

Then he says this

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances*, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.

Keeping our focus here on the tension between Election and Free Will I want to challenge with the idea that in these two chapters Paul is explaining what both ideas really mean and those who have studied from a Hebraic perspective will hopefully be seeing this already.

Paul is using very specific “we” and “us” to speak of one group and “you” to speak of another. In these last verses cited he clarifies who the “we” and the “you” are.

“You” are the once and no longer Gentles who are now brought near by what Jesus did. You are the ones who were far off from God who he came to reconcile to himself. You are the ones who heard preached the message of peace and the invitation to be closer to the Father. You are the once but no longer outsiders — the uncircumcised who were not born as Jews and who were kept out by virtue of the Hedge developed by the Rabbi’s to keep anything clean from becoming common in the presence of what is unclean.

“We”, however, are the Jews. The people who have been called the Chosen Ones because we were chosen for a purpose. That purpose was to be responsible for his Word that contains all wisdom and understanding and to be the ones through whom Messiah would come and redeem the whole world. Moses spoke of this. Their Prophets foretold it. The message is clear and consistent throughout. Abraham’s children would include more than Jews by birth.

It is those who were Jews by birth who were marked through circumcision of the flesh according to the covenant with Abraham.

It is those who were Gentiles by birth who were not marked through circumcision of the flesh according to the covenant with Abraham.

And now, because of what Jesus did that broke down the barriers and called us all to live in unity together with him, we are no longer “us” and “you” but “we all.” There is no longer enmity between us. You have joined us and now share our purpose and calling.

This is where the Hebraic understanding of “election” and “free will” is important to understand.

The Jews were predestined to be the people of God. They were elected for that purpose. God was doing something with them, and if you are born into the Jewish nation you are part of that elected people called for that purpose. The illustration usually involved the Olive Tree illustration that Paul uses specifically in Romans.

They did believe, however, that you could choose (Free Will) to cut your branch off of the tree of Israel and go and attach yourself to a wild tree from one of the 70 (Gentile) Nations.

It was also possible, they taught, for a branch from one of those 70 (Gentile) Nations to choose (Free Will) to be cut off from their wild tree and, through their own hard work and effort, the could convert to Judaism and be grafted into the tree of the Nation of Israel.

Circumcision was the final act of this process and marked you as a Son of Abraham, included in the elected/chosen people. This is what Paul is referring to when he says that works are not what save you.

Paul is adamant that the thing that grafts you into the tree of the Nation of Israel is accomplished by faith (believing & receiving it) through grace (the free and unmerited gift of God) when you hear about who Jesus is and what he accomplished for you. Or, as John said much more silly,

We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)

There is no debate in the text between Predestination and Free Will. There is only a need to understand what is meant by each of those ideas in Paul’s day.

There is a group that was predestined to be the people who were entrusted with God’s Word and through whom the Messiah would come. They were elected for this purpose. If you were born into it, you were in it, through nothing you did and nothing you earned. We do not choose where we are born.

Now, because of what Jesus did for all mankind, anyone could respond with faith to the message of salvation and they would, through no work or effort on their own to prove their understanding or worthiness, be immediately grafted into the Tree of the Nation of Israel.

This is Paul’s message in his letter to the Church in Rome.

This is Paul’s message to the Church in Ephesus.

This is Paul’s consistent message in all of his letters.

The group, not the individual, is predestined. The group, not the individual, is elected. Some individuals are born into the group. Some individuals come from outside the group and because of faith they are part of the family.

This is what God meant when He promised Abraham more descendants than the sands on the beach.

I would suggest it is time to stop arguing about how we get here and start talking together about why we’re here and what we are supposed to be accomplishing as part of this chosen and elected group. Whether we got here through birth, or through making a choice to be here, if we’re here there is a reason. I guarantee you the reason isn’t to fight at birthday parties about whose doctrine is right.

*I will address this more in future writings and will add a link when it is ready. In the meantime I will say that the translations of this verse do not give justice to what it seems to be saying based on the Hebrew ideas being expressed. Jesus himself said he did not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17) so it seems contradictory to Jesus’ stated purpose to try and argue that he did in fact abolish it. Rather, based on the context, it seems more likely Paul was making a point similar to the point he makes in Galatians 3:13 where he speaks of Christ redeeming us from the “curse of the Law” — in this verse expressed as “enmity of the Law”. If this is the case then he is speaking to the little ‘l’ law that was the Hedge created by the Jewish leaders through court rulings and orders (commandments contains in ordinances) that served to keep Jews in and non-Jews out as opposed to the instructions given by God for righteous living that were handed down by Moses. Not understanding the distinction between these things has created a lot of confusion about what Judaism is and isn’t and many of the things that Paul teaches. I will address this in a future article as well.

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