Paul on Predestination in Ephesians 1

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter says that Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” and that “ignorant and unstable people” distort his writings just as they do to other writings. Peter touches on a few truths here that are worth noting before interpreting Paul or any “other writings.”

  1. Paul can be difficult to understand.
  2. It’s easy to interpret things the way we want.
  3. Interpreting Scripture to suite your own desire should be strongly warned against.

It’s funny to me when I remember that these words are inspired by God. Can you imagine God saying, “Yeah, that Paul, he’s a bit tricky.”

Of course, God isn’t confused, but the image is comical.

Peter’s words should humble us all before approaching a biblical text and especially Paul’s writings.

Since I have openly stated that I am not a Calvinist, some honest questioners have asked what I think of some of Paul’s writings.

It’s almost taken for granted, in contemporary evangelical contexts, that passages like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 explicitly teach a Calvinistic soteriology. I obviously don’t think so.

In the same way, to the same degree, that the Calvinist mind boggles at any other interpretation of these verses, my mind boggles at the Calvinist interpretation.

This makes for fun dialogue, and again I hope we can all be in the same spirit of reverence as Peter when interpreting God’s word, especially Paul’s writings. We all agree that God’s word is infallible, and I hope we all agree that our interpretations are not.

Ephesians 1

Ephesians 1 is rightly a proof-text that Calvinists use to defend their soteriology. What do you mean rightly, I thought you weren’t a Calvinist? Well, I just simply mean that if I were a Calvinist, I would turn here too.

However, I invite the reader to take off the blinders, whether they be Calvinist blinders or some other. Let’s just pay close attention to the text with the reverence that Peter recommends us. (I don’t pretend that I’m perfectly objective.)

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will: To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus.”

Ephesians 1:1

As far as I can tell, this verse is the key to understanding, or rightly interpreting, the rest of Ephesians. It sets the stage, or the context for the rest of the letter.

How so? It tells us who Paul is writing to. He is writing to the “faithful saints” who are “in Christ.”

The phrase “in Christ” is repeated throughout. In fact, Paul uses the phrase, or some variation (i.e. “in Him”), at least 13 times in the first chapter by my count (math is not my strong suite).

Ephesians 1 is of particular importance to the Calvinist because it is here we find “predestination” and being “chosen before the foundation of the world.”

To many, the sheer existence of those phrases settles the matter. “There you have it.”

Sorry, I’m too contrarian to accept that as an answer. In fact, that isn’t a proof, that’s an assertion. You would be assuming that those phrases mean what the Calvinists say they mean. With that assumption, you can then turn to the passage and say, “There’s the phrases, ergo Calvinism.”

I don’t accept the assumption. I’m confident those words don’t mean what the Calvinist thinks they mean and I will make my case straight from the text.

“Predestination” and being “chosen before the foundation of the world” to the Calvinist are synonymous with their doctrine of “unconditional election”.

Unconditional election is the idea that God chose from before the foundation of the world some people to save, and some to “pass over”. I would agree with Calvin himself that God necessarily does more than simply passively “pass over” those He chooses not to regenerate, but let’s just assume he does “pass over” them in the sense that He does not cause their damnation — doesn’t matter for this context.

Is this what Ephesians 1 is teaching?

“For He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in love before Him (emphasis mine).”

Ephesians 1:4

“He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One (emphasis mine).”

Ephesians 1:5-6

I’ll restate the question: Do these verses teach that God chose before the foundation of the world a select number of people to be saved?

Honestly, I couldn’t force my eyes to see that interpretation.

Primarily because of the phrase “in Him” that I emphasized in the above verses.

Who is the “us” that God has “chosen before the foundation of the world”? The “us” refers to those who are “in Him” back in verse 1. I told you verse 1 would be crucial. Paul and the “faithful saints” in Ephesus are the “us” in verse 4 and they are also “in Christ”.

Those who are in Christ were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless.

It doesn’t say “God chose some people to be in Christ.” It says, those who are in Christ, God chose to make holy and blameless.

I hope that is clear, if not, the next verse makes the point even more clear.

Verse 5 says “He predestined us.” Again, who is the “us”? Those who are “in Christ”. They were not predetermined to be “in Christ,” that’s not what the verse says. It says those who are already in Christ are predestined.

Predestined simply means a destination that has already been determined. So, those who are in Christ have a destination that has already been determined for them by God, namely holiness and blamelessness.

Believers in Jesus will reach their destination: sanctification and glorification. God has predetermined it to be so.

“In him we have redemption” (verse 7).

“In him” we receive an inheritance (verse 11).

“In him” we are sealed by the Holy Spirit (verse 13).

So as not to leave us with any doubt, Paul makes explicitly clear that we receive all of these promises and guarantees “when you believed.”

Those who believe are “in Christ”. Those who are in Christ are sealed, receive an inheritance, redeemed, predestined for sanctification and glorification. That’s what these verse are saying, to me, very clearly.

We receive all of these benefits by the grace of God alone (verse 6). God lavishes on us what Christ accomplished (verse 6) when we believe (verse 13) and become “in Him.”

The chapter never says that we are predestined to be “in Him.” God has not chosen, or predetermined, who will believe and who will not. At least, these verses don’t say that.

“But there’s other verses that do!”

First, I don’t think so and we will get to them another time.

Secondly, that’s fine. The point of this article was simply that Ephesians 1 is not a Calvinist proof-text for “unconditional election” in the sense that God unconditionally elects some individuals to salvation.

Those who are “in Christ” are chosen (elected) to sanctification and glorification, as Ephesians 1 says.

Let me know what you think and stay tuned. I’ll get to the other so-called proof-texts eventually.

Published by Haden Clark

Haden lives in North Texas with his wife and two dogs. He holds degrees in theology and philosophy.

15 thoughts on “Paul on Predestination in Ephesians 1

  1. First off I enjoyed the article very much and think you make a logically sound argument even if I disagree with your overall conclusions in a very nuanced way and I think you brought up a good point about what Peter says in his 2nd letter. Paul at times is difficult to understand, but he is not the only one that offers predestination theology-Apostle John, Peter himself, and Luke in the book of Acts also has some things to say. Also, I think verse 5 is the lynchpin that holds the whole text together. I’m not a Calvinist but I think προορίσας always means marked out beforehand and υἱοθεσίαν διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς αὐτόν means that God adopted us through Christ for himself…I personally don’t see how that can be taken to mean anything other than its God who does the decisive action….again our will is not inactive. As Kevin DeYoung says the human will is operative, but not determinative.

    Keep up the good work and moving the conversation forward in love and grace!

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  2. Haden, appreciated the article. Thought you made some good points, but laid out in my own counter-argument (here: kristafalsmusings.blog/2019/06/19/564/) where our differences in emphasis lie. Just a brotherly heads up. In Christ, Kris.

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    1. As always, thanks. I maintain that the text is abundantly clear that we were not predestined to be “in Him” as you read into the text. The text says we who are in him are predestined to be holy and blameless. And i don’t believe that we predestined ourselves to be in him. I’m not even sure what that would even mean. God, in His sovereignty, has chosen to impart His grace to those who believe, those who believe are united to Christ, that is “in Christ,” and those who are “in Christ” are predestined to sanctification and glorification. That is what I stated in the blog. Thanks again!

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      1. No problem. The text is pretty clear that we are abundantly blessed in Christ, which includes our prospective destination of being holy and blameless before him. On this I think we agree. Our disagreement is in how we get there.

        Are the blessings the result of His eternal choice (i. e. Before the foundations of the world) to be in Christ? Or are they the result of our action? In other words who puts us in Christ?

        The emphasis of action is laid at the feet of God, whereas we are the recipients of that grace. Therefore when I spoke of your belief of our predestinating ourselves in Christ all that was meant is that “your choice” is seen as primary and Gods is secondary. God sees that your are “believing” and then “God…impart(s) His grace” to you. Which then according to you results in our sanctification and glorification. This is why I said you seem to confuse the order, believing we must first get ourselves in Christ and then God predestines our gifts.

        Paul’s point however is that God did the work and we enjoy the benefits. The language is strongly connected to what God did for Israel in choosing to put His love on them and not the rest of the nations. And as a result those whom He called according to His purpose were to be a holy priesthood and nation. Not denying our belief (that is something that we do), but as Paul is fond of pointing out the emphasis of action is on God first and foremost. We believe because He has given us fleshy hearts.

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      2. He puts us in Christ when we believe and bestows upon us all those gifts, like I originally said. At no point did I say this was our doing or work. But it most certainly is based upon our belief which is not predetermined. The text simply never says that our belief is predestined.

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      3. Of course that is not something Paul discusses in Eph 1, but the doctrine of Gods election is not built off of one text, as you well know. (Sorry about that but my fat thumb hit the reply button before I was finished lol).

        We could probably go back and forth for a while, but I’ll graciously quit. Enjoy your evening sir.

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  3. The question must be asked, how can free will exist, even in its slightest form, if God is in fact choosing anything for us, especially before the foundations of the earth? The notion that God is specifically choosing, or passing over us, to me, is utterly ridiculous, and honestly, renders God into a state of irrationality. If God has in fact chosen you and not me, from before the foundations, then is my free will truly free? Which generally leads to the pitiful answer, “well, we are simply unable to comprehend God’s method of selection”, which then leads one to ask, “if God’s plan all along was to NOT chose me, then why in the heck did he create me, all while knowing my inevitable resting place in torment?” And round and round we go…

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