Sunday, April 7, 2019

IT ALL BEGAN WITH GRACE

A Choice that was Made in Eternity Past

I closed the previous post on this subject saying that we were about to begin a very difficult climb in our understanding of the life of faith. Thus, preparing ourselves to do some weighty thinking, here is how Paul continues as he writes to the church in Ephesus:  

He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence. In love He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One. (Ephesians 1:4-6 BSB)  

We have been likening our study of these first verses of Ephesians as climbing a mountain in order to obtain the viewpoint from the summit. It is only from the summit that we are able to see clearly the lay of the land. Things that seem confusing and even contradictory when we see them at ground level become more evident when viewed from a higher perspective.

In the verses that I quoted above, the apostle introduces us to some concepts that, as we view them from ground level, we cannot understand. So impossible for us to comprehend these things now, that many people reject them completely.


Predestination is one of those concepts. In whatever way that you, yourself, may look at the teaching of predestination, we at least owe it to ourselves and also to Paul to try and see and to understand what he meant when he said that believers have been predestined to adoption.

First of all, Paul says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. I am afraid that this is something that is completely beyond our comprehension. The first thing that we may think about is our own existence as individuals. As far as our understanding is concerned, we did not come into existence as persons until we were conceived in the womb of our mother. This was our beginning as persons. After all, that is the meaning of the word conception.

But Paul is telling us something different here. He is saying that our conception in our mother’s womb was not our beginning, at least not in some ways. Our own conception in the womb, of course, happened long after the foundation of the world. Yet Paul tells us that we were chosen before the earth was established.

As we think of the mind of God, we are not at all sure what all of this means. Certainly, it should not surprise us that in eternity past, God already knew of our eventual existence. We may not be able to explain how he could have this vast knowledge, but if we accept that he is God, we then also recognize that he in infinite in existence and knowledge. Thus, even if we do not understand how God could know us before we existed, at least it should not be difficult for us to accept this truth.

But that which troubles some people is not the fact that God knew of our existence from eternity past. Rather, it is the fact that Paul says it was at that time that God chose us and predestined us for adoption. To some this seems unacceptable, since it is thought that if God did the choosing and if it was predetermined who would be adopted into the family of God, then all human choice is taken out of the matter.

We can see now, why this first ridge in our climb up the mountain is a difficult one. It will require of us much discipline and an inward assurance that it will be worth the effort. 

The Blessing of Predestination

Perhaps the first thing that we should notice on this subject is that when Paul writes these words, he writes them as though he does not expect there to be any controversy or question about the concept of God choosing us, and that he predestined us to adoption. We can see in the verses that we just read that Paul merely mentions this information in his listing of all the wonders of God. The apostle does not expect that people will react negatively to this fact of the sovereignty of God and how it relates to the free will of man.

Rather than think that the readers of his letter would be threatened or offended by these words, Paul tells of God’s actions on our behalf in eternity past so that the people of the church would know that the blessings that they have are secure. Just the opposite of how we sometimes react to these words, Paul meant them to be a source of comfort for his readers rather than controversy.

As we can see, this phrase about God choosing us in Christ is a continuation of the subject of the blessings of God. It would not be a blessing if we were treated in a mechanistic or fatalistic way; a way in which our own personality and choices do not matter. On the contrary, it is a blessing to see that God has been involved with us as individuals from the very beginning, even before we knew that we had a beginning.

We get a better sense of this line of thought of blessings in this long and complicated twelve verse sentence of Paul’s if, for the moment, we skip over some of the phrases and draw our attention only to the ones having to do with this specific subject. Allow me to do this: 

God … has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless … In love He predestined us for adoption as His sons …to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One.  

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 

In Him we were also chosen as God’s own, having been predestined … And in Him, having heard and believed the word of truth…you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the pledge of our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession, to the praise of His glory.  (selected from Ephesians 1:3-14 BSB). 

Although I have left out many important phrases and thoughts in this rather severe redaction of this part of Paul’s sentence, I did it so that we could more easily see how Paul meant to show that this fact of predestination is something that should be a source of assurance for us.

In this portion, we see that God has been working for the benefit of his people throughout all time and eternity. He did so in the past, even before the world was formed, he does so now, by giving us redemption and forgiveness through the blood of Christ, and he will do so in the future, when we will receive our full inheritance as adopted children. It is at that time when we will see all things summed up or united in Christ. 

An Affirmation for the Church at Rome

This is much the same message of assurance concerning predestination that Paul writes to another church, this one to the church at Rome. Midway through this portion of the letter to the Romans, here is what Paul writes: 

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29 ESV) 

In this passage, we again notice the past, present and future aspects of predestination. It is especially well summed up in the following verse: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30 ESV).

We should especially again notice the fact in this statement that God’s people have been called in the past, justified in the present, and will be glorified in the future. 

Who Chooses?

One of the difficulties that some people have with the fact of predestination is that our freedom of choice seems to not be part of this situation.
Actually, this is one of Paul’s points exactly. According to Paul, we may like to think that we have complete freedom of choice in all matters of life, but in reality, there is much about our existence that, as far as we know, we have had no part in determining.

We were not consulted when and where we would be born, for instance, and into which family. Certainly, as any teen-ager will tell you, if we would have chosen our appearance or how our bodies would look, we would have made them much differently.

It is the same with our personal freedom. The truth be told, Paul tells us that we are always indebted to something or to someone. When one is indebted, one’s freedom is always limited in one respect or another. We are either indebted to our own sinful nature (which Paul calls “the flesh”) or we are indebted to God because he has chosen to redeem us.

Here is how Paul puts it: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13 ESV).

Normally, being indebted to someone restricts one’s freedom, since in some ways, the man who is in debt is at least partially owned by the creditor. However, Paul says that if God is our creditor, this indebtedness actually is our path to freedom.

To understand Paul’s line of thought, we regress a little in this portion of the letter to the Romans: 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but 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 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. (Romans 8:15-17 ESV) 

Here we again see the past, present and the future aspects of predestination, and as Paul continues in his letter to the Romans, we also again see how he means this to be a message of comfort. God's eternal involvement in our lives should be a comfort especially to those who are enduring present-day difficulties: 

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God…

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." (Romans 8:18-21; 26-27 ESV) 

It is only after all of this that Paul begins to talk about how the suffering that we may presently be experiencing is not even worth comparing to the glory that will one day be revealed to us.
This is assurance. This is the confidence with which Paul is telling us that we may live our lives, all because we have been predestined to receive grace: 

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 35, 38-39 ESV) 

Predestined to Receive Grace

It is with this same message of assurance and confidence that Paul writes to the Ephesian church about the fact that God chose his people before the foundation of the world.

Of course, this does not put to rest the question in our minds of our own free will in choosing our own destiny. It is not bad to ask this question concerning our own free wills, since we do seek to understand how this relates to predestination. What part does our own faith play in our relationship to God?

Some give the explanation that in God’s infinite foreknowledge, he could see ahead not only to our eventual birth and life, but also knew what our choices would be concerning Jesus Christ. If he saw that we would choose to accept the sacrifice of Jesus as our own, then God, acting upon that foreknowledge, in turn chose us as well.

This seems like a tidy explanation, and we have read something that may seem to speak to that effect in the book of Romans: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29 ESV).

There may be some validity in this to a certain degree. However, as a complete explanation, this view does not seem to harmonize with the level of intimacy that God knows us. It is not only that he knows some future choices that we will eventually make, but he knows us. He knows you and me, and does so in a very personal way!

The distinction between the two may sometimes be unclear, but it is much like different manners one may know what choice a senator in Congress will be making on a future vote. A news reporter, for instance, may come to have this knowledge based of “inside information” that has been leaked to him or her. In this manner, the news reporter could say that she knows certain facts about the senator.

However, the spouse of the senator, although he or she may not have actually heard how the senator would vote, also knows. The spouse knows this not because they had received some information from outside, but they know because they know their spouse. Their knowledge of the vote is based not upon some foreknowledge of information, but instead on a more intimate knowledge of the personality of the senator.

This is also how God knows us.

Also, nowhere in Scripture do we read of God actually choosing us because of our faith. Rather, God makes his choice based upon his grace. We, for instance, have just read in the book of Ephesians, “In love He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One. (Ephesians 1:5-6 BSB)

It is true that faith is involved, as we will later read in the letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Also, as Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus (an act of faith), and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31 NAS). However, when Scripture speaks of God choosing us, it is linked only to his grace, not to our faith.

Of necessity, we travel down the roadway of salvation fueled by faith, but the vehicle that gets us there is grace. 

What is Grace?

Grace is one of those words we often hear, but if asked to define it, we may have a bit of trouble getting our thoughts around it. One of the reasons we have such a difficult time with this is that we use the word in so many different ways.

For instance, when we say someone is a woman of grace, we mean it in the sense that the lady possesses elegance and refinement. When we say a person moves with grace, it means that every movement is coordinated and without clumsiness. When we call someone, “Your Grace,” it is a title of respect to a person of authority who himself has the power to confer grace upon a warrior with the rank of a knight. We say grace at the table before a meal; we grace a courtyard with statues and flowers; we hope to stay in someone’s good graces.

Even the dictionary definition is not completely accurate when it defines grace in the sense that the Apostle Paul uses it. The dictionary says that grace is “the unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

This definition is close, but I would not have used the word assistance in this case. Assistance has the connotation of bringing help to someone who is working at something and able to do a little by himself, but just needs a little support. This is not what Paul is talking about.

The grace of God is not assistance, it is salvation. We are completely and absolutely helpless in our situation, unable to do anything to better our condition. In fact, like a drowning man in the water, our struggling and thrashing about does not help in a rescue situation, but only inhibits it.

I am told that the best thing for a drowning man is to do nothing when he is being rescued. Do not try to “help” the rescuer. It will only make things harder for him. The best thing for the drowning man to do is simply rest in the arms of the one who is saving him.

This is how we accept the grace of God. We are to rest in his arms. There is nothing that we can do using our own effort that helps in our salvation. It is all by grace. It is the grace of God.

And it was with this purpose that the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches, “Grace and Peace to you.” The two go together. Where there is grace, there is peace. When we learn to live by the grace of God, we will also know peace. 

In love He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One. (Ephesians 1:4-6 BSB)

2 comments:

  1. Good words, Don, on a topic many find troubling, but which I find so encouraging!! Thanks for being a prolific blogger!

    ReplyDelete