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What Is the Doctrine of Election?

God’s Plan in Salvation

The ultimate goal of God’s plan includes the redemption of the entire cosmos (Eph. 1:10) and is therefore not limited to humanity. But the renewal of humanity is the key component of God’s cosmic plan to unite all things in Christ. God’s plan to save his people is featured prominently in the first two chapters of Ephesians, especially Ephesians 1:3–14. In the original Greek, this passage consists of one long sentence of 202 words. These verses contain an extended praise to God for his blessings that believers receive from their union with Christ; namely, God’s election, redemption, inheritance, and perseverance. The topic of God’s amazing love in regeneration is highlighted in Ephesians 2:4–10.

Election

As Paul begins his letter in a typical Old Testament or Jewish style of a prolonged blessing (eulogy), he urges his readers to bless God since he has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). Specifically, the focus is on spiritual blessings or blessings that pertain to life in the Spirit. The first reason Paul gives for believers to praise God is his divine election. That is, God is worthy of our praise precisely because he has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world.

United to Christ, Walking in the Spirit

Benjamin L. Merkle

Scholar Benjamin Merkle shares insights from the theologically rich book of Ephesians, explaining its major themes and significance for the church today.

The Meaning of Election

Election is God’s choice of individuals to receive his favor before they have done anything good or bad (Rom. 9:10–11). It is not a choice that is based on (or in light of) certain deeds or choices that we make but is based solely on God’s sovereign grace (Rom. 9:16). Here in Ephesians, Paul uses two different verbs to convey this idea. He writes that God “chose” (eklegomai, Eph. 1:4) and “predestined” (prooridzō, Eph. 1:5, 11) those who believe and follow Christ. More specifically, Paul states that God’s choice of his people is related to them being predestined to be a part of his family (“for adoption,” Eph. 1:5). Thus Paul is stressing that believers should praise God because he predestined them and chose them to be his children and receive all the benefits that such a privilege affords. The verb predestine can also be translated “predetermine” or “foreordain” and occurs only four other times in the New Testament (Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:29, 30; 1 Cor. 2:7). In every occurrence it refers to the work of God that emphasizes God’s sole initiative in election or predestination.

The Cause of Election

Election is the divine choice of God to grant eternal life to undeserving sinners based solely on his love and not on the goodness of those receiving his grace. It is not arbitrary but part of his grand plan of salvation and grounded in his eternal wisdom. Paul indicates that God elected or predestined his people “in love.”1 That God sovereignly elects a people for himself is not original to Paul but is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, God graciously chose Abraham and blessed him to become a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3). Later, God chose the nation of Israel to be his treasured possession, not because they were greater than the other nations or because of their righteousness, but because of his love (Deut. 7:6–8; 14:2). Similarly, in Christ, God chose individuals from all the peoples of the world to become his people, a decision based on his amazing love.

The ability to call God our Father is possible only through Christ, who alone provides access to the Father because of Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Paul also indicates that God’s election is rooted in the work of Christ. Four times in Ephesians 1:3–6 he links the blessings of God’s sovereign, electing grace to the Son: we are blessed “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3); we are chosen “in him” (Eph 1:4); we are adopted “through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5); and we are blessed because of being “in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5). The blessings we receive are reserved specifically for those who are united with Christ through faith, those who trust in his death, resurrection, and ascension. The ability to call God our Father is possible only through Christ, who alone provides access to the Father because of Christ’s finished work on the cross. Christ is not only the recipient par excellence of the Father’s love and affection (Col. 1:13), but it is through his beloved Son that we receive his blessings. Furthermore, God’s work of predestination was done “according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The basis of God’s choice was his own will carried out in accordance with his “purpose,” or “good pleasure,” indicating that the choosing of his people was something in which God delighted. God’s choice was also done in accordance with his “will.” God has a definite plan and redemptive purpose for adopting wayward sinners into his family.

The Time of Election

Interestingly, Paul indicates that the time of believers’ election was “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). This phrase also occurs in John 17:24 (referring to the Father’s love of the Son “before the foundation of the world”) and 1 Peter 1:20 (“[Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you”). Here in Ephesians, God’s choice in election occurred before time and creation. God’s timing emphasizes that this choice was based on God’s sovereign purpose and not human merit. Paul declares in Romans 9 that God selected Jacob over Esau “though [the twins] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Rom. 9:11).

The Purpose of Election

God’s electing love and grace have a purpose. Paul writes that God chose us so “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4; cf. Col. 1:22). Those who have the privilege of being elected to receive God’s grace have the responsibility of living according to God’s word. Redemption has a divine purpose and intended result. God desires not only to forgive our sins but also to conform us to the image of his beloved Son (Rom. 8:29–30). When God chose his people, they were not holy and blameless. They deserved his judgment and wrath. Because of his great love and electing grace, he chose us, and through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, is transforming the thoughts and actions of his people. Ultimately, all of God’s purpose in election is done “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6). This refrain is also later echoed in Ephesians 1:12 and Ephesians 14 (“to the praise of his glory”), demonstrating that God’s purpose is to make his name great through his great mercy that he bestows on undeserving sinners.

Notes:

  1. Although it is possible that “in love” modifies what precedes (“holy and blameless before him in love,” NKJV, NRSV), it is more likely that it modifies what follows (“In love he predestined us,” ESV, CSB, NASB, NIV) since the focus of the eulogy is on God’s work of blessing his people.

This article is adpated from United to Christ, Walking in the Spirit: A Theology of Ephesians by Benjamin L. Merkle.



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