A Non-Calvinist Interpretation of Ephesians 1

About a year ago, I wrote about a potential non-Calvinist interpretation for Romans 9, which is probably the most important proof text for unconditional election that Calvinists use. In this piece, I will focus my attention on Ephesians 1, which is another passage often used by Calvinists to argue for unconditional election. This is the relevant part of Ephesians 1:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

EphesiaNs 1:3-14

Predestination and Faith in Jesus

It is important once again to realize that the question is not whether God predestines. He does. The question is whether it is done unconditionally or unilaterally. That is to say, the question is whether it is done without any type of input from the human being who has to be saved. This is important to point out because Calvinists will often point to passages which speak only of God’s predestining action and then use these passages as evidence of unilateral predestination, even though they do not say or imply that the predestination is unilateral and there are so many passages throughout the Bible that talk about the necessity of human beings to respond to God’s call (suggesting that it’s not unilateral but bilateral). These passages include the following, which I also referenced in the Romans 9 interpretation (if we limit ourselves to the New Testament): Acts 3:19, Luke 13:5, Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8, Acts 5:31, Romans 2:4, 2 Timothy 2:25, 2 Peter 3:9, Romans 10:9-10, Mark 1:15, Mark 9:23, Mark 16:14, Mark 16:16, Luke 1:20, Luke 8:12, John 1:7, John 1:12, John 3:15, John 3:18, John 3:36, John 5:24, John 5:38, John 6:35, John 6:40, John 8:24, John 11:25-26, John 11:40, John 12:36, John 12:46, John 14:11, Acts 10:43, Acts 11:17, Acts 13:39, Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22, Romans 4:5, Romans 4:24, Romans 9:33, Romans 10:4, Romans 10:10, Romans 13:11, 1 Corinthians 1:21, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:6, Galatians 3:22, Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, Hebrews 4:3, Hebrews 11:6, 1 Peter 2:6-7, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:5, 1 John 5:10, Jude 1:5.

This means that it is very difficult to plausibly take the predestination passages as evidence of unilateral predestination. Is there any indication from this Ephesians passage that God chose people unilaterally or unconditionally? Well, that is not explicit here, so you will have to say that it is implicit. Perhaps you will say that because the passage says that God chose the Christians at Ephesus before the foundation of the world, this means that it could not depend or be conditional upon anything they did or believed, because they didn’t do or believe anything before the foundation of the world ( because they didn’t exist then). The passage is clearly talking to those who are in Christ, which seems to imply that those who are not in Christ were not predestined by God for salvation.

If you do contend that God decides to save someone based not on what they have believed, but on a decision before the foundation of the world, then this contradicts a great deal of the New Testament. So much of the New Testament is very explicit that salvation is conditional upon repenting of your sins and believing in Jesus, which is not something that happens before the foundation of the world, but within human lives. This means that if Calvinists purport that salvation is actually conditional upon a decision by God before the foundation of the world and not on the human response of faith in Jesus, then this does contradict all the numerous New Testament passages that say that we are saved through faith in Jesus. The Calvinist may contend that we are saved by believing in Jesus, but that it is God that irresistibly determines us to believe in Jesus. The point is that if we are irresistibly determined to believe then it is not the belief that saves us but the decision by God to irresistibly determine us to believe. In other words, the decisive factor is not your belief in Jesus but God’s decision without any input from you. Your belief in Jesus becomes as inconsequential to your spiritual destiny as any of the other things you do, because it does not have any decisive influence on your spiritual destiny, only God’s decision does. What has decisive influence on your spiritual destiny has nothing to do with what you do and has already happened long ago. The only thing that has any decisive influence on your spiritual destiny is God’ predestining will. This means that you can no longer contend that it is belief in Jesus that plays a decisive role in salvation, as so much of the New Testament says, including many of Paul’s own sayings. Let’s look at it like this. Consider the following two statements:

  1. Human salvation is only and fully determined by a unilateral decision by God to save a certain person.
  2. Human salvation is determined by whether a human being believes in Jesus.

These two statements are contradictory. If you say that God unilaterally determined that someone would believe in Jesus in order to be saved, then belief in Jesus is not what saved them, but the unilateral decision. If someone’s salvation is a unilateral process determined only by God, then it should not depend on any attribute of the human. If you say that belief in Jesus has a decisive influence on salvation, then the predestining action of God cannot be unilateral, because there is a characteristic in the human being that plays a role, which means that it is bilateral. If God fully determines your actions, then they are no longer your actions, but God’s, which means it is meaningless to say that your belief in Jesus determines your salvation.

In the same way, these two statements are contradictory:

  1. God says that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved.
  2. God has already decided who will be saved based on a criterion unknown to us.

If God decided something before the foundation of the world, it cannot be based on whether someone believes in Jesus right? Indeed, this has to be the case because otherwise the Calvinist would be accepting the non-Calvinist’s position that election is based on faith in Jesus. This means that if Calvinists are correct, God is contradicting himself. In the one statement, your belief in Jesus is decisive, but in the other, a different criterion is decisive ( based on which God makes his decision), which is not communicated to us.  Let’s put it another way. The verses that say that you will be saved by believing in Jesus are quite clearly saying that belief in Jesus is a sufficient condition on salvation. In other words, if you do this thing you will be saved. The Calvinist however must say that it is not a sufficient condition on salvation. You must be both predestined by God and believe in order to be saved, since not everyone is predestined.

Even if this Calvinist rationale is appropriate ( that your belief does save you but it’s God who irresistibly determines you to believe), they would still face the following charge. Assuming that the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians 1 and other Calvinist proof texts are accurate, why are they interpreting the various scriptures about belief in Jesus playing the decisive role in salvation in light of very few scriptures that appear to to make God’s predestining action into the decisive factor in salvation? Why not interpret the verses about God’s predestining will in light of the (far more numerous) verses about belief in Jesus, rather than the other way around? If the verses about belief in Jesus are taken at face value, then your belief in Jesus is the decisive thing about your salvation.

Chosen in Him

It is important to point out here ( as William Lane Craig does in his description of Arminianism), that it is interesting that the text says that we are “chosen in him” (verse 4). It does not say we are “chosen to be in him” but that we are “chosen in him”. “Chosen to be in him” would mean that we are chosen or predestined to enter the covenant. However, “chosen in him” communicates that we are chosen by virtue of being in him. That is to say, we are predestined to salvation as a result of being in Christ. How does the New Testament say that we come to be “in Christ”: by believing in his name. This means that it is saying that we are predestined as a result of believing in Jesus. Let’s take a step back and look at the whole verse with this in mind: “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” So he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless. This then means that God determined before the foundation of the world that those who enter the covenant through Christ would be holy and blameless before him. Making people righteous through Jesus was always God’s plan, even before the foundation of the world. Let’s continue with the same idea in mind. “In love he predestined us, for adoption to him as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”  It is again emphasized here that we are predestined to adoption “through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” In light of the idea above, this means that God predestines us to adoption when we are in Christ, and it is the “purpose of his will” that those who are in Christ should be adopted by God. As if that is not enough, he again emphasizes that all these blessings are only available in Christ (“..to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved”) In other words, we only receive the grace when we are in the Beloved, i.e. when we are in Christ, not before. This is significant because the Calvinist ties the blessings of election to the unilateral decision by God before we are born, which means that these blessings accrue to us even before we believe in Jesus, or even before we are in Christ. The fact that we are blessed or predestined only when we are in Christ is emphasized a number of times in the first few verses ( verse 3, verse 4, verse 5 and verse 6). Furthermore, the human response is emphasized in verse 12 and verse 13. In verse 12, Paul says that the predestining action of God is on those “who were first to hope in Christ”. In verse 13, he says that it is only when they heard the gospel and believed that they were sealed with the Holy Spirit. So Paul does recognize the necessity of believing in order for the benefits of God’s predestining to apply. This makes it difficult to see this passage as showing a unilateral predestining by God or showing that God predestines people to believe rather than predestining based on belief. There is nothing here that shows God predestines people to believe but several things that we’ve looked at indicate that the predestination spoken of occurs based upon belief in Jesus. The Calvinist may say that we can be “in Christ” even before we believe in Jesus, but this would run counter to a great deal of the New Testament’s witness.

So the interpretation that we are predestined as a result of believing in Jesus fits at least as well with the text as the Calvinist interpretation ( and, as with Romans 9, the reasonableness of election based on belief in Jesus becomes even more reasonable, and the Calvinist interpretation less reasonable, when you consider the rest of the New Testament).

2 thoughts

  1. Do you belong to the Society of Evangelical Arminians? If not, you should consider it. We have a great Facebook group as well with some great inner-group dialogue for members. They would be interested in submitting some of your material on their website.

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