Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.
Choice, Predestination, Unconditional Election, and Calvinism
At first glance, Ephesians 1:4-5 appears to teach unconditional election, the Calvinist doctrine that God predetermined who would believe in Jesus and receive eternal life.
"According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,” (Ephesians 1:4-5, KJV)
In these two verses, Paul tells us that God chose and predestined individuals before creating the world (the Greek word translated chose means selected from the rest, and the Greek word translated predestined means determined beforehand).
All this sounds very Calvinistic, doesn’t it?
Explanation of Calvinism
Calvinists believe that God, before He ever created the world, chose people and predestined them on the basis of His own wisdom. It had nothing to do with their choice to believe in Jesus Christ.
From the Calvinist point of view, all humans are spiritually dead to the extent that they can never choose to believe in Jesus because dead people cannot make choices.
Consequently, God first chose (set apart) a finite number of people from the rest of humanity and predestined them (determined beforehand) to believe in Jesus Christ.
Then, sometime after they were born, God gave them spiritual life, thus causing them to automatically believe in Jesus. Faith was not their choice, but something God caused them to do.
Did God Choose Them to Believe?
Nevertheless, Ephesians 1:4-5 does not necessarily teach unconditional election—there are more proper ways to interpret the passage. We do not need to interpret the words chose and predestined in light of Calvinism (reformed theology).
First, Paul does not say that God chose and predestined Christians to believe in Jesus. Instead, Paul is saying that God (1) chose Christians to be holy and blameless, and (2) predestined them to be adopted by Him as His children through Jesus Christ. To be holy, blameless, and adopted can be seen as the benefits God graciously gives to those who believe.
God granting holiness, blamelessness, and adoption to those who believe is still an act of grace because faith can neither make one any more deserving of these nor force God to give these against His own conviction. There simply is no biblical passage that interprets faith as a work—in other words, the Bible never views faith as a work.
Did God Individually Choose Them?
A second reason why Calvinism isn’t necessarily taught in Ephesians 1:4-5 is that Paul does not say God chose and predestined individuals: instead, Paul says God chose and predestined us—Paul, the believers with him, and the believers in Ephesus. In other words, God chose and predestined a group.
This fact makes a great difference because it means that God’s choosing and predestinating can be seen as general instead of specific.
In other words, God chose and predestined all those who would believe in Jesus Christ to be made holy, blameless and adopted—but He didn’t choose who would believe: he left that up to each individual.
Ephesians 1:4-5 is simply telling us that God had a plan for those who would believe.
Did God Save Them Only by Grace?
Another reason why Ephesians 1:4-5 does not teach Calvinism is that, in Ephesians 2:8, Paul tells the Ephesians that they are saved by grace through faith. He doesn’t only say by grace, but he also says through faith.
Paul doesn’t say that faith is a fruit or evidence of salvation. Instead, he states that faith is an element through which God accomplishes our salvation: you are saved by grace through faith. If faith is an element through which God accomplishes our salvation, then faith is not a product of grace.
The most natural way to understand the relationship between grace and faith is that God grants saving grace only to those who exert faith.
Does God Only Predict What He Predetermines?
It is important to consider that God also has foreknowledge and middle knowledge.
We see an example of God’s foreknowledge in Deuteronomy 31:20-21.
“20 For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant.
21 And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they go about, even now, before I have brought them into the land which I sware.” (Deuteronomy 31:20-21, KJV)
God knew that the future generations of Israel would rebel against Him. In this passage, their rebellion is not something God would cause them to do, but something He knew they would do because of their own imaginations. The point is that God can know the future without causing the future, and He can know people’s future decisions without causing them to decide.
Middle knowledge, on the other hand, is God’s knowledge of things that may possibly happen, but will not necessarily happen. We find and example of this kind of knowledge in 1 Samuel 23:10-13.
“10 Then said David, O Lord God of Israel, thy servant hath certainly heard that Saul seeketh to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake.
11 Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard? O Lord God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant. And the Lord said, He will come down.
12 Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul? And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up.
13 Then David and his men, which were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went whithersoever they could go. And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah; and he forbare to go forth.” (1 Samuel 23:10-13, KJV)
God knew that Saul would come to destroy the city of Keilah, and He knew that the men of Keilah would deliver David to Saul. But these things did not happen because David and his men left Keilah.
Thus, we see that God has both foreknowledge and middle knowledge. He knew the things that would happen and the things that would possibly happen. It is possible that God used at least one of these two forms of knowledge in his choosing and predestinating (although this isn’t mentioned in Ephesians), so we shouldn’t automatically assume that Ephesians 1:4-5 is following the Calvinistic kind of predestination—in fact, Peter tells us that God elected believers by means of his foreknowledge (1 Peter 1:2).
Interpretation of Ephesians 1:4-5
As you can see, Ephesians 1:4-5 cannot be used to conclusively support Calvinism because the terminology can be properly interpreted from a point of view that contradicts Calvinism. Calvinisim has to be read into the passage (eisegesis), but it cannot be derived from the passagre (exegesis).
In my opinion, the purpose of Ephesians 1:4-5 is to elaborate on the spiritual blessings that God has bestowed on us according to verse 3. God did not choose people to believe in Jesus Christ; instead, He chose to bestow holiness, blamelessness, and adoption on those who would choose to believe in Jesus Christ.
© 2019 Marcelo Carcach