God’s Plan

Ephesians 1:3-6 

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free will. Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions. But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. “Who sent you here?” they asked. “No one sent me,” he replied. “I came of my own free will.” “Free will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!” So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?” The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.” “Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you have decided by your own free will!”

Who says doctrine doesn’t have social effects? Try this from a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal: “Iran must have the wildest drivers in the Middle East. It is a country of fatalists who believe that all accidents are preordained by Allah. Thus highway safety is really in higher hands and not of concern to mere motorists. Judged by the accident rate in Iran, it would seem to be a vengeful deity indeed.” It reminds me of the Calvinist who fell down the stairs, and then remarked, “Well, I’m glad that’s over with.” These three illustrations bring to light that the doctrine of election has profound ramifications for our lives. How we see ourselves in relation to God, especially considering God’s sovereignty and our human responsibility, has profound implications for how we see ourselves, and for how we act. I don’t often preach on the doctrine of election, not because I don’t like it, and not because the Bible never speaks of it, but because of two reasons: 1. the Bible does not speak of it nearly as often as some might think; and 2. there are many, many ways to go astray when discussing this doctrine. That is not to say that election is unhelpful in our Christian walk. It is extremely helpful, as I hope to show. But we must tread carefully. John Calvin speaks of this doctrine as a maze: it is easy to get lost

The doctrine of election, first of all, is not a doctrine invented by some theologian in the sixteenth century. Indeed, what person would have even thought of inventing an idea that takes all the glory of salvation away from man, and places it securely in the hands of God? No, God revealed this doctrine of election to us. He revealed it in several places in Scripture. However, today we are looking at what is perhaps the clearest expression of it in the whole Bible. But if the doctrine of election is Biblical, then two implications follow: 1. We must accept it as God’s Word, and 2. It is useful for us.

Paul starts in verse 3 with a burst of praise and adoration. Indeed, verse 3 is something of a summary of what he is going to say for the next 12 verses. It is a summary of everything all the way up through verse 14. Paul praises God. This is important for us. Our doctrine should always result in praise. Paul starts and ends this entire section with praise to God Almighty. Paul says that the Father is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. That might sound as if Jesus is less than the Father. However, as one Puritan puts it, God is Father to Jesus as Jesus is God, and the Father is God to Jesus as Jesus is human.

Paul goes on here to tell us that every spiritual blessing that we have comes to us in Christ Jesus. “Every spiritual blessing” means not only that the blessings are non-physical. It also refers to the fact that they have their origin in the Holy Spirit. They are “Holy Spiritual” blessings. Notice carefully also here that God has blessed us in the past with all spiritual blessings. In a sense, we will never be more saved than we are right now if we do indeed have faith in Christ. If we are in Christ, as Paul says, then we have all spiritual blessings. What does “in Christ” mean? It means that Christ is our representative. It also means that we have the closest possible fellowship with Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. So verse 3 is a summary of everything: we have all Spiritual blessings in Christ.

Verse 4 then starts describing what God the Father does. God planned our salvation. Salvation is not some afterthought in the mind of God. God did not say “oops,” when Adam fell into sin, nor is the salvation of mankind some sort of “plan b.” God always planned our salvation. He had it planned even before the foundation of the world was laid down. Now, notice some things about this election. God chose us. We did not choose Him in eternity. We could not have chosen to believe in God at all, unless God first chose us. The word “choose” here means that, out of all humanity, God chose some to be saved. Specifically, Paul says that it was “us” He chose. We ought then to ask ourselves the very natural question that comes next, “Why did God choose us?” Some might answer that God chose us because He foresaw that we would believe in Him. This is completely incorrect. Yes, God did see ahead of time that we would believe. However, that is not the basis by which God chose us. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in us that is the criteria for why God chose us. To say that there was something in us that is the basis by which God chose us is to say that the glory of salvation belongs to us, because we were somehow more worthy than other people. The doctrine of election is not in the Bible to make us proud. We are not to be the “frozen chosen.”

God also did not choose us because we were more holy and blameless than other people. Paul explicitly rules out that possibility. He says that we were chosen in order to be holy and blameless, not because we were holy and blameless. In other words, our holiness is a goal of God’s election, not the ground of it. If someone believes that God elected him because God foresaw his holiness, then in effect the man elected himself. The basis was in him, not in God.

Election is not separated from other doctrines. We are elected to holiness and blamelessness. That means that our sanctification, which is our becoming more holy, is one of the purposes of election. It is not God’s only purpose in election. But it certainly is one of His purposes. Election is also for the purposes of adoption. That is what Paul says in verse 5. God predestined us for adoption. Adoption was a Roman legal custom by which someone who did not have any right to inherit an estate was given that right. The person doing the adopting has the full right to choose whom he wants to be his heir. Picture a child in China. She is not loved by anyone in her own mind. But a long process of adoption has begun here in the US. The girl doesn’t know anything about it until the adopting couple actually goes over there to pick her up. Does anyone reproach the couple for picking that girl and not some other girl? No. God has a reason, too, for picking some and not others. If we have a problem with that, it reveals much more about ourselves than it reveals about God. It reveals that we are failing to see the sinfulness of mankind. None of us deserve any grace from God. We are sinners, and justly deserve God’s wrath. So, for God to allow some to go ahead and suffer that wrath is hardly unjust in God. It reminds me of the older lady who went in for a haircut to a new salon. Her hair was not in good shape, as it turns out. She said to the hair-stylist, “I hope you will do my hair justice.” The hair-stylist looked at her hair, and said, “Ma’am, what your hair needs is mercy, not justice.” How like us! We think we can stand the justice of God, and tell God that He needs to save everyone from Hell. That is not true. It is but saying the truth to say that we all deserve Hell, and it is only because of God’s great mercy that any are saved. The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “Why should God send anyone to Hell?” The proper question is this, “Why should God save anyone from Hell?” The answer is given to us in verse 6 “to the praise of His glorious grace.” That is God’s reason for saving people: that they might praise God for his marvelous grace. That is what election is all about: grace.

Now, what are the practical ramifications of this doctrine? The first and primary use for us is that election gives us comfort. That’s right, comfort. Some people, of course, constantly question whether or not they are elect. This is not a helpful question to ask. Rather than asking that, we should ask ourselves, “Am I in Christ? Do I trust in Him?” If you do, but are suffering from doubt, then this doctrine of election is for you. Your salvation does not depend on you, but on God. He planned it, accomplished it, and sealed it. That is the message of verses 3-14 of this chapter of Ephesians. To know that you are a child of God, and that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ is of inestimable comfort. Do not think that you can lose your salvation, once you have it.

We should have assurance, but not presumption. The distinction between assurance and presumption is vital to understand here. We can have assurance that we are saved. Election helps us in that regard by telling us that we are in God’s hands, and His hands don’t slip. God’s hands are not “butter fingers.” We can be safe and secure in the arms of Jesus. But, that does not mean that we can then do whatever we please. As Paul himself says here, we are elected in order to be holy. It is folly to think that we can be elect and live like the world does. If we are living like the world, then we have no reason to suppose that we are elect. Election means holiness. To quote Paul again, “How can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?”

Secondly, we should never think that the doctrine of election should make us “give up on someone.” People can be mightily hard to the Gospel their whole lives only to be converted on their deathbed. We do not know who the elect are. We cannot look into anyone else’s heart to discern whether they are elect or not. There are those who say that if the number of the elect is all set, then we don’t have to evangelize anyone. We can just kick up our heels and do nothing. This is an extremely faulty view of election. It is called “hyper-Calvinism,” and has nothing to do with the truth. It is like the fatalists of Iran in the illustration at the beginning of the sermon. God’s sovereignty does not rule out our responsibility. God commanded us to evangelize. That ought to be enough right there. But for the more curious, we can also say that God not only predestines some to salvation; but He also ordains the means by which His elect will come to salvation. And that means us. It is entirely incorrect to say that Arminians make better evangelists. Arminians, by the way, are people who say that God does not elect certain people to salvation, contrary to what Paul says right here. The fact of the matter is that Calvinists have always been the best evangelists. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has sent out more missionaries per capita, than any other denomination. And the PCA is Reformed to the core. As a matter of fact, election requires evangelism. Election does mean that God will somehow “zap” people independent of missionaries. God uses missionaries to bring His elect to faith. Election also frees up evangelism: if I think that no one is necessarily elect to salvation, then my message better be a real zinger, since it all depends on how eloquent I am. The Reformed person, on the other hand, can say this: “I am simply going to present the Gospel clearly, and I know that despite my imperfection in presenting the Gospel, God will still bring His elect to faith.”

I will close by giving you an illustration for helping us to understand this mystery. For there still is mystery at the end of the day. The Bible does not fully explain to us how it is that God is Sovereign, and yet we are responsible. Delving too deep into those mysteries can get us into trouble. Paul, in Romans 9, even says, in effect, “Shut up.” We can and must say what the Bible itself says. But where the Bible is silent, there we must stop. So I will close by giving you this illustration: the connection of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility looks like this: there is a door. The door is called “salvation.” On the front of the door, we this inscription, “Repent, believe, be baptized, and you will be saved.” If you walk through that door, turn back and look at the backside of that door, there is a corresponding inscription on the backside: “Elect from all eternity.” Are you in Christ? Then know that you were predestined to be in Christ. Let God’s eternal comfort strengthen you that you were predestined to this, not because you are so lovable, so holy, so perfect, but because of God’s grace alone. Praise be to God.