Let’s just admit it: the Bible makes us uncomfortable at times. We recoil when we read about the destruction of the Canaanites or Father Abraham pimping his sister/wife, Sarah. But these stories are right there on the pages of the Bible, and we have to grapple with its sometimes shameful narratives and unsettling ideas. Sooner or later, every thoughtful Christian has to come to terms with an inscrutable Creator they do not and cannot fully comprehend. Because we live in the yawning gap between the already and the not-yet in the unfolding of God’s eternal plan, we inevitably find ourselves struggling to understand the ways of God.
Actually, I am inclined to think one of the spiritual requirements for being a follower of Jesus is that you must wrestle with God. After all, when God gave a new name to Jacob and his descendants, he called them “Israel,” or God wrestlers: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God” (Gen. 32:28, paraphrase mine). Wrestling with God is in our spiritual DNA.
There is plenty of wrestling to do in the early section of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. This remarkable letter begins with a lavish outpouring of affection. But Paul throws us a curve when he employs what many Christians consider a “repulsive” idea. There is one word in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that has given heartburn to millions of Jesus followers for a very long time—for much of the last 2,000 years. To make matters worse, Paul uses this disturbing word twice in the same passage for emphasis. That word is “predestination.” For many this word conjures up images of the dark side of the “force” and the malevolent Darth Vader.
What are you supposed to do when you find yourself a little unnerved by the teaching of the apostle Paul? Do you ignore him and move on to the good stuff? Do you wring your hands in despair? Perhaps predestination ought to be the exclusive reserve of trained theologians. This is where the wrestling begins.
I well understand that the word “predestination” sends a chill down many spines. It offends our modern American sensibilities where freedom and individualism are inalienable rights. Any hint that we are not in command of our own destinies seems, well, un-American.
If you are disturbed by the idea of predestination, I can only say you are in good historical company. John Wesley, in his famous sermon on “Free Grace,” said predestination “overturns [God’s] justice, mercy, and truth. Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil.” The Anabaptist leader Menno Simons described the Protestant doctrine of predestination as “an abomination of abominations.” Even advocates such as Augustine and Aquinas warned that it should not be preached from the pulpit out of a pastoral concern that it would unduly disturb the flock. Put simply, this doctrine hasn’t had a lot of friends in the history of the church. But the indisputable fact remains—there it is in the text.
While the opening verses of Ephesians are conventional enough, Paul’s rapturous praise for God is remarkable. In the Greek text, these verses (vv. 3–14) are really one very long sentence. At 202 words, this is not only the longest sentence in the New Testament, but it is perhaps the longest sentence in ancient Greek literature. It is as if Paul is so captivated with adoration and gratitude, he forgets to breathe.
What is it that takes Paul’s breath away? It is the incomprehensible vastness of God’s love that encompasses eternity past, present, and future. Paul pulls back the veil of the Godhead and grants a glimpse into the triune mystery of the Father’s eternal plan (vv. 3–6), the Son’s implementation of the plan (vv. 7–12), and the Spirit’s guarantee that the plan will reach completion (vv. 13–14). The redemptive panorama is so stunning that it leaves Paul breathless.
At the center of this expansive vista is predestination. Paul writes about divine predestination with an enthusiasm that might strike some contemporary Christians as peculiar at the very least. For him, predestination is a divine blessing so overwhelming that the very act of sharing it with Gentile readers takes his breath away. Rather than talk about this unfathomable mystery in sober hushed tones, Paul seems to want to shout it from the rooftops.
This Berakah is for You
In what amounts to a hymn of praise, Paul is utilizing a Jewish literary form called a berakah (blessing) which acknowledges God as the source of all blessing. If Paul’s primary goal in this berakah is to praise God, his other main purpose is to encourage the Gentile Christians by reminding them that God has “lavishly” bestowed (v. 8) his blessings, indeed, “every spiritual blessing” (v. 3), upon them too. According to God’s eternal purposes, the Gentiles were not a late inning substitution but a magnificent part of God’s plan from the beginning. Such a berakah from a former religious terrorist like Paul is nothing short of staggering.
While Paul highlights many of the blessings of God (adoption, redemption, and forgiveness of sins), this sentence is structured in such a way that it actually emphasizes divine predestination. Paul twice employs the parallel portrait of God bestowing his special affection by “choosing” a people for himself. This distinctive familial language of being “chosen” is at the very heart of Israel’s self-identity, and it is the same language that Paul uses to describe the Gentile recipients of this epistle. Indeed, Paul uses yet another corresponding term to define these Gentile converts:“adoption” (v. 5). These three words (predestination, choosing, and adoption) are mutually reinforcing concepts with which Paul reveals God’s deep affection for the Gentile readers of this letter.
Not only is the idea of predestination right there in the text, but Paul launches it at the very outset of his circular letter to these recent Gentile converts—people he had never actually met. It is mildly amusing that Paul does not even take the time to chat them up, meander a bit, or generate some “good vibes” before jumping headlong into the doctrine of predestination.
As a Jew, Paul was quite comfortable with the notion of God choosing a people for himself. After all, the constant refrain of the Old Testament is that the Jews are God’s “chosen” people. In Deuteronomy 7:6–8, we find this profoundly affectionate declaration of God’s love for Israel: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession . . . because the Lord loved you.”
Paul extends this previously exclusive berakah of the Jews to these Gentile followers of Jesus. It is as if a sonorous voice announced: This berakah is for you—Jews and Gentiles.
A Love Doctrine
It is well enough that Paul extends God’s blessing to the Gentiles, but why would he utilize the “dreadful” notion of predestination to do it? Surely the ideas of adoption, redemption, and forgiveness are more than adequate to describe God’s extravagant blessings upon the Gentiles.
These Gentiles to whom Paul was writing were in all likelihood inhabitants of various cities in the region surrounding Ephesus and in the Lycus Valley. The Roman orator and political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero gives us a brutal picture of what city life was like during this period of history when he describes the populace of Rome as “miserable starving rabble.” What could the blessing of predestination mean to such ancient city dwellers? What could it mean to the 90 percent of the population in the Roman Empire who lived “a hand-to-mouth existence” and rarely lived beyond 40 years? On top of these dismal living conditions, there were social and political anxieties (injustice, oppression, abuse, and, of course, unreasonable taxes) that plagued the lives of the recipients of Paul’s letter. How might predestination bless such Gentiles faced with the relentless daily challenge of mere survival?
Paul acknowledges that those Gentile converts were suffering from “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). He understood that it is not easy to praise God on an empty stomach. But he also knew that even hungry stomachs need hope.
The grim realities of first-century Asia Minor are impossible to fully grasp, especially for those who have been born in the relative security of the West and enjoy the many benefits of the modern world, but such living conditions were no less real. Yet, I can imagine that the recipients of the epistle might have found encouragement and comfort in Paul’s words.
For a brief moment, they were no longer looking through a glass darkly, but were able to catch sight of eternal realities.
To be told with such unabashed exuberance that God set his affection on you before the creation of the world and that you are part of God’s eternal purpose is enough to take your breath away—even in the most difficult of circumstances.
I must confess that I am a lifelong, card-carrying God wrestler. This is no mere philosophical struggle. This is the reality for honest pilgrims who are searching for a pathway through a world teeming with turbulence and unpredictability. And for some of us, this odd notion of divine predestination is a beacon of hope that we will indeed reach our destination.
I used to say to my young daughter Allison: “I loved you even before you were born.” Even though she did not fully comprehend my words, she always smiled when I said it. At a heart level, Allison understood that this was a declaration of my immeasurable love.
To realize that God created this world with you in mind and that you were not an addendum, appendix, or postscript would be life-giving encouragement. When Paul states, “In love he predestined us,” he is declaring that God’s love is the true motivation for predestination. To know that we are predestined does not remove the urgency or desperation of dreadful circumstances, but it does assure us of God’s determined love and that this present tribulation is not the end of the story. In the final analysis, Paul wants us to know that predestination is a love doctrine.
Frank A. James III is the president and professor of historical theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of Church History: Pre-Reformation to the Present, vol. 2(Zondervan) and author of Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination: The Augustinian Inheritance of an Italian Reformer (Oxford University Press).
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