Theme: Elected by Sovereign Grace
This week’s lessons explain the importance of God’s sovereignty for a biblical
understanding of the doctrine of grace.
Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-8
The verses that deal with God’s sovereign grace in salvation, verses 3-14, are one long sentence in Greek, possibly the longest sentence in the New Testament. One commentator calls them “a magnificent gateway” to the epistle, another “a golden chain of many links,” and still another “an operatic overture and the flight of an eagle.” But this long list of interconnected doctrines makes it hard to outline the section, and commentators have taken different approaches. John Stott gives them a temporal outline, speaking of the past blessing of election (vv. 4-6), the present blessing of adoption (vv. 5-8), and the future blessing of unification (vv. 9, 10), followed by a section on the “scope” of these blessings. Others, such as E.K. Simpson and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, merely list the doctrines: focusing on such words as election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness of sins, wisdom, unification in Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
I think a trinitarian outline is most helpful. Paul is saying that the blessings listed come from God the Father as a result of his electing choice, become ours in Jesus Christ by his work of redemption, and are applied to us by the Holy Spirit through what theologians term “effectual calling.” This is due to sovereign grace, since God is the subject of nearly every verb. You can remember this outline by the acrostic ERA, not “Equal Rights Amendment” or the soap powder with that name, but: “Election,” “Redemption,” and “Application.”
The point at which Paul begins is the electing choice or predestinating of God the Father, writing, “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (vv. 4-6).” There are a lot of ideas in those verses, including such important ones as holiness, adoption, and the love of the Father for the Son. But the chief idea is election. It is introduced in several different ways: “Predestination” is the technical word for election. “In accordance with his pleasure and will” explains election as being by God’s will only. “Grace” is explicitly mentioned. Finally, there are the words “which he has freely given.” This is a further explanation of both grace and election.
These verses are one of the strongest expressions of sovereign grace in Scripture, for they teach that the blessings of salvation come to some people because God had determined from before the creation of the world to give them to these people— and for that reason only. This is difficult for many persons to accept, of course. But the difficulties need to be worked through and overcome if grace is to be fully understood and appreciated.
One way in which people cope with the problem of election is to deny election outright. They will not deny that God was gracious in sending Jesus to be the world’s Savior. He did not have to do it. Nor did Jesus have to die. But this is as far as they will go. They deny that anyone is saved because God has chosen to save them. He offers salvation, but in the final analysis they are saved because they choose to receive Christ through their own free will. It is they who choose God, not God who chooses them. This appeals to us, of course. We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own destinies and being able to call the shots. But verses like these in Ephesians—and there are many more of them—say clearly that salvation is determined by God.
A second way of avoiding the truth of election is to admit the word but deny its effect by saying that the choice of God is based on foreknowledge. This is a mediating position taken by people who admit rightly that the Bible teaches election but who want to retain a commitment to human ability and perhaps also protect God from an act that seems to be unjust or arbitrary.
This is an impossible position, however. For one thing, an election based on foreknowledge of whether an individual will believe on God or not is not really election. It is the equivalent of saying that God chooses those who chose themselves. If that is the case, then the choice of the individual is obviously the critical choice, and the “choice” made by God is in name only. It is actually only a response, and a compulsory one at that. In this approach God does not actually ordain anyone to anything.
An even more serious problem is that if what the Bible tells us about the spiritual inability and depravity of human nature is true, then there is nothing in man that God could possibly see on the basis of which he could elect to save him. The Bible teaches in Romans 3, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (v.v. 10, 11).
If that is correct, what could God possible foresee as he looks down the long corridor of human history into the hearts of individuals except minds and moral dispositions radically opposed both to himself and grace. God cannot foresee something that cannot be. So even if God, in some sense, can be thought of as foreseeing faith in some persons, it can only be because he has determined in advance to put it there. And as a matter of fact, that is exactly what the next chapter of Ephesians teaches, showing that even faith is not from ourselves but is “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
What does Dr. Boice’s acrostic, ERA, stand for?
How does the ERA outline fit Ephesians 1?
From the lesson, how do some people deal with the doctrine of election? What are the weaknesses of those approaches?
For Further Study: If you would like to gain a better understanding of the doctrine of election, see the booklet by Richard Phillips entitled What Are Election and Predestination? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006).