In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter says that Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” and that “ignorant and unstable people” distort his writings just as they do to other writings. Peter touches on a few truths here that are worth noting before interpreting Paul or any “other writings.”
- Paul can be difficult to understand.
- It’s easy to interpret things the way we want.
- Interpreting Scripture to suite your own desire should be strongly warned against.
It’s funny to me when I remember that these words are inspired by God. Can you imagine God saying, “Yeah, that Paul, he’s a bit tricky.”
Of course, God isn’t confused, but the image is comical.
Peter’s words should humble us all before approaching a biblical text and especially Paul’s writings.
Since I have openly stated that I am not a Calvinist, some honest questioners have asked what I think of some of Paul’s writings.
It’s almost taken for granted, in contemporary evangelical contexts, that passages like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 explicitly teach a Calvinistic soteriology. I obviously don’t think so.
In the same way, to the same degree, that the Calvinist mind boggles at any other interpretation of these verses, my mind boggles at the Calvinist interpretation.
This makes for fun dialogue, and again I hope we can all be in the same spirit of reverence as Peter when interpreting God’s word, especially Paul’s writings. We all agree that God’s word is infallible, and I hope we all agree that our interpretations are not.
Ephesians 1 is rightly a proof-text that Calvinists use to defend their soteriology. What do you mean rightly, I thought you weren’t a Calvinist? Well, I just simply mean that if I were a Calvinist, I would turn here too.
However, I invite the reader to take off the blinders, whether they be Calvinist blinders or some other. Let’s just pay close attention to the text with the reverence that Peter recommends us. (I don’t pretend that I’m perfectly objective.)
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will: To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus.”Ephesians 1:1
As far as I can tell, this verse is the key to understanding, or rightly interpreting, the rest of Ephesians. It sets the stage, or the context for the rest of the letter.
How so? It tells us who Paul is writing to. He is writing to the “faithful saints” who are “in Christ.”
The phrase “in Christ” is repeated throughout. In fact, Paul uses the phrase, or some variation (i.e. “in Him”), at least 13 times in the first chapter by my count (math is not my strong suite).
Ephesians 1 is of particular importance to the Calvinist because it is here we find “predestination” and being “chosen before the foundation of the world.”
To many, the sheer existence of those phrases settles the matter. “There you have it.”
Sorry, I’m too contrarian to accept that as an answer. In fact, that isn’t a proof, that’s an assertion. You would be assuming that those phrases mean what the Calvinists say they mean. With that assumption, you can then turn to the passage and say, “There’s the phrases, ergo Calvinism.”
I don’t accept the assumption. I’m confident those words don’t mean what the Calvinist thinks they mean and I will make my case straight from the text.
“Predestination” and being “chosen before the foundation of the world” to the Calvinist are synonymous with their doctrine of “unconditional election”.
Unconditional election is the idea that God chose from before the foundation of the world some people to save, and some to “pass over”. I would agree with Calvin himself that God necessarily does more than simply passively “pass over” those He chooses not to regenerate, but let’s just assume he does “pass over” them in the sense that He does not cause their damnation — doesn’t matter for this context.
Is this what Ephesians 1 is teaching?
“For He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in love before Him (emphasis mine).”Ephesians 1:4
“He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One (emphasis mine).”Ephesians 1:5-6
I’ll restate the question: Do these verses teach that God chose before the foundation of the world a select number of people to be saved?
Honestly, I couldn’t force my eyes to see that interpretation.
Primarily because of the phrase “in Him” that I emphasized in the above verses.
Who is the “us” that God has “chosen before the foundation of the world”? The “us” refers to those who are “in Him” back in verse 1. I told you verse 1 would be crucial. Paul and the “faithful saints” in Ephesus are the “us” in verse 4 and they are also “in Christ”.
Those who are in Christ were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless.
It doesn’t say “God chose some people to be in Christ.” It says, those who are in Christ, God chose to make holy and blameless.
I hope that is clear, if not, the next verse makes the point even more clear.
Verse 5 says “He predestined us.” Again, who is the “us”? Those who are “in Christ”. They were not predetermined to be “in Christ,” that’s not what the verse says. It says those who are already in Christ are predestined.
Predestined simply means a destination that has already been determined. So, those who are in Christ have a destination that has already been determined for them by God, namely holiness and blamelessness.
Believers in Jesus will reach their destination: sanctification and glorification. God has predetermined it to be so.
“In him we have redemption” (verse 7).
“In him” we receive an inheritance (verse 11).
“In him” we are sealed by the Holy Spirit (verse 13).
So as not to leave us with any doubt, Paul makes explicitly clear that we receive all of these promises and guarantees “when you believed.”
Those who believe are “in Christ”. Those who are in Christ are sealed, receive an inheritance, redeemed, predestined for sanctification and glorification. That’s what these verse are saying, to me, very clearly.
We receive all of these benefits by the grace of God alone (verse 6). God lavishes on us what Christ accomplished (verse 6) when we believe (verse 13) and become “in Him.”
The chapter never says that we are predestined to be “in Him.” God has not chosen, or predetermined, who will believe and who will not. At least, these verses don’t say that.
“But there’s other verses that do!”
First, I don’t think so and we will get to them another time.
Secondly, that’s fine. The point of this article was simply that Ephesians 1 is not a Calvinist proof-text for “unconditional election” in the sense that God unconditionally elects some individuals to salvation.
Those who are “in Christ” are chosen (elected) to sanctification and glorification, as Ephesians 1 says.
Let me know what you think and stay tuned. I’ll get to the other so-called proof-texts eventually.