I had no idea before starting this sermon that there were so many cheeky jokes online about Calvinists and the doctrine of predestination. Like . . . did you hear about the new Calvinist dating site? There’s no need to sign up. Your dates are already selected and you should be getting a call soon. Or . . . did you
hear about the Calvinist scoreboard manufacturer? Their scoreboard posts the final score at the beginning of the game.
If today’s scripture reading left you feeling like you might have a theologically induced migraine coming on you’re not alone. Never mind the fact that predestination is mentioned several times, the entire thing, verse 3 to 14, is one long run-on sentence. And it is one of the most theologically dense sentences in the Bible. It covers everything—election, atonement, redemption, salvation and the eternal plans of God. So today (what else is new?) I’m going to “attempt” the impossible. I’m going to try to simplify this passage so we can then focus in on one or two issues. In the process I will eliminate as much of the poetic excess as possible without (hopefully) losing anything vital.
To begin, God is praised because God has blessed us spiritually in Christ. The text then breaks into an alternating pattern of subject matter, going from our being “selected” to “adopted” to “redeemed.” Before going back to “selected” there is a brief mention of God’s plan in Christ is to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth. Then we go once more to “selected” and finish with “adoption guaranteed”.
The first SELECTED is that God chose us before the creation of the world, so before anything existed yet, God knew about us. God chose us to be set apart (that’s what holy means) and not screw up (that’s what blameless means). Next, we have been ADOPTED. God predestined, or pre-ordained, that we should be adopted as God’s children and made Jesus’ siblings, given all the rights and responsibilities that involves. Third, we have been REDEEMED. Through Jesus’ death on the cross we have redemption. That means we have been bought back from the enemy that enslaved us and set free. Our sins are forgiven. All this is a result of God’s grace to us. In God’s plan when the time was right God revealed Jesus and God’s plan of salvation to us. God’s ultimate plan involves bringing unity to everything in heaven and on earth through Christ.
After this brief diversion the text then returns to the idea of being SELECTED. Once again Ephesians states that in Christ we were chosen. God decided ahead of time that the first Christians would be chosen and has worked everything out that we also might put our hope in Christ. We were included when we first heard the message of truth, the good news that Jesus came to save us.
Finally, our ADOPTION RIGHTS are GUARANTEED. When we believed we were given the Holy Spirit, which is like marking a document with a seal. The Spirit is a guarantee that we will receive our full inheritance as God’s children.
Our ancestors took this and other texts like it with the word “predestination” in it and ran with it. In a culture where few people had choices in their lives this sort of made sense. Parents generally decided who their children would marry and what they did for a living. Rich landowners determined that no one ever got rich except them. Everything in life appeared pre-ordained, so they had no problem at all with the idea that God predestined some to heaven. They then logically concluded that God also predestined others to hell. The super Calvinists among them created a set of doctrines known as TULIP. TULIP stands for:
Total Depravity—we are 100% sinners
Unconditional election—God decides we are saved; we have nothing to do with it.
Limited Atonement—Christ only died for the elect, not everyone else
Irresistible Grace—the Holy Spirit will bring us to salvation whether we like it or not, and
Preservation of the Saints—we can never lose our salvation.
Presbyterians argued over these ideas and divided over these ideas. Then they started doing missions with the Methodists, and everyone’s theology got mixed up. In practice most of us now believe that:
We are all sinners and no one is perfect,
God desires all to be saved but not all respond to God’s love because of free will.
Jesus died for everyone.
The Holy Spirit works to bring us to faith but it is possible for us to harden our hearts and walk away and
We will never lose our salvation because it depends upon God, not us.
We’ve sort of kept the first and the last points and changed the middle.
Why do some people come to faith and others do not? This is a mystery, and the problem is the sovereignty of God. If God controls everything, then there is no such thing as free will. Of course we respond that God gave us free will . . . But there are still scriptures like Ephesians that say that God chose us before the foundation of the world. That’s not only before we were born, but before the universe existed. It certainly appears pre-determined.
When scripture talks about things that are beyond our ability to understand it generally does so by putting ideas in opposition to one another to create balance. On the one hand Moabites are supposedly banned and rejected by God. On the other hand, Ruth, the ancestor of David, was a Moabite. On the one hand God has chosen the nation of Israel and apparently cares only about Israel, callously ordering the genocide of other nations. On the other hand, God send Jonah to Nineveh to save non-Jews. And of course on the one hand we have texts like Ephesians 1: 11, and on the other hand we have texts like 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9. What we’re left with is the knowledge that the answer to some questions is not either/or, it’s both/and. We don’t understand it because essentially our brains are not equipped to understand it.
So what does this mean for us in practice? Regardless of whether God chose us or the choice was mutual, God’s commitment to us is eternal. It doesn’t depend upon us. God is not going to let go. Once we have come to faith and the Holy Spirit is at work in us the deal is sealed. This is a contract that cannot be broken. We are in God’s family, redeemed by Christ. Just as we learned a few weeks ago when we talked about 1st century adoption, God will never disown us. A natural born child in the 1st century could be disowned because the thinking was that you had no choice in the matter. You got what you got. But an adopted child could never be disowned because they were chosen. That is the point here. God will never abandon us.
While adoption is one image that appears in this passage, redemption is another. As a concept today it is weak. After all, we redeem coupons! But redemption in Jewish law involved buying back land poor relatives had been forced to sell in order to pay the bills. (Leviticus 25:25, 33) And redemption also referred to buying people from slavery. It involves bringing liberty to captives. The forgiveness of sins that comes with our redemption involves the paying of a debt that we cannot pay.
There are two words for sin in the New Testament. The most common is harmartia. It comes from archery and means, “to miss the mark.” The word in this passage is the other word, paraptoma. This is the word we translate as “trespass” or “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer. We fail in some way. We slip up and cause harm. It can even be unintentional on our part, but we have still caused harm. But God’s grace is at work, and we have been redeemed. The debt is paid.
In the middle of all this there is one short profound partial sentence. In deference to some attempt at grammar our translators have made it a single sentence: “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” In other words, God’s plan in sending Jesus involves ultimately bringing everything that was shattered back together and made whole. The word used for “unify” means to sum up, like summarizing an argument or adding up numbers. It’s to take all the disparate parts, bring them together into a coherent whole, and make sense of it. Jesus brings all of human history together and reunites and heals that which was broken, damaged and fractured. We all know what it is like to live in a divided world. We are politically divided, socially divided, economically and racially divided. There is disunity even in our families and communities of faith. Sometimes we are even divided against ourselves. Have you ever had an argument with yourself? I have! But through Christ, God will bring all things into the unity God intended for them. There will be harmony and peace.
Some have said this means everyone will be saved. Others have objected loudly—no it doesn’t! Whatever it means we can trust that the God who is perfect love has it well in hand and does not need our advice on how to do it.
God has chosen us, and when we choose God back, the deal is sealed. We belong. We will never be lost. We will never be rejected. Even if we screw up, God will rescue us, forgive us, and set us on our feet again. The Holy Spirit will be with us ready to heal and reshape us, taking us from broken to whole. God’s plans are vast and there are many things we cannot understand, but we take these words of Isaiah originally intended for Israel to heart, “You are my servant; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. Amen.
Isaiah 41: 8-13
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
11 “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish. 12 Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all. 13 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Deut. 23: 3
No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation.
Ruth the Moabite, ancestor of David
Deuteronomy 7: 1-2
7 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possessand drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites,Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
Jonah 4: 10-11
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will . . .
1 Timothy 2:3-4
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.