Does God Really Predestine Lives? (Series Part 8)

This continues our exploration of some difficult passages often read in deterministic ways. This one is particularly difficult partly because the entire context where our verse appears was originally written as a 202-word sentence.

8. God Predestines in conformity with his plan

One of the signature attributes of deterministic theology manifests in soteriology. Determinism claims that God already decided who gets saved and who gets eternally damned. Ephesians 1:11 is a famous verse often used: 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”.

The part that says God works things out in conformity with the purpose of his will is not too hard to explain in a non-deterministic way: God working everything out in conformity with what he had willed does not have to mean that he manipulates everything—every detail—in conformity with his will. We have seen something like this already with Joseph where we mentioned that God is even more powerful to take “loose ends” and use them in conformity with his will. It will not be that easy, though, to get out of the possible deterministic import of this verse. The key word that will prove helpful in deciphering Paul’s intended meaning is “everything”: does Paul use this word in an absolute sense? Christians who use this as a proof-text of determinism typically take “everything” absolutely. One helpful thing to do is to check in the many other letters that Paul wrote and the ones by other writers—letters whose contents are often similar—to see if we can gain more insight into what he meant when he penned Ephesians 1:11. Let us begin with Hebrews chapter 2. Referencing Psalms 8:4-6, the writer of Hebrews says:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet, at present we do not see everything subject to them. (2:6-8)

Here then is one instance of use of “everything.” A careful reading of this passage will reveal that “everything” is not being used in an absolute or philosophical sense. If it were, even God would be under humans’ feet! But we know this is not the case because the passage says, “God left nothing that is not subject to them.” God himself is doing the subjecting of all things under humans. Someone may object to my use of Hebrews since its authorship is debated. However, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 directly addresses this very passage from Psalms 8: “For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ” (15:27). So, not every instance of the use of “everything” carries an absolute sense. We may rightly ask, “what are the boundaries of EVERYTHING as used in Ephesians 1:11?”

Redemption is a key subject of Ephesians. Paul writes in verse 9 about “the mystery of God’s will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.” It was a “mystery” because prior to Jesus’ coming, salvation was conceived of as being limited to Jews. Gentiles sharing salvation and the associated goodies in common with Jews was almost blasphemous. This was likely why, when the church first started following Pentecost, it was primarily restricted to Jews. So deep was this notion of exclusivity that even the foremost Apostle Peter had to be taught in a vision not to call Gentiles unclean or unworthy of salvation (Acts 10:15), and after going down to the “unclean” house of Cornelius, the Church in Jerusalem was ready to ostracize him for so doing! So, the will of God which God purposed in Jesus is to open up the way for Gentiles to be saved just as Jews would be. Paul writes: “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (2:15,16).  This is the background to Ephesians 1:11 which, once again, states that: 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”. The PLAN is Jesus and his perfected work of salvation. The PURPOSE is to reveal salvation to all humans. The boundaries of “everything” are the strategic things relating to salvation such as the calling of Abraham, the initial choosing of Israel in the world as a kingdom of priests until Jesus’ arrival, and the giving of the law as a means (for Israelites) to demonstrate their total loyalty to God. That exclusive calling or election of Israel ceases with the inauguration of the new Church. (Of course, Israeli and Jewish Christians continue to be members of God’s church today.)

One more thing needs to be said here. We should note that Ephesians 1:11 does not say that God arbitrarily determines people’s fates in advance. When it says that people are “predestined according to the plan” of God, this does not mean an act that disregards people’s free will nor does it even have to mean that specific people are chosen for salvation and others damned by divine fiat. Here is Ephesians 1 again with accompanying verses:

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, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 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, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (1:11-14 Emphasis added).

The passage says that Ephesian gentiles were included in time to what used to be a Jewish Club. People can do something about their salvation: They can hear the good news and believe (or not believe). Whatever “predestined” means, therefore, it allows for people to be added when they choose to believe the gospel. The individuals who will believe and be included in Christ are “those who are God’s possession” (14). Put another way, they will become God’s possession when they believe. What God predestines is the redemption of humanity. However bad things may get, God would not give up on the human project.

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