Does God choose or elect some people to salvation? When it comes to the question of predestination, a locus classicus (well-known text) is Ephesians 1:3-5:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him, in love having predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will…”
Yet the questions around how and why God chooses some for salvation raises concerns for a lot of people. It’s not just that people get into theological arguments about it, it can be a really difficult issue as we think of loved ones who don’t know Jesus:
- “Pray for my family if you can, especially my grandpa. I love him so much, he’s open to me believing in Christ but each time I share the word to him, he really resists it.”
- “There’s so many in the world that turn away from God… why did he leave it up to people to choose him or not?”
It’s important to remember that when Paul writes to the Ephesians and others who read his letter, he’s wanting to encourage and assure them — so the doctrine of election and predestination is meant to be “abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel”.
And I think if we read Paul’s words in context, we’ll get a clearer idea of how to respond to some of the objections we might come across. He doesn’t argue propositionally (he’s in the midst of pouring out praise to God!) so they’re not logic-based arguments. But I think they’re helpful all the same.
Objection 1: Predestination is unfair — why does God choose some and not others?
I think it helps to read Ephesians 1:3-6 (also v11-12) with the following chapter. In Ephesians 2:1-4, Paul reminds his Gentile readers that although God predestines, at one time “… you were dead in your sins and trespasses… but God made us alive together with Christ”. In other words, without God’s miraculous work in our hearts, all of us remain “dead in our sins” and would not have accepted God. So the fair/unfair question could be reframed as: if we were all dead in our sins, why is it fair that God adopts any? This requires an honesty about our true spiritual state — just as cut flowers may look alive but actually aren’t, we may look healthy but apart from God we’re dead people walking.
As to why God “makes alive” some hearts but not others, an imperfect analogy is asking why a couple who crosses oceans to visit an orphanage doesn’t adopt all of the children there – it’s certainly not because of lack of love! For Paul, the idea of being chosen by God doesn’t move him to debate or suspicion, but to praise. Personally, I love that it’s not because of my genes, my job, or my relatives that I’m included in God’s family. Rather, it’s because of a loving Father who adopts undeserving children in Christ.
Objection 2: A doctrine like predestination turns us into robots who don’t have a choice.
I recently watched TEИET (directed by Christopher Nolan), a time-travel spy action film that also explores the idea predestination and free will. By knowing the perils of the future, the main characters are compelled to act and choose a different path. Paul thinks the same way too: we often overlook the rest of verse 4, but it says “you were chosen… to be holy and blameless”. As Paul praises God for his sovereign grace he sees the Ephesians not as robots, but as active participants. Later in the letter (ch4-6) they’re called to put on the new self, to adopt new thoughts and habits, to stand firm against the evil one. When you’re adopted into a family, you get to take on the family responsibilities too. For Paul, there’s no disconnect between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
Objection 3: A God who chooses some and not others can’t be trusted.
Let’s face it – behind this objection is less a logical proposition, but a belief about what a deity (if he exists) should be like. But I think reading verses 5-6 straight after 3-4 help us out:
“…in love having predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
How does Paul describe God here as he’s praising Him? Fickle and mean? Or gracious and generous? Paul presents God as a Father who in love adopts us into his family. It’s first and foremost a relational argument. As parents, it’s easy to relate – we loved our children before they were born! God’s love is like that, and Paul invites us to trust him as we would a father who loves us perfectly. We “cause mischief” when we divorce the idea of predestination/election from God’s fatherly character.
I think it’s telling that Paul didn’t present the Ephesian church — perhaps feeling small and vastly outnumbering in their cosmopolitan, culturally-savvy, hyper-religious city — with a list of propositions to inform them. He doesn’t press them to figure out who is “elect” and who isn’t in their church. Rather, he paints and praises with pictures to encourage and assure them.
In Christ, you’re blessed because the Father adopts you.
You’re blessed because the Son has bought you out of slavery.
You’re blessed because the Spirit has branded you as part of the family.
As we imitate Paul’s praise, our questions may not all be resolved, but our hearts will see more fully all the riches God offers in Christ, to the praise of His glory and grace.