Monday, March 14, 2011

The Love of God and Ephesians 1

In my last post, I introduced the idea of God's sovereignty and reflected upon the witness of Isaiah in relation to this sovereignty. My conclusion, of course, is that, even though God is sovereign, in an objective sense, He chooses to interact with His creatures in a humble and non-controlling way.

Next, I want to look at a favorite passage of "sovereignty advocates" in the NT and discuss the true meaning its author meant to convey.
But before doing so, I think it would be well to mention a few other things in relation to this topic. The first is a brief treatment of natural disasters - things that seem to fall outside the scope of direct human choice and will (though even that can be debated). What of the Japanese earthquakes, or the Hurricane Katrinas? Has God ordained for these disasters to actually take place?

As I said in my previous post, this question always comes up in the wake of such horrific events like we have just seen. But suffice it to say, I think these natural disasters are the somewhat indiscernible result of God's direct will (Gen 6:6-7; 7:10-11), Satan's interference (Job 2:6-7, and the rest of Job, as well as Matt 13:28) or man's poor choices (see Gohr, Al, An Inconvenient Truth). I think that, ultimately, God is humble enough to take the blame for such atrocities, but this should not encourage us to place the responsibility at His doorstep.

More could be said about this, but we will leave it at that.

The second point that needs to be addressed is the hermeneutic that a person uses in relation to this - and any other - biblical issue. I touched upon this briefly before as well, but the lens through which we must study scripture and explore the character of God is within the context of God's agape love. After all, John declares unequivocally that the fundamental essence of God through which all His actions flow is agape love (see 1 John 4:8, 16). With the exception of 1 John 1:5, where John describes God's fundamental essence as that of light (an idea that is closely related to love, as I understand it), nowhere else does the Bible declare God in terms of a noun equivalence. Thus, God's supreme motivation is fueled by His love, not the desire to glorify Himself.

This is a fundamental difference - perhaps the fundamental difference - between the God of scripture and the God of sovereignty-advocates. For the latter group, every action of God is interpreted through the lens of His self-seeking desire to bring glory to Himself. The God of scripture, on the other hand, throws off all self-interest and "seeks not [His] own,"(1 Cor 13:5) instead laying "down His life," (1 John 3:16) not only for His people, but the whole world (1 John 2:2), including sinners and His "enemies" (Rom 5:8, 10). This is God's primary motivation. Any glory that befalls Him as a result of this is a pure byproduct.

Of course, many will respond by saying that God is motivated by both His love and His desire to glorify Himself, but I would say that these two ideas - in and of themselves - are inherent contradictions. In order for love to truly be love it has to throw off all self-interest, as we have already seen from 1 Corinthians 13:5. Love cannot be concerned with self and other at the same time and still be love. According to scripture, it is a logical impossibility.

Any appeal to such passages as Ezekiel 36:21, where God says that He "had concern for [His] holy name," must also be understood in the context of His self-giving, self-sacrificing agape love. Thus, God is concerned for His name and reputation only insofar as they contribute to the goal of our ultimate well-being. Simply put, the sooner we can see God's trustworthiness (which is the result of His reputation), the better off we will be. And, thus, this is God's motivation in preserving His reputation.

What does all this have to do with the discussion about God's sovereignty? There are two reasons why we must have our compass straight and recognize that God is motivated supremely by His other-centered love.

For one, no matter how much sugar-coating and explaining away people try to do, insisting that God's sovereign will has elected some to be eternally lost is a direct contradiction to His essence of love. Period. There is just no way around it. God cannot be completely loving on the one hand, and yet elect some to be eternally lost on the other hand. There is just no way to slice the pie that can put those two polar opposite ideas together.

It's not as though there haven't been many attempts to do so, of course. John Piper, for one, mentions the idea that God loves people in a general way (and this is the type of love that we as humans are admonished to engage in), but then goes onto propose that there is another type of love that God has which is known as "electing love." Very little biblical support for the idea of "electing love" is given, however, with the exception of Malachi 1:2-3, where God declares that "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." No mention is made of the fact that this declaration was made nearly 1400 years after the two brothers lived and was, obviously, a reflection after the fact. Nor was there any mention of the reality that Malachi was really speaking of the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau), as is apparent contextually (see v. 4).

Yet this is supposed to be evidence for God's individual "electing love," which allegedly elects some people to be saved eternally and other people to be lost eternally. (That God definitely elected the nation of Israel to be His special people cannot be denied, but such an election in no way guaranteed the eternal salvation of any of its individual members. See Rom 9:6-8; 11:19-20; etc. This is because when God "elects" a group, or even individuals - which He does do - it is missional in nature, rather than salvific. As an aside, all this talk about God's "two wills" and "two loves," gives me the impression that - with all due respect - God must be schizophrenic or bipolar. I know this sounds disrespectful to some, but that really seems to be a logical extension of God's "dual" and "cross purposes" that He allegedly possesses.)

The second reason why recognizing that love is the supreme motivation from which God acts is because of the way it relates to God's supposed election of the saved. It sounds very loving, in theory, for God to unconditionally elect some to be saved (especially if you are a part of the saved), but it takes little reflection to realize just how unloving this actually is. The corollary theory to God's unconditional election is His use of "irresistible grace," the idea that if God has elected you to be saved, He will spring His grace upon you in such away that it will be impossible for you to resist.

Obviously, this ultimately takes the choice out of man's hands and places it in God's. Again, people can try to present arguments as to how man still has a choice in the matter, but such proposals are futile. The fact remains that if a person is saved and loves God because He draws them with an overpowering grace, this implies that the man would not otherwise choose God if left to himself. In other words, he is forced to choose what he would otherwise not choose were he left alone. I am not implying, of course, that any of us would naturally choose God apart from His influence (see Phil 2:13), but God does ultimately allow us to exercise our power to choose, rather than overpowering us.

Spelled out clearly, the logical extension of such a dynamic does not sit well with sovereignty advocates. Forcing someone to engage in "love" when he would not otherwise do so is called rape, not love. At best, it is brainwashing. Again, I know such an idea offends sovereignty advocates, and they might insist that such an idea is even blasphemous, but logic demands we be faithful to where the evidence leads.

Of course, there is a scriptural basis for recognizing that God does not overpower our freedom to choose. And there is no better place to reflect upon this than to see it in the person of Jesus. As I mentioned in my last post, the author of Hebrews clearly indicates that Christ is the "express image" of God (Heb 1:3). Elsewhere, Jesus Himself says that "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), also boldly declaring that "the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner" (John 5:19). So it is in the person of Christ that we see the very essence of the Father.

And what do we see in this context when we see Jesus?

We see that Christ refused to overpower anyone - that He instead interacted with people with love, grace, invitation, appeal, but never control. As we noted before, He lamented over Jerusalem about how He "wanted [thelo] to gather" her children as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but she was "not willing [thelo]" (Matt 23:37).

Then again, we are told by Matthew and Mark, after Jesus was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth, that He "could not do" many "mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Mark 6:5-6; Matt 13:58). The word that both Matthew and Mark employ for "mighty works" is the Greek word dunamis, which literally means "power" or "ability." Thus, Christ's power and ability were negated because of the people's lack of faith. Indeed, He was powerless and unable to perform many miracles because He chose to honor their freedom rather than exert His power. How sad it must have been for Christ, who wanted their ultimate good, but whose intentions were tragically thwarted.

But now onto the NT passage that is oft' used by sovereignty advocates.

Ephesians 1

Though there are definitely other passages in the NT that might be relied upon more heavily to "prove" the idea of God's completely deterministic and controlling sovereignty, Ephesians 1 is right up there with the rest of them. Among other elements of the chapter, Paul tells the believers in Ephesus that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world," (v. 4) and that He "predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (v. 5).

Thus, it is supposed, that since God "predestined" and "chose" Paul and the Ephesian believers, it must necessarily follow that these individuals have been unconditionally elected for salvation, unable to "undo" what God has decreed. Such is the conclusion that sovereignty advocates draw.

There are, of course, other interpretations of this passage that have merit but may not quite hit the nail on the head. One interpretation is that God, based upon His foreknowledge, does truly "choose" and "predestine" people to be saved. In other words, God looks into the future and sees who will ultimately choose Him, and then "chooses" such individuals ahead of time to be saved.

For obvious reasons (I believe), this view seems superfluous! What is the point of God choosing people from the very beginning who, based upon His foreknowledge, He knows will ultimately be saved? Is it suppose to impress us that He can do such a thing?

Another view, which may have significant merit, is that God has "predestined" and "chosen" everyone to be saved but that, ultimately, only those who choose to respond to Him will be saved at last. This interpretation seems to rely heavily upon Paul's statement elsewhere that God "desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4).

Like I said, I think this view - in a general sense - has a lot of merit, but I am not sure that this is what Paul has in mind in this specific instance. I say this because Paul uses some very "charged" words (though, admittedly, they may simply appear to be charged to our ears now, as we live on the other side of this "predestination" debate) like "chose" and "predestined" that go beyond God's simple desire for "all" to be saved.

So how do we interpret Paul's words here?

First of all, we have to recognize the significance of Paul using the word "chose" in verse 4. The Greek word is eklego and it is used 126x in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT that the NT writers relied upon, also known as the LXX) and it is often used for a very specific purpose - that is, to describe how God has "chosen" Israel to be His people (see, for example, Deut 7:7; Psalm 78:68; 135:4; Isa 44:1; etc.). Though the LXX definitely uses it to describe how God "chooses" individuals (though with no reference to their salvation), Paul obviously has the corporate concept in mind because He informs the Ephesians that God has chosen "us" (v. 4).

Of course, we need to identify the "us" that Paul speaks about. This is really the crux of the matter when we deal with Ephesians. Who are the "us" that Paul says have been "chosen" and "predestined"?

Paul starts the book in the first person plural, talking about "us" and "we." He does this until 1:13, where he all of a sudden switches to the second person plural and for the rest of the book he talks about "you" (the Ephesian believers). But who, specifically, are the "you" to whom Paul writes?

He answers this in 2:11: "Therefore, remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." He also goes onto say in v. 19 that "you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God."

Quite clearly, Paul is writing to a bunch of Gentile believers who were - at one point - on the "outside" looking in, ones who were not "chosen" in the OT to be God's people but now clearly are.

This is why Paul says that God chose "us." Paul, a Jewish writer, announces that God not only chose "him," but He chose "us," and that this was God's plan all along, having predestined, not only Israel, but also Gentiles. So Paul is not speaking here about individual election, but about the fact that, just as God "chose" Israel in the OT, really His plan all along was to include Gentiles as well. After all, God is the "Savior of the world" (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14), as well as the "Savior of all men" (1 Tim 4:10).

Similarly, it is very clear, as I said above, that Israel was chosen in the OT for missional purposes, not salvific ones. It was not God's purpose to choose Israel for salvation, per se, but to announce His salvation to the world and invite all nations into fellowship with God (see, for example, Isa 2:2-3). They did not get it, of course, believing that God had chosen them exclusively for salvation. In this sense, they ultimately made the mistake that sovereignty advocates make, thinking that God's "choosing" them meant salvation rather than mission, also believing that God had "unconditionally" elected them simply because they were of Abraham's literal seed. Clearly, Paul flipped this idea on its head in this passage in Ephesians, as well as in others, like Romans 9:6-7.

Of course, this Jewish/Gentile conflict was often at the heart of Paul's epistles. Paul took on Jewish believers for feeling like they were superior to Gentile believers and actually God's exclusively chosen people. So he comes along and says, "No, no. Hold on a minute. You know how the Old Testament says that God 'chose' Israel to be His special people? Well, God's eternal purpose all along was actually to 'choose' anyone and everyone from all nations, and the only reason He did 'choose' Israel to begin with was for the purpose of announcing to the whole world that God wants - and has 'chosen' - everyone to be saved." Furthermore, he even went so far as to write to the Galatian believers that "there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus," boldly proclaiming that if anyone was Christ's, then he/she was of "Abraham's seed" (Gal 3:28-29).

Thus, Paul, in many senses, was accomplishing what the nation of Israel was originally designed - yet failed - to do: that of announcing to the whole world God's desire to save all.

This, to me, is very clearly what Paul is saying contextually in Ephesians 1. He is not talking about individual unconditional "election," he is talking about the fact that God has chosen Gentiles to be among His people just like those who were Jewish by birth. This does not do away with the good news that he announces in the surrounding verses - about how we have been "accepted in the Beloved" (v. 6), or how we have "redemption" and "forgiveness," (v. 7), etc. It just places into context what Paul really means when he uses the words "chose" and "predestined."

Simply put, there is no room to interpret the passage as sovereignty advocates do so.


Frank Zimmerman said...

I especially appreciated the explanation on Ephesians 1 and God's purpose through the Jews and Gentiles. These statements of Paul now fit very well into the framework of the "everlasting gospel" which is where they clearly belong.

Jake said...

Interesting. Two days ago went to a christian forum, had not been in years. A self proclaimed ahteist was asking questions with good civility. The others were subtly mocking, jestful, and frivolous towards him. (I am no better by nature).
I thought, "oh Lord", this is a christian forum? Nevertheless, I shared with grace, kindness, and tenderheartedness God's gospel of Agape in very basic terms to the atheist. I want him to know he was was "accepted in the Beloved."

Well, unknowing to me, one of the forum's senior memebers started sharing his concept of God's sovereignty, His "elect", if you will. It was forceful indeed!

Shared with my wife after the episode, that I had a sense of sadness, and grieved in the spirit, as if the proclaimed atheist, which in truth seemed to be doing some deep soul searhing, was being disposed of by "christians."

The following verses came to me:

Mat 18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
Mat 18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

God blessed your article, "thank you Jesus for using Shawn, and may we be continually hidden in You" ... Let us pray for the "proclaimed ahteist, and yes, those "elect ones."


Micaiah said...

A short response here