Monday, July 28, 2008

Glorious Grace: Thoughts from Ephesians 1

I've been making my way through the book of Ephesians this summer, and it is rich with truth about God's grace. In the first chapter of his letter to the dearly beloved church at Ephesus, Paul lays out some weighty spiritual principals, namely, the idea of predestination. The modern Church has struggled with the implications of the idea that God himself chose before time those to whom He would impart grace--this is one of those places the gospel is especially offensive--but it seems to me that there is no other plausible explanation for our faith. If we are not able in and of ourselves to come to God; if, as Christianity suggests, we have fallen from relationship with Him because of the nature of sin, then it seems only logical that nothing but His grace, His choosing, could save us. Since I don't have the time or space here to go into the Scriptural arguments for reformed theology, and since I'm certainly no expert on the matter, let's suffice to say that Ephesians points clearly to predestination, and Paul's claim to that end negates several expressed and unexpressed ideologies of the current age.

Paul writes, "for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves" (Ephesians 1:4-6).

Of course this is one brief passage, but there are many others throughout scripture that support predestination. (For scripture specifically using the word "predestined," see Romans 8:29 and 8:30 and Ephesians 1:11; for scripture alluding to the concept, read almost any part of the Biblical text with critical eye.) Looking at this passage alone, I find it hard to understand how some can proclaim open theism, or, the belief that God is in some way limited in knowing the outcome of His creation. Verse eleven negates this idea, as well: "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." (I am reminded of a favorite Caedmon's Call song, in which the lyrics go, Cause You knew how you'd save me before I fell dead in the Garden, and You knew this day long before You made me out of dirt. And You know the plans You have for me. And You can't plan the ends and not plan the means.)

Equally difficult to fathom is the current vernacular regarding salvation in most mainline churches; the emphasis has become about us and our choice as opposed to God's choosing us in Christ. For more on this subject, listen to my friend Rob's sermon "To the Praise of His Glory!" which was perfectly timed with my own study of Ephesians. [Clicking here will redirect you to the church website, where you can download a podcast.] I love the phraseology Rob uses to explain predestination: "God's before-time decision versus our real-time decision." Another consequence of the dismissal of reformed theology is that many of us act as though the salvation of those around us were dependent on us and our competencies. We rely far too little on God to do the work and see ourselves not as vessels of God's grace, but as those burdened with the impossible task of convincing people of their need for God. In reality, we cannot convince them. We are utterly incapable of doing the work except that God works through us. It is His work.

Of course, the criticism of reformed theology is that it breeds lazy Christians who don't understand the value of working for the Harvest. But a correct understanding of predestination, I would argue, includes that we are indeed called to be diligent ambassadors of Christ's grace, doing so with humility and reliance on Him to soften the hearts of those whom He has called.

Moving on from that lengthy tangent, another thing that struck me in studying Ephesians 1 was the implications for the Kingdom, specifically what some theologians have referred to as the "already/not yet" nature of the Kingdom. Having studied the Sermon on the Mount with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Richmond this past semester, I'm kind of on a "Kingdom" kick. In verses 9 and 10, Paul writes, "And he made know 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 will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." In other words, because Christ came and brought a new vision of what holy living looked like (see Matthew 5-7 for a description), we are already enacting the Kingdom by following Christ, thereby allowing His lordship to reign on earth as He reigns in our lives. But at the same time, we are awaiting the glory of the Kingdom that has not yet reached its fulfillment.

Another theme that stands out to me from this first chapter is that of the Trinitarian essence of God. The other day, I was expressing to my friend Goodie my desire to write youth curriculum on the nature of God. She shared that in a seminary course she took recently, her professor emphasized the importance of dwelling on the Trinity as the primary aspect of God's nature and then seeking to discover His attributes (i.e. loving, faithful, etc.), which are secondary. (I believe the early Christians talked about this idea in terms of the essence of God, or His ineffable person, and the energies of God, those qualities we can define.) It was interesting to look back at my notes from Ephesians after our conversation and see that the Lord had revealed something similar to me through Paul's words. He mentions each Person of the Trinity, and then describes their functions in grace. Here is a brief laundry list: the Father blesses us, chose us in Christ, predestined us in love, lavished grace upon us, and made His will known. Christ is the One God loves, our redemption, our forgiveness, the riches of grace, the mystery of God's will, the one head who chose us with the Father. The Holy Spirit is a seal that marks us and a deposit guaranteeing our salvation. More on Ephesians later...

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know Him better" (Ephesians 1:17).

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