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 he predestined us for adoption 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. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.At face value, this passage seems to support Calvinist ideas of predestination and election: "he chose us . . . before the foundation of the world," "he predestined us for adoption," "[we were] predestined according to the counsel of his will." This sounds like Calvinism, and I sympathize with everyone who reads this passage and either thinks, "See? There it is!" or "Well, I guess it is in Scripture." However, when one analyzes the passage, and considers its historical context, not only is the Calvinist understanding unnecessary, but also unlikely.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Before Christ, Israel was the elect. Such is common knowledge. Israel was the chosen vessel through which salvation would be brought to the world. However, as N.T. Wright observes, the people of Israel were "bound up in the problem instead of being the bringers of the solution."(1) Thus, if salvation was going to spread to the world, it would have to be accomplished through a very different means. Enter Jesus Christ. The story continued with the "Messiah [doing] for the world what Israel was called to do."(2) Christ, then, is the new elect. Paul spells out God's redefinition of election with Christ at its center. As Markus Barth states, "God administers and carries out election through Jesus Christ."(3) Likewise, Ralph P. Martin states, "Election is . . . universalized to include all who are in Christ."(4)
It then follows that, since Christ is the elect, Wright says, "those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared to be [God's] people, his elect."(5) This can be seen quite clearly in our passage: "God . . . blessed us in Christ . . . [and] chose us in him. . . . he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. . . . he blessed in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood. . . . he set forth [the mystery of his will and purpose] in Christ . . . to unite all things in him. In him we have obtained an inheritance. . . . In him, you also . . . were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit."
It is clear in this passage that the elect ones are what they are only in Christ. This may seem like a simple, commonsensical statement, but we have to stop and think about how this completely redefines election: election is no longer a chosen people group, nor is it made up of specific individuals who are chosen; rather, it is Christ who is chosen, the elect, and, subsequently, all those who are in Christ. Those who accept the gospel and believe in Christ become in him, they become elect: "when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit" (v.13).
How, you might ask, does this perspective explain the references to predestination in this passage? Doesn't the passage suggest that those who are in Christ were predestined to be so?
I think all Christians can agree that the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God, were predestined. But do passages like these suggest that we go a step further and say that all those who would be saved by his sacrifice were also predestined? It is unlikely that Paul was saying that in writing this passage, for one only has to affirm that Christ's saving act was predestined in order to say with Paul that we were predestined for adoption.
God predestined that Christ would be the elect and that he would call all people to salvation. Thus, when one says 'Yes' to Christ through faith, one becomes one of the elect and it can rightfully be said that he/she was predestined for adoption (Eph. 1:4-5, 11; Rom. 8:29-30), because it was predestined that Christ would be the elect for all people, and that all who accept him would then be the elect. I was predestined to for adoption, because it was God's purpose in Christ to adopt all who believe in him, and I chose to believe in him. Consider Greg Boyd's analogy:
Suppose you attend a seminar in which a certain video is shown. You might ask the instructor, 'When was it decided (predestined) that we'd watch this video?' To which the instructor might respond, 'It was decided six months ago that you'd watch this video.' Note that it was not decided six months ago that you individually would watch this video. What was decided was that anyone who took this seminar would watch this video. Now that you have chosen to be part of this seminar, what was predestined for the seminar applies to you. You can now say, 'It was decided six months ago that we would watch this video.'(6)In the same way, Christ's saving act was predestined; it was predestined that all who would believe in Christ would be the elect. Election is an open invitation to all people, and all who say 'Yes' become the elect, who are predestined for adoption, "according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will" (v.11).
I believe this is the way we should look at Romans 8:29:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.If we look at the context, "those whom" does not refer to individual people that God elected for salvation; it refers to "those who love God" and "those who are called." Joseph Fitzmyer suggests that this verse refers to "all who have responded to the divine call."(7) Must we draw from this that the individuals who responded to the divine call were foreknown and predestined?
The Greek word οὓς ('those whom') does not go that far. In Romans 11:2, the word refers to the people of Israel in general. 8:28-30 tells us that God predestined to call people to be conformed to the image of his Son, and that those who love God are justified and glorified. That there would be a group of people--the elect--that would respond to God's call by loving him was indeed predestined and foreknown.
God predestined that he would call people to be conformed to the image of his Son. He foreknew the elect as all who would believe in Christ. Just like the presenter of the seminar in Boyd's analogy foreknew the attendees as all who would arrive for the seminar. The passage does not suggest that God predestined and foreknew the elect as specific individuals chosen for salvation. The passage does provide that God predestined that all who are in Christ would be justified, glorified, and conformed to the image of Christ, but it does not go beyond this. It does not suggest that individuals were foreknown and predestined. To say that would be to go beyond what the text itself provides.
(1) N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress press, 2005), 119.
(2) Ibid., 120.
(3) Markus Barth, Ephesians 1–3, Vol. 34 of The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), 107.
(4) Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, ed. James Luther Mays (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18.
(5) Wright, 122.
(6) Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 47.
(7) Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, Vol. 33 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 524.