4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our wrongdoings, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the boundless riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. [Eph2:4-10]
A favourite passage for many Christians and the last two verses were the text of my very first sermon during a brief period as a Baptist minister in the late 1990s. As to my subsequent spiritual journey, I referred to it in a recent post concerning the number fourteen. For that number has been particularly significant in my life, especially in the faith context. And it was fourteen years between two extraordinary spiritual encounters that transformed my theological understanding. Its outworking will be evident in these posts in which I am slowly progressing through the New Testament, whilst the full picture has already been set out in The Little Book of Providence, a seven-part biblical synopsis freely available as a PDF download.
I say, “a favourite passage”, perhaps especially for Evangelicals given that Paul twice in these verses states, “by grace you have been saved”. The problem for many Evangelicals (and others) is what Paul goes on to write in verse 8, although it was also implicit in verse 5. We are “saved by faith” (that’s fine), but such faith is “not of oneself it is a gift of God”. Not for the first time, Paul is affirming that whether one is a Christian is a matter of God’s choice – man by nature is incapable of responding positively to the gospel unless divinely enabled to do so. That is not to be determined from this passage alone, it is the consistent teaching of Paul in his several references to predestination (e.g. Rom8:29-30; Eph1:5&11). And as the Ephesians passage under consideration makes clear, such predestination cannot be referring to God “foreseeing who would come to believe”, for that would be election based on merit. For surely, denying oneself, taking up the cross and following Christ is a virtuous thing to do, whereas whether or not we come to faith is “a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (v9). And the apostle was no maverick – he is affirming Jesus’ own teaching (Jn6:44) and that of the apostle John (1:13). So, am I returning to my Calvinistic roots? By no means – for whether an Evangelical is Calvinist or Arminian, the eschatology that results from their respective interpretations of the bible has providential implications far removed from that which Paul alludes to. That is summarized in Rom8:18-23 in which he identifies a rationale for “the Fall” (v20), the current state of affairs for creation as a whole (vv22-23) and an expectation of its final deliverance (v21).
Dealing firstly with Calvinism, the God who Apostle John describes as love personified and who “so loved the world that He sent His own Son” to rescue it is deemed wilfully to withhold the saving remedy from the bulk of the world’s inhabitants. Myriads of precious souls are to be regarded as collateral damage within God’s redemptive purposes in Christ. These are formularies that I meticulously adhered to for 28 years, believing that virtually everyone I had known outside my church circle, including all my known family, were destined for “a lost eternity”. That, I understood, was to pay for Adam’s disobedience and the depraved nature inherited from him. According to the “Institutes of Religion” that I at one time esteemed, it resulted in “all men’s thoughts, inclinations and efforts being corrupt and viscous”, whilst young infants according to Calvin were “odious and an abomination to God; their very natures being a seed-bed of sin” [Ref#1].
Moving on to Arminius, his theological proposals are perhaps more erudite and logically persuasive than I as a former Calvinist once gave him credit for. Nevertheless, they are still flawed and result in the same cosmic catastrophe, as well as more obviously doing violence to Paul’s teaching on election. Examining Wikipedia’s helpful analysis, Arminius’ solution to the free will/predestination conundrum is perhaps best summarized by the statement “that sinners who hear the gospel have the free will to accept or reject God’s offer of saving grace and that nobody is excluded by God from the possibility of salvation except those who freely exclude themselves”. I have highlighted where the problem lies on the providential front. Even if such an interpretation could be squared with Jn6:44 in particular, the more obvious point is that the very possibility of attaining salvation is restricted to those who hear the gospel, and a faithful account of it at that. Calvin’s incomprehensibly harsh cosmic Chess Master has been replaced by a seemingly incompetent, uncaring Overseer. For clearly, God has (at the least) permitted cultural and religious developments to proliferate in such a way that most Asian/Eastern people rarely have had the opportunity to hear such a gospel through the centuries. That it is not to mention the rest of the world prior to the 16th century Protestant Reformation, whose protagonists rightly affirmed that the means of salvation they were insisting upon were virtually unknown to the Catholic/Orthodox churches for the previous thousand years or more.
I cannot speak for others, but during my 28 years as an Evangelical I scarcely gave these historical realities any thought, which retrospectively appears extraordinary. Such doctrines, designed to provide peace and assurance for the individual, are thoroughly demeaning to our loving Creator’s providential care. And the notion that human beings are innately depraved, common to both Calvinism and Arminianism, distorts the true and observable nature of the human condition. For even in their fallen state, men and women are clearly capable of exercising kindness, compassion, charity and a measure of integrity. And as both Paul and John several times affirm, acts of compassion and kindness were central to the purpose of God’s laws for humanity. According to Paul, anyone who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom13:10). Indeed, every commandment God has made for man can be summarized in one word – to LOVE your neighbour as yourself (Gal5:14). That accords with John: “Love is of God and everyone who exercises love is born of God and knows God, for God is love” (1Jn4:7). Yet no one is “saved” in the gospel sense unless they are born again of Spirit and water, whilst there is a third category who were never “born of God” in the first place (1Jn3:12; Acts13:10). Such are devoid of conscience and incapable of love in the ἀγάπη sense. They are serial liars and psychopaths, but not always in a criminal sense, some far from it (2Cor11:13-15).
In ecclesiological terms, a measure of doctrinal error (“the forsaking of wisdom”) and Spirit-grieving corruption has existed in the past, even within the true Apostolic Church; particularly so in the West during the Middle Ages. That resulted in a rebellion (“a man shall ascend”), a fragmentation (“the whole race of the chosen root shall be dispersed“), a break away movement established (“an apostate generation shall arise”). I believe this is alluded to in 2Thes2, but my quotes in brackets pertain to an extraordinary prophecy in the Book of Enoch – “The Apocalypse of Weeks” – setting out the chronology, albeit in symbolic terms [Enoch93:7-10]. It is all somewhat cryptic and is intended to be so, for whilst much was revealed (albeit symbolically) to John in Revelation regarding the Church’s future, there was one mystery that he was not permitted to write about. It is referred to in chapter ten, verses 4-7.
Regarding biblical hermeneutics, it largely boils down to the simple fact that what the bible means by salvation is not to be equated to the soul being saved from perdition. The soul’s immediate fate in the afterlife and when God’s Kingdom is fully realized at Christ’s coming is determined by the criterion Jesus sets out in in Mt25:31-46, a passage in which neither religion nor religious faith is mentioned. [I highlight “religious” for the sheep/goat parable does pertain to a form of faith as an earlier post explains]. Salvation, on the other hand, is the process which begins when those God chooses for His Son are cleansed from past sins in baptism, at the same time being delivered from the ravages of what Paul describes as “the body of this death”, thereby becoming free to serve the living God whilst in mortal flesh (cf. Rom6:4-6).
And there is a related point that Paul raises in this passage that is usually turned on its head. He writes that the Ephesians had been saved by faith and not a result of works (v9). So Paul is referring to what had already happened to them – all will have been baptized, cleansed from their sin and spiritually empowered, but he well knows that not all shall persevere in the Faith. That process is by no means all of grace, it is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with grace, his effort and self-disciple. This has been covered in many of my earlier Pauline posts and will become still more apparent in Hebrews, James and Revelation. “All of grace” applies to election, not to the process by which we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. And as Jesus constantly alludes to in Revelation, final glory depends on whether or not one “overcomes” (Rev2:7;2:11;2:17;2:26;3:5;3:12;3:21;21:7). He makes it clear that many, even within in the churches, shall not be found worthy to inherit the promises of Christ (Rev3:4).
Such ineffable privileges pertain to “the elect” who shall be corporately married to the Lamb and come to share His throne, not to the many more who demonstrate they are “of God” by evincing love as described above. Both categories shall receive infinitely better than they deserve. That will certainly be the result of grace, especially the fruit of Christ’s Passion which I have been showing avails at two levels: the forensic and participatory. Whilst the sins of the many are pardoned and propitiated (1Jn2:2), those who through obedience to the Faith participate in Christ’s Life and partake of His blood can have their consciences “cleansed from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb9:14; Rom5:10). As Paul intimates in this Ephesians passage, the Christian, in a mystical sense, is already “raised up with God and seated with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the ages to come He might show the boundless riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ” (v7).
So, whilst God in Christ has elected a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the excellencies of Him who are called out of darkness into His marvellous light (1Pet2:9), “the boundless riches of His grace and kindness” Paul is writing about here are just that – boundless. Such magnanimity pertains to His very nature. This joyful vista will become more apparent once God’s providential purposes towards His whole creation have been apprehended.
Ref#1: Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion – Second Book chap. 1 para 8
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