“In whom we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of his will, to the end that we who exist to the praise of his glory — those who first hoped in Christ; in whom you also, in hearing the word of Truth, the Gospel of our Salvation, in which you also believed and were sealed in the Holy Spirit who was promised.”
The other part of the “predestining” that needs to be fleshed out is the human part. One of the common challenges that people raise against the Biblical notion of predestination has to do with where there is room for the human will and responsibility. If God predestines all things, can it be said that we ever really make a choice of one thing over another? And, if God predestines all things, how can we be held accountable for that which we do?
These are matters that have brought debate within the Christian community across the centuries. In today’s world, it is at the heart not only of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians but extremes on both ends lead to heresy — namely hyper-calvinism on one side and open-theism on the other. Thus, it is worth picking at this question a little bit here.
To begin with, the “all” of “all things” is presented in the absolute. It is true that in some places in scripture, the “all” refers to “all kinds of things” or to “all kinds of people,” but context determines the reading of the word. In this case, there is nothing in the text to suggest anything but the most comprehensive use of the term πᾶς (pas)…or “all.” This is not a reference to God predestining this but not that; it is a reference to God predestining this and that — both the greatest things and the smallest things and all things in between.
It must also be said that the Bible affirms both that God is sovereign and that we are responsible for our actions. If we loose God’s sovereignty in our theology as does Open-theism, then we enter heresy. If we loose human responsibility in our theology as do the Hyper-calvinists, then again, we enter heresy. What the Bible affirms, we too must affirm.
So, how do we balance these two doctrines in a way that keeps our views consistent with that of Scripture? To begin with, we affirm the language we find here in Ephesians 1:11 — that God has predestined all things that come to pass according to the counsel of His will. From the birth and death of a sparrow to the birth and death of the Messiah, God is sovereign over all of these matters. Second, while our will is not free in the libertarian sense, we do make real choices every day of our lives. When I woke up this morning, I decided what I would wear and I decided what I would have for breakfast (amongst other things). These were genuine decisions where I had the option to do other than what I did. Yet, God is the one responsible for creating me and for forming my psyche as a Christian man. And thus, the decisions that I make are perfectly consistent not only with my character but with God’s eternal predestining design.
Does that mean that God has ordained my sin? In a sense, yes. Because we are fallen, we have inherited a sin-nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. This sin nature means that I am bent toward sin. It is my natural default. Think about that toy car with a bent wheel axle. No matter how you push it, the car will drift to the side and not go in a straight line. Such is the case with humans, except that our bend is far worse and far more encompassing than a bent axle.
And so, God does permit our sin. At the same time, He also permits that sin for a purpose — most commonly for the glory of God and to draw us back to himself in repentance. In other words, sometimes we need to see and experience our own depravity before we will take that depravity seriously. Also, we will never understand grace until we really understand just how undeserving we are of it. Yet, not only are there no surprises when it comes to God and our sin, but it can be said that God is sovereign over our sin as well and further, that God uses our sin in a sinless way to do His will. Somewhere that is going to cause our brain to melt just a little bit, but as this is what the Bible affirms, this is what we too must affirm if we are to remain orthodox in our thinking.
“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”
To start with, let’s talk about the idea of deliverance. In context, Paul parallels the idea with the phrase, “liberation from trespasses,” giving us a degree of additional clarity as to specifically the kind of deliverance that the Apostle has in mind. The word in question is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrosis), which most commonly refers to paying a ransom to free someone from slavery or bondage. The next logical answer to ask, then, is “what kind of bondage are believers delivered from?” The answer is found in Paul’s clarification — from our bondage to sin.
One of the errors that crept into medieval theology was the notion that the ransom payment for believers was paid to the devil. Yet, we are not bound by the devil, we are bound by our sin. Further, the devil has no rightful or legitimate claim upon us as if he were some sort of equal power with God (that would be Manicheanism). No, we are bound by our sin and it is the Law that reveals our sin (Romans 7:7) and thus, any ransom that is made is ransom to the Law. In turn, then, given that the remission of sin requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), then the ransom paid is not one of gold or silver or other forms of wealth, the ransom was made in blood…namely the blood of the one who has ransomed us from the bondage of sin before the Law.
The real issue that Christians too often struggle with today is that they do not see their sin as a form of bondage. Worse, some even see grace as a license to sin! Paul is very clear that such is not the view of the believer (Romans 6:1-2). Sin, all too sadly, is soft-pedaled in churches. It is seen as “not that bad” because there are others who are far more sinful than they. Thus, church discipline, too, has been put to the side. If sin is not that big of a deal, why take it so seriously as that? And the circle of cause and effect spirals downward.
Sin, even the smallest and most “insignificant” of sins, is bondage to us according to the Biblical text. Even the most minor “little white lie” would have cost Jesus his life upon that cross on Golgotha. Woe to those who will not treat it as such. Woe to the ones who excuse and justify their pet sins and an abundance of woes to the ones who look upon sin and call it by any other name. When one justifies sin, one justifies remaining in bondage and even celebrates the bondage of others.
Loved ones, do you not see that your sin binds you? Do you not recognize the toll it takes on your life? Do you not realize that obedience to the Law in Christ is a blessed freedom, not something that robs us of all our fun. You must realize that in heaven we will be unable to sin — unable! Yet, shall we be any more free than when we are in glory? Most certainly not! How sin has so muddled our brains that we would think of bondage as good and of freedom as unstimulating and tedious.
In Christ we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin just as the Israelites who followed Moses were redeemed from their bondage to the toil of Pharaoh’s work details. Sadly, just as there were complainers under Moses, people constantly nostalgic for the stewpots of Egypt, there are Christians in the body of Christ who likewise pine for their pet chains and shackles of sin. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free from our slavery (Galatians 5:1), shall we not enjoy and rejoice in the freedom that Christ has sacrificed to provide for us?
It seems that these days people speak a lot about liberty, protecting their liberties, and how their liberties are being threatened by this legislation or that group of people. “We live in a free society!” people proclaim and use that status to excuse or protect all sorts of behaviors. When the government speaks of laws that would restrict gun ownership, the conservatives yell that their liberties are being compromised. When the government speaks of controls on the spread of pornography on the internet, the liberals yell that the freedom of speech and of the press is being compromised. When a homeowner’s association tries to restrict the way renovations are done to a house, homeowners cry out that their liberties are being infringed upon. Even in theological circles, the matter raises its ugly head. When Reformed Christians begin speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty over a person’s life, death, and salvation, the Wesleyans wave the banner of libertarian freedom for the human will. And so the debates ensue.
But do we really even understand what it is that we are saying? There is no question that there are things we oppose, and with good reason, but is liberty and freedom the right plank to stand upon when taking a stand for one or more of these matters? In fact, do we even know what these words mean in the first place? True, we know the mantras. Patrick Henry is famous for proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in the face of British oppression. We have a giant statue personifying liberty standing in the New York Harbor. As Americans, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” But if we do not understand what is meant by these statements, then the mantras become nothing more than repetitious slogans fit to adorn bumper-stickers and drink coasters and are useless when it comes to living out one’s life.
So, what is the definition of liberty and freedom? The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within a society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.”1 Liberty comes from the Latin word, libertas, which means “freedom or independence.” The word free is derived from the German word, frei, which has roots in the Indo-European word meaning, “to hold dear.”2
But what does this imply? If freedom means that I can do whatever I feel like doing, then a free society sounds more like an anarchy than something that would honor God. Surely there must be some qualifications placed on our liberty lest a free society become a horrific place to dwell.
To really understand the implications of these ideas, we need to begin by looking at the source of freedom and liberty, God himself. Though Jefferson was anything but an “evangelical Christian,” he did get one very fundamental idea correct…that is that we derive our “unalienable”3 rights from our creator — a creator who has these rights within his person in a perfect sense. God has perfect liberty, but does that mean that God’s liberty is absolute in the unlimited sense of the definition given above? Particularly for those who have grown up in a culture that has told them that “God can do anything…”, the answer to this question may be surprising. For God cannot do anything (he cannot lie, he cannot sin, he cannot cease to be God, he cannot cease to be perfect and infinite, he cannot make a bolder so large that he cannot move it, etc…). Instead, God can do anything that is consistent with his person and perfections.
You see, it is the perfection of God’s own character that limits his own liberty. That does not mean that God’s liberty is imperfect, far from it. The liberty to be chaotic and inconsistent is hardly a true liberty at all; instead, it is deprivation. In God’s perfect4 liberty, he acts in a way perfectly consistent with his attributes and perfections (His holiness, righteousness, joy, etc…). At the same time, his liberty is restrained by his character so it is expressed in a fashion consistent with his character and ethical norms (which flow out of his character).
Thus, while we often talk about our need for unlimited liberty in society, such liberty is no liberty at all, but chaos and anarchy. What is best for us is liberty that is constrained by an ethical norm, yet if this ethical norm is not outside of us as humans, it cannot provide a consistent norm within which we can enjoy our liberty. And, since human government is nothing more than a gathering of people exercising authority over other people, neither the individual nor the government can establish such norms — as mentioned before, anarchy is the result of the former and governmental oppression is the natural result of the latter. What is necessary is to appeal to a norm that is transcendent and greater than human existence who also is benevolent, not malicious, in his character.
With that in mind, then, true liberty becomes living in a way that is consistent with one’s character and personality (not under coercion or intimidation) but that is also in accord with an ethical standard established by God. In turn, when we pursue immoral ends, we sacrifice our liberty by degrees that are equivalent to the immorality that we have chosen to pursue. When Jefferson argued that we have the unalienable right to liberty, this is the sense by which he understood liberty (remembering that this liberty he speaks of is endowed upon us by our creator — if we share God’s liberty as a result of the Imago Dei, then our liberty must be of the same kind and category as our creator’s liberty). He sought to advocate for perfect liberty in contrast to unlimited liberty, which is no liberty at all.
Sadly, as a society, we have lost the vision set before us by our early American Fathers and our Christian Theological heritage. It is neither taught in school nor in church and then we stand and wonder why it is that our culture has gone astray and that moral chaos reigns in the culture. The book of Judges is an excellent commentary on American life today; when every man does what is right in his own eyes, the culture will fall into immorality and bondage. Christ has established the church to be the agent by which the culture is preserved (we are salt and light); yet, the message of the church has been anything but preservational. We have feared the culture rather than fearing for the culture (given the direction it is bent toward). And thus the church has tended to follow rather than to lead. And, with that in mind, it is well past time where we begin to step out and engage once again, bringing truth into dark places and the life-preserving salt of mercy to those in our midst. And in that, let us learn ourselves first what it means to exercise perfect liberty and then teach the world to do the same.
1 From the Oxford American Dictionaries.
2 Not surprisingly, the word “friend” also comes from this Indo-European root.
3 Unalienable means that something can neither be given up nor taken away. It is part of the very essence of the thing. Thus, were humans to no longer have these “unalienable rights” we would cease to be human. The only way that such a right can be part of our essential being is if we are made in the image of one who also has these rights (in an ultimate sense) as part of His essential being. As Christians, we refer to this as the Doctrine of the Imago Dei — we are made in the image of God and thus these rights that are perfectly found in God are also found in us, though in imperfect ways.
4 Notice that I am using the term, “perfect” and not, “unlimited” here.