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God’s Eternal Plan of Salvation
Paul’s letters tend to divide roughly into two major parts. Although it is a bit simplistic, it is nonetheless useful to remind ourselves of this fact. In the first half of his letters, he usually shares some important points of doctrine. Then in the second half of the letter, he applies the doctrinal truth. He helps his readers answer the question, What does this doctrinal truth mean for me? The six chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians follow that basic division.
The overarching theme of the first major part is God’s eternal plan of salvation. Under this general theme are three subdivisions, each presented in one of the first three chapters. The first chapter deals with God’s saving plan as it was formed already in eternity in heaven. Some have called this “the divine side of church history.” The second chapter deals with how God in the course of time sent his Son into the world to become true man and live and die as the sinner’s substitute, thus laying the basis for the Christian church. That has been referred to as “the human side of church history.” The third chapter deals with “Paul’s role in church history,” namely, the task God gave him of bringing knowledge of the Savior to Gentiles and thus paving the way for the union of Jews and Gentiles into one “body,” that is, the church.
A plan devised by the triune God from eternity
The terms Trinity and triune do not occur in the Bible, but the Scriptures leave no doubt that it is the triune God who has been active in procuring our salvation. In the opening chapter of Ephesians, the three persons of the Trinity are clearly in evidence, for Paul by inspiration speaks of the Father’s gracious purpose (verses 3-6), which was accomplished by the Son’s work (verses 7-12) and sealed by the Holy Spirit (verses 13,14).
The Father’s gracious purpose
Ephesians Chapter 1, verses 3-6
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 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.
This section begins a doxology, a song of praise to God, which continues through verse 14. In the Greek it is all one sentence—some two hundred words. The NIV translators have broken it down into shorter sentences, but it’s still fairly complex. Therefore, we have highlighted these main concepts. Keep an eye out for them.
1. From eternity God has had a plan of
2. This plan is fulfilled in and through Christ.
3. God’s plan gives us unspeakably great and
precious blessings and is our reason for
Verse 3 literally says, “Blessed be God . . . who has blessed us . . . with every spiritual blessing.” The author speaks to and for people who realize how very fortunate they are. What makes them so fortunate is that they have received “every spiritual blessing.” Not one good thing is missing. Everything connected with “the heavenly realms” is theirs. Precisely what those blessings are will be indicated later.
From whom did the recipients receive those blessings?Paul identifies the giver as “the God and
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who has blessed us “in Christ.” Everything from God comes in Christ and only in Christ.
How important Christ is in the equation becomes evident when Paul declares, “He [the Father] chose us in him [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” We have noted that God had a plan that existed already in his mind “before the creation of the world.” In Christ, God chose us to be holy and blameless. It is not that we were holy and blameless to begin with, and for that reason God took a liking to us and chose us. No, far from it! He chose us when we had no righteousness to offer. In fact, he chose us before we were born, before the world even existed. God chose us, Paul says, not because we were holy and blameless, but he chose us “to be holy and blameless.” He chose us—sinners that we are—in order to make us righteous in Christ. Every spiritual blessing rests on Christ and his saving merit.
God’s choosing us from eternity is often referred to as election. It can also be called predestination, as Paul does when he continues, “In love he [the Father] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
Election and predestination are not two separate, unrelated things. In fact, Paul connects them here. We have called attention to the fact that this whole opening section is actually one long sentence. Instead of having two separate sentences here, in the Greek Paul puts the two expressions together in a way that might well be translated, “God chose us by predestining us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.” Note the same combination in verse 11.
Think of what that says! From eternity, before time existed, God’s plan was to make us members of his family, to bring us into his household as his sons and daughters. Hence, he is our Father and we are his children, in line for a full inheritance. Everything that God has is even now being used for our good and blessing, and it will visibly and tangibly become our personal possession in heaven.
Why does God do all that? “In love he predestined us,” Paul says, “in accordance with his pleasure and will.” We might simply say that he did it because he wanted to do it. It was “his pleasure and will,” prompted by his great love for us.
But Paul answers our question in yet another way. Recall that he began this section by directing the reader’s attention to the God “who has blessed us . . . with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” As we have seen, these spiritual blessings, which culminate in our adoption as God’s sons and daughters, are totally undeserved. They come as a pure gift of God’s grace. Why does God give them? So that we may be led to thank and praise him, or as Paul says, “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves [Christ].” Note again, everything comes through Christ, the one whom the Father loves and with whom he is well pleased
The Father’s plan accomplished by the Son’s work
Ephesians Chapter 1, verses 7-12
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known 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 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, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
In this section the emphasis shifts from election itself to the one through whom our election was made possible. The centrality of Christ, so evident in the previous section, becomes even more pointed and direct here. Note once more Paul’s key concepts: God’s eternal plan, fulfilled in Christ, for our good and blessing, so that we are led to thank and praise our gracious God.
What was earlier referred to in general terms as “every spiritual blessing” and then narrowed down a bit as our “adoption” into God’s family now comes into sharp focus. Our greatest blessing, the apostle tells us, is the forgiveness of sins we have in Christ. “In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”
Paul uses two terms that differ as to the picture underlying them yet are virtually interchangeable in meaning: “redemption” and “forgiveness.” Redemption implies that someone is a slave or captive and needs to be ransomed. Forgiveness implies that someone has acted improperly toward another and in so doing has incurred guilt that needs to be covered over or taken away.
Both require the payment of a heavy price. The sinner has offended God himself; the price is—or at least should be—the sinner’s life. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But “in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us,” he did the unthinkable: God himself paid the price. He sent his Son to be our substitute, to suffer and die in our place. Through his blood we have been rescued from the captivity of sin and freed from its guilt.
In a million years we would not have devised such a plan. Rather, God devised it “in accordance with the riches of [his] grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” Not only would we not have thought up a plan like this, but we would never have grasped or understood it if God had not “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.” The “mystery” of God’s will shall be treated more fully later in this letter (3:2-13). Suffice it at this stage to say that the mystery of God’s will is almost synonymous with God’s plan of salvation, that is, his will to save sinners. God’s plan is not mysterious in the sense that it mystifies people or is incomprehensible to them. It is a mystery only in the sense that people cannot come to understand it by themselves. God has to explain it to them and lead them to know it and accept it. And that he does, of course, in the gospel that proclaims his grace in Christ.
Although a fuller explanation of the mystery is coming in chapter 3, Paul does not leave us waiting until then without a clue. The mystery of God’s will, Paul tells us, has as its purpose, “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Recall that in writing to the Colossians, Paul stresses the greatness of Christ, who is the head of the church. In Ephesians the same subject matter is treated, but from the other side. Here Paul talks much about the church, of which Christ is the head. However, not just the church but “all things in heaven and on earth” are to be brought together under Christ. Hence, we might say that in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul sets forth God’s stated purpose and plan to bring all things in general, and the church in particular, under the headship of Christ. (See also verse 22.)
In speaking of how God’s eternal plan centers on Christ, Paul returns once more to the subject of election and predestination. He states, “In him [Christ] 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, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
When we hear such expressions as “predestined according to the plan” and “in conformity with the purpose of his will,” we realize that nothing of which Paul speaks is happening by chance. Everything occurs exactly according to God’s carefully foreordained plan, which was in place
already in eternity.
In verses 4 and 5 Paul spoke in general terms about election and predestination. Now in verse 12 he narrows his focus and becomes specific about God’s plan. Here Paul gives a clear indication of who the “we” are whom God chose. “We, who were the first to hope in Christ,” are the people of the Jewish nation, among whom Paul includes himself.
In order to fulfill his promise of a Savior, given to Adam and Eve already in the Garden of Eden, God chose Abraham out of all the families of the world and gave him three specific promises. God promised that he would make Abraham into a great nation, that his descendants would live in a special land, and that from the Jewish nation, the Savior of the world would be born.
Before the world began, in keeping with his carefully laid out plan, God chose the descendants of Abraham, the Jewish nation, as his own special people. And in time he carried out that plan, as Paul’s readers clearly understood. Why did God do that? Paul answers, “In order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
God’s faithfulness to his promise, his reliability in sticking with his plan, and his patience with rebellious Israel serve to magnify God’s glory. Well might Paul urge his readers, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 3).
God’s faithfulness to the Jewish nation was only part of his plan, though. Paul hints at that when he says, “We . . . were the first to hope in Christ,” implying there are others. “We Jews may have been the first to believe in Christ,” Paul says—but he quickly adds, “You [Ephesian readers, Gentiles by birth] also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” The Jews are part of God’s plan, but in Christ the Gentiles are also in the picture. Note the implications of that for God’s plan and purpose of bringing “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
The Father’s plan sealed by the Holy Spirit
Ephesians chapter 1, verses 13-14
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
We have noted that the grand plan Paul is setting forth in his letter to the Ephesians involves all three persons of the Trinity. From eternity God the Father chose the elect in Christ. But that eternal counsel of God, centering on Christ, finds its fulfillment in time—when the Holy Spirit does his special work of bringing people to faith in Christ through the message of the gospel.
Paul directs our attention to this work of the Spirit when he shifts the spotlight from the grace God has shown to the Jews to the equal grace God has shown to the Gentiles. Paul sets the gentile Ephesian believers alongside Jewish believers when he declares, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”
Not only has the Holy Spirit brought the Ephesians to faith, but his presence in their hearts serves yet another purpose. “Having believed,” Paul says, “you were marked in him [Christ] with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” The Ephesians bear a seal: having the Holy Spirit in their hearts. In ancient times a seal was the sign of ownership. For a Christian to bear the seal of the Holy Spirit is an indicator that he or she belongs to God. That is a present blessing.
But Paul points to yet another blessing coming from the Spirit’s presence in our hearts by faith. We have assurance for the future. The apostle describes the Spirit as “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.”
A deposit, a down payment, is the first installment of a transaction and guarantees the rest of the obligation will also be met. The fact that God has given his Holy Spirit into our hearts by faith at the present time is an assurance that the rest of God’s promise will also be forthcoming. It is his guarantee that he’ll hold our inheritance in heaven for us “until the redemption [the final deliverance] of those who are God’s possession.” For a parallel passage that speaks of the Holy Spirit, both as a seal indicating God’s present ownership of the believer and as the guarantee of future blessings with God in heaven, see 2 Corinthians 1:21,22.
Once again, for the third time in this section, Paul tells us why God has showered us with all these blessings: to give us cause to thank and praise him. All this is “to the praise of his glory.”