In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes to help them understand who they are in Christ (Ephesians 1—3) and how they should walk as a result (Ephesians 4—6). In chapter 1, Paul identifies how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work together for the salvation of the believer, changing our identity from children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3) to sons adopted in Christ (Ephesians 1:5). He explains that believers are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ (Ephesians 1:3) and then shows how God accomplishes that blessing for those who have believed in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). First, Paul makes the remarkable statement that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
God the Father “chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4). The Father also “in love . . . predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4–5). While the ideas of election (choosing) and predestination can be confusing, they are unmistakably taught by Paul. Believers are chosen or caused to be chosen (as per the middle voice of the aorist verb) before the foundation of the world. In other words, this determination of God took place before the world had even been created. Notice how far Paul is going to assert that this new, blessed position of the believer is not of one’s own doing. It began with God’s choice, and it shows that God is the basis of the believer’s blessing, not one’s own merits.
Historically, there have been two major interpretations of the concept of God’s choosing us. Behind Door #1, Calvinism teaches that God’s choosing means the believer has nothing to do with his own salvation: even the faith of the believer is itself a gift. Behind Door #2, Arminian teaching emphasizes the believer’s choice and suggests that God’s choice was based on God’s knowledge of what the believer would choose. If we simply take Paul’s words at face value, it would seem that neither of these theological conclusions is adequate. Paul asserts that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and Paul doesn’t even discuss God’s foreknowledge in Ephesians 1. Paul does reference God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 as preceding predestination, but he does not discuss choosing (or election) in the Romans 8 context. It would seem that God’s choice is “according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:5b, NASB 1995) and that His purpose is according to His choice (Romans 9:11) and not based on what we might or might not do. At the same time, we have been saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), and the faith is necessary.
Jesus’ explanation of salvation makes it conditional only upon belief in Him (e.g., John 3:15–16; 6:47), and He puts the responsibility on the one who is to believe. So there is a third door. Door #1 suggests God is sovereign, and man is not involved; Door #2 suggests that God is not expressing His sovereignty, and the choice is entirely up to the person. Door #3 suggests that God has expressed His sovereignty—He chose us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)—and He places the responsibility of faith upon the individual (Ephesians 2:8). Both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of humanity are evident in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and in his explanation of how we came to be so greatly blessed.