by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.’ - Ephesians 1:4
This verse is obviously connected with the previous verse; the ‘according as’ tells us so. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.’
Here, the Apostle begins to explain to us how all the ‘spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ’ become ours. The previous verse has done so in a more general manner. But someone may say: ‘That is a great statement, and marvellous and wonderful; but we are here on earth and we are conscious of sin and of failure; how are we to be connected with such vast treasures of grace? How does any Christian ever enjoy a single blessing?’ The Apostle begins to answer that question in this verse, by showing what has been done by God in order that we may be connected to all these exceeding riches of His grace: ‘according as’! He says that these blessings come to us in the way he describes from the beginning of this fourth verse to the end of the fourteenth verse. The ‘according as’ is the introduction to the entire statement. I have already indicated in a previous study how this can be conveniently divided into three main sections: from verse 4 to verse 6 we are told what the Father has done; from verse 7 to verse 12 we have the work of the Son; and in verses 13 and 14 we have the work of the Holy Spirit.
As we approach this great statement let us look at any Christian person, ourselves included, and ask: What is it that accounts for the fact that any person who was once not a Christian is now enjoying these astounding blessings? What is it that leads to anyone becoming a Christian and enjoying the riches of God’s grace? Doubtless large numbers of people would say immediately that the Christian is a person who has received blessing by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. But note that that is not the first thing the Apostle says; he does not say that we are enjoying these blessings because we have believed in the Lord, or taken a decision, or given ourselves to Him or accepted Him as our personal Saviour. That, of course, is involved; but Paul does not start in this way. Neither does he start even with the work of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Many would probably put that in the first place. They would say that all this has become possible for us because of what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us when He came into this world—in His life and death and resurrection—and what he is still doing. But the Apostle does not put even that first. Indeed we observe that he does not start with anything that has happened in time and in this world. He goes right back into eternity, before the foundation of the world; and he starts with that which has been done by God the Father.
This is a staggering thought but it is entirely consistent with the whole of biblical teaching. It is just here that we all tend to go astray. Although, we have the open Bible before us we still tend to base our ideas of doctrine on our own thoughts instead of on the Bible. The Bible always starts with God the Father; and we must not start anywhere else, or with anyone else. The Bible is, ultimately, the revelation and the record and the explanation of what God has done for the salvation of man. The Bible is the revelation of God’s gracious purpose towards a world of sinful man; it claims to be such, and the revelation is in its every book. This is what accounts for its extraordinary unity. Its controlling theme is what God has done, what God has promised to do, what God began to do, what God has actually done, what He is going to do, and the amazing outcome of it all. And that is precisely what the Apostle is doing in this section of our Epistle. He is not giving expression to his own theories or ideas, but writing about what God has revealed to him. The Apostle Peter in the third chapter of his Second Epistle places the writings of the Apostle Paul on the same level as the sacred Old Testament Scriptures (vv. 15–16). In other words, he believed that they were inspired in the same way as the ancient Scriptures had been—‘holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21). So the Apostle’s teaching here is in obvious conformity with the entire biblical teaching.
The teaching is that those who enjoy these spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ do so because they have bee
n chosen by God to do so. It is ‘according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.’ That is the explanation of everything, so the Apostle starts with it. All the blessings and benefits we enjoy come from this fount, this source. Man by nature rebels against God. He does so as the result of the Fall. Having listened to the suggestion of the devil and having fallen away from God, he is under ‘the wrath of God.’ How is it that any individual person has ever come out of that morass? The answer is that God has chosen such a person to be delivered from it unto salvation. Such is the Apostle’s categorical statement.
Here we are face to face with a great and profoundly mysterious subject. In the last analysis there are only two possible explanations of such a staggering statement. The first is to believe that we are chosen by God simply as the result of His own good pleasure, or, to use scriptural phraseology, ‘according to the good pleasure of his will’, and entirely apart from anything we have ever done or said or thought. Indeed it goes further and says that we are chosen by God out of the good pleasure of His own will in spite of ourselves, in spite of the fact that we were enemies, aliens, and even haters of God. The alternative explanation is that the Apostle is saying that Christians—those who enjoy these blessings—were chosen by God before the foundation of the world because God with His perfect foreknowledge saw that they would exercise faith, and thereby differentiate themselves from those who do not exercise faith. In other words God chooses those who of themselves have already chosen to be Christians, those who have decided to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and have sought salvation. There is no third possibility.
The question confronting us therefore is: How do we face this? I put the question in that way for the reason that so many Christian people today do not face the question at all. Some, indeed, do not even believe in facing it, others avoid it because it is difficult and mysterious. There are many Christian people today, it seems to me, who claim to be believers in the inspiration of the Scriptures but who nevertheless quite deliberately avoid large portions of Scripture simply because they are difficult. But if you believe that the whole of Scripture is the Word of God, such an attitude is sinful; it is our business to face the Scriptures. One advantage in preaching through a book of the Bible, as we are proposing to do, is that it compels us to face every single statement, come what may, and stand before it, and look at it, and allow it to speak to us. Indeed it is interesting to observe that not infrequently certain well-known Bible teachers never face certain Epistles at all in their expositions because there are difficulties which they are resolved to avoid.
As we approach this great mystery, nothing is more important than that we adopt the right approach. This involves, first and foremost, the spirit in which we approach Scripture. This great declaration of the Apostle has been rejected by some simply because it has been approached in the wrong spirit. Let me grant, quite frankly, that the proponents of the two views I have put before you have been equally guilty in this respect. This question is not to be approached in an argumentative spirit, nor in a party spirit. It is never to be approached with heat or with dogmatism; it is a subject to be approached with reverence, and with a sense of worship. More and more do I agree with those who say that there is a sense in which the Scriptures should always be read by us on our knees. If we realize that it is God speaking to us, surely that must be the way to approach it. Yet how often are these great and glorious statements discussed and debated with heat and acrimony and anger. We are on holy ground here, and we should take off our shoes from off our feet. If we do not approach this mystery in that spirit it is certain that we shall never begin to understand it. This is God’s Word, and not simply the opinion of the Apostle Paul. The so-called Higher Critics have evaded this difficulty by saying that it is simply Paul’s theology. If you hold that view, and pick and choose what you believe in the Scriptures, you can very easily manufacture a little gospel for yourself. But it will not be the gospel of the New Testament, it will not be ‘the gospel of God.’ I start with the assumption that this entire Book is the Word of God, and that this particular statement carries divine authority.
It must therefore follow that it is a statement which is not to be approached primarily in terms of our understanding. We must say with George Rawson the hymn-writer—
I may not reach with earthly wings
The height and depths of God.
How appropriate those lines are as we come to this subject! If we imagine that we can rise on the pinions of our little human understanding to a truth of this nature, we are simply betraying an astounding ignorance of the character of the truth. We are face to face here with something in the heart and mind of God. Earthly wings can never bring us to this height. This is, beyond everything else, a great mystery; that is why such sublime truths are presented in the Scriptures to none but believers. This is not something to be considered by the unbeliever; he cannot possibly begin to understand it for his whole attitude towards God is wrong. The essential trouble with the unbeliever is that his heart is wrong with respect to God. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’ (Psalms 14:1), and because his heart is wrong he cannot possibly understand. The Apostle Paul is writing here ‘to the saints that are at Ephesus’, to people of God who alone are in a condition to receive such truth; and the same applies to us.
Another preliminary remark that is called for as we approach our theme is that it is good to approach such a truth in terms of our experiences as Christians. Instead of approaching it from a theoretical standpoint, and regarding it as a very interesting academic problem on the border line between theology and philosophy, we should approach it by saying to ourselves something like this: ‘Here am I in this house of God while there are thousands of people who are not, and who are in their beds reading the Sunday newspapers or perhaps listening to the radio. Why am I different, what has made me different, why am I interested in these things, why bother myself about them at all—why am I a Christian?’ Seriously consider what it is that has separated you from those others, what has put you into a different category. And when you find yourself on your knees praying to God, search and examine yourself, and ask yourself what has brought you to pray. Ask yourself whether the desire to pray arises from yourself alone, or from something else. Approach this profound question intellectually, and by the understanding, as well as from the standpoint of experience.
Bearing these preliminary considerations in mind let us now observe what the Bible really does say about ‘chosen in him.’ My first observation is that it is a statement, not an argument. The Bible never argues about these doctrines, it simply sets them before us; it makes a statement and leaves it at that. This is most significant, because the Bible does argue and give reasons at many points; but when it makes such particular statements as are found in our text it never presents them in the form of an argument.
Indeed we must go further; we can say in the second place that not only does the Bible not argue with us about these doctrines; it reproves us and reprimands us when we begin to argue because we do not understand them. The Apostle states this plainly in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?’ (9:19). Take note of the Apostle’s answer: ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ He does not try to lead a discussion and work it out and explain it, as he could have done; he simply says, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God.’ In other words the Apostle is telling us that we must start by realizing who and what God is, that we must realize of whom we are speaking. And he goes on to remind us that our relationship to the God of whom we are speaking is really that of a lump of clay to a potter. Realize, he says, before you ask your questions and put forward your arguments based upon your failure to understand, that you are assuming that your little mind is capable of understanding what God does. Realize that you are really suggesting that you, simple creature such as you are, small and petty as you often are in your human relationships, you who listened to the devil and brought ruin upon yourself—realize that you are claiming that your pigmy mind is able to understand the infinite and inscrutable mind of the eternal God. Not only does the Bible not argue; it reprimands us for our arrogance in bringing our difficulties and pitting them against what God has revealed.
In the third place we observe that the Bible does not answer our questions about this matter, it does not give us a full philosophical explanation. There are real difficulties about this question—of course there are!—because it is from God; and the Bible does not pretend to give a detailed answer or philosophical explanation. It makes its statement and leaves it at that, and we should respond in the same manner as the Apostle Paul and say, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness’ (1 Timothy 3:16). We cannot begin to understand the mystery of the two natures in one Person, we cannot understand the truth of the Three Persons in one Godhead. These things are in a realm beyond man’s understanding; and so is the doctrine that tells us that God chooses us. Our minds are too small; and not only small, we are also sinful and perverted. Even as Christians we still cannot think clearly; that is why there have been heresies throughout the centuries.
A fourth principle that is helpful in this connection is to note that the Bible gives us a number of such statements, all of them parallel to the statement in the verse we are examining. One of the fullest statements on this subject is found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. John’s Gospel, perhaps, presents this doctrine more clearly than any other book in the Scripture. Read through the sixth chapter, then read the fifteenth chapter, and then read the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel with its record of our Lord’s high priestly prayer, and you will find this selfsame truth stated in a most powerful manner. I emphasize this because many people repeat in parrot fashion what they have heard or read in books, to the effect that this doctrine only comes in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul, of course, states it frequently. Take, for instance, his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians chapter 2: ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (vv. 13–14). What a significant statement! ‘He hath chosen you to salvation through (by means of) sanctification of the Spirit.’ He separated you by the Spirit to believe the truth. You have been chosen, set apart, by the Spirit in order that you may believe the truth. You are not separated because you believe it, but in order that you may believe it.
We find the Apostle Peter saying the same thing in his First Epistle, chapter 1, verse 2: ‘Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.’ Again, the separation comes before the obedience and the believing of the truth. There are countless other similar passages which support this statement directly.
There are other statements, moreover, which show the same thing indirectly. Take the first two verses of the second chapter of this Epistle: ‘You hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.’ Note the statements ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, and ‘quickened you.’ In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 14, we read: ‘But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’ Paul’s teaching is that we believe these things because ‘we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:12). The princes of this world did not recognize Christ, Paul tells us, because they were natural men. Many of them were great men, able men, but they did not recognize Him, ‘For had they known him they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ ‘But.’ says Paul, ‘God hath revealed [certain things] unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:8–10). We believe for one reason only, namely, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
In the fourth chapter of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians we find the same truth: ‘If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (vv. 3–6). This is the answer to the question as to how faith originates. The god of this world blinds and makes men incapable of believing; the only true and living God shines into our hearts, and we believe.
The doctrine of regeneration is another way of saying the same thing. We can state it thus. If we hold that we become regenerate because we have already believed, then we have to show why we need to be regenerated at all. The purpose and object of regeneration is to enable us to receive this new faculty, this ability to receive God’s truth. The doctrine of regeneration has a great deal to say about election and this doctrine of divine choice. Indeed, I go so far as to say that this doctrine should always be approached in terms of the doctrine of regeneration which teaches that I need a new nature before I can begin to understand these things.
Having reminded you of those statements of the Scriptures let me put some further considerations for your study and contemplation. Is it not clear and obvious that no man would ever have produced this doctrine from his own mind? It is the very last thing that man would ever have thought of. Let us admit that it is the simple truth to say that all of us by nature dislike this truth because we feel it is insulting to us. The natural man hates this doctrine more than any other. We have all known something of that hatred. Man would never have thought of it; it
would never have come into the thought-life of the Church were it not that it is found in the Scriptures. Another way of stating it is to say that there is no doctrine that shows so clearly the real nature of sin, and the consequences of sin, as this particular statement. For in reality it asserts that we are in such a position in respect of sin that we are utterly helpless, and totally incapable of doing anything for ourselves in the matter of salvation. That is what sin has done to man, that is the depth to which sin has taken man; he is indeed far estranged from God! The Scripture says that ‘the carnal (natural) mind is enmity against God’ (Romans 8:7), that man left to himself is an alien, an enemy in his mind by wicked works and totally opposed to God. Such is the real picture of sin.
But now take note that this aspect of truth has nothing to do with evangelism. People often argue that this doctrine of divine election and choice leaves no place for evangelism, for preaching the gospel, for urging people to repent and to believe, and for the use of arguments and persuasions in doing so. But there is no contradiction here any more than there is in saying that since it is God that gives us the crops of corn in the autumn, therefore the farmer need not plough and harrow and sow; the answer to which is that God has ordained both. God has chosen to call out His people by means of evangelism and the preaching of the Word. He ordains the means as well as the end.
Finally, it is a good rule whenever you are confronted by a statement in Scripture which you find to be difficult and perplexing, to consult authorities, to consult the history of the Church, to consult the experience and the interpretation of those who have gone before us. We should thank God that we are able to do this. The Christian Church has taught through the centuries what the Apostle is saying here, namely, that God has chosen those who are Christian in spite of what they were, not because of any merit that He has foreseen in them, but because He was moved solely by His own mercy and compassion. Before anyone is tempted to dismiss this doctrine with a wave of the hand, feeling that it is all so simple, let me remind you of the names of some of those who have accepted this interpretation.
There is the great St Augustine who stands out, perhaps, between Paul and the Reformation, as the brightest star in the Christian Church. Then there is Thomas Aquinas whom the Roman Catholics call Saint Thomas Aquinas, the author of a compendium on Christian theology, the Summa Theologica. The next name I come to is the name of Martin Luther, then John Calvin, then Ulrich Zwingli, then John Knox of Scotland. Then we come to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, then The Westminster Confession of the seventeenth century, the Confession on which all Presbyterian Churches claim to base their teaching as their subsidiary standard. Then think of the great names that belong to the great Puritan tradition—John Owen, Thomas Goodwin and many others. When we come to the eighteenth century there is George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest evangelist the Christian Church has known since Paul. In America there was Jonathan Edwards who is almost universally regarded as the greatest philosophical theologian the United States has produced. As for the nineteenth century, we must mention the name of the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon. All these men held to the Pauline doctrine.
Let us turn also to the history of the men who started the various Foreign Missionary Socities such as the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, and indeed the British and Foreign Bible Society. The simple truth is that the men who started these Missionary Societies took that same view. The greatest evangelists the world has ever known, the greatest promotors of evangelism the Church has ever known, have taken this particular view. Indeed it is true to say that with but few exceptions the universal view of the Christian Church until the beginning of the seventeenth century was this view.
While there was opposition to this view in the seventeenth century, it became well-known through John Wesley and his followers and their Arminian teaching in the eighteenth century. It is also significant that as the Higher Criticism of the Bible gained currency and popularity in the later nineteenth century the older view receded even further into the background. With the advent of what is known as liberalism or modernism the teaching of God’s election and choosing of His people in eternity almost completely disappeared. Surely that is of great significance.
There, then, are some of the facts which we should bear in mind before we begin to argue and to make sweeping statements. However, let us be clear about the fact that we are not saved by the view we take on this question. As I have already explained, there are two possible views. One is that God has chosen us in spite of ourselves, the other is that God has chosen us because He has foreseen that we would
exercise faith. But I repeat that the view you take on this question does not determine your salvation. We are not saved by our understanding of these things, but by a simple childlike trust, and absolute faith and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ and His work on our behalf. The view we take does affect our understanding, our intellectual apprehension; but thank God, that is not what saves us. We can be as certain that John Wesley is in heaven as that Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield are there.
But someone may say that if the doctrine we hold does not determine our salvation, therefore it does not matter. But that is a false deduction. This statement about God’s choice of us is here in the Scriptures and therefore must be considered. Paul puts it first in order to show how we become Christians and enjoy the Christian blessings, and although, as I have said, our understanding of it does not determine our salvation, it is of very great importance. It has reference to the sovereignty of God, and the majesty of God, indeed it is all-important from the standpoint of our understanding of the love of God. It is here we see the love of God at its highest. Furthermore, it is in the light of this doctrine that we see the certainty of the plan of salvation most clearly. If God’s plan of salvation were to be dependent upon man, and the choice of man, it would certainly fail; but if it is of God from beginning to end, then it is certain. Nothing else can give me a sense of security. There is no doctrine which is as comforting as this; my security depends upon this fact, that I am what I am solely and entirely because of the grace of God.
Whatever authority I may have as a preacher is not the result of any decision on my part. It was God’s hand that laid hold of me, and drew me out, and separated me to this work. I am what I am because of God’s grace; and I give to Him all the glory. Were I to believe that my future is dependent upon myself and my decisions I would tremble in fear; but I thank God that I know that I am in His hand, and that ‘He who has begun a good work’ in me will go on with the work. In spite of myself, and what I was and am, the Lord will not let me go; He will not ‘His purpose forego.’ It is because I know that before time began, before the foundation of the world, He looked at me and saw me and selected me, and in His mind gave me to Christ—it is because I know that, that with the Apostle Paul I am able to say, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38–39). That is why all this matters; my sense of security and my joy depend upon it. Although my understanding of it does not determine my salvation, it does determine my experience of the joy of salvation, and the sense of security and certainty. Face this glorious truth on your knees, put it into the context of the whole of Scripture, remember the names of the men I have mentioned, and ask God to give you enlightenment and understanding by the Spirit in order that this particular statement may bring to you, to your soul, to your mind and heart and experience, increasing instalments of the exceeding riches of His grace.
Excerpt from God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1 by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Listen to the original sermon in MP3 format here