“[God] destined us for adoption as His children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph. 1:5).
I would like to continue my meditations on this verse by focusing on the second part of what the Apostle Paul says. He teaches that our predestination unto adoption through Jesus Christ took place “according to the good pleasure of His will.”
Here we see Paul’s doctrine of providence at play. The very twists and turns of history, everything that led up to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not to mention our own births into the world and our acceptance of the message of the Gospel in faith — all of these things took place according to the good pleasure of God’s will. Indeed, as Paul will go on to say later, God “accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will” (v. 11). As I’ve said elsewhere, God relates to the world as a musician relates to the music he performs: just as the music only exists as long as the musician continues to perform, and just as the musician has control over the direction of the music, so also this whole cosmos only exists because God preserves it in existence, and He also determines the way it goes through time.
Of course, there are a lot of philosophical questions that might be raised in response to this notion. I don’t wish to get into any of that, however. My concern is to inquire regarding the spiritual significance of this teaching. What does it matter for us that God is provident, and more specifically that we are elect and adopted into His family according to the good pleasure of His will?
One thing that merits saying is this. Because our election takes place in eternity, before we exist, and because it occurs according to the good pleasure of God’s will, it follows that we do not merit or earn our election through anything that we do. God chooses us because it pleases Him to do so, not because we are particularly worthy of being chosen. And if anyone considers the matter very carefully and sees how far short she falls of God’s glory (cf. Rom. 3:23), she will soon understand that it would be absurd for her to think that she could merit being chosen by God. No, our election is entirely a matter of God’s grace. We cannot earn it, we cannot merit; it is wholly a gift.
On the other hand, it is not as if our election by God is totally random or arbitrary, as if we got lucky and won the cosmic lottery. If Paul says that it pleased God to choose us, I understand from this that it seemed somehow appropriate and fitting to God that He should choose us. This is because He loves us. As the Anglican liturgy says, it is God’s property always to have mercy; it is in character for Him to choose us in Christ and to give us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ so that we might be holy and blameless before Him in love. Our election is not a matter of our own doing, nor is it something we deserve, but neither is a matter of complete chance or caprice, because the merciful and loving God, who is philanthropos, a lover of mankind, as the Orthodox liturgy says, is of such a nature as to elect us and save us from our sins in spite of our merits.
If God elects according to the pleasure of His good will, but He is not of such a character as to elect every person, then indeed the doctrine of election should be a terror to us. What confidence do we have that we are elect, knowing that our end might not be a good one and that we cannot presume that God has elected us? Even if we look upon Christ we receive no comfort, because we cannot be sure that He has died for us as well as for others. But the situation changes if we admit that God’s election in Christ is inclusive of everyone because Christ acts on behalf of everyone. In this case, there is no room for terror and uncertainty; the person of Christ reveals to us the intention of God, and there is no God behind the back of Jesus, to borrow a phrase from Barth and Torrance.
Consequently the doctrine of election should be the greatest possible comfort to us. In Christ, we were chosen for adoption in God’s family; in other words, Christ reveals to us God’s will for us, which is to make us His children, holy and blameless before Him in love. We have only to look at Christ on the Cross and we know what intentions God has for us: to take our sins upon Himself, to make atonement for us, and in short to put aside every possible barrier standing the way of us returning to our Creator and becoming His children, as He has always wanted for us from the very beginning.