“What Christians Believe”
September 30, 2001
We read this same opening paragraph, long sentence really, last Lord’s Day morning and considered it as a doxology addressed to God the Father. This morning, I want to consider it as a great summation of theological truth, truth about God and about his great salvation. The fact is, you would be a theologian of the first rank if you could do nothing else but explain in fullness and detail the meaning of all the great theological terms and concepts that are employed by Paul in his opening sentence and relate those terms to one another. We have here a veritable dictionary of theological themes, a systematic theology in a sentence, if you will.
We have the Triune God in this sentence/paragraph: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the greatest and most wonderful mystery of all and the foundation of all Christian truth and knowledge: three persons in one God. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, wrote, “Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow – three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization anyhow.” And he went on to develop instead another view of the Trinity and of God completely at odds with the teaching of the Bible. The Father was once a man like we are, indeed, there are many gods and they all are men who have “grown divine” that is, they used to be men like us and now are gods. In fact, God the Father had a father and a grandfather and so on. Jesus Christ has a heavenly father and heavenly mother and himself, born as a spirit child, progressed eventually to be divine as we ourselves can someday be. Indeed, when we become gods, we will have spirit children who pray to us just as we worship and pray to God the Father! Well, there is nothing like that in Paul or the Bible. What we have is the Triune and Eternal God, the only true God, who is both the creator and savior of his people, and who executed, in works specific to each of the three persons, the great plan of our salvation.
Indeed, Paul says in these verses that, before the creation of the world, before the human race existed in space and time, the Father was already laying the plan for our salvation from the death and doom into which we will have pitched ourselves by our sin. The Son had already agreed to undertake the work that would be necessary to secure our salvation in keeping with the requirements of divine justice. It is perhaps an anthropomorphism to speak so – a speaking about the infinite and eternal God in human terms – but it is the very image that Paul conveys here and is conveyed elsewhere in the Bible. It is as if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit met in conference and planned it all out, each in love for the other and in love for us, vowing to do his own part to accomplish our eternal life. Each agreed to perform his particular task. The Father was the planner, he chose those to be saved and determined the way of their salvation; the Son was the executor of the Father’s plan, bringing it to pass by his incarnation, his suffering and death, and his resurrection, all done on behalf, as he so often said, of those the Father had given him. The Spirit is the communicator of the Father’s plan, accomplished by the Son. He calls the elect to faith in Christ and communicates to their hearts the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of their own salvation. And so, in this great paragraph, we read about the Father’s part in our salvation, the Son’s part, and the Spirit’s part. It doesn’t mention everything, how could it even in a sentence 204 words long? But it says enough to teach us to see our salvation as the collaborative effort of all three persons of the one true God.
Here is a salvation that is no afterthought. It was, before the world was made, the great plan and purpose of human history. And here is a great encouragement for us. Long before we lived; long before the world existed, the Triune God thought about us and cared for us and loved us and laid plans to ensure our salvation and our eternal fellowship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Then, working out the divine plan in greater detail, we learn of our election by the Father, his predestination of us. There are two very important theological terms and biblical doctrines. And this divine election and predestination had in view our being made holy and blameless before God – that is what Paul means by justification even if he doesn’t use the word here. That is, God knowing that we would be guilty and inveterate sinners, he provided for us a way to have our sins swept away and our record cleansed and the record of perfect righteousness put in its place. After reiterating that our justification comes from God and is to the praise of God’s grace, Paul elaborates that point about our justification. That making of us righteous and blameless was done through “the redemption of Christ through his blood, which is another way of saying “through his death.” Jesus Christ took away the record of our sin by punishing those sins in a substitute, Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in his body on the tree, as the Scripture says, who died, the just for the unjust, as the Scripture says, who was made sin for us, as the Scripture says, that we might become the righteousness of God. In other words, we have here in Paul’s summation of salvation, both the accomplishment of redemption – that is Christ’s work of obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection – and the application of redemption in the justification of sinners in their own lifetime, the cleansing of their hearts and their records when they are united to Christ by faith. Holy and blameless also refer to the transformation of our lives, what we call sanctification.
But, it was not only God’s plan that we should be blameless before him, that our sins would be forgiven and our lives transformed. No, the Father planned more for us than that. He loved us so much that he decided to bring us into his family, to make us not only his servants, not only his friends, but his sons and daughters. There it is in v. 5. He predestined us not only for forgiveness but for adoption. He predestined us not only for justification but that we should live in close fellowship and intimate relationship with himself. He chose us to be his sons, and, as I have told you before, it was in that day an honor for girls and women to be included among the sons as they are so regularly in the NT. That meant that, if you happened to be female, as a Christian you were not a second-class citizen; you had the full rights of inheritance that in the world of that day only boy children normally enjoyed. In that sense all God’s children are his sons! So we have Christ’s redemption taking place in fulfillment of God’s eternal plan and purpose, and that redemption, in history, then being the basis of justification and adoption in the actual life experience of sinful human beings.
But there is still more. Paul now, in vv. 9-10, speaks of the history of salvation and its goal, namely that all things in heaven and on earth should be brought under the headship of Jesus Christ. The individual salvation that Christians experience is part of a much larger plan that God has for everyone and everything, for the entire history of the world. The same plan that included forgiveness and adoption for you and me, embraces the farthest reaches of the cosmos and everything that happens in it. What is more, the history of the world, that history of which each of our lives is but a tiny part, is not an aimless thing. History is not, as Henry Ford said, “the succession of one damn thing after another.” We may not be able to give a precise answer to the question: Where is history going? But we know both that it is definitely proceeding according to God’s plan and that, ultimately, it will conclude with the universal demonstration of the glory and the divine dominion of Jesus Christ.
Then in the next several verses, from v. 11, that point is reiterated. Our salvation, each and every one of us as individual Christians, is subsumed into that larger, greater plan for the world and for mankind. The God who planned, accomplished, and then applied Christ’s salvation to each one of us is the same God who is over all things, controlling the march of history as, day by day and event by event, it makes its inexorable way toward the consummation of all things.
And, then, finally, in vv. 13-14, Paul relates these grand, sweeping themes, to our own daily lives. The “you” at the beginning of v. 13 personalizes Paul’s remark. He is not speaking of Christians in general, but of these very believers to whom he is writing. They were “included in Christ,” and given the benefits of his redemption – forgiveness of their sins and entrance into God’s family – when they heard the good news about Jesus Christ and salvation by faith in him and believed in Jesus for themselves. But like everyone else, they must now wait. They live in that expectation the Scripture calls hope. They know what God has in store for them, as his children who can read his testament, they know what their inheritance will be, but they cannot see it and it remains in the future. They live a life that is pointed to the future, a glorious future promised by God and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, here in 14, the word “redemption” is used, as a few times elsewhere in the Bible, not of Christ’s payment of his own life as a ransom to deliver us from bondage to sin and guilt, but of the ultimate issue of Christ’s redeeming work, the full and absolute deliverance of his people from all the consequences of sin and guilt when he brings them at last to heaven. But that day remains in the future. To prevent them from discouragement, the Holy Spirit is given to them to assure them that what God has promised he will someday deliver. The Spirit and his ministry in their lives is the guarantee that what has begun in them will continue until the day of Jesus Christ.
Now, all of this is said in a summary way. Nothing is explained, nothing worked out. Term after term, doctrine after doctrine follows one upon the other in Paul’s cascading clauses. But he does not pause to work out the meaning of these grand ideas. He traces our salvation from its ultimate root in the plan and purpose of God to its ultimate blessing in the eternal inheritance of the saints in the world to come. But here he does nothing more than provide an outline of this divine scheme. He does not fill in any details. It is, as I told you, one long sentence, the longest in the New Testament. And it reads like one long sentence. It is God’s plan of salvation in a single breath.
Scholars take different views of Paul’s long sentence summary, I’m sure depending upon their view of the God and the salvation Paul is talking about. One German scholar writes that it is “the most monstrous sentence conglomeration…that I have encountered in Greek.” But a French commentator writes to the contrary, “One is struck by the fullness of the language, its liturgical majesty, its perceptible rhythm from beginning to end.” [E. Norden and C. Masson, cited in Lincoln, WBC, 11.]
But, whatever one thinks about Paul’s writing style, it is clear that this long sentence has the form that it does, in large part, because it serves as an introduction to the letter. [F.W. Grosheide, Aan De Efeziers, 15; Lincoln, WBC, 19] This is why we do not need to make our way slowly through this opening sentence, treating each of these magnificent themes in turn. Each of them will be treated subsequently in the letter. As we said last week, the work of the Father in our salvation is a major theme of the letter to the Ephesians; but so is the part the Son plays in the salvation of the elect, and so is the role of the Holy Spirit. For example, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers is merely intimated or suggested in vv. 13-14, but, later in the letter, Paul works out his doctrine of the Christian life in terms of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Some of the most important and illuminating instruction on the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life is found in Ephesians.
But the same may be said about all the major themes introduced in Paul’s opening sentence. The grace of God which is mentioned in vv. 6 and 7 becomes an important theme of the letter as it continues as does election which is a related idea. The same thing may be said of the mystery of God’s plan for history, which is mentioned in v. 9 and then is taken up several times later on. And so it goes.
What we have in vv. 3-14 is a thesis statement, almost, in a way, a table of contents for the letter. We read here what we are going to study in the weeks of morning sermons to come.
But, we also are given a controlling perspective, a theological viewpoint as we enter into the matter of the letter itself. And that viewpoint is the sovereignty of God and of his grace to sinners.
You felt that, even if you didn’t notice it per se as we read our text. It is all about what God has done, not about what we have done. It is about what God decided, and God planned, and about those whom God chose, and the outworking of the divine will by each of the persons of the Godhead in turn, about God’s grace, God’s glory, and about a terminal point at the end of history when Jesus Christ will be acknowledged as supreme by every human being. We are, as the sentence tells us at its very end, God’s possession. This is the fundamental theological viewpoint of biblical Christianity. Everything is from God, and through God, and to God. This is what Paul is after in us, that we should do full justice to the living God in all our thinking and our living, that we should look to him for everything and offer everything we are and have to him, that he, our Triune God, should be the master principle of our lives!
God’s sovereignty does not mean that we are not responsible actors. This does not mean that there is not a great deal that is suspended upon our faithfulness and our obedience. Paul will show us how responsible and accountable we are in the rest of this letter. But he begins by telling us that not only our own salvation, but everything that happens in the world, is the outworking of God’s will. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “No doubt all history in the last resort must be held by Christians to be a story with a divine plot.”
Now, to be sure, the most important implication of that fact is that we have God to thank for our very lives, and God and God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to thank for the hope of eternal life. There ought to be a thrill in this for every Christian. Before we were, before there was a human being in the world, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had you believers in their heart and took you up into their plan for salvation and for eternal life. You mattered to God, you, your very self, before there was a world. In the mystery of his triune life the Father knew your name; God knew you by name and loved you and covenanted with his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for your sins and open for you the way to eternal life! He knew all of your sins, he knew the true you as you would be, he knew how ungrateful you would often seem for the great gift he gave you, and he loved you still! There is a thrill in this, a leap up and click your heels thrill in this. And there is a fear in it, a chill in it as well, simply to think that it might not have been so. That God, who was under no obligation to love you or seek your salvation, might not have done so and you might have been left out of his plan and not been given to Jesus Christ to save and the Holy Spirit never sent to summon you to faith in Christ. And you, totally in sinful ignorance of what might have been, would have lived your life and slipped away into darkness never the wiser, never knowing there was light.
Oh, no, this is all of God and it is all to his glory that we should know how absolute, how infinite, how unqualified is the debt we owe to his love and good pleasure. When we are in heaven, when we open our eyes on that wonderful world, then we will know and feel how great is the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. But Paul wants us to feel it now!
It might have been different. How different it might have been! In an article in The Wall Street Journal some months ago, the political philosopher, Frances Fukuyama, suggested that the 20th century might have turned out very differently than it did. He goes back to one small, seemingly incidental event and imagines what might have been if it had transpired differently than he did. He is thinking of the appointment by the German General Staff of Alexander von Kluck as Commander of the German First Army just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was, Fukuyama reminds us, Kluck’s hapless leadership of that army in the first battle of the Marne, in September 1914, that led to the six years of carnage that we know as the First World War. Had that army been led by a more able general, or, even had Kluck gone left around the French army in his drive to Paris rather than around its right, the First World War as we know it may well not have occurred. The historical circumstances that gave rise to Hitler and the Second World War, and, subsequently, the cold war, and all of the unimaginable suffering of that benighted century would never have actualized. He puts it this way.
“[The Germans] most likely would have swept on to Paris by the end of the month, forcing a capitulation by the French government (as happened in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, and again in May 1940). A quick German victory would have left unimpaired the cultural self-confidence of 19th century European civilization. The 8.5 million casualties of World War I would not have spawned a radical revolutionary movement in Russia called Bolshevism. With no German humiliation there would have been no occasion for rabble-rousing on the part of an unemployed painter named Adolf Hitler, and therefore no National Socialism.… [Moreover,] no Russian Revolution and Nazism means there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, no Cold War and no Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions. … And the U.S., which came of age as a great power due to the world wars, may have remained [an] isolationist paradise….” [Cited in P.K. Helseth, JETS 44/3 (Sept 2001) 508]
Well that is largely useless speculation about totally hypothetical possibilities. But such a piece of speculation does highlight something for us. As Paul says, it is God who orders what happens in this world, from the salvation of an individual human being, lost in sin and death, to the march of human history. And, therefore, our entire place in that world, and our hope of the world to come, our knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ his son, is entirely, absolutely the result of the fact that, mystery of mysteries, before there ever was a world, God set his love, set his heart on you and on me, if we are Christians today. Once that was done, once we were enfolded in his plan, his purpose, there was never going to be another result, another outcome for us. Once we were given to Christ to save and once he laid down his life for us and rose again, and once the Holy Spirit was sent to call us to faith in Christ, there was never a question as to what would become of us. God had settled that, and no one can shorten his hand or say to the Almighty, “What have you done?” But had God not set his love on you, then everything would have been different, terribly different. If that does not sometimes send a shudder down your spine, then you are not thinking seriously about heaven and hell.
I have been reading recently about J.P. Morgan, the great American financier of the 19th century. Morgan was a fabulously interesting man. Before there was a federal reserve, J.P. Morgan was, himself, the foundation of American credit and the guarantee of its currency. He on several occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, single-handedly, saved the country from a financial meltdown. It was people’s trust in him and confidence in him that enabled him to exercise such influence. He has often been lumped among the other “robber barons” of the 19th century, the kings of American business who road roughshod over others on their way to fabulous wealth. But Morgan was no robber baron. He was a man whose character, whose honesty and integrity, were known to everyone, which is why he exerted such enormous influence. He judged other men by their character, not by the amount of money they possessed. He cared about people; he thought it his Christian duty to offer products at the lowest possible price consistent with efficiency and he thought it the duty of employers to treat their employees fairly, even generously. He made enormous sums of money, but he thought the accumulation of wealth evil and gave vast sums of money away in the public interest. It was he who turned the Metropolitan Museum in New York into one of the finest art collections in the world.
Morgan was a faithful Episcopalian all his life. He even took round the offering plate at his local parish church. He sang hymns loudly. Now, I tell you all this as an introduction to this. The opening statement of J.P. Morgan’s will reads this way:
“I commit my soul into the hands of my Savior, in full confidence that having redeemed and washed it in His most precious blood He will present it faultless before my Heavenly Father…” [Cited in Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 556] Read it again!
There it is, the viewpoint of Ephesians 1. At the first and at the bottom, it is what God and Christ have done for us. They having done it, we have assurance of eternal life. My life, my salvation, is God’s gift and I become thereby God’s possession. I am always looking up to him, looking back to what he has done for me, counting on his love and faithfulness to ensure that his love for me in the future will be as it has been from the foundation of the world. If you know that and believe that, believe it so as to live it day by day, you are a Christian! If, like J. P. Morgan, you plan to leave this world counting entirely on what God has given you and done for you, you are a Christian. Whether you are wealthy or poor, young or old, a man or a woman, if you find yourself, truly find yourself in these verses 3-14 of Ephesians 1, and if you feel the force of those wonderful facts that Paul describes, know how wonderful they are, are amazed by them and, even, terrified by them, by the thought that it might not have been so, then you are a Christian. God’s love, God’s plan, God’s choice, Christ’s execution of that plan, and the application of Christ’s redemption to individual human hearts and lives, that is the story, the real story of this world, of human history. I pray that everyone of you who reads this glorious opening sentence will know, or if you do not yet know, will come to know that Paul is describing your own history, the story of your very own life, from before the world was made to the world yet to come.