In Ephesians 1:4, Paul tells his readers that God chose them before the foundation of the world. Paul then goes on to use another term: predestined. What is the difference between chosen and predestined? And what exactly does predestined mean?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, (4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (5) he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
The word predestined has a slightly different meaning than chosen. We shouldn't run the two words together and miss the beauty of all that God has done for us. The word used for chosen here in Ephesians 1 means "to select out of." Predestined means to determine or define beforehand.
In modern usage, predetermination often has a negative connotation. We think that something which is predetermined isn’t fair. In many cases, that is true: If the NFL already determined that the Patriots were going to win the Super Bowl, that would be bad. If the outcome of March Madness was already decided, that would be bad. If a political election were determined to be fixed beforehand, there would be outrage. Given this negative context, we sometimes fail to think about how predetermined outcomes are good and right in many cases. We predetermine our personal schedules when possible so that there can be order. A predetermined plan for emergencies is important and helpful. We may tend to use the word negatively, but we must remember that not all predestination is bad or unfair.
Beginning at the end of v4, and carrying on into v5, Paul writes that God predestined us in love. Clearly, this is not a doctrine about some uncaring, mechanical deity that sends people off to eternal joy or damnation on a care-free whim. Unfortunately, that is often how predestination is represented.
One objection to predestination is concerned with so-called “double-predestination.” Double predestination is understood by some to mean that if God chooses to save some, He must also be choosing to send others to hell. Imagine all the people who will ever live passing before God, who waves His scepter this way and that, pointing some people to heaven and some to hell... These poor souls would then live out the rest of their lives in utter futility! Some might long for heaven and never having a chance to get there, while others who care nothing for godliness would be whisked away to heaven. But that is a fairy tale in which God has been made the villain, and nothing could be farther from the meaning of predestination presented in the Bible.
That cheapened version of predestination fails to take into account the conditions under which God exercises His sovereign choice. Namely, that everyone has a sin nature and stands condemned already (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 51:5; John 3:18; Romans 3:23, 5:12; Ephesians 2:3). The first thing that is predetermined, then, is that everyone with a sin nature deserves eternal punishment in hell. If we go back to our imaginary scenario in which everyone who will ever live passes before God to hear His predetermination- every single one of them is already destined for hell! But in His love God reaches into the hopelessness of sin and death and declares: “not this one- this one is mine. This one will know and display my grace and mercy.”
For those who are inclined to object on the grounds of fairness, I would point you to Romans 9:20-23. The question Paul asks on that occasion is not “is predestination fair?” but, “Who do you think you are - to judge whether anything God does is fair?” How easily we step from created, subservient being, to judge and jury of God Himself!
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. But for the modern man, the roles are reversed. Man is the judge: God is in the dock. [Man] is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”
So if the doctrine of election makes you angry because you don’t think it’s fair, ask yourself whether it is God or you that gets to decide what is good and right for Him to do with His own creation.
So, He predestined us in love for what? The answer is in verse 5: adoption. He has predestined us, in love, to be part of His family- His sons, His daughters. Some have argued that God predestined us for something other than salvation- for ministry or good works or something else. But that is not what this text says. Ephesians 1 says we are predestined to be his sons & daughters. Paul makes the argument in Romans 8 that if we are his children, we are also fellow heirs of God in Christ. If that isn't salvation, I don't know what is.
One mistake that is often made when thinking about theology is separating or compartmentalizing things that were meant to be together. We have to do that -to some degree- to understand things with our finite minds. But we shouldn’t leave things disconnected. One of the reasons predestination often comes across as cold or mechanical is that we fail to think of it the way Paul does: as something totally connected to Christ, His work, and the Gospel.
Don’t think of election apart from Christ! Election happens before creation, but it doesn’t happen before Christ. Remember that the Word that became flesh is the Word that was with God in the beginning. Colossians 1:20 says that it was the Father’s good pleasure to reconcile to Himself all things – through Christ. Christ was always God’s plan. Election doesn't make Christ an afterthought.
No one is saved apart from Christ, and no one is saved apart from hearing the gospel and placing their faith in Christ alone. There is no calm, dispassionate entry into heaven for the elect. Rather, the elect are spared from the clutches of death and hell because of Christ who gave His life and shed His blood to win them. This is not a cold, systematic arrangement. This is God’s love, mercy, grace, and goodness on display to all creation. All could have been left to suffer punishment for sin, but in God's wisdom and love, He showed His goodness by saving some.