Theology

Predestination Controversy: A Review of “Paul on Predestination” by Haden Clark

Recently fellow blogger Haden Clark wrote an article (here) attempting to refute the biblical doctrine of predestination. Using a few key proof-texts found in Ephesians 1 he sought to offer what he believed are key reasons why Christians should reject the Reformed1 (i.e. Calvinist) understanding.  According to Clark, “Ephesians 1 is not a Calvinist proof-text for ‘unconditional election’ in the sense that God unconditionally elects some individuals to salvation” (par. 43) Confidently asserting that Paul “never says we are predestined to be ‘in [Christ].’ God has not chosen, or predetermined, who will believe and who will not” (par. 40). After offering his reasons for believing this is the case, he then invites his readers to: “Let me know what you think…” (closing sentence).

I accept the invitation of “fun dialogue” (to use Clark’s words) to offer my own thoughts to be scrutinized by him and his readers. I hope in this I treat him fairly, and that my citations of his thoughts are accurately cited.2 I will begin where he started…

Ephesians 1

Clark’s effort to refute Calvinistic teachings on predestination begins with Eph 1:1. He writes, “As far as I can tell, this verse is the key to understanding, or rightly interpreting, the rest of Ephesians. It sets the stage, or the content for the rest of the letter” (par. 13).  I think he makes a valid point here. A key to properly understanding what is written is the “who” and to “whom.”

I will provide this verse for the reader in more than one English translation:

  • “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (ESV; italics added).
  • “From Paul, who by God’s will is an apostle of Christ Jesus—To God’s people in Ephesus, who are faithful in their life in union with Christ Jesus” (GNB; italics added).
  • “From: Paul, an apostle of the Messiah Jesus by God’s will. To: His holy and faithful people in Ephesus who are in union with the Messiah Jesus” (ISV; italics added).
  • “From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints [in Ephesus], the faithful in Christ Jesus” (NET; italics added).

All of these translations (you can check more)2 emphasize the same thing. Do you see it? What is it? (Well if you don’t see it that’s okay we’ll discuss it later).

Clark believes the answer is found in “the phrase ‘in Christ’ [which] is repeated throughout…at least 13 times…” (par. 15) in various forms in the first chapter alone. I believe this is an important observation by him.

Obviously, Paul is very concerned about the people he is writing to (not just in Ephesus, but abroad as this was a circulatory epistle sent to several church’s).  He identifies them personally and lovingly as can be seen in v. 2, where the apostle says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now Clark believes he’s onto something here. He then cites three important verses (vv. 4, 5-6) that he rightly identifies as proof-texts for the Calvinistic thinker. Here they are:

  • “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless…” (v.4)3
  • “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” (v.5)
  • “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (v. 6).

Earlier Clark had noted that the Calvinist finds Eph 1 “of particular importance…because it is here we find ‘predestination’ and ‘being chosen before the foundation of the world” (par. 16). Please note that the words he refers to are in the section he and I cited by Paul. The bold highlights what Clark believes the Calvinist focuses on, and the italicized identify what he finds of particular importance.

After citing these three verses, Clark asks his readers a very important question: “Do these verses teach that God chose before the foundation of the world a select number of people to be saved” (par. 25). He then offers his own answer: “Honestly, I couldn’t force my eyes to see that interpretation” (par. 26; italics in original). I’m not entirely sure that this was meant to be funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the honesty of the statement.

Clark admits earlier that he is not “entirely objective” –that’s good, because none of us are—but here he identifies the underlying issue. It is not that he cannot see the possibility of another interpretation, but that he will not allow it. You can’t force him to do it. He won’t!

To be fair, he gives another reason for not accepting what the Calvinist believes. He says it is due to “…the phrase ‘in Him’ that I emphasized in the above verses” (par. 27) He asks, “Who is the ‘us’ that God has ‘chosen before the foundation of the world’? The ‘us’ refers to those who are ‘in Him’ back in verse 1…Paul and the ‘faithful saints’ in Ephesus are the ‘us’ in verse 4 and they are also ‘in Christ’” (par. 28). Agreed!

On this point Clark appears to be on the right track. He is correct that the “us” are those who are also “in Christ.” The question I present is “Why? Why are they in Christ?” Herein lies the line of demarcation between Clark and the theological system he is arguing against.

He argues that the only thing predestined (predetermined) is the destination and the blessings promised to those who are headed that way. He writes, “Those who are ‘in Christ’…were not predetermined to be ‘in Christ,’ that’s not what the verse says. It says those who are already in Christ are predestined” (par. 32). In essence, one must first be in Christ—be a Christian, be born-from-above—in order to be predestined. Christians are not predestined until they have decided that is the route they want to travel down.

I’m not sure if you are getting that, but what he is saying is that “we,” the “us in Christ,” first predetermined to be such, before we were predestined. God cannot personally predestine a particular individual, He can only predestine the rewards, the blessings, and the final destination; an impersonal thing(s). God has determined that “believers in Jesus will reach their destination: sanctification and glorification. God has predetermined it to be so” (par. 33).

Let me get this straight. We predestinate ourselves, God just ratifies our decision? The Creator of Heaven and Earth is left to the whims of his creatures? Regardless of what all else is said, that’s the argument. Is that really what you believe?

Looking Back…

I want to walk through those verses and see if you are able to notice what is truly being said in them. In Eph 1:1 we learn who is writing to whom. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus…To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Jesus Christ.” The apostle of our Lord is writing to Christian men and women in Ephesus and in various other locations throughout the Greco-Roman world. We know that Clark believes the key is in understanding those “in Christ Jesus,” the “us” discussed throughout the letter.

But I have a question of my own, why is Paul writing to them…other than edification and instruction? Why is he an apostle? Who determined that Saul of Tarsus would be sent as an apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles throughout the Roman world? It wasn’t Saul; Paul did not choose to be such, it was chosen for him (cf. Acts 8.1, 3; 9.1-20).

In his own words, Paul says it was because of the “will of God,” (Eph 1.1) not his will; not his choice. If left up to him, he’d still be murdering Christians, but something (or rather someone) changed his heart. It was God’s plan of purpose in the life of Paul that transformed, or rather, transferred him into Christ. God’s will not Paul’s.

I agree with Clark that this verse is paramount to understanding the rest of the letter, but he has passed over a key part of this verse. What Paul reveals in verse 1 he continues to reveal throughout the entire first chapter and beyond.

Clark did not just miss that, but he also missed what was being said in vv. 4-6.  In grammar, English or Greek, there is a wonderful rule regarding subjects, verbs and objects. The verb identifies the action/activity being presented in the sentence. The subject identifies the one who is doing the action/activity. And, object is the one who is receiving the action/activity.

For example, “the doctor gave him a vaccination shot.” In this sentence the verb is “gave.” Who gave the shot? The doctor did; the subject. Who received the shot? “Me” or I am the one who received the shot; the object. Where do you suppose the emphasis is truly being laid in this sentence? Is it the one who received the shot or the one who gave the shot? It is the one who gave the shot, for the doctor performed what needed to be done. Had the doctor not performed the shot, the person in question would not have received the necessary medicine to protect life.

I think if you want to clearly understand what is being said by Paul in Eph 1, you need to not only pay attention to the flow-of-thought (i.e. context), but you also need to pay attention to where stress is being laid. Whose activity is being highlighted, and who is the recipient of that activity. Look at those verses cited by Clark again, but this time, let’s include v. 3.

**Note to Reader: “Bold” is for God (subject), “bold-italicized” is for activity/action (verb), and “italicized” is for “us in Christ” (object).

  • “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…” (Eph 1.3; emphasis added).3
    • Here Paul tells his readers that God is to be blessed (i.e. praised) because of what he has done. What has God done? He “has blessed us in Christ.” Who did the blessing? God did. He is the one to be praised for the activity! How so? That is answered in what follows.
  • “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him…” (Eph 1.4; emphasis added).
    • Here Paul explains the reason for “us” being “in Christ” because God chose us. This looks back to verse 3 and the spiritual blessings that we have received, chief among them our union with Jesus Christ. Who did the choosing? Paul says “God” did. Who received the activity of God? “We” (i.e. us) did. When did this action of God take place? Before the world began, which is the meaning of “before the foundation of the world.” Notice the emphasis is not laid on our having believed as Clark says; rather, Paul says we are found in Christ—the chief of all blessings because God chose to put us there. Where? In union with Christ Jesus, from which all the other blessings of God flow.
  • “In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Eph 1.5; emphasis added).
    • Here Paul gives the reason for God’s choosing the “us in Christ.” He says it was “in love” or because of God’s love that we find ourselves adopted into His Holy family through Jesus Christ—the gate that all must pass to be saved. Jesus is the means to which we are grafted into the family of God. How so? Again, who is doing the action of predestinating? God is. Who is the recipient of this activity of God? We are; those in Christ. And this, we find an important tie in by the apostle with what he said in verse 1: “according to the purpose of his will….” Whose will? Whose purpose? God’s or man’s? According to Paul it is because of God, not man…not the believer.
  • “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph 1.6; emphasis added).
    • The reason, Paul says Christians should praise God is because “of his glorious grace.” Because of God’s undeserving favor and mercy, He has chosen to bless “us in the Beloved.” Again, who is doing the action here? God is. Who is the recipient of the activity of God? We are; the “us in the Beloved [Christ].”

The emphasis is continually laid on what God has done, not on what we have done in Eph 1. Clark would like to reverse that order and deny its personal application. Yet, Paul is speaking to specific persons, not everyone in Ephesus—the city or the church—is found in Christ. The choosing and predestinating of God is a personal activity, not impersonal. In writing this letter, the Holy Spirit through Paul is making a necessary distinction.

Moreover, our “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (v. 7a) are not the result of our activity, but the Lord’s. It was “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (v. 7b-8a). God did that which was “according to his purpose” (v.9). Yes, Christ was “set forth” (v.9b) as the necessary sacrifice and gift, “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v. 10). Again, Paul emphasizes to the observant reader that “In him [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance…” (Eph 1.11a) How so? “…having been predestined according to the purpose of him [God] who works all things…” (Eph 1.11b). All things? All things. Even my belief in Christ, God worked that out as well? Yes, all things are brought about in creation “…according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1.11c).

What of our belief? What about our choice? Did we not choose Christ? Does not Paul say as much in v. 13. Yes, he does. He writes, “In him you also, when you heard, the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit….” No one denies that we are the ones called (commanded) to believe in Jesus Christ as the only true source of our hope. The question is “why?” Why do we believe in Him? Paul addresses that in the 2nd chapter, but again you will find the emphasis is laid upon God’s action not man’s.

Eph 1 explains our station before God, the benefits that are a part of that station, and the emphasis he lays is on God’s activity not our own. Paul develops why that is necessarily so in Eph 2 and beyond. Clark refuses to accept this (at least for now, I hold out hope) because of another underlying issue. Rejecting the fallenness of mankind, he still assumes that we possess the neutral disposition towards right or wrong that Adam and Eve appear to have been created with. Believing it is in our power to either chose or reject righteousness/holiness as a mere mental exercise, leads to the erroneous position that it is wrong for God to change our hearts to love Christ, whom we formerly hated.

While I appreciate the anthem cry of “Freedom!” as done by William Wallace in Braveheart, the fact of the matter is that we are not free unless the Son sets us free; allowing us to be adopted into His Father’s house (John 8.35-36; cf. 14.2-4).

I hope that I have been fair to Clark, and want it known that I have no ill will towards him. I want to thank him for the exercise in thought, and pray that the Lord lead him down right paths. And, I also extend the invitation that he put forth in his own writings; all critical thought is welcome! God bless.

_______________________

ENDNOTES:

1 Calvinist theology is a nickname for Reformed theology. John Calvin was not alone in his thoughts regarding “predestination,” “free-will,” “divine-election,” “depravity of fallen man,” etc. as many of the initial Reformers held his convictions. He is more well-known due to his ability to systematically categorize the Christian faith-system (worldview) in his mountain of literature that he produced.  Unfortunately, many of those writings are unread by those who find it necessary to take to task that which they are somewhat unfamiliar with. For starters most believe Calvinists start their thinking with predestination, but soteriology is only one branch in the Reformed theological tree as important as it may be. Reformed thought has more to offer, but for some ignorance is bliss. Moreover, I’m not sure that Calvin would be overly thrilled with his name being used to define a particular branch of theology, as his premiere purpose was exalting the God of the Bible, being led by the Holy Spirit, in order to magnify the Name of Jesus Christ.  In any event, I will go by that title if it eases identification for the reader.

2 I chose the indicator “par.” to help the reader find their way through Clark’s work. Sometimes, what I call “par.” is only a sentence long, but I thought that “line” would have been much more tedious that what I had chosen. Hopefully, my eyes did not jump a line here or there, but if they I pray that the reader would show some grace on my part.

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