Throughout the Bible, God’s initiating role is displayed. Teaching from the first chapter of Ephesians, Alistair Begg explores basic principles of what it means to come to faith in Christ and the role of election in that process. When we recognize that we are who we are because God set His affection on us before the dawn of time, our hearts bow down in wonder at His mercy and grace.
Well, we began this morning to look at the letter of Paul to the Ephesians with something of an overview; we return to it tonight. We won’t get very far, but let’s read just a few verses, beginning at Ephesians 1:1:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
“To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Father, we pray with our Bibles open towards, now, the end of the day, that the Spirit of God will enable both my speaking and our hearing together, that we may hear from you, the living God, that our lives may be brought into conformity with the truth that we now delve into. And that, most pleasingly to you and most helpfully to us, we earnestly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, the verses to which I’d like to draw your attention are verses 3–6. We’ll leave aside the greetings, which we gave some scant attention to, at least, this morning. In introducing the book this morning, we were referencing the response of one young Scottish fellow who became the president of Princeton Theological Seminary who, in telling of the impact that the book of Ephesians had made upon his life, he had written in his journal, “I had been ‘quickened’; I was really alive.” “Jesus Christ became the centre of everything.” And we noted in passing that what Mackay was actually giving testimony to there was the energizing power of God within his life that had drawn him to an understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus had done, not simply in a generic way but in a very personal and saving way in terms of his own young life.
And the glorious blessings that he entered into are then described for us, beginning here in 1:3. And these glorious blessings which are enjoyed are enjoyed by those, have been bestowed upon those, who at one time were dead in their trespasses and in their sins. It’s quite interesting the way that Paul introduces this material. We might have thought that he might have started with chapter 2 and then gone from chapter 2 into chapter 1. Because if you turn the page, you will see that he says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” Now it is to these people who were once this that he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us … with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
And it occurred to me, as we come to what is this difficult and yet biblical doctrine of election, that it is important for us to be very, very clear—and I can take only a moment or two on this—but to be very, very clear about what it means for someone to come to saving faith in Jesus. What is it that awakens a person to faith in Jesus Christ? How does somebody become a believer? How does that happen with the children in the Sunday school, or with someone in his middle years, or with a girl who’s a student somewhere, or whatever it might be? What are the principles involved in this? And I want just to take a moment to state them; I don’t want to expound them or to turn to Scripture references in relationship to them, but I do this purposefully, and I hope it will become apparent why.
How it is, then? How is it that we ever come to saving faith? These are constituent elements in what happens.
Number one, as the truth of the gospel is presented to us, in whatever form, the Holy Spirit convinces us of its truth. All right? You know this. You heard the gospel explained to you many, many times, or somebody had given you a book to read and you’d read it, and you understood, essentially, what it was, but you were never quickened, you were never stirred. And then one day, somewhere along the line, as the truth of the gospel—maybe for the fortieth time—was presented to you, the Holy Spirit convicted you of its truth.
Secondly, as we then recognize the truths of the gospel, the Holy Spirit enables us to apply these truths to ourselves. The Holy Spirit comes to us and says, “You know, this is not just useful information for the people four rows down the road, or this is not just something for your mom and dad, or this is not just something for religious people,” but all of a sudden, there is a movement, isn’t there? And we realize that the Holy Spirit is enabling us—enabling us—to do what we’ve never done before, and that is to see the truth that we are being confronted with applied to our own lives.
Thirdly, having then been convinced of those truths—namely, of our sin and of our need of a Savior—he then—that is, the Holy Spirit—makes clear to us the remedy for our sin in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And it is the work of the Holy Spirit always to lead to the Lord Jesus. So when we are confronted by these things, eventually, we are brought face-to-face with Christ.
And in being brought face-to-face with Christ as we trust in him, then fourthly, the result is that our faith—our newfound Christian faith—is not built on human wisdom but on God’s power. You remember how Paul says that to the Corinthians; he says, “And we presented Jesus Christ and him crucified in this way. We didn’t use words of human wisdom or we didn’t get involved in any kind of eloquent stuff in order that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of man but in the power of God.” And when a person comes to saving faith, that happens.
And fifthly, the effective working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to bring us to faith in Jesus is entirely without reference to our own merits—is entirely without reference to our own merits. So then, we would be able to sing the song, “Chosen not for good in me, [and] wakened up from wrath to flee.” The person feels themself, then, to have been on the receiving end of the initiative of God.
And you will notice further down in the opening chapter of Ephesians, here in verse 13, he says—having extolled the mystery of God’s election—he says, “[And so it is that] in him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” So in other words, in the very context—that is, Ephesians chapter 1—in the very context in which our salvation is attributed to the will of God, to the electing purposes of God entirely, here, immediately, our responsibility is also described: “You were the ones who heard the word of truth. It is the gospel of your salvation. You believed in him, and you were sealed by the Holy Spirit.” God enables us to believe, but God does not believe for us. God enables us to believe, but God does not believe for us.
Now, with that said, let’s get back to verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us.” This is actually just a great doxology—one long sentence, as we noted this morning. Mackay, in another part of that writing, describes it as the mighty symphony of salvation. It’s a wonderful picture, and you can imagine all of the cymbals clashing and the horns blowing and the brass and the timpani and everything going, announcing the wonder of all that God has done for us in Christ.
And what is so striking about this is it begins with God. So much religion, it doesn’t actually begin with God at all. It pays scant reference to God. Most of the time, when you have anything in the magazines or in the media about religion, it’s usually about the “search for God,” you know—it always has some kind of title like that. And we’re supposed to believe that everybody in the universe is actually out there looking for God, that they just can’t find him, they’ve been looking all over the place, and that this is the story of religion, that man is just trying to find God wherever he is.
But when you read the Bible, you find that it’s the absolute reverse of that. The Bible begins with God calling out to man. The Bible begins with God taking the initiative with man. And it is God here “who has blessed us … with every spiritual blessing” in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so, Paul says, “I want you to bless God.” What does it mean to bless God? Well, it means to speak well of him, to declare his greatness: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why should we do this? Well, because he has spoken well of us in Jesus. We bless him; he is the one who has blessed us. In fact, when you look at the verbs—and we won’t go through them all—but you can see how important they are. In verse 3, he has “blessed us.” In verse 4, “he chose us.” In verse 5, “he predestined us.” Down to verse 8, “The riches of his grace … he lavished upon us.” And when you go from the verbs to the nouns, it is God’s “will,” it is God’s “plan,” it is God’s “purpose.” It is unmistakable; it is impossible to miss this.
And if God is the source of this blessing, you will notice also the sphere of this blessing. He’s “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” When we did Daniel, we thought about the heavenly places quite often, didn’t we? We said that it was the unseen world of spiritual reality. It is the world that Paul later goes on to describe, here in Ephesians, when he says, “We’re not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.”
And it is in this sort of mysterious sphere that we are brought to reign with him. We saw that this morning, didn’t we, in 2:6: “By grace you’ve been saved and raised up with him, and he has seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Now, this is what God has done, and God has taken the initiative in doing this. And that is impossible to mistake; it is absolutely clear. If we say, “Well, how then have these blessings become ours?” the answer is, verse 4, that “he chose us in him”—that is, in Christ—“before the foundation of the world.”
It’s a quite staggering thought, isn’t it? In other words, our election in Christ is not some kind of historical afterthought. But actually, it is a resolve that goes all the way back into, if you like, pre-eternity—into eternity before creation. And Paul is, himself, overwhelmed by this as he unfolds this, as he realizes, when he writes in other places, what a wretch he was—so smug, so self-satisfied, so religious, so convinced he had it right. And now, he says, “I’d come out top of the list when we’re looking for the chief of sinners.” And yet, he says, “What a mystery it is, that this God, whom I had so disabused and misinterpreted and rebelled against, is the one who has chosen us in him.”
Now, when you come to this in the Bible—and you come to it throughout the Bible; you don’t have to come just to the opening verses of Ephesians—almost inevitably, somebody will put up their hand and say, “Oh, but wait, wait, wait a minute. You can’t possibly be saying this, because after all, I was the one who decided.” Now, that is part of the reason why I began as I began, to kind of take that off the street. But now I’ve just put it back on the street, which proves I’m not very good at what I do. But nevertheless, when somebody says, “Yes, but I decided,” what do you say to that? Say, “Yes, of course, you did decide. There is no doubt about that. But you would never have been able to decide if God had not first decided on you before the creation of the world.” So that when you push back and back and back, you eventually push into the very eternal counsels of the will of God.
How, then, do you reconcile… which is the follow-on question: “Well, okay, maybe. But how then do you reconcile eternal election, which God has done—predestinating us to be conformed to the image of his Son—how do you reconcile that with the responsibility and the responsible action of and decision of man?” Well, some people say, “What you do is, you believe either in the sovereignty of God and reject the notion of man’s responsibility, or you propound the responsibility and freedom of man and reject the sovereignty of God.” That’s a bad idea.
“No,” says somebody, “it is a bad idea. I agree with that entirely. What you actually do is you collapse the two of them into one another, so that you sort of believe in sovereignty and sort of believe in responsibility, and you sort of amalgamate them in that way.” And what you’re left with is just a theological dog’s breakfast; you can’t do anything with it at all. It doesn’t actually work; it doesn’t make sense.
Well then, what are we going to do? Well, you believe both things, because both things are taught. You believe them in their entirety. You don’t believe them partially; you believe them entirely, reconciling the fact that they are friends, if you like. When Spurgeon was asked, “How do you reconcile these things?” he said, “I don’t. There is no need to reconcile friends.” So I don’t intend to spend a long time on these evenings—or on Sunday mornings, for that matter—toying with this as an intellectual exercise.
Stott, in one of his wonderful sentences, says, “It is not likely that we shall discover a simple solution to a problem which has baffled the best brains of Christendom for centuries.” Well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? And why has it baffled us? Because the answer lies in God himself. It is an antinomy; they are two self-existent truths that sit side by side, both entirely true, and yet, from a human perspective, ultimately irreconcilable. That’s why it calls for us to bow down in wonder.
When in 1984 a few of us went to the Urbana conference, we were greatly helped by Bible studies that were done on the first three chapters of Ephesians by one Eric Alexander, who’s been here for us with our pastor’s conference. And I remember him giving these addresses, especially on these opening verses. And I’ve quoted this to you on a number of occasions, and I’m happy to do so again.
His points were as follows: The doctrine of election is a biblical doctrine. It is right there in the Bible. You can’t read your Bible without dealing with it. It is biblical. Secondly, it is difficult—that’s why so many people have so many problems. And thirdly, it is profitable. It is profitable. He then went on to say, embracing the doctrine of election is not, then, to become for us a banner under which we march, nor is it a bomb to be dropped on people, but rather, it is a bastion for our souls, when we bow down in the amazing awareness of the fact that we are who we are in Christ because before the dawn of time he set his affection upon us in his Son.
Now, we’ve often, on a trivial level, toyed with the notion where we’ve said, you know, if you told your now wife that you had loved her before you even met her, would that be a problem to her? Would she be disappointed to hear this? Would she be unsettled by it? No, of course, she wouldn’t; she would marvel at it: “How could that possibly be?”
Now, one of my friends, who’s a minister now in the south of England, he tells a wonderful story of how he meets this wonderful lady at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London; he’s a lawyer by this time, and they meet at an event at church. And he’s attracted to this lady, and as he gets to know her a little bit, he realizes that she lived in the same area as him when he was a teenager and she was a little girl. And then he suddenly realized, “Aha!” he says. “This is the girl! This is the girl!” he says to himself.
One day, as a teenager, as he looked down the street, a man on the street was moving a boat to get it on a trailer to hitch it to the back of his car. And as my friend looked down the street, he saw a little girl, who was ostensibly helping her dad to put the boat on the trailer. She could only have been seven or eight years old, but she was doing her very best. And my friend said, “I looked at that girl, and I said, ‘What a lovely wee girl, and how good of her to help her dad like that.’” And now they’re together as husband and wife, he having realized that in some sense, he had set his affection on this little girl long before ever he knew her. Do you think she wakes up at night and says, “I resent that”?
You got a problem with the fact that God loved you before the foundation of the world? What’s your problem? What’s your problem?
No, the source is in God, and the sphere is in the heavenly realms. And when we ask the question—inevitably, we must ask the question, “Why did he choose me? Why did he choose me?”—we’re always looking for a reason, aren’t we, in ourselves? Because in most cases, “How did I get the job?”—you know, “What did I do? I mean, how did I qualify? What have I done?” So we bring that into the sphere of our Christian experience, and so we’re looking for some reason in ourselves as to why it is that we have been made part of God’s amazing grace. But there is no answer in that. “Why did he choose me?” The answer is, because he loved you. And then someone says, “Yeah, but why did he love me?” And the answer is, because he loved you.
I remember as a boy hearing a big discussion downstairs. We used to have people in our home all the time when I was a child growing up—pastors and different strange birds like that—and sometimes I would hear the conversation. Oftentimes it would be hilarious, and sometimes it would be fairly strained. And I used to creep to the top of the stairs and listen to the discussions and marvel at what was going on. And I still have a vivid recollection—it came to mind as I was just looking at this this evening—of my father. I didn’t know the point he was making, but all I could remember was that he was quoting, and he said, “Well, it is in Deuteronomy,” I remember him saying. And somebody was asking this very question, and God’s purpose for his people: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you.” Why did he? Because he loves you. I can remember my father saying, “That’s the only answer: because he loved them.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because he loved them.”
And I wanted to shout down the stairs, “Don’t keep saying the same thing!”
But in actual fact, that is the answer, isn’t it? “Why did he love me? Why did he choose me? Because he loved me. Why did he love me? Because he loved me.” I don’t know. I don’t know.
Remember in Merchant of Venice—because people always say, “Well, it’s rather unjust, isn’t it?” No. Portia, in Merchant of Venice, says,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do [but] pray for mercy.
For “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”
Now, why would he ever choose any of us? Why? None! If justice were served, we all deserve condemnation. Why would he choose any? It’s mystery! And it’s because of his love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only … Son, that whosoever believe[s] in him”—a real whosoever; a real whosoever—“should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Now, you will notice—and I spent a long time there—but you’ll notice that those who have been grasped by this take sin seriously. Because “he [has chosen] us in him before the foundation of the world…” It doesn’t say that we should be happy, although we will be—but “that we should be holy and blameless before him.” We haven’t been chosen because we are holy, but we have been chosen in order that we might become holy. Okay? Not chosen because we are but because we will become. There’s all the difference in the world.
There’s something has gone dreadfully wrong when a belief in the electing love of God results in an individual declaring that he or she can justifiably live any way they want. You run across this with relative frequency. It usually comes in the form of a question in a Q and A, when someone says, “Do you believe in ‘once saved, always saved’?” That’s always the question. In at least 80 percent of the questions, behind that there is a question about, “If that is the case, can I just do anything I want, because after all, is my salvation secure irrespective of my life?” No. Because those whom he elects, he makes holy. For one who consistently, continually lives in sin to claim to be elected unto holiness is an obvious contradiction. It is an obvious contradiction. Think about it. Look at the text. If “holiness is the … purpose of our election,” then “ultimately the only evidence of election is” our holiness. It’s not our ability to establish the principles of Reformed theology. It’s not our ability to articulate a certain view of soteriology. The indication that we have been chosen by God, set apart for him, being ministered to by him through the Holy Spirit, is ultimately in the fact that we are increasingly conformed to the image of his Son. And one of the great dangers that is out there at the moment is with a bunch of young guys who somehow or another have determined that the electing love of God sets them free to do and to say and to be just about anything they choose to be. I’m not sure that they’re reading the Bible properly, because it seems perfectly straightforward to me.
Isn’t it interesting that in these kind of areas, as well, you get the same kind of thing? In terms of eschatology—you get these people who argue the toss about eschatology, back and forward and up and down: “It can’t mean this!” “It definitely means that!” “I know about this!” “I know about that!” and the next thing. You say, “Yeah, but what does it mean to you? What does it do? How does it change when you’re getting the 43 bus, you know, to Skipton? What difference does it make?”
Because, you see, the real interest in the return of Jesus Christ, says the Bible—he or she who has this hope within him purifies themselves even as Christ is pure. So that moral purity is the ultimate indication of a deep devotion and interest in the return of Jesus Christ, not our ability to work out a scheme of eschatology. And a real interest and wonder at the electing love of God, who predestines us to be his sons and conformed to his image, is nothing ultimately to do with our ability to articulate this, but rather that it produces in us a conformity to the beautiness of Jesus.
The big question—or a little question. I shouldn’t make it big, but it is an interesting question, and the ESV has answered it: you’ll notice verse 4 ends with the word “him,” and verse 5 sort of begins with “in love.” And since there’s no punctuation in the Greek, we don’t know whether it should read, “that we should be holy and blameless before him in love”—in other words, that our holiness and our blamelessness should not be some kind of forbidding holiness, but it should be a lovely holiness, a Christlike holiness, if “in love” attaches to verse 4. If it attaches to verse 5, then, of course, it makes perfect sense that is was “in love” that “he predestined us for adoption.”
John Stott points out that when you think about this—that what God has chosen to do here in adopting us as sons through Jesus Christ—he says it gives us at least something of an answer when people ask the question, “Why did God go ahead with creation when he knew that man would rebel and that there would be a fall?” It’s not a conclusive answer, but it is something that is helpful, isn’t it? Because we’re able to say on the strength of this—tentatively, at least—that God had destined man for a higher dignity than even that which creation bestowed upon us. So that God’s purpose for humanity, as we said this morning, was not Adam and Eve in the garden but was Christ on the cross and was a new creation in a new heaven and in a new earth. He chose us before he even created Adam and Eve, predestinating us to be adopted as his sons and daughters, knowing the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end. What a wonderful picture it is, isn’t it, to be adopted—to be taken in as sons, and not by heredity. We’re not the sons of God by heredity but, as he says here, by adoption.
The Shorter Catechism in Scotland says this is “an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the [Son] of God.” And you will notice that this is “according to the purpose of his will” and it is by his grace and, verse 6, it is for his glory.
Well, what would you expect to see in the lives of people who were laid hold of by this? I don’t think we should expect to see a lot of bravado, a lot of talking about ourselves, a lot of explaining our Christian faith, always beginning with the first-person singular, but rather the explanation of our Christian faith that begins in the third-person singular. It is not that “I did this,” but it is that “he did that.”
How is it that you come to be here tonight? Go, push back through your whole journey. Push back and back and back and back. Push back to the person who you met on the beach or the fellow who gave you the book or the friend at work who did the thing. And go further and further and further. How far back can you go? I tell you, eventually, you bow down on your knees and say, “This is the mystery of godliness: that God, in Christ, reached out and laid hold of me.”
So when these doctrines of grace grip a heart, they produce humility, they produce dignity. Dignity.
I love that story that Sinclair loves to tell about—might be about Hodge. No, it’s B. B. Warfield. It’s B. B. Warfield. And B. B. Warfield is walking somewhere in an American city. And he passes a young man, and as he walks past the young man, he’s just struck by the deportment of the young fellow. And he walks a couple of paces, and he turns round, and he shouts to the fellow, “What is the chief end of man?” And the fellow replies, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” And Warfield says, “I could tell you were a Westminster Confession boy.”
There was a dignity, a humility, and a security. A security. If our being in Christ is anchored in eternity, then we have every reason to be confident that he will see us safely through time and bring us back into his eternal presence. “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe in his tender care.”
The hymnwriters do us a great service, don’t they, when they get these things and they put them in poetry?
Loved with everlasting love,
Led by grace that love to know;
Spirit, breathing from above,
Thou hast taught me it is so.
Oh, this [sure] and perfect [plea]!
Oh, this [rapture] all divine!
In a love that cannot cease,
I am His, and He is mine.
I’ve found a Friend, oh, such a Friend!
He loved me ere I knew Him;
[And] He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him.
And round my heart [so] closely twine[d],
[These] ties which [nothing] can sever,
For I am His, and He is mine,
Forever and forever.
Father, thank you. We scratch the surface of the immensity of this. We are tiny before your greatness. We are humbled before your love. Forgive us, Lord, for our defiance and our pride, our wanting always to look for a reason in ourselves as to why it is you have loved us. How humbled we are to realize that you loved us just because you loved us. And this is love: not that we have loved you, but that you’ve loved us and sent your Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin. And we marvel that you loved us before the dawn of time.
Stir us, we pray, with a genuine zeal to tell others this good news—to go out and tell them that Jesus says that “he who comes to me, I will never turn away,” that Jesus calls out, “If you’re heavy and burdened and weary and laden, come to me, and I will give you rest.” Help us to understand that it is this very truth which provides the basis for our evangelism, confident of this: that no one who comes to you will be turned away.
Thank you, Lord. Bless us now as we sing our closing song and head for home. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 John A. Mackay, God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and This Present Time (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 21, quoted in John Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 15.
 Ephesians 2:1 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (paraphrased).
 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “When This Passing World Is Done” (1837).
 Mackay, 75, quoted in Stott, 32.
 Ephesians 6:12 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:5–6 (paraphrased).
 See Philippians 3:5–6.
 1 Timothy 1:15 (paraphrased).
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Sorrow and Sorrow,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons 46, no. 2691, 422. Paraphrased.
 Stott, Ephesians, 37.
 Eric J. Alexander, “The Basis of Christian Salvation” (sermon, 1984).
 Deuteronomy 7:7–8 (ESV).
 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.
 John 3:16 (KJV).
 Stott, Ephesians, 38.
 See 1 John 3:3.
 Stott, Ephesians, 39.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 34.
 Fanny Jane Crosby, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” (1868). Lyrics lightly altered.
 George W. Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine” (1876).
 James G. Small, “I’ve Found a Friend, Oh, Such a Friend” (1863).
 See 1 John 4:10.
 John 6:37 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:28 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.