Excursus on the Doctrine of Election According to Ephesians 1:3-14

by Georg Stöckhardt
translated by Caleb Bassett

In this brief excursus from his commentary on Ephesians, Georg Stöckhardt takes some time to explain the doctrine of election as God presents it in his Word.

Since the passages we just covered are a locus classicus of the doctrine of election, we’ll briefly bring to mind once again the main points of the apostolic teaching concerning God’s eternal election. We’ll arrange these main points into certain capita doctrineae and compile the similar expressions and sentences (of Scripture). To this end, we’ll also reference an article from Lehre und Wehre (1905,
pp. 481 ff.).

PART 1.

First a few introductory points. The doctrine of election is a clear doctrine of Scripture. The foremost sedes doctrinae, Eph. 1:3-14 alone sheds enough light on the matter. These verses clearly and sharply bring forward the nature of the foundational moments of eternal election. These verses explain to us the eternal resolution of election, so far as God desired to reveal it to us, in simple, unmistakeable words. If there are certain phrases over which there is dispute, such as ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰ πάντα or ἐκληρώθημεν, they do not do any damage to the understanding of the entire section whether you interpret these phrases one way or another. Our position on the meaning of ἐκληρώθημεν is attested to by the unmistakeable ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς. All that our interpretation of ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰ πάντα entails rests without any doubt in the term περιποίησις, “possession.” There is no factual proof that the many disputes over the doctrine of election, both in the past and here in our time, had any thing to do with obscure or difficult to understand passages. Essentially, the disputes had to do only with theological problems. We would also include the disputes over the doctrine of the eucharist and the divinity of Christ among the list of such theological problems. Indeed, there has been controversy over those articles of doctrine since the very beginning. To be sure, theologians who divorced their reason from Scripture have meddled with the divine mysteries, adding a little here, removing a little there. But that doesn’t obscure the applicable revelations of Scripture! It can only confound the insecure and meddlesome. It can’t displace the plain sense and understanding of the words of Scripture. The manner and method in which, for example, ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς is manipulated with the ἐν αὐτῷ from verse four doesn’t put the inspired words of the Holy Spirit in the dark, but rather properly in the light. We see the tricks that they are forced to use in order to elude the clear sense of the words.

PART 2.

The doctrine of election is a doctrine for Christians. In Ephesians 1, Paul is speaking to and with Christians. He combines all Christians with ἡμεῖς and ἡμᾶς. Only repentant, believing Christians who are made holy by the Spirit of God, and who earnestly strive after higher things can grasp and understand this doctrine. Thus Romans, Paul’s compendium doctrinae, expounds the premier Christian teachings in addition to the doctrine of election: Sin and the wrath of God, justification by grace through faith for Christ’s sake, and sanctification. And in Ephesians, which is addressed to tested Christians with whom Paul spent three years proclaiming the whole counsel of God, Paul assumes in his teaching that they know and confess those main articles of Christian doctrine. When we deal with people who are not yet Christians, but whom we wish to convert, we speak with them about other teachings, not about the doctrine of election. The doctrine of election is meant for Christians and is applied after conversion to develop and strengthen their faith. It is a highly comforting doctrine. The entire section, of Eph. 1:3-14 is a doxology, praise of the wonderful deeds of God. Everything we read there is sweet gospel. Elsewhere, such as in Rom. 8; 2 Thess 2; and 1 Pet 1, the doctrine of election is used for comfort in cross, suffering, and trials. In Ephesians, Christian suffering is not brought to mind. At all times, in good times and in bad, Christians need the assurance and strength which this doctrine affords them.

PART 3.

In Eph. 1, the apostle points to the current viewpoint of his Christian readers and reminds them of the blessings that they now possess. He then points their eyes backwards onto the eternal source of their blessings. He identifies himself and his fellow Christians with the elect.1 Thus he teaches us the eternal election of God by looking a posteriori. Indeed, Scripture also speaks summarily and objectively about God’s elect, of whom many are called, but few are elect. But when the apostles instruct Christians about the mystery of eternity, they apply what they say directly to the ones they are teaching. Such a direct approach guards against useless and dangerous speculation. If one wishes to properly consider and accurately speak about election and remain in the proper bounds, he needs to use proper methods and pick up the modus loquendi of Scripture. Depending on how one phrases them, statements about election might sound different or leave varying impressions. On the one hand, one might say that God elected us to faith, sonship, and salvation before the foundation of the world. On the other hand, one might point to a particular person in general whom God decided from eternity to bring to faith and salvation. This is speaking across the board regarding the doctrine. And now for our comfort and edification Paul gives us the following things to think about regarding election here in Ephesians 1.

PART 4.

God elected us before the foundation of the world. Here God is the subject. We Christians, indeed the persons who are now Christians, are therefore the object of divine election. Paul only recognizes an election of individuals, not an election of means. The institution of the means for salvation, that is, the means of grace, is an entirely different matter than the selection of the elect. Election is an election of the person and the individual. A good portion of modern theologians deny individual election and apply divine election only to the church in genere. But what then is the Christian church besides all of Christendom and the totality of all believing Christians? What applies to the whole also applies to the individuals who make up the whole. God elected us, ἡμᾶς. With that word Paul means himself and his Christian readers–all his fellow Christians. He wants to include every single Christian in this ἡμᾶς. Election is individual. God meant me, yes me: Me in individuo, me in concreto, me personally. God elected us before the foundation of the world. The election, κατεξοχήν, is a primordial, eternal act of God. It is therefore an act of his will, counsel and resolution. Before the world was and before we existed, the great eternal God, the Lord of heaven and earth fixed his gaze on us–on me, a poor, wretched creature. In his thoughts and in his eternal counsel and resolution God plucked us – me – out of the world and out of the massa perdita and appointed that we should belong to him and be his own. What a great comfort this is for us Christians, who are strangers in this world and often find that we are just a vanishing nothing on this earth.

PART 5.

Ephesians 1 identifies the content and purpose of election even more closely. The fact that we belong to God through eternal election is characterized as sonship. From the beginning God prescribed for us sonship. He decreed that we should become God’s children through Christ; not only in a relationship as a creature of God, not only in a relationship like a servant or attendant or an intimate friend, but rather in a relationship like that of children. He is our father, and we are his dear children. And in love, as his children, we will live our lives before him as holy and blameless. Before the world began God desired to glorify himself to us who would proclaim the goodness of God to the world. When we were established as children of God, we automatically became heirs of God. Already before the creation of the world the heavenly Father had decreed that everything which belonged to him – heavenly blessedness and glory – would be ours. And with that predestination to sonship and to eternal life God established from the beginning how he would bring us to saving faith and keep us (and me) there. God decreed and arranged all of our life’s skills ahead of time. He ordained that all these things must serve the highest goals of life: faith, sonship, and salvation. What love – what honor our Father in heaven has shown us! Before we even existed he already foresaw us as his children and furnished ahead of time all that sonship entails.

PART 6.

We are not worthy of such love and honor. We truly have nothing in us that is attractive or worth loving . Nothing in us could (and nothing did) move God to predestine us. By nature we belong to the degenerate, corrupt human race, which God abhors. The fact that God already in eternity predestined us and rescued us from that degenerate, corrupt race and made us his possession was in no way caused by our character, condition, work or action. The entire section of Ephesians 1:3-14 leaves no room for the assumption that God in any way gave consideration to our conduct when he elected us. In fact, the expressions ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς, ἐκληρώθημεν, εὐδοκία, and πρόθεσις rule out any such consideration. Those expressions actually characterize that eternal act of God’s will as a free action, which has its sole motive in God himself. We are foreordained into sonship and have become heirs of everlasting life according to the pleasure of God’s will, that is, because it pleased God to do so. We are foreordained for the praise of his glorious grace, since God wanted to glorify his grace in us. God ordained and moved to elect us – us! And me! And that was all an act of his grace and mercy. In fact, it was grace in Christ. God predestined us through Christ because already before the foundation of the world God had ordained him as the savior of sinful man. From the very beginning Christ’s merit veiled our iniquity from God’s eyes and directed God’s smiling face to us unworthy creatures. These are the only two causes of our eternal predestination: God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. The former is the causa impulsiva and the latter the causa meritoria. Truly, our eternal election rests firmly on an unshakeable foundation. Looking at our own unworthiness shouldn’t be any reason to doubt our election.

PART 7.

God predestined us to sonship and eternal life by grace for the sake of Christ before the creation of the world. He predestined us, me, each and every one of us. Predestination is an individual election. But the individuals whom God has elected make up a whole (τὰ πάντα) people, a people of possession (περιποίησις). In comparison to the world, the massa perdita, from which they are taken, the elect are few in number. Nevertheless, we should not imagine that God selected a few people who would be saved out of the wreckage and ruins of this world. Rather, we should always picture the elect in the Spirit as the great “noble band” of God’s children. All that is and ever was “elect” in this world appears when we look at it as God looks at it: as a grand, noble people. This was God’s eternal loving counsel and plan: one huge family of God’s children of the human race, one in Christ, through whom they are chosen, brought together, and united. The entirety of the heavenly Father’s goodwill rests on them, that goodwill which is the love of the eternal Son. There are many families of children (πατριαί, Eph. 3:15) from all the nations of the earth who are in union with the various clans of God’s children in heaven, the holy angels. They proclaim the praise of God in all eternity. Indeed, we can add the thoughts of Eph. 3:9,10 as well. One eternal church, God’s world and his mankind which, after the destruction of the fallen world that refused to be rescued, finally realizes God’s goal of creation and the will and pleasure of him who created all things. What an honor for us that we are members of this great family of God! In the company of the elect we find abundant comfort and support when the world disregards us and rejects us as worthless.

PART 8.

Ephesians 1 uses other significant expressions to describe God’s eternal election or predestination. And those expressions state the infallibility of God’s election. God foreordained us to be sons and heirs. God’s edict is irrevocable, more binding than the laws of the Medes and Persians. We were appointed “according to the counsel of his will.” God in eternity took counsel with himself. God thought about the matter and carefully considered it and came to the resolution that we, yes we, I and my fellow Christians, would become his children and heirs of eternal life. We know this about God’s plans: “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Ps. 33:11). We are predestined κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ. The εὐδοκία, God’s pleasure is such that, as Polycarp Leyser noted, even the gates of hell and myriads of demons cannot prevail against it. We are chosen “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Man cannot accomplish everything that is decreed. That is God’s prerogative. Everything that he decrees he does. Thus the act of election cannot fail. And what a comfort that is for us Christians to know that our sonship and salvation does not rest in our own hands. Our salvation could easily be taken from our own hands because of our weakness and wickedness, or it could be ripped away by the poison and violence of the Devil and the world. Instead, God keeps our sonship and our salvation in his own almighty hands. He has kept our salvation safe and sound in his eternal decree, which cannot fail or be overturned. From eternity God has firmly set the full number of the elect, τὰ πάντα, τὸ πλήρωμα. And so not one single person can fall from this number. Truly, that is how a Christian must be joyfully confident in his own salvation. And yes, confidence in one’s salvation is a characteristicum of the Christian faith. Thus the comfort of election serves to edify our most holy faith.

PART 9.

And God has already carried out a good portion of his eternal intent. In Ephesians 1, the apostle emphatically points to the execution of God’s eternal counsel. God began to do so since the beginning of the world. To Adam already he had given the the promise; then to Abraham and then to Israel. Through the promise he brought to faith the elect from Adam’s and Abraham’s clans. He brought them to the hope of the coming Christ. Above all, he is spending the present New Testament era gathering his elect children. He has now sent forth the gospel of Christ. Already many of the heathen have heard the gospel of their salvation and believed and become God’s children. The entire work of the church, that is the preaching of the gospel, serves God’s purpose. It’s effect is this: All the elect from all the ends of the earth will be collected and joined together. We too have heard and believed the gospel of salvation and have obtained sonship. All of our life’s conduct up to know has been divine pedagogy which has been aimed at our faith and sonship. We have found Christ and have salvation through Christ’s blood, namely the forgiveness of sins. We are reconciled with God and he has become our Father. God has graced us with all manner of wisdom and knowledge and has thus empowered us to live a godly life. And that is exactly the blessing which he had planned for us from eternity.

PART 10.

And furthermore, in this way God will continue to carry out his eternal counsel and intention with us and our fellow elect brothers all the way till the very end. We will arrive at the final goal of our predestination. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and with the promise as a pledge of our future inheritance. The Holy Spirit safeguards for God his possession, which he has chosen from the very beginning. The Holy Spirit preserves our souls and sustains them firmly in his Word and in faith until the day of salvation. Our inheritance as children can not and will not escape us. The Lord will surely deliver us from all evil. He will completely take us from this world and help us up to his heavenly kingdom. There with the whole, perfected nation of the elect we will gaze upon God’s glory and eternally praise God that he so gloriously carried out all that he ordained from eternity.

CONCLUSION

When we Christians have read and meditated on Eph. 1:3-14, and have taken its richly comforting message to heart and made it our own, then with the apostle we will thank the God and Father of Jesus Christ for his temporal and eternal beneficence. Eph. 1:3-14 brings to mind God’s eternal goodness, and we Christians feel no desire or inclination to brood or speculate over the secrets of eternity. Nevertheless, in spite of this, questions still arise here and there that we cannot completely escape. When we hear about eternal election and choosing, which are particular according to their sense and meaning, we might well ask ourselves, “How does this apply to me? Do I belong among the elect? How can I recognize whether I am or not and be sure that I am one of the elect?” Those are the questions of an anxious soul that is fearful about its salvation. Those are questions that arise from a desire for salvation. And there from the outset we can expect that the Scriptures, which teach us all things and offer us everything we need for our salvation, will give an answer to those questions. We find the answers right here in Ephesians 1. Paul does not speak here in general about God’s elect, instead he uses the pronouns, “we,” “us,” and “you.” With them he refers to Christians and regards them as God’s elect. If we can say to ourselves, “I am a Christian,” then we should also know and believe that we are one of the elect. In Ephesians 1 Paul explains in even more detail what Christianity consists of, what we are as Christians, and what we have as God’s children. These distinguishing marks of Christendom are accordingly also signs and emblems of election. Article XI of the Formula of Concord covers the question as to how individuals can recognize and be certain whether they are one of the elect. That longer section references Ephesians chapter 1 because that portion of Scripture shows that God doesn’t lead his elect on any other way of salvation and has resolved not to lead anyone anywhere except the well-known, common way to salvation. God makes sure that those whom he has elected in eternity now in time hear the Word, are preached the gospel, which brings them to faith. He blesses them and justifies them through Christ. He sanctifies them through faith, making them wise, sound, and able to do all good things. He preserves them in faith, just as they are then ordained for sonship and for a holy, blameless life of love. Thus every Christian may and should conclude, “Yes, I am a poor sinner unworthy of any grace. But I believe in Jesus Christ, who redeemed me with his blood. In him I have grace and forgiveness of sins. I am God’s child through Christ. And now I chase after sanctification, even in great weakness. It is my honest endeavor to live a life pleasing to my heavenly Father. For this reason I belong to the elect, for these are the marks of the elect.” All of Christendom is the execution of God’s eternal resolution. It is the outcome and effect of election. This thought pervades the whole section of Eph. 1:3-14. Thus I can properly deduce the cause from its effects. The aforementioned mentioned signs of Christianity (repentance, faith, and sanctification) are indeed subjective. And in the hour of difficult trials the entire inner life of faith can be plunged into uncertainty. It’s there that those inner signs of election can become unrecognizable. And that’s exactly what the spiritual trials that Christians experience consist of. They become disoriented in the faith. They doubt whether their faith has a pure character to it. Their awareness of their sonship is clouded. They fear that their obedience and piety is nothing more than outward action. But when the notae internae electionis don’t hold up in a bind, the apostle in Ephesians 1 points to our nota externa. He points to the Word of truth and to the gospel of our salvation, which is superior to all the fluctuations and moods of the human heart; superior to all subjective experience and knowledge; superior to all of the Christian’s feelings and sensations. The gospel is as superior as the heavens! Those whom God has chosen from eternity will hear the gospel as a result. The ἀκούσαντες τὸν λόγον is referred to in Eph. 1:13, next to and preceding the πιστεύσαντεϛ, as a gracious work of God that flows from his eternal decree. I may, and should, according to the apostle’s directive infer and conclude: Here is the gospel of Christ with its precious promises. Here are the universal promises of grace which are valid for all who hear it, including me. That is also the gospel of my salvation. It tells me that I am saved. And what it promises is indeed true. The gospel is the Word of truth. I hear the gospel, the Word of truth, with my own ears. I hear, and can read it with my own eyes, that God desires that I be saved. And therefore I am without doubt one of the elect.

Another type of question comes even to the Christian mind when we consider God’s eternal election, “What about everyone else? We aren’t any better than everyone else, and they aren’t any worse than we are. Why then did God choose me and not others? Cur nos prae aliis?” This question doesn’t spring from our appetite for salvation, but rather from our nosiness. It is a meddlesome question, and the Scripture, which reveals to us only those things that are useful for our salvation, doesn’t give us any answers to it. The apostolic teaching in Eph. 1:3-14 deals solely with the Christian. It has only to do with the elect and the salvation of the elect. It doesn’t say a word about the fate of everyone else. In fact, elsewhere in Scripture in Rom. 9-11 the apostle Paul directly forbids Christians inquire about the discretio personarum. There he counts the causa discriminis as one of those things that God hides from our sight. And humble Christians accept this and immediately suppress such meddlesome questions as soon as they come to mind. All kinds of quarreling and reasoning are tied to the question cur nos prae aliis? Those who give their thoughts free reign here reason something along these lines: “First we believe the gospel, and then through faith we become God’s children. Then we are sealed with the Holy Spirit.” They try to tell us that this is an effect of eternal election. From this they proceed to reason: “When others don’t believe the gospel, or fall away and eventually are lost, it is because they were not elect. God simply passed over them. If God had predestined them, then they would have believed.”

Crude, carnal reason concludes and infers such things. They maul and maltreat the divine mysteries with their immature hands. The portions of Scripture that treat the doctrine of election, like Eph. 1, don’t give the least bit of support for such reflections. They speak only about the election of grace; about the eternal resolution that the elect children hold onto. They don’t point to any kind of decree or neglect of God as the causa adaequata of unbelief and the damnation of the many who are lost. And in other places the Scriptures clearly teach that unbelief, apostasy, and damnation has its source in man. Man himself is guilty. God didn’t miss anything or leave something unfinished. It’s not as if God forgot to rescue some people whom he wished to rescue.2 Truly, Christians who have received the grace of God and also properly understand the eternal grace of God don’t try to pry into the abyss of divine mercy with useless questions and pointless reflection. They don’t do any good and only make the matter cloudy and unclear. Instead, they thank God for the salvation they have been given and let God take care of how he will handle things with the rest.

Indeed, there are legitimate questions about the welfare or pain of others. There is a valid care for the fate of our fellow man. But the first question is the one about our own soul; how things are with God, that is, how we view God and how he views us. But in things that have to do with God we don’t ask about how everyone else will fare. But those who give care above all else to their own soul’s salvation and stand pure before God will then care about the salvation of their fellow man. And when we deal with people who don’t yet know the way of peace we do not speak about election or speculate about whether or not they have been predestined. A missionary (and all Christians have the calling of missionary) has better things to do than fiddle around with questions that he can’t answer anyway. To the lost children whom we wish to save we speak of Jesus Christ, the Savior of ever person – even the worst of sinners. We assure them in God’s name, “God wants to help everyone and bring them to a knowledge of the truth. God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn and live. Therefore, repent and believe the gospel!” We know that such words have the power to convert sinners and soften hard hearts. And if someone simply won’t listen, then we testify: “You yourself are to blame when you are lost. You do not consider yourself worthy of eternal life.” This serious warning and stern rebuke is meant to bring such a person to his senses before it is too late. And those who are struck and won over by such appeals, admonitions, and warnings we greet as our elect brothers and rejoice at the increase in God’s family to which we belong. Election, that is our belief in our eternal predestination, does not hinder us as we carry out this duty to our neighbors or as we complete our Christian vocation. The comfort of our election and the certainty of our salvation is not a license for laziness and lethargic quietude. We who are certain about the fact that we are saved and who believe in our hearts that God surely picked us out for salvation before the foundation of the world will then use every day of our life and all our strength to help others along the path of salvation. The means of grace teach us to properly recognize what God’s grace entails. And the deeper we root ourselves in God’s grace, the more heartily and ably and willingly will we praise the grace of God before others and proclaim God’s universal gracious will to our fellow man.

  1. For further explanation, see Römerbrief pp. 403, 404. 
  2. To be sure, our reason senses a certain amount of dissonance between what the Scripture says about the cause of salvation and the cause of damnation. It says that the former is caused by God alone, and the latter by man alone. For our reason there is dissonance between God’s election of grace and his overall gracious will. It is nevertheless not any kind of contradicto in adjecto. For God’s election of grace and his gracious will are essentially different terms. Our reason is inclined to conclude that those who end up being saved must not have resisted the Word and Spirit of God as strongly as others, or that God didn’t desire as strongly that the lost be saved as he did with the elect. Every attempt to reconcile this dissonance according to our human reason leads either to Calvinism or Synergism. For our salvation it is sufficient to hold fully to both sides and to allow God to mediate the two. Proper theology stops where God’s revelation stops.