On another blog, which I enjoy following, the author, T, has asked some very interesting questions. Given that I believe God is calling me to leadership and teaching, perhaps it would be a good idea if I make an attempt at a response. Also, given that the author of the blog comes across as such a nice bloke, with a good and genuine heart, I hope to offer some support by writing this. I don’t think a blog post is enough, but I will make a start. Feel free to email me, or leave a comment, if you want to ask more questions, or just to add your twopence-worth.
The questions relate to verses from Ephesians: Ephesians 2:8 NIV and Ephesians 1:5 NIV.
I shall take these verses in this order, because that is how they were ordered on T’s blog. As I understand it, T is very troubled because he says that the first verse suggests that faith is gifted by God and thus lack of faith is because God has not given faith. T is troubled by the second verse because, he says, it suggests that some people are predestined to be saved, and others are predestined for hell, and an eternity of torment. Specifically, T asks ‘How can God create people that have no chance for salvation so He could send them to hell for his pleasure? How is this a loving God’?
I shall break down my responses to this by numbering parts of the text and using headers. I am not a theological scholar (though I hope to be), but I have given these things considerable thought and have studied as a layman for some time. I would also add that there is so much more that could be said on this subject. I will try to keep it brief!
What follows is my opinion. I am open to the fact that other people may have other opinions. My faith is strong enough, and sensible enough, to agree to disagree. That said, T, I hope you find some comfort and reassurance that God is indeed a God of a love SO BIG we cannot even imagine, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, wave upon wave of love across eternity. Also that God is a personal God, in that He cares about each one of us, puny and small and silly as we all are, and holds out His hands to us in love and friendship. And we don’t deserve any of it, we can’t earn it; all is freely given.
1. Grace and faith
Beginning with the first verse above: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ Ephesians 2:8 NIV.
It is always important to consider the context in which the words were written. First we must remember the fact that these words were written as part of a letter. They are part of the dialogue between Christians 2000 years ago, at the very beginning. There is evidence to suggest that Ephesians was not originally written to the church in Ephesus, because ‘Ephesus’ is not mentioned in early texts, but may have been more of a round-robin letter, intended for a wider audience. Also, because of differences in style between Ephesians and other letters by Paul, ‘many modern scholars regard Ephesians as the work of a member of the Pauline ‘school’ (The Oxford Study Bible), rather than directly written by Paul himself. While that has no bearing on what I will outline below, we must always have an appreciation for context.
The second thing to remember is that it is always important to consider the context of a verse, or verses, within the passage. Otherwise we can end up with nasty messes where the bible is misquoted for the purpose of, for example, anti-semitism, oppression and prejudice.
So, for the sake of context, the whole of the paragraph is as follows (taken from the Good News translation, for simplicity and clarity):
4 But God’s mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, 5 that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God’s grace that you have been saved. 6 In our union with Christ Jesus he raised us up with him to rule with him in the heavenly world. 7 He did this to demonstrate for all time to come the extraordinary greatness of his grace in the love he showed us in Christ Jesus. 8-9 For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. 10 God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do.
Ephesians 2:4-10 GNT
If we look at the verses before verse 8, we see that it speaks of the grace of God, and the love of God. Verse 9 clarifies that we are saved through faith, which is God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. It also then goes on to say that this gift is given so that we might live a life of good deeds.
Taken in the context of the paragraph, we can see that it is being saved through faith that is by God’s grace, not faith, though faith is our active response to God. We are saved through the gift of faith because on our own, we cannot manage it (and thus we are unable to boast about it, as if being saved was something we had achieved through our own actions).
It does not mean that where we have doubts, God has not gifted us with faith. Every mature believer has doubts sometimes. It is part of growing in grace, and wrestling with what life with Christ looks like. Personally, I’d say that if you never have doubts, there’s something wrong. A group that never has doubts is akin to the fascists of the 1930s and 40s, or Stalinist USSR (where you were likely to be ‘disappeared’ for expressing doubts). Questions are good. Jesus tells us to have a childlike faith, and children are always asking questions!
Being saved is a gift, and it is given through God’s abundant grace.
‘he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will’
This is part of the opening lines of the letter of Ephesians. The lines around verse 5 talk about praising God and thanking Him for His abundant goodness. While I don’t claim to read or write Ancient Greek, what I do know is that the word ‘predestined’ is only used in some translations. My husband, who does read Ancient Greek, helpfully looked up the passage in his Ancient Greek bible. Frank says the Greek word ‘thelema’ translates more literally as ‘God’s will’, which is quite a different slant than ‘predestined’, isn’t it? Read more here.
We must always remember that translations are made by people, and people always have an agenda, whether they admit it or not. Someone with a strong idea of predestination may consider the word a better translation than ‘God’s will’. I do not mean to imply that I do or do not believe in predestination. That’s a conversation for another day.
Other translations use words such as ‘For He foreordained us (destined us, planned in love for us) to be adopted (revealed) as His own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the purpose of His will [because it pleased Him and was His kind intent]’ (Amplified Bible), ‘foreordained’ is used in the American Standard Version, ‘He planned, in His purpose of love’ says JB Phillips translation, ‘God had already decided’ says Good News Translation. ‘Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us’ says The Message paraphrase. Have a look on biblegateway.com to read more versions.
The whole paragraph, to give more context:
Because of his love 5 God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children—this was his pleasure and purpose. 6 Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son! 7 For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God, 8 which he gave to us in such large measure!
Ephesians 1:4-8 GNT
There is nothing here about not loving those who have never heard the Good News. There is nothing about them being sent to an eternity of torment. It’s simply not there.
In John 10:27, Jesus himself says “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” NIV
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and us His sheep. We can choose not to be His sheep, but He will do everything He can to rescue the sheep that wanders away. God is love. He created each one of us ‘from love, of love, for love’ says Julian of Norwich.
Our God, the same One who says “I AM”
1 John 4:7-12 says “Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.”
God has His plan – which we can choose to be part of, or not, but “we know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.
It doesn’t mean God has ill-will towards the rest. No! Would Jesus have given up His life in such a horrible way if He didn’t love each one as much as the rest? Those who don’t know God are those whose choice it is to not know Him. That doesn’t mean that people who have never heard of Jesus are destined to eternity away from God (hell). That is not something a God of love, a God of redemption, does. And if we know that God is love, and we know our lives have changed beyond measure now that we know Him, this is why we must share this Good News throughout the earth.
The Kingdom of God is near – the Kingdom of God is waiting to be spread throughout the earth. Because life as a Follower of Christ is not just about being saved, it is not just about what happens at the end; it is about life today, now. Here on earth. Jesus said
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
and announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.”
After saying this, He went about doing these things. He didn’t just tell the sick, and the poor and the unloved, that they had hope in eternal life, whenever that may be. He fed the hungry today. He healed the sick today. He raised the dead today. He gave them hope today. He set them free today.
When Jesus first met Simon and Andrew, He said to them “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1).
Today, Jesus says the same to you: “Follow me”.
Will you come?
P.S. A good rule of thumb: where there are doubts, look back to Christ. How did Jesus behave? What did Jesus say about it? Pray.