Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, "Predestined to the Praise of His Glory"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The reading from Ephesians today is rich and full in counting up the spiritual blessings that we have in Christ Jesus. Among those, it speaks repeatedly of our being “predestined.” Today we’ll take a beginning look at that difficult and often avoided mystery of “predestination.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

God has given us the knowledge of predestination to give comfort and assurance to believers. Yet oftentimes this Biblical teaching is ignored as too “abstract” or “impractical,” or it is sometimes viewed with some fear because we don’t understand it. At worst, it’s denied altogether, though there are many places in Scripture where it’s clearly taught. But first, what does “predestine” mean? It refers to that fact that God chose His children ahead of time for salvation. As verse 4-5 explains: “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 through Jesus Christ.” So God did His “predestining” or “choosing beforehand” before the foundation of the world! So He knew all along, even before creation, who would be His own.

Another word for predestination is “election.” That God “elected” or chose who would be His own. In this way, we can refer to those whom God “elected” or “predestined” to be His own, as “the elect.” Jesus speaks this way when He talks about gathering the elect to Himself on the Last Day, or cutting short the final trials before judgment for the sake of the elect. And only the elect will be saved. So the elect are the believers in Christ who God predestined from before all time to be His own. Sometimes the word “the chosen” is also used for the elect, although that sometimes carries its own connotation. Sometimes Lutherans or Presbyterians or other Christians who aren’t known for their “expressiveness,” are referred to as “the Frozen Chosen,” because of their restrained emotions. In another way it can have a more negative slant to it, when people make remarks about “They think they’re the Chosen Ones,” or something similar. But we shouldn’t let any negative use of the words elect or chosen prevent us from using those Biblical words. Nor should we be surprised—as though it were any different for the Old Testament believers of Israel—that the world should resent that God has set apart believers for Himself.

Already perhaps there are dozens of questions forming in our minds about predestination. Some may find this idea unsettling, others may find it comforting, and still others may be thrown into doubts. It’s certainly understandable why this mysterious teaching is often “kept on the shelf” for later. Luther said that if you really want to study predestination, follow the order of the book of Romans, and concern yourself first with Christ and the gospel, sin and grace. Then when you have struggled with sin under God’s grace, as the first 8 chapters of Romans describe, then you can learn in Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11 how comforting the teaching of predestination is. The official doctrinal writings of our Lutheran church, which are found in the Book of Concord, give an excellent explanation of this whole matter, in a very comforting, orderly, and Biblical way, if you want to study it further. Those early Lutheran teachers recognized the difficulty of this teaching, and that it can easily cause people to have “strange, dangerous, and deadly thoughts” (SD XI.10).

Those thoughts could lead a person to strengthen their trust in themselves rather than God, or strengthen their unrepentance or hopelessness or despair. But could this be what God’s intention is for giving us this knowledge of His predestination? Not at all! There is no hint of this in the reading, where it says that God lavished upon us the riches of His grace in all wisdom and insight, “making known to us the mystery of His will.” Or that He “predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace.” God has given us this knowledge out of the richness of His grace and to the praise of His glory. So when it’s taught and understood correctly, this should not be a doctrine that causes us to fall into hopelessness or despair, but rather should bring us great comfort. Through the encouragement of the Scriptures we are to find hope! (Rom. 15:4). So it is the misunderstanding of, and the various dangerous ideas about predestination that can cause us trouble—not God’s Word correctly taught.

So let’s try to eliminate a few of the common misunderstandings, and come to a better understanding of how God’s Word teaches on predestination. First, when a person hears that God chose whom He’ll save from before all eternity, they might react in this way: “Since it’s out of my hands, and God has already determined how everything should and will go, then I should just live however I please, and no harm can come of it, and it won’t change anything.” This would be a kind of fatalism or resignation that thinks, if I’m chosen for salvation, it wouldn’t matter how shamefully I sinned and never repented, or how carelessly I disregarded God’s Word and Sacraments, or showed no desire for “faith, prayer, or godliness” (SD XI.10). I could do all this and yet remain one of the elect, all the while despising God’s grace. Or I might have never been chosen and it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. That’s one dangerous attitude that’s really nothing more than a cheap excuse for complacency and comfort in our own sins. As one pastor put it, it’s like having God raise you from the dead and you decide that you prefer to continue wearing the old grave-clothes and rags you were buried in, to wearing the new clothes of righteousness that Christ gives.

This is an ungodly reaction to the knowledge of predestination. It twists things quite badly. One fault is that it assumes that since God predestined things from eternity, that it makes no difference to Him how we live in the here and now. Nothing could be further from the truth or from the Biblical witness. But the fatal fault of this reaction is that it separates this teaching from Christ. It looks only at predestination as an eternal decree, but doesn’t look at how it intersects with our faith in Christ. I think you’ll see that all the errors about predestination in some way or another separate it from Christ.

A similar, but more “pious” response to predestination, is when a person is making serious strivings to do what is good, and yet their thoughts end up like this: “Maybe I’m not predestined for eternity and all my efforts cannot help me.” They look honestly at their efforts, and see that they have failed in living as a Christian ought to, and feel as though they couldn’t make the cut. For them it’s not as much about indifference because God already predestined everything, but more a despair of their own fitness to be among the elect. But the fault in this is that the person has again turned their attention on themselves and their own works, and of course none of us deserve to be chosen or predestined. That’s part of the whole point of predestination, and understanding God’s grace, is that since it did happen before the foundations of the world, there was nothing you or I did to earn or deserve it. It’s not about how many good works you’ve added up or how much progress you’ve made in your sanctification. Again it looks at predestination without Christ in view.

Another reaction to the knowledge of predestination is to simply ask the logical question, “How do I know if I’m among the elect or not?” As people try to answer that question, some might point to a certain “act of commitment” or “decision to accept Jesus” as the proof that they are saved, and therefore among the elect. This can leave a person quite self-confident, but it can also cause those who doubt to wonder if they really committed themselves sincerely enough. Maybe they are still unsure, and they need to recommit again, and again, and again. But if our predestination happened before the foundations of the world, how could it have anything to do with what we’ve done? And aren’t there many who’ve made such commitments who’ve later rejected them?

Or a person may fully acknowledge the pure grace of God’s salvation and predestining us as His children. But to find assurance of whether they are elect they look to the evidence of their changed lives as Christians: the good works they produce, how successful they are in their sanctification, etc. They use their “progress” as a thermometer to determine if they’re truly Christian or not. Such a Christian can get stuck in a similar hopeless cycle of doubt, always struggling to do better, but never measuring up to the standard and seeing the progress they hope for. Their life will never provide the certainty they hope for, to know that they are among the elect. But the problem with both approaches, is that it turns us back to ourselves again for proof, either at the time of our conversion, or on the basis of how good a life we’ve led since. As always, the focus isn’t so much on Christ, as on what we’ve done or are doing.

I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to various misunderstandings of predestination, but now we need to set clear how to rightly understand this and to draw the comfort from this teaching that God intends for us to have. It’s not supposed to leave us doubting or fearful, it’s not supposed to leave us self-confident or unrepentant. No, it is a call to “be holy and blameless before God.” And all the riches of God’s grace are lavished on us. Lavished means that God is extravagant, overflowing with generosity, pouring out more than we deserve upon us. Lavished with grace is having your cup overflowing, the banqueting table spread in the presence of your enemies. And it’s His forgiveness of our sins and the redemption we have through His blood that make it possible for us to live holy and blameless.

All that happens in God’s eternal plan of predestination is carried out and completed in Jesus Christ. This is the vital point. You cannot separate the knowledge of predestination from faith in Jesus Christ. You cannot think that God just cast the die and divvied up humanity into two groups, those saved and not saved, and that all that happens in our lives is irrelevant to our salvation. Nor can we think that it doesn’t make any difference who we tell the Gospel to, because they are either predestined for salvation or not. God’s plan of predestination isn’t a matter of Him just “zapping” us—“You’re a Christian!” God actually works in time, in history, in human weakness and frailty, among sinners, through ordinary means. He creates faith through the ordinary means of hearing His Word, the washing of water with the Word in Baptism, and His Spirit that is active wherever His Word is read, preached, or heard. This is to say that we don’t go directly from being predestined to going to heaven with nothing in between! God has a plan and order for how this all works out. Romans 8:30 describes this order simply: “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

While being predestined happens in God’s eternity, being called to be a believer happens in time and through God’s Word—wherever it was first spoken over you or taught to you. God’s call to you is active through His Word. And hearing and receiving His call we have faith in Jesus Christ, who redeems us by His blood. And when we die in faith and are glorified, we receive the realization of that inheritance that God predestined us for—eternal life. The Holy Spirit is our guarantee—like a down payment or deposit—of that eternal inheritance to come. So the way to answer whether we are elect or not, whether we are predestined—is simply to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. If we have faith in Him, we don’t need to have any doubt about whether or not we are among the elect. If we trust in Jesus, we are. God’s eternal predestination doesn’t mean He’s going to randomly or arbitrarily rule out some people who have been faithful believers in Christ. On the contrary, all who believe in Him will be saved. So the only way to know is by looking to Jesus—not by looking to yourself or your works, nor by pretending that it doesn’t matter because it’s not up to you.

Rather, God is personally and individually interested in you. And His predestination of you is working itself out in the personal way that He has called you to faith through His Word. And what a powerful antidote to the idea so many people have, that God is oblivious to our existence, to our hurts, our pains, our sorrows! Far from being aloof and far off, unaware of our existence, God knew us before we were born, and before the foundations of the world He chose us to be His! And then in time and history He sent His Son to work out that salvation for us on the cross, and to bring it to us through His Word. What can we do with such knowledge? It is too high and wonderful to understand or explain. We can only give thanks and praise God for His glory. We worship the greatness of His love in all its mystery and transcendence. Our reading also repeats that phrase 3 times, “to the praise of His glory” or “to the praise of His glorious grace.” Because for such undeserved love, there is no better response than to praise Him. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Do you ever have doubts about your salvation? Why or why not? What things can contribute to our complacency about such questions?

2. What are harmful ways of thinking about predestination? What focus is lost in them?

3. What are the implications of the fact that God chose us before the foundation of the world?

4. Read Romans 15:4. Why can’t it be that one of God’s teachings (such as predestination) should cause our faith harm or trouble? What is the purpose of God’s Word?

5. Does predestination make it irrelevant how I live my life? (reread Eph. 1:4)

6. How does the eternal decree of predestination intersect with faith in Christ in time and history?

To study further on the teaching of Election/Predestination, there is a short summary explanation in the Book of Concord in the section called the “Epitome, article XI”, or there is a more in-depth treatment in the “Solid Declaration, article XI.” Both links are below if you don’t have a book copy. Election.

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