Distinctives (1): The Absolute Sovereignty of God
(Ephesians 1.1-14, 2.1-5)
As you know, in this church we believe that the most faithful way to preach the Bible is to preach through whole books from beginning to end. We’ve often talked about why that is, and we’ve been in the gospel of Luke for a good long while now.
But we always take a break before the summer to do a short series on those subjects which have been weighing most heavily on the life of the church over the past year.
This year, based on discussions we’ve had with a good number of new people in the church, and particularly those who have gone through our members’ class, we’ve decided to take the month of June to go through our church’s theological distinctives: those secondary issues that are not reasons for division, but which still have a huge impact on the life of the church.
We have five doctrines which we are on our list of “distinctive” doctrines we hold, and we’re going to hit the ground running with the first on our list: the absolute sovereignty of God.
Now that’s a vast subject, and we don’t have time to see it all fully; so today we’ll be concentrating on God’s sovereignty, in particular, over salvation. This subject is often formulated under the so-called “doctrines of grace,” or “Calvinism” (named after the 16th-century Reformer John Calvin, who didn’t invent these teachings but whose writings reinvigorated a debate around the subject).
Now I know that some are getting excited, some of you won’t even know what I’m talking about, and still others are thinking, “This again?! I thought this was a secondary issue, why do we have to talk about it again?”
It’s a good question, and it can actually be asked about nearly all the subjects on our list of distinctive doctrines. Why talk about any of these things, if they are “secondary issues”? If they aren’t absolutely central to the faith, why bring them up?
There are a lot of reasons, but here are two main ones.
Firstly, because they are subjects the Bible addresses. They are not central, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant—and we want to be faithful to talk about and consider all of what God tells us in his Word.
Secondly, we need to talk about them because often what we don’t say shapes us as much as what we do say.
And although we have talked about most of the doctrines on our list of distinctives in the past, there are some potential blind spots that we could easily develop as a church, which could come because of the things that we leave unsaid.
And the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over salvation is a good example: for all we’ve said right about the subject, my fear is that some of us have inadvertently applied it in wrong ways.
It’s possible, as J. A. Medders wrote, that we may have unwittingly been guilty of loving Calvinism rather than being loving Calvinists; that we’ve studied the doctrines of grace but forgotten the grace of God.
So our goal today is to help us see that blind spot, and not fall into it.
Get your Bibles, and turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; we’re going to start at the very beginning, in chapter 1, verses 1-14
The basic goal of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is to show the church in Ephesus (which he knew well, because he planted it) how God saves us, and what impact that knowledge should have on the life of the church.
And it’s the perfect place to go, because as much as Calvinists pull out Ephesians to defend the doctrines of grace, the impact that this text should have on us should go way beyond simple intellectual stimulation. This text should destroy those of us for whom theology is fun, because it will not let us reduce it to an intellectual exercise.
God Saves His People (Ephesians 1.1-14, 2.1-4)
As we read I’d like you to imagine you’re reading this text for the first time. (That may well be the case.)
Imagine that you’ve heard a few things about Christianity, about how “Jesus died for our sins,” but you don’t know much more than that, and you’ve never actually read the Bible. Try to think of how this text would hit you if you were in that position. (Or, if you are in that position, just let it hit you!)
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:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 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, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 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, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Okay, so already, in those 14 verses, we see a number of things that seem to go against many of our assumptions of what Christianity teaches.
First of all we see that if we are in Christ, we have received (v. 3) every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Not some blessings, not even many blessings: EVERY blessing.
Secondly, we see that if we are in Christ, it’s because (v. 4) God CHOSE us in him.
And he didn’t just choose us (v. 5): he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons; and v. 4, he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.
So before the world ever existed, God had already decided beforehand that I would be his adopted son or daughter?
Next we see that (v. 7) God gave us redemption through his blood (the blood of Christ). Now that’s okay—I’ve heard that before (even if I’m not quite sure what it means).
But it says that he did it (v. 9) according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to to unite all things in him.
So this Jesus-dying-on-a-cross thing I’ve heard people talk about—that wasn’t just God reacting to a problem in the world? It was his plan? I’ve heard that Jesus bled and died for our sins…
And that was God’s plan? Like, he meant to do this? Well, that’s what Paul seems to be saying.
Next we see (v. 11) that in Christ we have obtained an inheritance. I guess that “inheritance” would be eternal life with Jesus. Which is good—but why did we obtain that inheritance?
Because we were predestined (there’s that word again!) according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
Wait a minute—all things? He’s saying God works all things according to the counsel of his will? So not just our salvation, but everything? Political movements and natural disasters and the movements of the planets and the lifespan of insects and…everything? Again, that’s what he seems to say.
Next he says something strange (v. 13) about how when we heard the gospel, and believed in Jesus, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.
GUARANTEE? I thought I had to keep doing the right thing to stay on this train. How can it be a guarantee? And what exactly is the “inheritance” I am guaranteed?
So just to summarize…Paul’s saying that God chose that I would one day be a Christian…that Jesus’s death was his plan since the very beginning…and that God guarantees I’ll receive an “inheritance” one day, which we can only assume refers to eternal life in heaven.
That flies against every preconceived idea we often have about what’s going on when we become Christians: it seems to go against the idea that I’m a Christian today because I chose to follow Christ, the idea that God sent Christ in response to sin, and the idea that it’s up to me to make sure I don’t “lose my salvation.”
So we can come to one of two conclusions at this point.
Either we can say that when Paul is writing this letter—when he uses words like “chose” and “predestined” and “guarantee”—clearly he means something else. Clearly he’s talking about something I just can’t quite understand. And we can shake our heads, say “I dunno,” and move on. That’s one possibility.
The other is to say, “I think he really means this stuff…in which case, I need to know more.”
Do I have to say it? The second option is the better option.
Why Divine Sovereignty Is Necessary
And in fact, if we simply keep reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see why everything he says in 1.1-14 is not only true, but why it has to be the true—why he means exactly what he says.
Skip down a bit to chapter 2, verse 1. In chapter 2, Paul is going to lay out why God has to be sovereign over our salvation, why it has to be God’s choice to save and to keep us. Let’s start at Ephesians 2.1.
2.1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
This passage gives clues which help answer two basic questions all of us ask at some point: Aren’t all people basically good? and Don’t we have free will?
I’ll be honest: the Bible never really tries to answer that second question—it has other goals in mind—but it gives us clues by answering the first question.
Here’s one faithful way of looking at it: yes, we are free, but it’s a specific kind of freedom; we are free to act in accordance with our nature.
For example, I’m not free to choose to be a dragon. I'm not free to choose to fly around or breathe fire, because I’m a human being. I’m not free to choose something that my nature doesn’t allow for.
And this question of our nature is exactly what Paul is getting at here: we were DEAD. As Steven Lawson put it, “This means that we are physically alive, but morally unable to respond to God.”
Spiritually speaking, we were completely and 100% dead: we could not choose the things that would bring us life, because dead men can’t choose to be alive. The dead can only choose dead things.
And these “dead things” that the dead can choose? The Bible calls them “sin.”
We are all descendants of Adam, who rebelled against God; and as his descendants, we were all born into his sin—we were born spiritually dead. We couldn’t choose God, because everything in our sinful nature runs counter to God’s perfect character.
Even the good we manage to do isn’t completely good, because…well, because humans can’t be dragons. We can build airplanes and make matches—we can fake it—but we can’t change our nature. We can’t choose to be something we’re not.
So we were free to do what we wanted, but what we wanted was to live (as Paul says) “in the passions of our flesh,” to fulfill “the desires of our bodies and mind.”
This question of desire is very important: it’s not as if we desperately wanted to choose God, but couldn’t because of our nature. No one who rejects God doesn’t want to reject God. We may be acting in accordance with our nature when we sin, but we are guilty because we love our nature. We sin because we love it.
And as a result, we deserved God’s wrath, because every sinful desire is an insult and an offense to his holy character.
So what did God do? He gave us a new nature. V. 4:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.
Okay so now, what Paul said in chapter 1 may start to make more sense.
Because God is rich in mercy, because he loved us with a great love despite our sin, he sent his Son Jesus Christ to earth as a human being, to live the life we are commanded to live, but which we couldn’t live—a life of perfect holiness, without sin. He sent his Son to earth, fully God and fully man, to take our sins on himself and to suffer the punishment we deserve.
As I heard someone say about that famous question, Why do bad things happen to good people? That has only ever happened once, in all of human history, when Jesus died for us.
And thanks to his sacrifice, even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us ALIVE together with Christ (v. 5).
You see, God’s sovereign and active choice is absolutely essential to our salvation, because dead men can’t decide to come alive. Sinful men and women can’t act in opposition to their nature.
Something has to come in from outside, to change that nature, to give us new desires.
Paul says that when we heard the gospel, when we heard the word of truth, something happened in us. We heard the gospel, and what were just words before hit us differently this time; we didn’t hear them as just words, but as truth.
We heard the good news of the gospel, and we believed the good news. We believed in Christ.
What made us believe? What made us see the gospel differently?
What made us not just understand the gospel, but believe the gospel, was that the Holy Spirit of God took the dead people we were and made us alive together with Christ.
Your faith is not your doing; it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing. He is the one who brought you from death to life. He is the one who opened your eyes to the truth of the gospel, who caused you to believe in Christ.
And he is the one who promises that we will receive the inheritance—the eternal life—that he has promised us.
When you receive an inheritance in our country, it’s usually because someone in your family has died, and has left you something. The notary gives you the document proving that you are the heir to this inheritance, and he puts his seal on the bottom. That seal is the proof that the document of inheritance is legitimate. It is the proof that the promised inheritance will come to you.
In our case, the only difference is that our dead relative came back from the dead.
Jesus was raised, and he ascended to the right hand of the Father, and now is waiting for us there, enjoying the inheritance and waiting to deliver it to us at the right time.
And the seal of our inheritance—the proof that this inheritance will indeed come to us—is the Holy Spirit, who brought us from death to life.
So if you’ve ever wondered,“How do I know that I lose my salvation? How do I know I’ll be able to persevere until the end?”—the answer is, you won’t be able to. You can’t do that.
But he can.
His Spirit brought you to faith, and he is living in you—he is the seal of your inheritance.
So just to sum up: We are, by nature, totally depraved. We were dead in our sin, enemies of God, following the desires of our body and our mind, completely centered on ourselves.
And despite that fact, God unconditionally chose to save us—not because of anything good or worthy in us, but only because of his free, sovereign will to do with his creation as he pleases.
He sent Christ to die for his elect, and Christ’s death on the cross didn’t just make salvation possible for us; it accomplished salvation for us. We have (not “may” have or even “will” have: we HAVE) redemption through his blood.
So now that Christ has fulfilled his work, at the time of his choosing, the Father draws his children to Christ: by his Holy Spirit he takes the dead people we were and he makes us alive, giving us a new heart with new desires. He draws us to Christ, and because we have this new desire to know Christ, we are irresistibly drawn by his grace.
And once we have received this amazing grace, this new birth from the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit serves as the guarantee that what he began in us, he will complete. He will cause us to persevere, with all the saints, until the end.
The Fruit of These Truths
Now, keeping all of that in mind, I’d like to speak to two different groups of people.
In the last two minutes or so, I just summarized the “Five Points” of Calvinism, or as they’re also called, the “Doctrines of Grace.” And I know that some of you noticed that, and heard it, and were cheering on the inside. If that’s you, and you hold to these doctrines (as I do), then you’re the ones I want to talk to first.
Young Christians who hear about these things for the first time often go through what people call the “cage stage.” These doctrines are incredibly stimulating, intellectually and spiritually; and so when people begin seeing them for the first time there is a kind of arrogant swagger they can develop. They’re excited about what they’ve learned, and they simply can’t conceive of anyone not seeing these things in Scripture (even though they themselves didn’t see them until very recently).
When I started discovering these things, I read my entire Bible, cover to cover, in a couple months. And every time I found a text showing God exercising his sovereignty, doing something that we usually imagine God has no part in, I marked a little triangle in the margin.
At the end, there were triangles everywhere.
I still love that, and I still do that triangle-marking thing. But I’ll never forget a conversation I had with our pastor at the time, who was horrified to discover that I wasn’t just making mistakes when I talked about God’s sovereignty, but that I actually believed these things, and I knew why I believed them.
At one point the conversation got so contentious that I pulled out my Bible, flung it open to a random page, and said, “LOOK!”
I thumbed through, pointing out all the triangles; I showed him Joseph; I showed him Ezekiel 36; I showed him Romans 9; I showed him John 6; I showed him (yes) Ephesians 1. I cited text after text, going, “You see? You see?”
Can you blame him for not being receptive to the “Doctrines of Grace” I so ungraciously exposed to him?
I love the Five Points. But there is a truth that is glaringly obvious in Ephesians 1 and 2, which should put up some massive guardrails around your heart.
And the truth is this: YOU HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING WE SEE HERE.
Take a look at these verses, and see how many times Paul refers to something you did to contribute to your salvation. The answer is easy: ZERO. In Paul’s exposition here, it is notable that he places us in a position which is almost entirely passive: God gives, and we receive.
That’s not to say we do literally nothing—but everything we do comes from him. The summary of this text is not: “Here’s how we got saved,” but rather, “Here’s how God saves his people.”
On top of that, look at all the times here Paul says the words “in Christ,” or “in him.”
• 1.3: He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.
• 1.4: He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.
• 1.7: In him we have redemption through his blood.
• 1.9: He set forth his purpose for us in Christ.
• 1.10: His plan is to unite all things in him.
• 1.11: In him we have obtained our inheritance.
• 1.12: Our hope is in Christ.
• 1.13: In him we believed, and in him we were sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Please tell me you see it: our salvation is not found in Calvinism. Our salvation is not found in the Five Points.
Our salvation is, from beginning to end, IN CHRIST.
And the sad truth is that many Calvinists love Calvinism more than Christ himself—in which case, Calvinism is an idol, and we are idolators.
But Paul’s point in telling all this to the Ephesians is not just to keep them from being theological idolators.
He is telling all of this to the Ephesians because these truths should produce specific results in the life of the church.
Keep reading the letter: Paul tells us what these truths should produce in us.
• Unity (4.1-3, cf. 2.11-22, 4.3-16)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
• Loving honesty to help the body grow (emphasis on the “loving”, 4.15-16):
15 Rather, speaking the truth in LOVE, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
• Profound care in how we speak to each other (4.29, cf. 4.30-32, 5.6-20):
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
• Mutual submission (5.20-21, cf. 5.21-6.9):
20 [Give] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
• and much more.
I believe the doctrines of grace are profoundly biblical—the doctrine of salvation in this text and others like it are faithfully and clearly systematized in the Five Points.
But as much as the Bible hammers the doctrines of grace home to us, we need to know that when God tells us these things, he has a goal in mind. And that goal is most definitely not that we wield these truths like weapons against people who disagree with us.
He tells us these things in order to make us see how much bigger God is than we give him credit for; to make us the kind of Christians who have an iron-clad confidence in God’s power to save and keep; and at the same time to keep us motivated by profound humility, love and care for others, no matter what their theology looks like.
I promise that I’m not thinking of anyone here in particular, so if you feel targeted, it’s completely unintentional. But if you do feel targeted, and you tend to react like I did at the beginning, then I implore you, with all the love I have for you: KNOCK IT OFF. Grow up, and stop it.
Think about the way you speak.
Think about the memes you post on social media.
Think about the topics on which you plant your flag and get ready for battle.
And stop. Lay down your arms.
The church which holds to these doctrines rightly will be welcoming, and humble, and loving, because that church will know that nothing it is, and nothing it has, is sourced in its members, but only in Christ.
To Other Christians
Now, to those of you who are not in that camp, who aren’t Calvinists and who don’t feel comfortable with this subject, let me give you some assurance.
If you’re uneasy about these things, believe me, I understand. It had the same effect on me.
I grew up hearing that Christ’s death made salvation possible—that Jesus opened the door to salvation, but that it was up to me to walk through, and to make sure I stayed in the room once I did.
The first time I heard these truths explained, I was profoundly uneasy. I had a really bad week. Trust me, I get it.
But if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you need to be able to explain, as Peter says, the reason for the hope that is in you. If you hope in Christ, you need to have a foundation for that hope.
And I’ve found that if my hope is simply rooted in the fact that Jesus made salvation possible for me, that hope tends to be very fragile. Because if Jesus only made salvation possible for me, but I have to make it happen, then I’m in trouble, because most days I am very, very weak.
My experience has been that these truths, which made me so uncomfortable at first, are the truths which give me the most comfort and assurance now, because they point me to our big God; and he is the only assurance I have for the hope in me.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
So I can be absolutely, 100% sure that what Christ began in me, he will be faithful to finish.
Because he’s God, and he said he would bring me home. I have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of my inheritance.
These truths form our assurance in failure; our comfort in suffering; our hope in temptation; and our humility in victory.
So we will continue to joyfully and unashamedly preach these things, and encourage one another with them, to give us joy in our salvation, and strength to obey his commands.
I recently read a story about the British evangelist George Whitefield.
Whitefield was a Calvinist, and his friend, the famous theologian and evangelist John Wesley, was most decidedly not (he strongly disagreed with Whitefield on this topic, and everyone knew it).
Whitefield was preaching at an event somewhere, and one of the congregants asked if they would see John Wesley in heaven.
Whitefield thought for a moment, then responded, “No, I don’t think we will.”
Gasps followed, and a long pause.
Then Whitefield said, “Mr. Wesley will be so near the throne and I will be so far in the back that I won’t be able to see him.”
Charles Spurgeon, a fervent Calvinist himself, commented on this story, saying,
“As I read such remarks made by Mr. Whitefield, I have said to myself, ‘By this I know, as a Christian, that he must be a Christian’; for I saw that he loved his brother Wesley even while he so earnestly differed from him on certain points of doctrine. Yes, dear brethren, if we cannot differ, and yet love one another—if we cannot allow each brother to go his own way in the service of God, and to have the liberty of working after his own fashion—if we cannot do that, we shall fail to convince our fellow-Christians that we ourselves are Christians.”
Brothers and sisters, be good theologians. Love good doctrine. But above all, love and follow King Jesus, and the brothers and sisters to whom he has united you.
One last thing. If you’re an unbeliever and you’re here today perhaps for the first time: first of all, thank you for bearing with me so long. I appreciate you hanging in there.
You might feel, after hearing all of this, that you have no part in any of this—you’re not a Christian, so clearly everything I’ve said today of Christians can’t be true of you, right?
That’s where this text is so comforting: if we had some part to play in our salvation, then it could be that we Christians simply had a different upbringing, or a difference sensibility to spiritual things, than others. So in that case, I wouldn’t really have a lot of hope to give you except to say, “Try really hard to believe.”
But God is the one responsible for every aspect of our salvation—including our belief in him. He did it all. And it’s easy for him, because he is all-powerful (he can do anything, including save a wretch like me), and he is all-knowing (so he knows how best to do it).
That means that no one is out of his reach. No one is too sinful, or too intelligent, or too much of an atheist, for him to save.
He draws us to Christ in a wide variety of ways. I have a friend who met Christ after eating a can of vegetables which had gone past its expiration date! (For real.) You never know what God is doing to get you exactly where he wants you to be, for the Holy Spirit to bring you from death to life.
So if you feel like God might be doing that in you (even if you don’t really know how to qualify what’s going on in your heart), then don’t ignore it. Pursue it. Ask someone to read the Bible with you. And don’t worry about going about it “the wrong way”, because it’s God who does this in you; you don’t do it in yourself.
We’ll have some help in a moment during Communion, but if you think he might be drawing you to him, follow him. And we are here: you don’t have to go alone.