Christmas 2 – Series C (January 3, 2016)
“Chosen in Christ” (Ephesians 3:1-14)
What does the New Year have in store for you? Is everything already planned out for you by God? Is all that will happen to you this year simply a matter of fate or destiny? Today’s Epistle lesson talks about “predestination.” Is every choice we make “predestined” for us, or do we have freedom in some of the choices we make … and will make in 2016? As we will see, we do have freedom in some areas of our life, but in spiritual matters, God is the one who chooses us. Apart from God the Holy Spirit working in faith in our hearts, we have no hope and no spiritual life. And this should be a great comfort as we face all the uncertainties of what the coming year has in store for us.
Most people think that religion is a matter of choice. They investigate all the different belief systems that are out there, and then they choose the one they think is most suitable and comfortable for them. Or, they pick and choose from the various belief systems they have investigated and make up their own personal religion. “Religion is a personal matter, after all,” they conclude. “Why should I have to confess a bunch of antique words from a creed that was written hundreds of years ago?” But their personal religion ends up looking nothing like Christianity, but more like a smorgasbord of mysticism, pop psychology, and if you're lucky, maybe a little dash of Bible thrown in.
The Bible doesn't leave us with that option. Besides the fact that the name of Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we are saved, the Bible also teaches that apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead. That's exactly what the inspired Apostle Paul teaches in the chapter following the one where today's Epistle is found. He says that we “were by nature children of wrath.” Because of our disobedience to God, his anger over our sin remained upon us and we deserved hell. Paul says that “you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” Dead. Without life. Oh sure, you may have been taking air into your lungs. Your heart was beating. If someone pinched you, you would have said, “Ouch!” But spiritually, you were dead. And dead people cannot choose to be alive. Spiritually dead people can certainly make religious and moral choices. But none of these decisions will cause the breath of God to enter them and give them eternal life.
The Bible teaches that God chose us to be saved, and then it makes it clear that this choice is always “in Christ,” or “in connection with Christ.” St. Paul writes, “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 in him.”
Paul also says clearly that we were “predestined.” Some people equate predestination with fate. But fate is an impersonal force. Predestination, on the other hand, is personal. A personal God had us on his mind even before time began. Even before Adam and Eve fell into sin, bringing sin into the whole world, you and I were on God's mind and wanted us to be his beloved, forgiven children. He had already planned to send his Son to be our Savior. Some people also think that predestination means that everything in our lives has already been decided for us, that God even predestined that we would choose that Quarter Pounder at McDonalds and that Rocky Road ice cream cone at Baskin-Robbins. To be sure, nothing escapes God's foreknowledge. But what choices we make in earthly matters has nothing to do with predestination. Predestination is entirely centered in God's eternal, loving choice to save us from sin, death, and hell. It's all about his gracious election of us in Christ, his choosing us in connection with Jesus our Lord and Savior.
Christians who are the spiritual heirs of John Calvin believe in what is called “double predestination.” Calvin knew what the Bible had to say about God choosing some to go to heaven. But he needed an answer to the question, “Why some and not others?” He concluded that it must logically follow that God must have chosen the rest to go to hell. Thus, the term, “double predestination.”
The trouble is, the Bible doesn't teach this. It does teach that God has chosen some to go to heaven. It is this choice, this election, which is the divine cause of people coming to faith and remaining in the faith until they die. However, the Bible nowhere teaches that God chooses some to go to hell. If people go there, it is because of their own stubborn, sinful will that resists the work of the Holy Spirit on their hearts. Lutherans don't try to answer the question, “Why some and not others?” We simply leave it a mystery. It’s an unanswerable question.
And so when you ask yourself the question “Am I one of God's elect? Am I saved?” … be careful how you answer. Your answer to that question has nothing to do with any decisions you have made, whether you chose to believe or not. It has nothing to do with how many times you have gone forward in an altar call or recommitted your life to Christ. It has nothing to do with your feelings, with any ecstatic experiences you may have had. It has nothing to do with any inner voices that you may have heard. It has nothing to do with anything good in you or faithful in you that God saw from his perspective in eternity. Your answer to that question will depend simply upon this: “Am I in Christ? Am I connected to Christ?”
Are you baptized? Then you are “in Christ.” In Galatians 3:27, St. Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Are you sorry for your sins and do you trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins? Then you are “in Christ.” Listen again to St. Paul in the verse previous to the one just read: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” And remember, this faith is a gift of God's grace to you as well, given by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, through the Gospel and the Sacraments … given because you are one of God's chosen ones.
Are you receiving the Lord's Supper often while believing the words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness sins”? Then you are “in Christ.” 1 Corinthians 10:16 tells us plainly that in the Lord's Supper we are connected to Christ because we partake of his true body and true blood: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
You see, the doctrine of predestination and election was not given to us to keep us guessing and wondering what our status is before God. It was given to us as a great comfort. When you and I look into our hearts, we will find sin and unbelief and begin to doubt our election. But when we look outside of ourselves to Christ and his cross and the means whereby the benefits of the cross have been given to us – Baptism, the Gospel, Absolution, the Lord's Supper – then we receive comfort and assurance.
Today's Epistle reading teaches us that “in Christ” we are blessed, chosen, redeemed, given an everlasting inheritance, and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
We are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” God has blessed us with material goods, but these things will fade, break, rust, and rot. Our spiritual blessings are heavenly, eternal blessings … life, forgiveness, salvation, joy, peace, relief from sin and suffering, bliss forever in the presence of God.
God the Father “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” Long before you or I were born … long before God ever spoke those words, “Let there be light” … his intention was to include you in his plan of salvation and to call you to faith through hearing the Good News of Jesus. In Adam, you were in sin and in the devil's kingdom. In Christ, you were adopted in love and became a beloved child of God. All this so that you might be “holy and blameless before him.” In Christ, you are declared to be holy and blameless. In Christ, you are empowered to live a holy and blameless life as the fruit of faith and the forgiveness you have been granted through the death and resurrection of your Savior Jesus.
In Christ, you are redeemed. You have been purchased, blood-bought, saved from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil. You have been forgiven of all your sins and brought into God's plan for the world. This is what Paul calls “the mystery of his will.” In the Old Testament, it was a mystery as to when exactly the Messiah would arrive on the scene. But in Jesus, that mystery is revealed. It was “according to [God's] purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God's plan was to unite all believers in Christ, both in heaven and on earth, into one holy body, the Body of Christ. We still await that great and glorious day when the veil on this side will be taken away, and the Church on earth will be united with the Church in heaven.
In Christ, “we have obtained an inheritance.” That inheritance is what was just described. A place reserved for us in heaven. The promise of a future resurrection. The joy of eternal life. It's called an inheritance because we don't have it yet in all its fullness. But it will be ours, there's no doubt about that, just like the children of wealthy parents fully expect to receive their inheritance (hopefully they appreciate that fact and act kind and loving accordingly toward their parents). Our inheritance is the infinite wealth of our Creator and Redeemer, the glory of heaven itself. And he has given us a down-payment, a guarantee on that inheritance, the Holy Spirit who has sealed us.
In days gone by, kings and other rulers wore signet rings. Engraved upon their ring would be their coat of arms. They would use this to place their seal upon important documents. A small ball of wax would be placed on the paper, and they would press the face of the ring into the wax. In this way, the authenticity of the document and its contents were guaranteed.
You have the seal of the Holy Spirit upon you. You can't see it. But it's real. It's in the shape of a cross and has the name of the Triune God … Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … placed on you in Baptism. This seal marks you as God's own and guarantees the authenticity of your calling. It gives you something to cling to and return to daily when you begin to doubt your election. It reminds you of the glorious plan of salvation that was carried out in Christ who died and rose for your sins.
God's choice of you and me, this predestination and election we have been hearing about, gives him all the glory, and that's as it should be. Three times in our text Paul repeats a similar phrase: “to the praise of his glorious grace” … “to the praise of his glory” … “to the praise of his glory.” God gets all the glory in this. It's all about what he has done for us in Christ. If it was up to us, even just one percent, we would forever be in doubt as to whether that one percent was good enough. But it's not up to us. God has chosen you in Christ. One hundred percent. Take comfort in God's glorious grace in Christ today … throughout the coming year … and for the rest of your life.