The Epistle to the Ephesians is often the key to understanding Calvinist soteriology. However, what if Ephesians was not talking about how individuals are predestined and cannot lose their salvation? Well, in that case, Ephesians would no longer be a valid proof-text for Calvinist concepts.
As a note, my purpose in writing this is not to call into question one’s assurance of salvation and the confidence we should have that Christians will persevere to the end. The Scripture calls us to both be confident in the day of judgement (1 John 4:17), speaks of assurance that we will be saved (2 Cor 4:14), and expresses confidence that God will finish what He started in us (Phil 1:6).
Now, being that most of the debate is over Ephesians 1, this is where we will set our focus:
1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.
What Is The Passage Talking About? The whole passage can be properly understood if the “we” and “you” are known. In short, “we” are the Jews who received the Gospel first. The “you” are the gentile recipients of the Gospel (i.e. the Ephesians.)
So, all of those lofty words on predestination, on sealing by the Spirit, and etcetera cannot exegetically be applied to every individual believer without applying the meaning to every single Jew and Gentile. Being that this is clearly wrong, Paul’s point is not to give assurance to every single Christian–at least, not here.
Rather, his point is much more general–God has predestined and sealed Jewish Christians as a monolithic group. The Jews have been sanctified, set apart by God as holy because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross. In the same way, He has predestined and sealed the Gentiles who, as children of wrath and were not God’s people like the circumcised, are now made acceptable by faith. Hence, both Jews and Gentiles who are faithful are sealed and will be saved for God shows no racial partiality. Obviously, He is partial in favor of the faithful against the faithless.
What Is The Passage Not Saying? Now, let’s briefly address what the passage is not explicitly talking about. It is not commenting on individuals being sealed in the Spirit and this sealing allowing for the assurance for the individual believer that he will definitely persevere. This is scandalous to the Calvinist, but the plain meaning of the passage does not allow for it, because Paul is not focused on individuals.
Certainly, what is true for monolithic groups may be true of individuals. But, this is not in the purview of Ephesians and we would be on better exegetical grounds if we do not try to take Paul’s words here as addressing a matter (assurance) which he is not actually discussing.
Some Comments on Rom 11. All in all, Paul is addressing in Eph 1 the concept of how men apart from the Law and not physical children of Abraham become part of Israel, the Church. Sealing, in Paul’s mind, is a reference to the indwelling of the Spirit. The presence of the Spirit in the believer was understood to be proof that one was grafted into the Church, the life-giving tree spoken about in Rom 11.
For example, when the Apostles questioned Peter’s decision to baptize Gentiles in Cornelius’ household, Peter told them that he saw that they were indwelt by the Spirit. The Apostles replied, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18). Obviously, they did not think this meant all individual Gentiles. Rather, that being sealed by the Spirit was possible for the Gentiles provided they repent and presumably had faith.
As fate may have it, it was the Gentiles that quickly became the majority of the Church. This led Paul to comment in his letter to the Romans:
You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either (Rom 11:19-21).
So, while the Gentiles have been sealed in the Spirit by their faith there is a sense in which this sealing is not permanent if the Gentiles subsequently reject God like the Jews did. Again, this does not mean what is said is true of every Jew and Gentile (i.e. not a single Jew is becoming a Christian in Paul’s time and all the Gentiles are). Paul is speaking in generalities about how divine favor is shown to monolithic groups–not individuals.
We may then read Rom 11, with this whole pretext about Jewish branches being torn off, and see it as a contradiction of Eph 1:3-12. However, we must again avoid reading a passage in such a way to get it to answer a question other than the one Paul is posing. Rom 11 is answering the question why so many Jews are apparently not predestined to salvation. He is not addressing the question whether or not every Jew is no longer sealed for salvation (which according to Eph 1 would be impossible.)
In the same way, Eph 1 is not addressing whether every single Jew is sealed (or individual believer for that matter.) Instead, Paul is speaking of God’s predestinating of Jews and Gentiles as groups and on what basis (faith) Gentiles are made equal heirs with Jews. In accordance with Rom 11, God may show increasing favor to one group or the other, but both have been sanctified in the Spirit to be acceptable for salvation, which they may attain by faith in Jesus Christ.