Rev. J. Mark Bertrand
April 3, 2023
“Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
In love … These words have a reassuring weight. For years they comforted me the way God’s rod and staff comfort the Psalmist, the way a baseball bat comforts you when you hear a strange noise on a lonely night. They became a well-worn weapon to me — an instrument of defense, I told myself — for in the endless skirmishes over election and predestination, a verse like this can land a crushing blow. But to appreciate the true value of the words, it helps to envision how this sword might serve better as a plowshare.
In the winding, magisterial opening of his Epistle to the Ephesians — one long sentence in the Greek spanning verses 3-14 — the Apostle Paul states plain as day that the loving, personal God who created all things and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” also began his plan of human redemption with an act of election. He chose us in Christ, Paul says, not after we repented and believed (or even on condition of such a future contingency) but before the foundation of the world.
Ask yourself, why draw the curtain back on such a profound mystery? What purpose could this knowledge serve apart from fanning the flames of theological debate? If that had been God’s reason, he might have revealed a little more. The key to this deep disclosure is found in the latter half of the phrase. If the first part puts the pre- in predestination, then the last supplies the destination itself, which is nothing short of the presence of God.
Imagine standing upright before him, righteous and guiltless, experiencing the fullness of divine communion. Any path that takes you there would come as a welcome discovery, yet how could you ever hope to travel it without doubt? What work of yours could get you there, what faith could bridge the distance? The more you know yourself, the more implausible it becomes to picture yourself before him. To those who see the unsurpassable gulf, Paul’s words offer beautiful assurance. No love of yours for him will see you there. But his love for you, the love in which he predestined you, guarantees you will see him face-to-face.
The doctrine of election and predestination is no philosophical polemic. It is an act of divine love, and a gift of comfort to those who doubt. What this text represents for us and for our church is not proof that, in the perennial debate, we are surely right. Rather it means that in the journey of faith we will surely stand in righteousness before God, incredible as that seems from the standpoint of human wisdom.
The recovery of the doctrines of grace as fighting words by new generations might keep our tradition limping along, but won’t suffice to keep it alive. To do that, we must pass down the kind of impervious hope that only comes from knowing that the plan of salvation is anchored on either side of time itself.
Rev. J. Mark Bertrand is a pastor author of Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway, 2007). Since 2017, he has been an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife Laurie life in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.