electionPMT 2017-009 by Frank A. James III (published by Christianity Today)

For many, predestination is a struggle to accept; for Paul, it’s a doctrine of love.

What is it that takes Paul’s breath away? It is the incomprehensible vastness of God’s love that encompasses eternity past, present, and future. Paul pulls back the veil of the Godhead and grants a glimpse into the triune mystery of the Father’s eternal plan (vv. 3-6), the Son’s implementation of the plan (vv. 7-12), and the Spirit’s guarantee that the plan will reach completion (vv. 13-14). The redemptive panorama is so stunning that it leaves Paul breathless.

At the center of this expansive vista is predestination. Paul writes about divine predestination with an enthusiasm that might strike some contemporary Christians as peculiar at the very least. For him, predestination is a divine blessing so overwhelming that the very act of sharing it with Gentile readers takes his breath away. Rather than talk about this unfathomable mystery in sober hushed tones, Paul seems to want to shout it from the rooftops.


In what amounts to a hymn of praise, Paul is utilizing a Jewish literary form called a berakah (blessing) which acknowledges God as the source of all blessing. If Paul’s primary goal in this berakah is to praise God, his other main purpose is to encourage the Gentile Christians by reminding them that God has “lavishly” bestowed (v. 8) his blessings, indeed, “every spiritual blessing” (v. 3), upon them too. According to God’s eternal purposes, the Gentiles were not a late inning substitution but a magnificent part of God’s plan from the beginning. Such a berakah from a former religious terrorist like Paul is nothing short of staggering.

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While Paul highlights many of the blessings of God (adoption, redemption, and forgiveness of sins), this sentence is structured in such a way that it actually emphasizes divine predestination. Paul twice employs the parallel portrait of God bestowing his special affection by “choosing” a people for himself. This distinctive familial language of being “chosen” is at the very heart of Israel’s self-identity, and it is the same language that Paul uses to describe the Gentile recipients of this epistle. Indeed, Paul uses yet another corresponding term to define these Gentile converts: “adoption” (v. 5). These three words (predestination, choosing, and adoption) are mutually reinforcing concepts with which Paul reveals God’s deep affection for the Gentile readers of this letter.

Not only is the idea of predestination right there in the text, but Paul launches it at the very outset of his circular letter to these recent Gentile converts-people he had never actually met. It is mildly amusing that Paul does not even take the time to chat them up, meander a bit, or generate some “good vibes” before jumping headlong into the doctrine of predestination.

As a Jew, Paul was quite comfortable with the notion of God choosing a people for himself. After all, the constant refrain of the Old Testament is that the Jews are God’s “chosen” people. In Deuteronomy 7:6-8, we find this profoundly affectionate declaration of God’s love for Israel: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession . . . because the Lord loved you.”

Paul extends this previously exclusive berakah of the Jews to these Gentile followers of Jesus. It is as if a sonorous voice announced: This berakah is for you —Jews and Gentiles.

A Love Doctrine

It is well enough that Paul extends God’s blessing to the Gentiles, but why would he utilize the “dreadful” notion of predestination to do it? Surely the ideas of adoption, redemption, and forgiveness are more than adequate to describe God’s extravagant blessings upon the Gentiles.017-sovereignty

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Roman orator and political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero gives us a brutal picture of what city life was like during this period of history when he describes the populace of Rome as “miserable starving rabble.” What could the blessing of predestination mean to such ancient city dwellers? What could it mean to the 90 percent of the population in the Roman Empire who lived “a hand-to-mouth existence” and rarely lived beyond 40 years? On top of these dismal living conditions, there were social and political anxieties (injustice, oppression, abuse, and, of course, unreasonable taxes) that plagued the lives of the recipients of Paul’s letter. How might predestination bless such Gentiles faced with the relentless daily challenge of mere survival?

Paul acknowledges that those Gentile converts were suffering from “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). He understood that it is not easy to praise God on an empty stomach. But he also knew that even hungry stomachs need hope.

The grim realities of first-century Asia Minor are impossible to fully grasp, especially for those who have been born in the relative security of the West and enjoy the many benefits of the modern world, but such living conditions were no less real. Yet, I can imagine that the recipients of the epistle might have found encouragement and comfort in Paul’s words.

For a brief moment, they were no longer looking through a glass darkly, but were able to catch sight of eternal realities.

To be told with such unabashed exuberance that God set his affection on you before the creation of the world and that you are part of God’s eternal purpose is enough to take your breath away-even in the most difficult of circumstances….

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