“When it comes to Eph 1:4, ‘just as he [God] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love,’ Abasciano maintains that ‘the election of Christ is surely part of the background and meaning of the verse’ (p.18). Such a statement is not necessarily at odds with my own view. The point I was trying to make in my previous article is that in Eph 1:4 human beings are the direct object of God’s election, not Jesus Christ. Hence, the emphasis in the verse is not on the election of Christ, but the election of human beings...what Paul does not emphasize in Eph 1:4, however, is that God chose Christ as the corporate head, and then the election of the church becomes a reality insofar as human beings put their faith in Jesus Christ. What Paul emphasizes in the verse is not Christ’s election (even if it is in the background), but the election of believers. Arminian interpreters place their emphasis on a matter that is unstated in the verse, and at the same time undercut Paul’s stress on divine election of human beings” [Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner, “Corporate and Individual Election in Romans 9: A Response to Brian Abasciano.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (June 2006): 380].
I have a biased interest in the doctrine of election. Here at the Center for Theological Studies (CTS), I believe in pursuing all sorts of doctrines in the Christian faith; however, I do love studying what the Scriptures teach concerning election. And from time to time, I find myself back in the debates concerning election over and over again.
Today’s post places us in a disagreement between Drs. Brian Abasciano and Thomas Schreiner over the issue of corporate and individual election. As always, Ephesians 1 is the top text in the debate.
Schreiner’s first response (involving Ephesians 1) is that “in Eph 1:4 human beings are the direct object of God’s election, not Jesus Christ” (380). I agree with that. The verse says, “He [God] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world...” The phrase “in Him” is in the dative case in the Greek, and the dative case is used for indirect objects. The direct object is “humas” (Grk. us). Schreiner is right to say that the emphasis of this verse is humans. Schreiner also goes on to say that Paul emphasizes “the election of believers.” As a Reformed Arminian (Classic Arminian), I agree with this statement. The issue in Ephesians 1 is the election of believers. In his Disputation 49, titled “On the Union of Believers with Christ,” Arminius describes the union as follows:
“We may define it or describe it to be that spiritual and most strict and therefore mystically essential conjunction, by which believers, being immediately connected, by God the Father and Jesus Christ through the Spirit of Christ and God, with Christ Himself, and through Christ with God, became one with him and with the Father, and are made partakers of all his blessings, to their own salvation and the glory of Christ and of God” (James Arminius, “Works,” Disputation XLVIIII, Sec. 3).
It is “believers” who are unified with Christ. Arminius uses the word “believers” because such are “made partakers of all his blessings”...and sinners cannot partake of the divine blessings until they confess and believe on His Name. I disagree with Schreiner’s view that God selects individuals for salvation; but I do not disagree with the idea of an individual election (provided that individuals are predestined for salvation on the basis of God’s foreknowledge, as Arminius himself agreed to).
Having said that, Ephesians 1 is about believers being elected in Christ. While Christ is not the center of the statement in Ephesians 1:4, Christ is involved in election. The phrase “in Him” is used throughout the Scriptures to refer to salvation by grace through faith. Even in Ephesians 1, we see how important the phrase “in Him” is: “IN HIM we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7, NKJV). Only by union with Christ is there salvation.
But Schreiner’s words go too far when he writes the following:
“Arminian interpreters place their emphasis on a matter that is unstated in the verse, and at the same time undercut Paul’s stress on divine election of human beings” (380).
How do Arminians attempt to eliminate divine election?
“...God chose Christ as the corporate head, and then the election of the church becomes a reality insofar as human beings put their faith in Jesus Christ” (380).
According to Schreiner, this is “a matter that is unstated in the verse.” The issue of faith in Christ comes as we read Ephesians 1:4. The words “in Him” are a simplified verse of “through faith in Him,” “by Christ Jesus” (a phrase that is also used in Eph. 1:5).
What about the idea of Christ as corporate head? This idea can be seen in Ephesians 1:4, to the contrary of Dr. Schreiner. Believers are chosen “in Christ.” So, in the eternal decrees, Christ was there while humanity was not. To deal with sin, the decree to send Christ had to precede the decree to elect certain individuals. As I’ve said in previous posts, had God decreed to elect persons before sending Christ, then God would be choosing sinners who would still bear their own guilt on their heads. Placing Christ before humans in the eternal decrees (before time) is how God deals with sin before justifying sinners through Christ. Sinners need justification...and only Christ can justify sinners. After all, God sent Jesus when He did “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Only those who believe are justified.
I already stated that Christ must be decreed as Savior before anyone could be saved “in Christ.” Once God decreed to send Jesus, then (only referring to a logical order of the decrees, not a chronological order) God could decide to elect persons. At this point, grace and faith were decreed as conditions by which man would be saved. And all those who exercised faith in Christ would be deemed “elect.” Of course, they would be “elect” because of their faith in the “Elect One,” that being Christ.
Now someone could say, “What biblical evidence do you have for your philosophical argument?” Well, the Scriptures teach us that Christ is the Elect One (Matthew 12:18, quoting Isaiah 42:1; Luke 23:35; 1 Peter 2:6, quoting Isaiah 28:16). Those who believe in Him are elect (1 Peter 2:4, 9; Revelation 17:14). If Christ is “the head of the church” (Eph. 1:22-23), then those who believe constitute the church, which Ephesians 1:23 also calls “His body.” If Christ must pay the penalty for our sins (and we can contribute nothing of merit to our salvation), then we can only be justified through faith in Christ. Only after the Elect One is placed logically before elect persons can we see the importance of corporate election (built upon the elect individual, which is Christ). The election described in Ephesians 1 looks like this:
Decree #1: Christ dies for the sins of the world.
Decree #2: God sets the terms of salvation (as stated in John 3:16-18); He then decrees to dispense grace and faith needed for salvation.
Decree #3: Those who believe are given an individual election, which was foreknown by Christ before time.
Decree #4: God declares that those who believe are the church, which is Christ’s body. The saints not only have an individual election, but also a corporate one.
Schreiner states that “Arminian interpreters place their emphasis on a matter that is unstated in the verse, and at the same time undercut Paul’s stress on divine election of human beings.” How do I respond to Schreiner? I’ll reveal that in my next post.