Ephesians 1:5,6a. Having predestinated us to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace.
When we consider the nature of God’s dispensations towards mankind, we may perceive that one great design which they subserve is that “the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the Lord alone shall be exalted”. The Scriptures everywhere condemn and labour to destroy that spirit of self-sufficiency and proud independence which we are all so prone to cherish. There can be no compromise between human pride and the divine glory, no connection between our merits and the Lord’s merciful gifts. If God is to be exalted, man must be brought low. If the divine glory is to be revealed, it must shine forth in unmingled and unclouded brightness.While this design may be traced in the dealings of providence, it appears still more clearly in man’s salvation. Accordingly it is here that the Lord has had His great controversy with our race in all ages. We may be willing to acknowledge that we might be justly deprived of the providential favours we receive. But when the claim of absolute sovereignty in our salvation is advanced, our pride immediately incites us to question the validity of the claim, or even to deny it boldly. We are ready to give God much of the glory of our salvation, but that He should obtain it all – that we should be able to do nothing, that our prostration should be so low and His exaltation so supreme – this the carnal mind cannot endure.
But this supremacy the Scriptures assert, and in few places do they do so more explicitly or fully than in this chapter. The Apostle here ascribes salvation in all its parts to the free, unmerited grace of God. Are we elected? We have been chosen before the foundation of the world, and predestinated unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, “to the praise of the glory of His grace”. Are we redeemed? We have redemption through Christ’s blood, the forgiveness of sins, “according to the riches of His grace”. Are we justified and called? We have obtained an interest in the promised inheritance, “that we should be to the praise of His glory”. Are we finally glorified? The redemption of the purchased possession, which we shall then for ever inherit, is also “unto the praise of His glory”. While all God’s perfections are honoured, it is His grace which is crowned with the brightest lustre. It was magnified from everlasting in the counsels of peace when a people were chosen in Christ to be monuments of its power. It was magnified by that mysterious decease which He accomplished at Jerusalem. It is still magnified in the conversion of every sinner whom its efficacy subdues. And it will be yet more transcendently magnified when the number of the elect is completed, when the last sinner of mankind has been regenerated and justified.
The doctrine taught in our text is, Divine grace is glorified in the election of sinners to salvation. It is in predestinating a people unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself that God is said to shew forth “the praise of the glory of His grace”. And as this was the first of all its manifestations, it is the most humbling and amazing. No other awakens more powerfully the hostility of our unsanctified hearts. But we cannot refuse to follow where Scripture leads the way. And if it be indeed a doctrine of the Bible, as many plain declarations and the whole tenor of the Word of God satisfactorily show, it must be a doctrine according to godliness and consistent with all the perfections of the divine character.
1. Turn your thoughts then to the consideration of the doom of the angels who sinned. They, like man, were created in honour; but, like man, they fell. And by their fall they subjected themselves, in common with mankind, to the outpourings of the divine indignation. But they were more honoured by God than man, and they possessed greater capacities for serving Him. How dreadful to be precipitated from such a height of blessedness into the abyss of woe, there to be reserved in chains under darkness, unto a still more terrible doom! How sad the thought that these morning stars of creation should set in everlasting night, that angels of light should become demons of darkness!
Might we not think that, if grace were ever to be manifested, it would be manifested here? But God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts. He not only permitted them to sin when they chose to transgress, but no means were employed to recover them from the ruins of their fall; the sentence of condemnation was immediately carried into execution. The inheritance of eternal life on which they had entered was, in a moment, exchanged for the bitterness of eternal death. No Saviour was provided to ransom them from ruin. No promise of restoration at the end of ten thousand ages was given to alleviate their sufferings by the far-distant prospect of them coming to a close. No favoured remnant was chosen out of the multitudes of the perishing. All were overwhelmed with indiscriminating vengeance.
Does not reason then pronounce that if fallen angels were left universally to perish, fallen men might justly have been ordained to the same unmitigated condemnation? Grounds of distinction may indeed be traced between the cases. And these may be lawfully employed in illustrating the divine wisdom which has made us to differ. It may be said, for example, that the angels did not all fall but, when man fell, the whole race was involved in ruin. And had similar retribution been inflicted, all mankind would have been lost for ever. But it is evident that this does not affect the essential justice of a similar procedure on the part of God towards men and angels. The guilt which was partial among the inhabitants of heaven, was universal among the inhabitants of earth. And as the penalty was commensurate with the crime in the case of the former, its infliction might, with equal justice, have been as extensive in the case of the latter. But blessed be the Lord’s most holy name! While He spared not the angels that sinned, but passed them by and “ordained them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice”, He determined from everlasting to have compassion on sinful men and from them to choose a people to eternal life, and all to the praise of the glory of His grace.
2. But grace is glorified not only in the election of sinful men while sinning angels were passed by; its glory is farther displayed in the distinction which has been made by divine sovereignty among sinners of mankind. Had God, in appointing to wrath all the angels who kept not their first estate, embraced in one comprehensive decree of love the whole family of man, His grace would have received an illustrious manifestation. But here, again, God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts. And while we attempt to fathom the infinity of His counsels, we are constrained to cry out, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements and His ways past finding out!”
That God has not elected all is evident from the fact that He will not save all. For while some, at the resurrection, shall awake “to everlasting life”, some shall awake “to shame, and everlasting contempt”. But the latter were originally not more unworthy than those who shall then shine as the brightness of the firmament, and as the stars for ever and ever. Grace alone makes those to differ who shall then be so gloriously distinguished. Free electing grace is the origin of all those attainments which shall finally meet with so illustrious a reward. If we attempt here to measure the extent of the divine counsels with the line of human reason, the attempt will be utterly vain. Let us pause at the brink of this abyss which can never be sounded and, with the inspired apostle, reverently adore when we cannot comprehend. Why God elected some to salvation, while He determined to leave others to themselves, when both were equally unworthy, we cannot tell. This is the great mystery, the central difficulty, and if it could be solved, all would be comparatively plain. But the only solution God has deigned to give is the silencing declaration: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and whom I will I harden.
One thing we know with infallible certainty is that all, without exception, deserved to perish. And if our whole race had been destined to be punished with everlasting destruction, as were the angels, we could not have complained that the sentence was unjust. The wonder therefore is that any were saved, not that some are condemned. Or shall it be said that God, in order to be just, must either save all or condemn all? Shall man call Him a respecter of persons because He passed over some who had no claim whatever on His goodness? “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?”
Awful as this comparison may appear, it is strictly just. As the clay is in the hand of the potter, so were we in the Lord’s hand. Respect of persons in this case was impossible. All deserved punishment. But because God exempted some from its infliction who did not deserve His favour, did the remainder, in virtue of this act of His sovereignty, become entitled to a like remission on the ground of desert? This will not be maintained. The former ruin themselves by sin, and God justly leaves them to perish in this self-procured ruin. He rescues others involved in the same condemnation because it is lawful for Him to do what He will with His own, and to dispense His grace, which is absolutely at His disposal, as seemeth good in His sight.
Whatever men may now think of these mysteries, the time will assuredly come when they will either acknowledge their rectitude or be awed into silence. On that great day when the mystery of God shall be finished, none “shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect”, and still less to the charge of Him who has elected them. Although the angels of light may look on with reverent and adoring wonder, and the angels of darkness behold with raging envy and despairing malignity, and the vessels of mercy look back with amazement on that electing love which afore prepared them unto such unspeakable glory, and the vessels of wrath gnash with their teeth and melt away with impotent resentment against these trophies of victorious grace, none will dare charge Jehovah with partiality or injustice, or require Him to unfold the record of His eternal counsels.
3. But grace is not only conspicuous in making one to differ from another; we may trace still farther its unfolding exhibitions if we contemplate the character of the objects of this distinguishing love. If there had been anything in them worthy of attracting its sympathies, they would have had somewhat whereof to glory. Nay, had Omniscience perceived that there slumbered an energy in the enfeebled powers of some of them which would awake into mighty exertion in the days of their earthly pilgrimage, and that their polluted hearts were yet a soil in which, unsown by an Almighty hand, the seeds of holiness would take root, there would have been something in the creature to draw forth the Creator’s regard, and the fullness of the sovereignty of grace would not have been emphasised.
Accordingly it is in this way that many attempt to reconcile the declarations of Scripture with their own self-sufficiency. They maintain that the foreseen good works of the elect determined the divine choice, forgetting that holiness of heart and life is not produced by the corrupt will of man but by the operation of God. And if He be the author of holiness, which He bestows on one while He does not bestow it on another, the choice is still to be traced back to the sovereign purpose of Him “who worketh all things (and good works among the rest) after the counsel of His own will”. So far from their being the cause of election, the Scriptures represent good works as the effect of it. It is not they which bear the root, but the root which bears them. It is declared that God “hath chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world”, not because of our holiness, but “that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4). And again it is said, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
But may not the foreknowledge of that faith and repentance from which good works spring have influenced God’s choice? It is admitted that these are enjoined upon us as duties in every part of the Word of God. But they are graces as well as duties and, were we left to our unaided efforts, we would never repent or believe. God alone can “give us repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). Faith also is of the operation of God; “by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). If God dispenses His gifts according to His sovereign pleasure, those who receive them cannot merit a love which had fixed on them as its objects before that merit could have existed. And if He elect them to the infallible means of salvation, He thereby elects them to salvation itself. “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). “We love Him, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “No man can come unto Me,” says our Lord, “except it be given unto him of My Father” (John 7:65).
Thus, in every aspect in which we can contemplate it, electing love is a manifestation of infinite grace. It prostrates the sinner in the dust and sets Jehovah upon the throne. When Paul has assured the Romans that there was a faithful remnant of the Jewish nation “according to the election of grace”, he immediately adds, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work” (Rom 11:6). He repels the very idea of associating works in any degree with the grace of God. Either the entire glory of salvation must be the Lord’s, or the whole of it must be man’s. Man must either be altogether his own saviour, or acknowledge that he has righteousness and strength and salvation in the Lord alone.
Who that has tasted that the Lord is gracious can feel reluctant to confess: “Not unto me, not unto me, but unto the name of the Lord be all the glory. He called me out of darkness into marvellous light – called me when my conscience was seared, my heart hardened, and my whole soul filled with enmity against Him and His law. And in thus saving and calling me with a holy calling, it was not according to my works, but according to His own purpose and grace in Christ Jesus before the world began. His calling was only the accomplishment of an eternal decree, by which He predestinated me to be conformed to the image of His Son. He loved me with an everlasting love, and therefore with lovingkindness has He drawn me. He regarded me with favour before the mountains were brought forth, or ever He had formed the earth. He then beheld me lying in wickedness with a whole world of apostates. And while the angels who had surrounded His throne were passed by, and many of my fellows not more unworthy than I were left to harden in impenitence, He singled me out as a vessel of mercy to make known the riches of His glory. He separated me from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace. By this grace of God I am what I am. And though it doth not yet appear what I shall be, I know that He who hath given me grace will afterward receive me to glory.”
You may learn from this subject:
1. How deep-laid the foundations of the gospel are in the grace of God. As yet we have only contemplated the foundation. But the nature of the entire superstructure reared upon it is the same. Grace begins, carries on and completes the mighty plan. And when the headstone of the glorious temple is brought forth, it will be with shoutings of grace, grace unto it.
2. Beware of abusing this important but mysterious doctrine. It has not been our object to advance all the arguments that may be urged in its defence, or to refute the various objections against it. We have sought rather to follow out the design of the text by showing how it leads to the praise of the glory of divine grace. We know well that some wrest this doctrine, as they do also the other doctrines of Scripture, to their own destruction. But if the doctrines are indeed according to godliness, on them alone must rest the responsibility. It is easy, by proud disputations and presumptuous speculations respecting the deep things of God, to involve the mind in hopeless perplexity. We may safely follow Scripture but, when it ceases to lead, let us not venture forward alone. It contains no record of the number of God’s elect. Their names are written, not in earth, but in heaven; not in the open book of revelation, but in the Lamb’s book of life. And say not: Who then shall ascend into heaven to read the decisions of the counsels of eternity, or who shall descend into the deep to explore the secrets of His will? We know not what God has decreed, but we know what He has revealed.
And, in accordance with His revealed declarations, we proclaim, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”. We thus address, not a few favoured individuals, but all without exception. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Unto you, O men, [we] call, and [our] voice is to the sons of men. “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.” “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” Let no one object that such unlimited invitations are inconsistent with the doctrine of absolute decrees. God deems them not inconsistent.
If we cannot perceive their consistency, we may safely leave it to Him to vindicate the harmony of all the parts of His moral administration. “The secret things belong unto the Lord . . . the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children.” Let us not intrude into those things which He claims as peculiarly His own, but let us hold fast those which He has made over to us. Let us humbly remind Him of His promises, and entreat Him to do as He has said. He has said, “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”. If you ask, and do not receive; if you seek, and cannot find; then you may be discouraged and plead that you are opposed by the immutability of His counsel; but not till then. God cannot deceive His creatures. He cannot deny Himself. There are two immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, by which you may have strong consolation if you will flee for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before you. The husbandman refuses not to sow his seed because he is himself unable to make it grow. He waits not till he is assured that a plenteous harvest has been decreed as the reward of his labours; he casts the precious grain into the earth and, in due time, God gives the increase.
Think not that the divine decree interposes insurmountable obstacles in your path. This is to interfere with those secret things which belong unto the Lord. Nay, without His decree, your salvation had been impossible. But now the gates of life are thrown open. No inexorable cherubim forbid your approach. No flaming sword gleams with the lightning of vengeance. “The Spirit and the bride say, Come; and let him that heareth say, Come; and let him that is athirst come; and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Every individual within these walls may obtain this salvation if he will. Enter, all of you, and sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Nor fear that the many mansions which He has prepared will be overfilled. His servants still declare there is room. And still He commands them to compel other wanderers to come in.
Be assured then that if you still remain outside and walk in the counsel of the ungodly, and thus go down to the chambers of death, God will at last be justified when He speaks, and be clear when He condemns you. At the resurrection of your body there will also be the resurrection of a faithful witness in your bosom. Its still small voice, now unheard, will then be the echo of thunder – the voice of the Lord. When the heavens above you are passing away for ever from your view, and the earth beneath your feet is wrapped in the flames of the final conflagration, and the saints are ascending to the regions of glory, and the wicked are sinking down in the abyss of everlasting ruin – when your spirit is thus oppressed with the power of God’s anger, and a withering sense of feebleness and forlornness and despair – it will be the crowning aggravation of all these unutterable woes that they are not the arbitrary infliction of your omnipotent Judge, but the self-procured miseries of one who is conscious in himself that he is his own destroyer.
3. Finally, let the people of God benefit from this humbling but encouraging doctrine for the great ends for which it has been revealed. Remember that if God has chosen you to eternal life, it was not only that His grace might be glorified in you, but by you. He will obtain a revenue of glory from the punishment of the impenitent, as well as from the salvation of the redeemed. But He designs that the people whom He has formed for Himself should voluntarily and delightfully show forth His praise. Thus you can have evidence that you were elected by God. If you have been from the beginning chosen to salvation, it must be through sanctification of the Spirit.
It is thus also you can effectually refute that most irrational of all objections to this doctrine: that it leads to licentiousness. Let it ever be remembered that election to salvation, apart from election to holiness, is impossible. If it has been decreed that you shall enter in through the gates into the celestial city, it has no less certainly been decreed that “there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth”. If the foundation of God standeth sure, it has a double seal for its security. Not merely, “the Lord knoweth them that are His”, but “let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity”. Holiness is the pillar of His throne; righteousness is the apparel of His saints. “Wherefore, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall; for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour.”
1. Reprinted, with some abridgement, from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 2. Stevenson (1810-1865) was the Disruption minister of Newton-upon-Ayr.