“God chose us in Him…”
This statement from Ephesians 1 is personal, not impersonal. The us refers to Paul and his audience, and the ‘in Him’ refers to Christ. Christ is the locus of the choice, not apart from him, not in the abstract, not merely in the mind of God but ‘in Christ’. Now what exactly does that mean? If the choice is personal and of person, and in the context of a person namely Christ, who exactly existed before the creation of the universe to be chosen? Only Christ. He was there, and even participated in the creation of the universe. We were certainly not there. Paul does not believe in the notion of pre-existent or immortal souls or a well of souls in heaven that at some point are placed into human bodies. Election happens ‘in Christ’ because he is the Chosen of God, as the recent movie series’ title suggests. Now since it is Christ who has been chosen to redeem humanity, it should be obvious that election is one thing, and salvation another. Christ himself did not need to be saved or redeemed. And yet he is the Chosen, the Elect One of God. We are only elect if we are in Him. Did God have a plan of salvation for fallen humanity before there even was a creation? Yes, says Paul. And it should be noted that Israel was also God’s Chosen, but their election was for a specific historical purpose—to be a light to the nations about the one true God. This election or choseness did not guarantee the salvation of individual Hebrews. Election is corporate in nature— it was in Israel, and then it was in Christ. Salvation as always is by grace and through faith, and in Ephesians it is specified even more clearly—by grace through faith in Christ, God’s Messiah, his Chosen one.
One of the keys to understanding Ephesians 1 then, and other similar passages which talk about predestination such as Rom. 8, is to understand the concept of corporate personality or put another way group identity. In the ancient world, including in a Biblical context, group identity was primary and individual identity is secondary. When provoked to roll out his pedigree, the first words out of Paul’s mouth for instance in Phil. 3 he says this—
“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee”. None of this has to do with Paul as a distinctive individual, it all has to do with something someone else did for him— he was circumcised, he was born into the people of Israel, into the tribe of Benjamin, he was a Hebrew of Hebrews (probably meaning one who knew Hebrew like his father) and he was a part of the group called Pharisees. Nowhere does this read like a modern CV of individual accomplishments. It has to do with his original group identity in various forms. And he goes on to say that he is prepared to reckon all that as skubala compared to being in Christ (I’ll let you look up that Greek word). But now Paul is in Christ. Or consider what he says in 2 Cor. 11— “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.” Again, no list of individual distinctives or accomplishments. Indeed, when he lists distinctives he talks about all the troubles he has endured for the Gospel.
Now my point is this—in the wake of the Enlightenment the spotlight was shone on individuals and individualism and individual accomplishment, and so it is no surprise that Luther and Calvin at the dawn of the Enlightenment read the NT in an individualistic light, like most moderns do today, when we talk about personally being born again, or being saved etc. This whole approach to texts like Ephesians 1 is wrong because it ignores that election and salvation happen in the context of God, in particular in the context of a vast corporate personality we know as Christ who is God’s elect one. We are only elect if we are in Him, and through Him we are also saved by grace through faith in Him. This has nothing to do with God picking and choosing individual persons to be saved before the creation of the universe. It has to do with the Father choosing the Son to go and save a lost world, a personal choice of a person to do the job because Christ existed before the creation of the universe— and we certainly did not. Now Romans 8 is telling a little different tale—the tale of how those who love God and are called according to purpose, have been destined in advance to be fully conformed to the image of Christ— this is of course about glorification and resurrection when Christ returns. It is not about the choosing of people to be saved in the first place. It is about the destiny of those who love God.
One more thing. While it is true that ‘faith’ like ‘grace’ is a gift from God, we as believers have to exercise that trust and belief in God, and be faithful. God does not do this for us, and we have a choice about how we will respond to the Good News. In other words, God is not and does not operate like the Godfather. He does not make us ‘an offer we can’t refuse’. This is in part because love must be freely given and must be freely responded to. It cannot be coerced, compelled, or predetermined. There is a reason that Jesus calls loving God with all we are, and our neighbor as self as the great commandment. It is the heart of NT ethics, just as the heart of God’s character is holy love, as 1 John 4 so ably tells us. See my little book Who God Is.