The following is from Dr. Jack Cottrell. While he is neither a member of SEA or a self-declared Arminian, his thoughts on Ephesians 1 are very insightful.
QUESTION: Calvinists say that Ephesians 1:1-11 clearly establishes the absolute and all-inclusive sovereignty of God, including the unconditional predestination of the elect to salvation. How do you interpret this text?
ANSWER: A right understanding of Ephesians 1:1-11 begins with the recognition that God’s purpose for Israel was from the beginning limited to preparing for the coming of the Messiah, namely, for the incarnation of God the Logos as the human person Jesus of Nazareth. Once the Messiah came, it was God’s eternal purpose to merge all believing Israelites and all believing Gentiles into one new body called the church. This is the main point of the book of Ephesians, and it is the key to understanding the often misused passage in Ephesians 1:1-11.
It is quite obvious that Ephesians 1 puts considerable emphasis on God’s purposive will, or on what God desires and decides to do. Verse 5 says, “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention [eudokia] of His will [thelema].” Verse 9 says, “He made known to us the mystery of His will [thelema], according to His kind intention [eudokia] which He purposed [protithemi] in Him.” Then in verse 11 we read that “we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” In this last verse we find three words—prothesis, boule, and thelema—practically piled on top of one another in an effort to stress the concept of eternal purpose.
This last verse also says that God works “all things” after the counsel of His will. This is why determinists such as Calvinists speak of an eternal decree that is all-inclusive and universal: does not Paul say all things? But those who take this in an absolute sense have ignored the immediate context and the main theme of Ephesians as a whole. The term “all things” (panta) is not necessarily absolute and must be understood within the limitations imposed by the context. This is seen quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:6, which says that God is the one “who works all things [panta] in all persons.” The language is exactly parallel to that of Ephesians 1:11; even the verb is the same [energeo]. Yet the context of 1 Corinthians 12 clearly limits “all things” to spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit, and verse 11 says so specifically: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” In a similar way, the context of Ephesians 1:11 does not allow us to think of the “all things” in an absolutely inclusive sense, but shows us the specific focus of God’s purpose which is in view here.
What is this focus? The key to a proper understanding of this lies in Paul’s reference to “the mystery of His will” in verse 9. What is the mystery of which Paul speaks here? He refers to it again in chapter 3, where he marvels that he in particular was given the privilege of knowing this mystery. He says that “by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (3:3-4). “To me,” he exults, “the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God” (3:8-9). We must be careful not to make the mystery too general, as if it were simply the fact of Christ or the fact of salvation. No, it is much more specific than this. Paul states it most specifically in 3:6, namely, “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is the great mystery “which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (3:5). And the Apostle Paul, who was appointed to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, was simply overwhelmed by this fact. No one was more committed to Jewish exclusiveness than Saul of Tarsus; thus no one was more amazed at the fact that God was now, in Christ, abandoning that exclusiveness and uniting the Gentiles (the Gentiles!) with the Jews into a new kind of body called the church (3:10). In chapter two he comments on the fact that Jesus broke down the barrier that divided Jews and Gentiles and thus made the two groups into one new man, reconciling them both in one body to God through the cross (2:11-16). Even his reference to marriage–”the two shall become one flesh”–reminds him again of this great mystery, that the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) have become one body in Christ and his church (5:31-32).
This is the same mystery that he is writing about in chapter one of Ephesians. Yes, God works all things after the counsel of His will, but what specific counsel or plan is in view here? The plan to unite the Jews and Gentiles in one body called the church (3:10) to the praise of His glory. This specific purpose is seen in the verses that immediately follow 1:11: “. . . to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (1:12-14).
In these verses (as in 1:4-11) the “we” and the “you” refer to Jews and Gentiles. In this case Paul identifies himself with the Jews, whom he calls “the first to hope in Christ.” In the previous verses he dwells on God’s purpose for the Jews as a nation: how God chose them (“us”) before the foundation of the world, how he predestined them to adoption as sons, how he offered them the gospel of grace first (see Rom. 1:16; 2:8-9). It should be noted that the references to predestination in Ephesians 1 are strictly speaking of the predestination of the nation of Israel, not of individual believers. His main emphasis up through verse 12 is on God’s purpose for the Jews (“us”). But then in the next verses he begins speaking in the second person, “you,” i.e., you Gentiles. In verse 12 he says that “we who were the first to hope in Christ” were used to the praise of his glory, but now “you also” have been brought into the sphere of salvation “to the praise of His glory” (v. 14). This is the theme he continues to develop, then, in chapters two and three especially.
Thus we see that the “all things” in Ephesians 1:11 does not have a universal reference; God’s purposive or decretive will does not include all things that happen in the whole scope of nature and history. It does include the establishment of the church, however, as the body which unites Jews and Gentiles under the one head, Jesus Christ (cf. 1:10). This is probably the main reference in Ananias’s commission to Saul of Tarsus in Acts 22:14, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will” (see also Col 1:27), namely, His will to join Jews and Gentiles into one church.”
Permission to reprint is granted from Dr. Jack Cottrell. Most of this is from his book, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler, 306-309.