Formations 03.29.2015: According to Plan

Ephesians 1:3-10

Crucifixion, 10th century. An elaborate halo surrounds the head of Christ, who is flanked by the Virgin and St. John. Small representations of the sun and moon above the cross symbolize the cosmic importance of the Crucifixion.

Crucifixion, 10th century. An elaborate halo surrounds the head of Christ, who is flanked by the Virgin and St. John. Small representations of the sun and moon above the cross symbolize the cosmic importance of the Crucifixion.

For the past 2,000 years, many Christian thinkers have struggled to describe the doctrine of the atonement. Christian faith affirms without reservation that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is God’s saving work that brings redemption and reconciliation to humankind. But how does Jesus bring salvation? On this point, there has never been a consensus. Is Jesus’ death an atoning sacrifice for our sins? A ransom to buy humankind out of slavery? A decisive victory that has disarmed the devil and all the forces of evil? In various times and places, these and many other explanations have been proposed. It seems best simply to hold all of these images or symbols in our minds, confessing that no one model truly does justice to the richness of what we mean when we say that Jesus died for our sins.

Ephesians 1:3-10 describes the theological significance of the death of Christ by saying that we have been ransomed through his blood and have received forgiveness based on his overflowing grace (v. 7). Central to this affirmation is that Jesus’ death was part of a plan that God set in motion “before the creation of the world” (v. 4). What God intended to accomplish through Christ has now come to pass. Therefore we await “the climax of all times” when God brings together all things in Christ (v. 10).


• What explanations of how Jesus brings salvation have you heard? Which of these speaks most powerfully to you, and why?

Reference Shelf


Atonement refers to the work of Christ in dealing with sin and in restoring human beings in their relationship with God. Atonement is an English word for which there is no Greek word in the NT. In the KJV the word “atonement” is found in the NT only in Rom 5: 11. The underlying word katallage is better translated a “reconciliation” as in the RSV (and elsewhere in the KJV). The English word “atonement” originally signifies the result after two parties had been estranged. Secondarily, and now usually, it denotes the means through which harmony is restored. Although the word is not, the idea of atonement certainly is biblical.

The need for atonement was created by sin which separates human beings from God and which must be over come. One’s view of sin, then, largely determines the emphasis one places in understanding atonement. For example, if sin is interpreted primarily as transgression of law then atonement is described as removing the penalty. Or the other hand, if sin is understood as the manifestation of the forces of evil, then atonement is described as victory over such forces.

The variety of ideas and word pictures related to atonement in the NT convey a clear message. Whatever needed to be done to remove the sin that separates human beings from God was done in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Robert E. Burks, “Atonement/Expiation in the New Testament ,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 75.


Verse 4 contains a strong statement of predestination. While it is clear that predestination (or determinism or preordination) leaves little room for free will, such a critique misses the point here. In the biblical tradition, determinism has two primary functions: (1) to affirm the complete sovereignty of God and (2) to encourage its target audience to remain faithful by assuring it of its ultimate vindication. These functions are mutually inclusive and complementary. For Ephesians, God chose those who were to be saved before creation. This means that salvation is not haphazard or accidental but planned and intentional. Such a claim would have been a strong word of assurance for those who saw themselves as the chosen ones….

Bruce connects vv. 3 and 4. He argues that it is only through Christ that Christians have been chosen. Perkins notes parallels with the Qumran literature (CD 2:7; 1QS 1:10-11 and 3:15-17; 1QH 9:10-20), which speaks of divine predestination. She adds that Ephesians 1:4 “does not imply the preexistence of the individual souls of the righteous.” Rather its focus is “the experience of salvation,” i.e., salvation has been predestined and not who will be saved. Perkins provides a necessary guard against the hubris of once-saved-always-saved rhetoric. Indeed, salvation is always a process in the Pauline tradition (e.g., Gal 5:5-6; Phil 2:12-13). However, this Paulinist has gone beyond the mentor by asserting a stronger concept of predestination.

The words “in love” comprise the beginning of v. 5. Verse 5 continues to discuss predestination. Thus, v. 5 would convey to its original readership that God has willed to adopt them even before the creation of the world and that God did so with love. “In Paul this (adoption) is applied to the privileged new relationship believers have with God, but must also be seen against the OT background of Israel’s relationship with God.” These last two verses would have been a powerful message of encouragement to the original recipients to remain faithful regardless of their circumstances. Galatians 4:4-7 and Romans 8:18-23 both speak of God adopting children. In Roman society, adopted children had the same rights as biological children, and even adults could be adopted into a family.

In v. 6 the phrase “for the praise of the glory of 
his grace” (cf. Phil 1:11) connotes rather redundantly that adoption is entirely God’s gracious act
and “as such it makes us want to praise God for
it.” Moreover, the purpose of salvation is the praise of God, as Best and Lincoln have so ably argued. This grace has been given freely “through (dative of means) the Beloved.” Grace does not reside in Jesus Christ. Rather, it has been mediated through Christ to Christians: gifts are given to someone from Someone. In this instance, salvation (the gift) from God (the Giver) is given to Christians (the recipients) through Christ, the Beloved. This is an example of divine benefaction for Ephesians.

Lincoln notes that en to egapemeno (“through the Beloved”) is another way of expressing the same idea found in the phrases en Christo (“through Christ” [1:3]), en auto (“through him” [1:4]), and dia Iesou Christou (“through Jesus Christ” [1:5]). I concur whole- heartedly. Furthermore, all three phrases are clearer and make better sense if translated as datives of means. Indeed, the expression “the Beloved” became a messianic title within the first Christian century. One finds a form of agape in Mark 1:11; 9:7; 12:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Romans 9:25; Colossians 1:13, 3:12; Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans inscription; and Barnabas 3:6; 4:3, 8. Forms can also be found in the LXX where often they refer to the elect community (e.g., Deut 32:15; Isa 44:2; Jer 11:15). Colossians 1:13 is probably the primary source for Ephesians 1:6 but not the only one. Like Ephesians 1:4-6, Colossians 1:13-14 speaks of divine grace and human redemption through tou huiou tes agapes autou (his beloved son). Finally, any reference to Israel as God’s beloved, as in LXX Jeremiah 11:15, could easily be transferred to Christ by Christians, the true Israel for the early Christian community (see Matt 4:1-11).

Thomas B. Slater, Ephesians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2012) 42–44.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email