Wright on Election in Ephesians 1

"Yes, I really did write that."

“Yes, I really did write that.”

N.T. Wright makes two points about election in Ephesians 1. The first is that it’s real:

Verses 4–6 celebrate the fact that God’s people in the Messiah are chosen by grace. This is, perhaps, the most mysterious thing of all. God, the creator, ‘chose us in him’, that is, in the king, ‘before the world was made’; and he ‘foreordained us for himself’.

Many people, including many devout Christians, have found this shocking, or even unbelievable. How can God choose some and not others? How can being a follower of Jesus Christ be a matter of God’s prior decision, overriding any decision or freedom of our own?

Various answers can be given to this. We have to be careful here. Paul emphasizes throughout this paragraph that everything we have in Christ is a gift of God’s grace; and in the next chapter he will declare that before this grace reached down to us we were ‘dead’, and needing to be ‘made alive’ (2:5). We couldn’t lift a finger to help ourselves; the rescue we needed had to come from God’s side. That’s one of the things this opening section is celebrating.

Contrary to what some might think (even myself initially!), Wright affirms in a very careful, tentative, but apparently open way that God’s election of some and not others really is a thing. Now, very quickly he moves on to make a second point that many who affirm the first can tend to forget if they’re not careful:

The second thing, which is often missed in discussions of this point, is that our salvation in Christ is a vital stage, but only a stage, on the way to the much larger purpose of God. God’s plan is for the whole cosmos, the entire universe; his choosing and calling of us, and his shaping and directing of us in the Messiah, are somehow connected with that larger intention. How this works out we shall see a little later. But the point is that we aren’t chosen for our own sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us. –N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (8–9)

God has plans for his elect beyond their election. They are chosen for a purpose–various purposes really, such as mission, worship, and so forth, all culminating in the glorification and enjoyment of God. An awareness of God’s saving grace in election, then, ought not be an invitation to sit on your stump, but to get on the move and fulfill God’s proposed purposes through us in the Church (Eph. 2:8-10; 3:9-11). Yes, that grace outrages and amazes, and it should also enliven us to worshipful service in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If someone wants to post clear evidence to the contrary about Wright’s views on election, feel free to correct me here. I know he typically pushes a number of election passages in a corporate direction saying they’re not really what former dogmatics has said. Still, I’ve never seen him out and out deny individual election, and have seen him make statements like this that seem like affirmations of it.

P.S.S. Here’s the sort of thing I’m referring to in the P.S.: Wright on Election in Romans 9. (HT: Michael Bird and Matt Armstrong.)

27 thoughts on “Wright on Election in Ephesians 1

  1. I used this “commentary” as I preached through Ephesians. I found it refreshing. And I found Wright more theologically conservative than he is usually portrayed as being. Of course, I was reading him next to Markus Barth. Almost everyone is conservative next to him! 🙂

  2. Is it really clear that Wright is affirming unconditional election here though? There are some Molinists and Arminians who find they can affirm a choosing by God. Is there anything else he’s said which is clearer? Thanks.

    • Well, you know, I think it’s clear enough, but I could be wrong. Wright tends to take some passages and say that they don’t really say what Calvinists have typically meant them about, but then doesn’t really deny individual election, and has made comments in that direction in other contexts.

      Ironically enough, I first found this passage as an Arminian and was annoyed that Wright was leaning Calvinistic here.

      But, if someone wants to give me a good correction, I’ll take that.

      • Thanks Derek,

        I just ask because I heard him speak a few years ago on Romans 9 and I got a very strong impression he did not hold to unconditional election and I’m really keen not to misrepresent him that’s all.

        You were once Arminian? Have you written anything on your theological journey away from it? If so I’d love to read it.

        Many thanks.

      • Yeah, when he’s talking about Romans 9 he tends to come out pretty strongly in order to say that it is not talking about individual election but rather about national Israel and the church. But I have taking him to say that particular passage was in about that, not that this doctrine is never taught.

        As for my move away, I think the closest I have come to it was that sneering Calvinists article that you didn’t like and found condescending a while back. 🙂

      • Okay thanks. I get the impression he wants to avoid labels on this theological matter but I might be wrong. Glad to hear you heard the same about Romans. I would hate to think I had completely misunderstood him.

        I don’t remember that article. I will have to look it back up again. Sorry if I accused you of being condescending. Must have hit a nerve!

        Let me make partial amends by saying that, even as a non-Calvinist / non-‘Reformedish’ Christian, I really enjoy reading your posts – so thanks!

    • I have heard Wright say in other places that his election is based on his foreknowledge – which would be more of an arminian slant

  3. Election is something I’ve really grappled with, having been saved only a year ago myself. My family and the majority of my friends are not saved. I’ve found solace in Phillippians 2:12 though. I may have done nothing to receive my salvation but it is my responsibility and pleasure to manifest it in everything I do, think and say. As always, thank you for all you do Derek!

  4. Hi Derek
    Why do you think God would chose to exclude the vast majority of humanity to cause His glory to be manifest?
    Grace and peace.

    • Hi Lewis,
      I don’t know a number of things I would need to know to answer that question, or even to know if it’s properly framed. I’m not God.
      Grace and peace.

  5. While I can’t speak to personal conviction, Wright consistently argues that the questions leading to Paul’s approach to election and covenant differ significantly from that of the Reformers.

    “‘[E]lection’ in this sense has not very much to do with the technical sense of ‘election’ in the elaborate theological schemes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Notably in Calvin’s theology, but actually also in Luther and most other Reformers, and then particularly in classic formulations such as the Westminster Confession, ‘election’, coupled with ‘predestination’, came to signify God’s eternal choice of some people to salvation, sometimes with and sometimes without the explicit corollary that God has ‘chosen’ all the others for the purpose, which they cannot escape, of damnation….I use the term ‘election’, rather, to highlight the choice, by the One God, of Abraham’s family, the people historically known as ‘Israel’ and, in Paul’s day, in their smaller post-exilic form, as hoi Ioudaioi, ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Judeans’.”

    Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 774-775). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

    For example, take this piece of his on the ordo salutis (in particular Romans 8:29-30):

    “Though he does not often discuss such things, he here posits two steps prior to God’s ‘call’ through the gospel: God’s foreknowledge, and God’s marking-out-ahead-of-time, the mark in question being the mark of the image of the Son. (I translate with a paraphrase because of the problems associated with the word ‘destiny’ within the word ‘predestination’.) These serve to emphasize, of course, the sovereignty of God in the call itself, while Paul never engages with the questions we want to ask about how precisely these things work out. (The closest he comes is of course Romans 9, which simply restates the problem for us; the parallel statement in Ephesians 1:3–14 is a celebration rather than an explanation.)

    But what matters for our purposes even more is the question of what comes after the ‘call’. ”

    Wright, N. T. (2013). Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (p. 284). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

    He consistently moves away from the basis of election to its purpose.

  6. Pingback: Wright on Election |
  7. C.S. Lewis makes a similar point in Miracles when he writes about the selection of Israel being analog to natural selection and that it is for the good of the greater whole.

  8. The two citations from Wright’s newest book by Nick above pretty much say what I was going to say. To paraphrase Wolterstorff, Wright is talking about divine strategy, not divine tactics. His usage of ‘election’ isn’t about who will have a share in the final redemption – it’s about God, and how he will bring about the final redemption, and through whom. Wright argues quite explicitly against the classical Reformed understanding of election in his academic Romans commentary.

    • Yes, I do know that he uses the terms election differently. I ‘m still left with the impression that in this passage and in others there is some sort of divine monergism at work resembling the other kind of election, in order to get the corporate, national, historical election going.

      • Well, yeah, that election is an act of God and God alone is something that isn’t being disputed – in that regard, Wright is firmly monergistic. However, to go from that to arguing that Wright defends a Reformed view of election in general is a bit of a leap -IMHO of course 🙂

      • Ya, I tend be rather loose with what I consider to be a Reformed view of election. I kind of see various monergisms and covenantalisms in a broad family configuration. What I don’t see Wright as is a Wesleyan or Arminian on these things. I might be wrong, but that’s what I’m kind of getting at–not that he affirms the 5 canons of Dordt.

      • Right, he’s definitely not a classical Arminian or Wesleyan – he does like to present himself as in line with the Reformed stream of thought (though the extent to which he is is a matter of some debate and one he’s taken some flack for, since he appears to not be as well-versed in Reformed dogmatics as he should be) though.

  9. I’m going to put it this way: I think Wright basically fleshes out exegetically and theologically what Newbigin was saying about election years ago. When it comes to individual election, the point is always purpose or telos, and it’s wrapped up in mission. In this instance, the biblical fact that a people may be elect above the rest does not necessarily mean that the rest are reprobate, precisely because it is for the rest that the elect were chosen.

    FWIW, if we want to keep from making God out to be the author of sin, while holding on to sovereign grace, etc., then this is the way to do it, in my opinion.

  10. your interpretation of Wright is incorrect. He does not deny there being a mystery involving God bringing people out of the powers of darkness and into his kingdom movement, but he does deny the strict, fundamentalist picture of Paul where people “push Paul into a corner” where he hadn’t intended to go. Wright critiques this Calvinistic approach to both Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 as Paul is elaborating on God’s sovereign plan of choosing those who will have faith in Jesus to be heirs to the kingdom. Instead of the strictly individualistic picture American reformed evangelicals paint out of these passages, Paul is telling the story of Israel, that being heirs to the kingdom through Jesus has always been God’s plan, that it is ‘in accordance with the scriptures. Like Wright does not deny that God moves in the heart of individuals, but he does deny the eternal decree in which people are ‘God’s puppet masters’ and that things are far more ‘subtle and interesting than that.
    You can google NT Wright on romans 9 for tid bits of this, you can read Paul for everyone for a lengthened view of Wright’s approach.

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