I confess, I wrote a whole post based on my study of Ephesians 1:3-14, only to realize Epiphany falls on a Sunday this year. By a marvelous intervention of the Holy Spirit, however, the Epistle for this Epiphany is also from Ephesians. If you are having a joint Epiphany service and preaching on the Christmas 2 readings for the morning, you will have something more direct in what follows. However, if you are preaching on Ephesians 3:1-12, you will still have something to consider here. Paul is writing about the same mystery of God’s will in both passages, namely, that God has adopted us, Jews and Gentiles, to be heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. Think of this as both an Epiphany and first sermon of the New Year preaching opportunity!
Our Epistle for Christmas 2 is a lofty treatment of God’s eternal will for humanity. It centers on God’s blessing, choosing and adopting us by the richness of His grace in Christ, in whom we have the forgiveness of sins (1:7). There is a wonderful sermon waiting to be preached in the context of the New Year and the hope we have this year and every new year in Christ. I hear in the background of this text St. Paul’s confidence in Christ from Romans 8: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”
In an article that I wrote for Dr. James Nestingen’s Festschrift, Handing over the Goods (1517 Publishing, 53-64), I compared St. Anselm’s larger argument for the vicarious satisfaction to St. Paul’s argument here in Ephesians 1:3-14. St. Anselm has often been criticized for setting up a legal scheme in which Christ must die in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s wrath according to the Law. I suggest that necessity is not necessarily legal, but Scripture speaks of necessity as God’s eternal will revealed to us as His mercy in Christ. In what follows, I summarize some of my arguments from that essay in the hope it may be of help to you in preaching this week.
St. Paul’s argument in Ephesians 1 shows how our salvation is necessary, not because God is bound by His own Law, but because God willed it. Once God decides to be merciful, He will not do otherwise. Promise? Promise. This is reason for St. Paul and all Christians to rejoice: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him,” and, “in love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will” (1:4-5). Paul begins with God’s plan in eternity that we should be His forever. The eternal plan is not strictly to make us obedient to the Law, as if God’s eternal plan was finally to get children who perform, but rather to have us through adoption. In other words, to make us children who are and who were in Christ always meant to be His own. This is what Luther is getting at in his explanation to the second article of the Creed (II, ii, 4), “…that I may be His own.” We were made to be His own at creation and what we lost as a result of sin and the curse of the Law has become reality again in Christ. He makes it known to us now.
Christ’s past tense work is delivered in time by the Holy Spirit through His Church and brought to completion on the day of the resurrection. No inner law drives Him to it, nor does the outbreak of sin force Him to save humanity, as if the death and resurrection of Christ was a last ditch emergency effort on God’s part. Humanity’s sin is mysteriously not the cause of God’s plan in Christ and, therefore, the Gospel cannot be understood as a last-ditch effort to rescue humanity. The gracious and eternal will of God alone is the cause of Christ’s incarnation, passion, death, etc. Who are we to question God’s plan anyway? He has mercy on whom He has mercy. This must be because it must be, and it must be because He willed it. Paul recognizes the oddity of the logic and calls it, “the mystery of His will [τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ]” (Ephesians 1:9).
Paul also establishes a second kind of necessity. It is not only that God has sent His Son to save us, but also that He makes it know to us: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:7-10). The concrete expression of God’s will in Christ is the limit and boundary of knowing the, “mystery of His will.” The free choice in eternity is, “in the fullness of time,” now wonderfully made known, “set forth in Christ,” in the concrete form of the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7). All this is necessary because God willed it—this way and in no other way. Instead of immutable principles, we get immutable promises.
The mystery of His eternal will is not an eternal law in the divine mind. His will is mercy and His very nature is that of a loving father. Luther’s hymn, “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice,” so vividly portrays this: “But God had seen my wretched state / Before the world’s foundation, / And mindful of His mercies great, / He planned for my salvation / He turned to me a father’s heart; / He did not choose the easy part / But gave His dearest treasure.” Or as Paul Gerhardt would have us sing, “Love caused your incarnation; / Love brought you down to me.” God’s eternal and loving heart toward us is the cause of all that happens and what has happened, happened, “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). Love, however, should not be understood as the principle to which God conforms, but the expression of His eternal nature made know to us and for us in Christ (Ephesians 1:9). The revelation of God’s eternal will is often cast within the legal language of principle, order, and the divine mind, rather than seeing (as St. Paul does) the mystery of His will as His merciful desire to make us His own in Christ no matter the cost. God’s plan to make us His own includes the necessary end of the Law, in Christ.
In this text, Paul lays out the wonder of the preaching task God has given us. We are in the act of, Sunday after Sunday, visit after visit, absolution after absolution, making known the mystery of God’s will set forth in Christ. We are proclaiming sins forgiven, bringing an end to the Law’s power to accuse, and God the Holy Spirit is, through us, adopting children and making them His own forever. This is His good and gracious will.
Concordia Theology: Various resources to help you preach Ephesians 3:1-12 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.