How do you know you are saved? How can you be sure? These are the sort of questions which inevitably arise when you preach through a text like Ephesians 1:3-14. After all, Saint Paul uses the terrifying “p” word: Predestination! In my experience, no theological topic causes more existential angst than the truth that God has predestined people for salvation. Not even discussions of God’s wrath are as troubling to God’s people! When such a weighty doctrine is broached, what is a preacher to do?
When approaching a text as theologically rich as this one, the temptation is to avoid the hard doctrine altogether and just focus on another aspect of chapter, or simply skip this text and preach another pericope from the lectionary. But fear not! The Holy Spirit has presented the preacher with a wonderful opportunity to tackle this beautiful, but oft-times misunderstood doctrine of the faith. This text is the preacher’s chance to rescue the topic of predestination from the realm of fatalistic philosophies and proclaim it as a “...very useful, salutary, and comforting teaching” (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration XI, para. 43).
With all that being said, the primary focus of this text is not only God’s predestining work, but the saving work of the triune God delivered to His people. From beginning to end, the Christian’s salvation is the work and gift of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a beautiful prayer of praise to the God who has delivered His gifts to us in baptism. The preacher’s job this Sunday is simply to proclaim all God has accomplished and delivered in baptism.
After having greeted the Ephesian congregation (1:1-2), before offering his typical thanksgiving for the recipients, Paul sings a song of praise to God. This text (which in Greek is only one sentence – one very long sentence) is a form of Hebrew prayer known as a Berakah prayer. The title is from the Hebrew word for “blessed.” It is a prayer which praises God for His work. It is the sort of prayer Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, prayed after Israel had been rescued from Egypt: “Blessed by the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 18:10). Notice how there is no command, no exhortation to God’s people. It is pure doxology. God’s saving work is the focus. The people of God are only mentioned as the beneficiaries of His saving activity.
This focus on God’s saving activity for His people opens the letter to the Ephesian church. Unlike other letters (reference Galatians or the Corinthian letters), Paul does not seem to have any specific problems he is addressing in the text. It is a message that gives an almost idealized picture of what faith in Christ, the Church, and Christian living are to look like. If the preacher is not careful, he may fall into the trap of thinking Ephesians paints a romantic picture of the ideal which was the early church. But this is far from the case. Ephesus, like every other congregation that has ever existed, was full of sinner/saints and beset with sins within and assaults from without (see Acts 19:21-41; Revelation 2:1-7).
Paul is not pretending there are no problems in the Ephesian church. Rather, he is demonstrating the sort of community God is creating by means of His baptismal promises. Eugene Peterson puts it well when he says, “By means of Ephesians we get an accurate account of what God is doing and the way the Sprit is working at the heart of every congregation.” By opening the letter with a Berakah prayer, Paul is grounding the life of the Church and each individual Christian in the work of God, or as he often says, in Christ.
A very helpful analysis of this prayer’s structure can be found in Thomas Winger’s Ephesians Commentary in the Concordia Commentary Series. He helpfully points out the trinitarian nature of the prayer. The work of each person in the Trinity is praised and should be emphasized by the preacher. The entire triune God is at work for the saving and uniting of God’s people in Christ!
The entire triune God is at work for the saving and uniting of God’s people in Christ!
Paul begins by introducing the work of the triune God. The Father is praised for having blessed us in Christ with the blessings of the Holy Spirit. The ESV’s (English Standard Version) rendering “every spiritual blessing” may be too soft. Winger’s rendering “every blessing of the Spirit” reminds us it is the work of the Spirit to bless us with Christ’s saving acts according to the Father’s will. The naming of the Trinity reminds us of Matthew 28:20, where all nations are baptized in the triune name. Thus, the entire section is grounded in God’s baptismal gift. To say it more simply, Paul is essentially declaring, “Buckle up! I’m about to tell you all God has given you in baptism!”
1:4-6 God the Father
Paul’s first portion of the prayer praises God the Father who chose to purify and adopt us before the foundation of the world. This is our first encounter with “predestination.” It is key for the preacher emphasizes how this predestination is not done apart from the work of Christ, but predestination means God chose to send Jesus to be your Savior. Predestination cannot be understood apart from the sacrificial death of Christ. God is not arbitrarily picking some and not others. That discussion is not really in Paul’s view here. Rather, He is emphasizing God’s gracious activity for you (!) began before the foundation of the world. It was His will to save you, not yours to choose Him, to the praise of His gracious glory!
1:7-12 God the Son
But this choice to save you before you existed is not something God is hiding in His secret will. Rather, He is making known your predestination to you in sending Jesus to redeem you with His blood. This mystery is revealed in Christ Jesus, whose blood redeems us and forgives our sins. This purely gracious saving work does not just exist in God’s mind, nor in the inaccessible past, but is “poured out” on us in baptism. So, to our opening question, how do I know I am saved/predestined/chosen? Jesus died to pay for your sins and poured out that promise on you in baptism. It is there you were united with His Church. You were united to Christ and are now found in Christ. Because of this, Paul says you are redeemed, forgiven, and appointed to the praise of His glory!
1:13-14 God the Holy Spirit
The baptismal theme continues as Paul emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s work in Word and sacrament in this closing section. The blessed God is the One who puts the gospel of salvation in your ears. As Paul asks in Romans 10:13 “How will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” God is making His predestined choice of you in Christ public! You were sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and when you heard the Word preached to your ears. Here the Word created faith. The Holy Spirit, who has worked this for you, now dwells in you as a deposit of your inheritance to the praise of His glory!
The Holy Spirit, who has worked this for you, now dwells in you as a deposit of your inheritance to the praise of His glory!
This opening section of Ephesians is a virtual treasure trove of gospel promises, praising God for who He is and the abundant blessings He pours out upon His saints. On the one hand, this is a great blessing for the preacher as there is no shortage of material to proclaim. At the same time, one could find themselves overwhelmed by the amount of material needing to be covered.
I suggest, in order to break the sermon up, you introduce verses from a hymn between each section. We will call this a “soundtrack structure.” So, the idea would be to find a hymn where each verse focuses on the work of each member of the trinity. For example, after your introduction to the sermon, you could have everyone sing the first stanza of “Come, Thou Almighty King” (Lutheran Service Book #905) where we pray for God the Father to help us praise. Then, preach on verses 1:4-6 which focus on the Father’s work. Stanza 2 directs our song to the Incarnate Word and would introduce verses 1:7-12. Finally, the third stanza concerning the Holy Spirit’s work would introduce 1:13-14. You could conclude the sermon by having the congregation stand and sing the fourth verse together. The use of a hymn will also help the preacher emphasize Paul’s refrain of praise that comes up throughout the text: “To the praise of His glory!”
Whether you utilize such a structure or not, it is necessary to make sure you do not crush God’s congregation with the weight of the text. Paul’s prayer is praising God for the incredible gifts He gives purely from His grace. This is a wonderful opportunity to preach deep theology in order to lift the burdened heart and soul. Plumbing the depths of predestination apart from delivering (dare I say, making) the promise that God chose you IN CHRIST before the foundation of the world will miss the comfort the text brings. Be sure the media matches the message.
Christ in the Text
To answer the fears that arise from the idea of predestination, Paul takes us from focusing on God’s mind from before the foundation of the world to the outworking of His plan in time, “...under Pontius Pilate.” God is praised in this Berakah prayer, not for His inscrutable will, but for the triune work of Christ’s redemption for sinners. In other words, God the Father decided to send Jesus to save you and your congregation. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to deliver salvation and create faith in the Son through your preaching. God chose to save you, sent His Son to accomplish His purposes with His shed blood, and has sent His Holy Spirit to seal you in that salvation through your baptism. How do you know you are predestined? Look to the cross and the font, for Jesus is there for you!
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Ephesians 1:3-14.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ephesians 1:3-14.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Ephesians 1:3-14.
 Eugene Peterson, Practicing Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing CO, 2010), 17.