Liberation and Adoption of Gentiles in Ephesians 1

In many evangelical theological circles, Ephesians 1:3-14 is the vestibule (to use Douglas Campbell's word from The Deliverance of God - you can tell what I'm reading!) of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. For my own money, the Arminian rendering of this text makes most sense[1] but that lies outside of my direct interest for this blog post.

I see the larger picture in Ephesians 1 as being about God’s character, and this leads Paul to describe the election of a people in Christ by using familial and economic imagery to convey this point. The audience of Ephesians is not primarily Jews, and is largely centered on Gentile converts or those who are interested in Israel’s God (c.f. (2:1-22; 3:1-12; 4:17-23).

I will attempt to convey my reflections in two points.

1. God as Father

God is spoken of as father quite prominently in Ephesians 1, specifically in 1:3. Paul’s invoking of the “father” imagery is stark, as a father in the ancient world had the power of adoption or expulsion but was also the one who gave the inheritance to his sons and daughters. God the Father, as such, is wealthy enough to give an inheritance to the Gentiles and has adopted them through Christ (v.4). The use of υἱοθεσίαν signifies, again, the removal from one sphere and placement within another. Adoption, then, is economic, liberative, and familial. The father desires to give gifts (χάριτος: some translate this as ‘grace,’ but I think ‘gift’ works better here) to the Gentiles, and has enough for all who participate in Christ’s liberative act of redemption. To that,w e turn next.

2. Christ as Liberator

My main reflection on this point centers on 1:7, where Paul writes ἐν ᾧ ἔχομεν τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν διὰ τοῦ αἵματος αὐτοῦ: “In [or by] whom we have liberation through his blood” (NRQT). The parallel in Colossians 1:14 also uses ἀπολύτρωσιν as well, where Christ’s blood (i.e. ‘death’) is involved in some sort of manner. Perhaps Paul has in mind substitution, but the idea of “slavery” is found in the Old Testament where liberation results in the setting free of an individual or a people (see the Exodus). Thus, the concept of “ransom” seems more likely in Ephesians 1:7: being liberated from a previous sphere of influence by Christ.

Paul’s use of liberation (usually translated as “redemption”) is an odd term, as it only occurs 10 times in the New Testament. For Paul, it is a term that conveys the notion of being “set free” or “ransomed” from a previous state. In Romans 3:24, Paul speaks about the “righteousness/ righteousness” that comes διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (“through the liberation by Christ Jesus”). Liberation in Paul is seen in Christological and Pneumetological terms, where Christ and/or the Holy Spirit are active in creation for the sake of Gentiles. In Ephesians 1, it is in Christ we have liberation, and in 1:14, it is the “release” of our inheritance that is conducted through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our down payment, based on the work God does in and by Christ for the sake of non-Jews.

God, in Christ, has something for those who previously did not worship him as God.

Jesus is spoken about as Χριστός in Ephesians 1:3-14 quite prominently, which suggests the motif of “kingship” and does not remove Jesus from the Messianic sphere. Jesus is still king, the one who liberates the Gentiles from their former sphere of sin and death and subjection.

To outsiders - then and now - this is true gospel: Christ, through the Father, is the benevolent King who liberates us from our former domain of Sin and oppression and Death, the one calling us sons and daughters. In this new realm of Christ’s kingdom, we participate fully as equal members of Christ’s body.

Final Thought.

In this Messiah, we are sons and daughters, brought together by a wealthy father that desires all people to be in his family. Being ‘predefined’ beforehand by God’s grace, to actively live into our calling. God’s gift of Christ, then, is not limited but is for all people—Jew and Gentile, Christian and not.

Is God not the God of all people?


[1] See Brian Abasciano, “Clearing up Misconceptions about Corporate Election,” Ashland Theological Journal 2009.