Paul Teaches that Election to Salvation is Individual, not Corporate. Ephesians 1:3-14

The Augustinian view of election of believers outlined in the comments on Eph 1:4 in particular has come under challenge recently from scholars who defend a view they term “corporate election.” Brian J. Abasciano explains:

Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group. Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group.… Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group.… On both the individual and the corporate level, election is contingent on faith in Christ.

This view is proposed over against the historic Augustinian/Calvinist view, which, we are told, “refers to the direct choice of individuals as autonomous entities” and leads to a “maverick Christianity” of isolated individuals rather than to a healthy, unified church.

Furthermore, we are told, the insights of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) have bolstered this corporate view of election as consistent with E. P. Sanders’s homogenized view of Second Temple Judaism, in which corporate Israel was elected gratuitously and individuals enjoyed this election and predestination only insofar as they maintained their status within the group through personal covenant fidelity, i.e., obedience to the law. It should be noted that not everyone agrees that the radically diverse groups in Second Temple Judaism can be homogenized quite so easily.

The argument for corporate election as it relates to Ephesians concentrates on Eph 1:4a (καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ, kathōs exelexato hēmas en autō, “insofar as he chose us in him”), where ἡμᾶς (hēmas) (“us”) is said to refer not to individuals but to “the church as a whole, especially as it was uttered in a collectivist cultural milieu in which the group was seen as primary and the individual as secondary, embedded in the group to which he belonged and referred to as a result of his membership in the group.”

Furthermore, the phrase ἐν αὐτῷ (en autō) (“in him”) in the corporate election view refers to the election of Christ as “the sphere of election” of individuals as they (voluntarily) unite to him by faith and become elect in consequence. Hence election is contingent on faith, which itself is not a divine gift but solely a human act to which God responds by choosing that individual. He has chosen the group before human history, but not people directly…[emphasis added]

…Yet it should be noted that some of the interests of defenders of the corporate election view can be appreciated by anyone. For instance, concern to guard against “maverick Christianity” is well taken, and NT scholars are helpfully prompted to explore more accurately how election is “in Christ” and the biblical issues of covenant mediation and representation.* Be that as it may, it should be emphasized that the “corporate election” view (i.e., historically Arminian or semi-Pelagian) is an issue of systematic theology involving careful examination and integration of a whole host of biblical texts and conceptions into a coherent network of truths. In other words, it cannot be established or refuted by simply examining ἡμᾶς (hēmas) (“us”) or ἐν Χριστῷ (en Christō) (“in Christ”) in Eph 1:4. This latter point is why the issue is being discussed here after Eph 2:1–10 and not earlier in the commentary. The Augustinian view of election is interconnected with certain other key biblical notions that clearly arise from Eph 2:1–10 and are not satisfactorily addressed by defenders of the corporate election view.

In particular, in the passage quoted from Abasciano above he says that “Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group.… On both the individual and the corporate level, election is contingent on faith in Christ.” This establishes a cause-effect relationship in election resting on the faith of the believer as the prime cause. God may have chosen “us” (i.e., the church) before the foundation of the world, yet members of this collective must choose to join this group voluntarily by believing in Christ to enjoy this election: “election is contingent on faith.” To the Augustinian, redemption (salvation, resurrection, eternal life, etc.) is contingent on faith, but election is the cause of faith. [emphasis added] Here is why.

In Eph 2:1, 5, Paul has identified his audience as “dead” in transgressions. Even more damning, humans were universally (“we” and “the rest”) identified as “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). There is no escaping nature. Humans are born in transgressions and are dead in them. The dead cannot choose to believe and enter into election in consequence.** They are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Who, then, will deliver the lost human race from bondage to this death?

The answer of course, is that even faith—the capacity to believe in Christ—is itself a gift originating from God, mediated by his incarnate Son, and effected in them through the Holy Spirit through the secondary means of gospel proclamation (“faith comes by hearing”; Rom 10:17) as an act of new creation. God’s gracious salvation through faith does not originate from humans themselves, and neither is it given in response to human efforts making them worthy of the gift (Eph 2:8–9). It is certainly true that believers do themselves believe (Eph 1:13) and confess Christ for salvation through gospel preaching (Rom 10:8–15), and they do so of their own volition, but all this is in consequence of the divine gift to them given solely out of “the good pleasure of his will” (Eph 1:5), “according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7), in “his good pleasure” (Eph1:9), “according to his plan who brings all things into effect in accordance with the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11–12). It runs counter to the clear teaching of Eph 2:1–10 to propose that humans acquire the benefits of election by believing. It is a gift to those who are by nature dead and therefore must first be enlivened and raised in their Mediator before exercising this faith and enjoying its benefits (Eph 2:5–6). Believers believe and live because they were elected and predestined to faith and all of its consequences out of God’s grace and good pleasure alone. As Augustine observes:

God, therefore, chose believers, but in order that they might be believers, not because they already were…Faith, then, both in its beginning and in its completeness, is a gift of God, [emphasis added] and let absolutely no one who does not want to be opposed to the perfectly clear sacred writings deny that this gift is given to some and not given to others.

In summary, the Father and the Son choose people to whom the Father will be revealed (Matt 11:25–27), according to the divine purpose, independent of human effort (Rom 9:11, 16). It was the Father’s good pleasure to grant his kingdom as a covenantal inheritance to his Son and from his Son to his people (Luke 12:32); to accomplish this end God sent his Son as mediator (Isa 42:1; 1 Pet 1:20; John 3:16) out of his originating love. They did not love him first, but he did love them first (1 John 4:10). In consequence of this love, Christ gave himself for his sheep (John 10:11, 15; Matt 1:21; Eph 5:25), his friends (John 15:13–14), whom the Father had given him before the world existed (John 17:5–12, 20) and whom he calls “by name” (John 10:3) rather than as a nameless collective. [emphasis added]

* It should be noted, though, that most confessional Augustianians (Calvinists) are presbyterian in church government, or they practice some other form of real ecclesiastical connectionalism that extends beyond the local congregation. Isolated individualism is antithetical to Reformed ecclesiology; cf. Edmund Clowney, The Church (IVP, 1995).

** See the previous post: Sovereign Grace, Regeneration and Humble Calvinism.

Source: S. M. Baugh, Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Lexham Press, 2015), pp. 165-170.