Problem: Paul writes, “[God] chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph. 1:4). Calvinistic interpreters argue that this passage teaches God’s unconditional election of believers. Is this the case?
Solution: Ephesians 1 is one of the “big three” Calvinistic passages (cf. Romans 9 and John 6). In other words, this is one of the best passages that Calvinists marshal in support of their view. But even this passage (one of their strongest), can be faithfully understood from an alternative perspective: Put simply, we are “chosen” because we are in Christ, but we are not chosen to be put into Christ. There are a number of reasons for adopting this interpretation.
Jesus is the “Chosen One,” and we are chosen “in Him.” God said of Jesus, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Lk. 9:35) Of course, Jesus was not “chosen” from a number of different messiahs (!!). Likewise, there are “chosen angels” (1 Tim. 5:21). But of course, angels are not chosen for salvation either (Heb. 1:14; 2 Pet. 2:4). Therefore, whatever “chosen” means, it does not mean “unconditionally elected for salvation,” as Calvinism teaches.
Paul uses the prepositional phrase “in Christ” ten times in the first thirteen verses of Ephesians 1 (in various forms). We aren’t chosen to be put into Christ, but chosen because we are in Christ. Commentator Klyne Snodgrass writes, “People become elect only in the Elect One—Christ… Individuals are not elected and then put in Christ. They are in Christ and therefore elect.” Forster and Marston write, “We are chosen in Christ. This does not mean that we were chosen to be put into Christ.”
Consider a parallel example from the OT: Jacob’s descendants (the nation of Israel) were not chosen to be put into Jacob’s line. Rather, they were chosen, because they were in Jacob’s line.
Similarly, Paul is not referring to individuals—but to the entire church. Western people typically read the Bible as referring to me, when they often need to read it as referring to we. Ephesians 1 is a case in point. Paul is not referring to the individual believer, but to the entire church. Paul wrote, “He chose us…” rather than “He chose me…” Paul is not saying that an individual was chosen to be with Christ; he is saying that the entire church was chosen to be with Christ.
We are chosen IN Christ, but how are we put INTO Christ?
The context tells us that we get put into Christ simply through “faith” in Jesus Christ:
The EARLIER CONTEXT refers to the believer’s faith as the key to being “in Christ” (v.1). Paul writes his letter “To the saints… who are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). This verse is often overlooked. The term “faithful” (pistoi) can be translated as either “those who have faith” or as “those who are faithful.” However, the majority of even Reformed commentators understand this to refer to “those who have faith.” These would include commentators like F.F. Bruce, Andrew Lincoln, Ernest Best, and Clinton Arnold. Therefore, if you have faith in Jesus, then you are part of the “us” mentioned throughout Paul’s introduction. This will change how you read the rest of this chapter:
“[God] chose [the faithful] in Him” (v.4).
“[God] predestined [the faithful] to adoption as sons” (v.5).
“[The faithful] have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose” (v.11).
In other words, it is not a mystery how we get into Christ. The text tells us that this is through our faith.
The LATER CONTEXT refers to the believer’s faith as the key to being “in Christ” (vv.13-14). Paul explicitly writes, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). This passage teaches that being in Christ is contingent on “having also believed.” Leighton Flowers writes, “The first chapter of Ephesians is not about God predetermining which individuals will be in Christ. This passage is about God predetermining the spiritual blessings for those who are in Christ through believing the word of truth (vv. 1-3).”
Other passages show that God chose us based on his foreknowledge. Peter writes, “[Christian believers] are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:2). Notice the order: God chose us based on his foreknowledge of future events, which would include our decision to trust in Christ.
We are not saying that a Reformed reading is ruled out by the interpretation defended above. It’s certainly possible to understand Ephesians 1:4 as referring to unconditional election. However, we are merely saying that this alternate reading is just as plausible, or perhaps, even more plausible. Moreover, seeing as how this is one of the best passages in support of unconditional election, this shows that the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election is not a strong view to hold in light of the various passages that speak directly to the contrary. For more on this subject, see our earlier article, “Calvinism and Arminianism.”
 Forster & Marston write, “We share in both the position of Christ beside God and the chosenness of Christ by God. God said of Christ: this is my son, my chosen, hear you him. Elsewhere Christ is said to be the servant whom God has chosen. The chosenness of Christ has, of course, nothing to do with going to heaven or to hell. He is not chosen to go to heaven but to be God’s servant. Gods ‘suffering servant’ for the redemption of the peoples. There were not, moreover, a great number of others whom God could equally well have chosen to fulfill the office of suffering servant. Jesus was unique, and was also the chosen or choice one of God in the sense of being closest to the heart of the Father.” Forster, Roger T., and V. Paul Marston. God’s Strategy in Human History. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1974. 87-88.
 Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 49.
 Forster, Roger T., and V. Paul Marston. God’s Strategy in Human History. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1974. 88.
 There is only one example of an individual being “chosen” in the NT. It is Rufus in Romans 16:13, who was “chosen in the Lord.” However, even here, Rufus wasn’t chosen to believe, but rather, he was chosen in the Lord.
 Foulkes, F. (1989). Ephesians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 10, p. 52). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Bruce writes, “‘Believers’ is more probably the sense here.” Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (p. 251). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Lincoln writes, “‘Faithful’ is to be understood in the sense of having faith or exercising belief rather than of being trustworthy or reliable. As an adjective, πιστός means ‘believing’ in Gal 3:9. Used as a substantive, it began to take on the semitechnical sense of ‘believer’; in 2 Cor 6:15 the believer (πιστός) is contrasted with the unbeliever (ἄπιστος), and by the time of the Pastorals this usage seems to have become fixed (cf. 1 Tim 4:10, 12; 5:16; 6:2; Titus 1:6).” Lincoln, A. T. (1990). Ephesians (Vol. 42, p. 6). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
 Best writes, “Used as a noun in Eph 1:1 it will belong to the same semantic field as ‘saints’ and should be translated as ‘believers.’” Best, E. (1998). A critical and exegetical commentary on Ephesians (p. 101). Edinburgh: T&T Clark International.
 Arnold writes, “The adjective is best understood in the active sense of exercising belief or trust, especially since the object of that faith is explicitly stated as ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Although the word could also be taken as ‘faithful,’ this is doubtful because Paul is not making a distinction in the letter between faithful and unfaithful Christians at Ephesus.” Clinton Arnold, Ephesians: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 69.
 Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), pp.79-80.