Question: Ephesians 1 refers to believers as predestined before the foundation of the world. How do you reconcile this with your view that free actions of people (like choosing to believe in Christ) can’t be predestined or even foreknown ahead of time?
Answer: It took three hundred years before anyone in Church history interpreted the New Testament to teach that God individually predestines certain people to go to heaven, and “leaves” (viz. a nice way of saying “predestines”) all others to go to hell. Augustine’s interpretation decisively influenced Church history, and was followed by the early Protestant Reformers and those who continued in the Reformed tradition. The fact that you have trouble reading the verses you mention in a non-Calvinist way testifies to how influential this tradition continues to be in terms of how we (as opposed to the pre-Augustinian church) read the Bible.
As you mention in your question, one of the texts most frequently appealed to in support of this view is Ephesians 1.
He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…. (Eph. 1:4–5)
In keeping with the Jewish practice of his day, I think Paul was speaking of a corporate election in this passage. When Jews thought of election or predestination, they thought primarily of the nation of Israel. Israel as a nation was elected (not for salvation, but for service). But this didn’t mean that every individual born into Israel was part of God’s chosen people. Only those who kept covenant with God were considered “true Israelites.”
Notice that Paul doesn’t say that God chose us to be in Christ. He rather says God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless. What God chose from the foundation of the world was that whoever is in Christ will be holy and blameless.
Suppose I conduct a conference at which I show a movie clip from The Princess Bride. You choose at the last moment to attend this conference. At the end of the movie clip you raise your hand and ask, “Mr. Boyd, when did you decide that we’d have to watch that silly movie clip,” to which I might respond, “Well, I decide that six months ago.” You then turn around and say, quite accurately, to the whole conference, “Mr. Boyd predestined us to watch this movie clip six months ago.”
But notice, I didn’t predestine that you individually would watch this movie clip. What I predestined is that whoever shows up at this conference would watch this movie clip. Now that you decided (even at the last minute) to be part of this conference, what was predestined for the whole becomes predestined for you. You are part of the “us” who was predestined to watch the clip.
So too, from the foundation of the world God predestined that whoever is in Christ would become holy and blameless in his sight. But he didn’t predestine certain individuals — as opposed to other unfortunate individuals — to be in Christ. This is left up to our choice. Now that you’ve chosen to be in Christ, what was predestined for the group becomes predestined for you. You, with Paul, can say “In Christ WE (who have chosen to believe) were predestined to be holy and blameless…”
I’m convinced this is what Paul is communicating in this passage.