“Unto Him” in Eph 1:5—A Minority Report on the Christological Option for an Oft-Overlooked Pronoun

When I stumbled on it last year in preparation for teaching Ephesians, I was stunned. Where did this “unto him” come from that I had never seen before in the English translations of my youth? And what does it mean?

In this post, I will explore a little phrase at the middle of the justly famous “adoption” verse of Ephesians 1:5, which does not even show up in some English translations.


Ephesians 1:3–14 is one of Paul’s most famous and convoluted statements in all his letters. It happens to contain numerous fascinating words and ideas, and it also contains—count’em—THIRTY-FOUR prepositions. Four of them occur in Eph 1:5, and one in particular is quite peculiar.

The Greek (with my wooden translation) reads as follows, with the key phrase underlined:

προορίσας ἡμᾶς εἰς υἱοθεσίαν διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς αὐτόν, κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ
having predestined us unto adoption-as-children through Jesus Christ unto him, according to the pleasure of his will

Now if you are unfamiliar with the underlined phrase, I can’t blame you. Several popular English translations do not render it at all—including the ones I have used most of my adult life (NIV84 and ESV), hence my own blindness:

  • NIV[2011]—he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will
  • NIV[1984]—he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will
  • ESV[2001 and 2011]—he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will
  • RSV—He destined us to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will

You’ll notice that in each of these, there is no clear rendering of the “unto him” (εἰς αὐτόν) phrase. There is also no textual variant at play, so far as I’m aware.

The Theological Reading of the Phrase

Numerous other English translations, however, do render the phrase, and essentially all of them take it to refer back to the original “he” in 1:5, which is implied in the Greek verb “he predestined” and ultimately goes back to “God the Father” in 1:3. Here is a sampling:

  • ESV[2016]—he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will
  • [N]KJV—having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will
  • HCSB—he predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will
  • NASB—he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will
  • ASV—having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will
  • NET—he did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will

[[The last example (NET) merits a quick note; the translators footnote the “his” and say they are translating the εἰς αὐτόν. That’s fine—and perhaps NIV84 and RSV from the list above are doing the same thing—but it’s worth pointing out that such a move is remarkably subtle and greatly diminishes the force of the prepositional phrase. I’m unaware of other uses of eisauton that is simply possessive, but I could be wrong.]]

You will notice that all of these examples take εἰς αὐτόν (eis auton) as referring to “himself” in a reflexive sense. That is, God the Father predestined us unto adoption unto himself, referring back to the subject (God) who is doing the predestining.

There is, of course, nothing at all wrong conceptually with this view. We are adopted as sons-and-daughters of God the Father.

The vast majority of the commentators concur on this and take the εἰς αὐτόν to refer back to the Father, which no doubt is impacting the translators as well, who consult the commentators. The majority view (summarized well in Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC, p. 9) makes the following assertions in defense of the theological interpretation:

  1. The 3rd singular pronoun that immediately follows this phrase in Eph 1:4 refers to God the Father (κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ)
  2. The 3rd singular pronoun that immediately follows this phrase in Eph 1:5b also refers to God the Father (τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ), as in Eph 1:6 (τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ)
  3. The eis (“unto,” etc.) is best understood as telic, that is, expressing the goal of our adoption-as-sons to be God himself
  4. Paul often operates under the rubric of unto God-the-Fatherthrough Jesus-the-Son, so this phrase fits that rubric quite nicely
  5. God the Father dominates the entire section (though Christ is by no means left out)

These observations are plausible and cogent. But is there a different option?

The Christological Reading of the Phrase

While many commentators ignore the phrase (much like some of the translations), some are aware that it is possible to take the εἰς αὐτόν to refer to Jesus Christ. Ernest Best, for instance, notes, “It is not easy to decide whether in the final clause εἰς αὐτόν refers to God or Christ. Both interpretations make good sense” (Ephesians; ICC, p. 126). Similar sentiments are expressed by Thielman (Ephesians; BECNT, p. 52), Abbott (Ephesians, the old ICC, p. 9), Schnackenberg (Der Brief an die Epheser; EKKNT, p. 53), and Campbell (Paul and Union, pp. 214–215; though surprisingly he devotes about 1 sentence to it), among others. Notably, few of these scholars argue that the phrase is christological—only that it might be. Most opt for the theological reading, though some Ephesians commentators (Schlier, Gnilka) do defend the view.

Whatever the case, it is certainly the minority position to take εἰς αὐτόν to refer to Christ.

However, it should be taken seriously as a possibility—if not the preferred reading—for the following reasons:

(a) “In Christ”-ness functions as the other pole of the ellipse of Eph 1:3–14. Yes, the action of God the Father is a major pole of this complex sentence, but Christ is clearly the other pole. God has “chosen-us-in-him” (ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ, 1:4), where the “him” refers in this case quite unambiguously to Jesus. We are “graced” with the grace of the Father in-the-beloved (ἐν τῷ ἠγαπημένῳ, 1:6), which also refers to Jesus; and Paul goes on immediately to double-down by saying “In him we have redemption through his blood” (ἐν ᾧ ἔχομεν τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν διὰ τοῦ αἵματος αὐτοῦ, 1:7), with him/his both referring to Jesus. The Father then sets forth his pleasure “in him” (τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ ἣν προέθετο ἐν αὐτῷ, 1:9), with the second pronoun “him” referring to Jesus. And “in Christ” we have been chosen as God’s possession (ἐν ᾧ καὶ ἐκληρώθημεν). While several instances of “he/him” (autos) in this section do refer to the the Father, more of them refer to Christ (which, if nothing else, diminishes the force of args 1 and 2 above)

(b) The thrust of the passage drives towards an all-embracing incorporation “in Christ.” Paul reaches a crescendo in 1:10 where he describes how all creation is “summed up” “in Christ,” repeating the phrase twice (though grammatically unnecessary): ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰ πάντα ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ, τὰ ἐπὶ τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἐν αὐτῷ. In other words, the Father is the one whose purpose is to sum-up-all-things in Christ, the things in heaven and earth in him. Incorporation into Christ is the ultimate telos or goal of all things, as planned by the Father.

(c) “Adoption-as-sons” contains within it an implicit self-reference. It would be redundant for Paul to say that the Father adopted-us-as-sons to himself, since the very word υἱοθεσία (which only occurs in the GNT in Paul’s letters; 0x LXX) has embedded in it the concept of to whom one is being adopted. There is no need to express both the active subject (the adopter) AND the receiving subject (the adopter) since they are one and the same. Unfortunately, the word itself is not all that common in extent Greek sources. But the few pre-NT examples to which I have access do not include a redundant pronoun (See LSJ 1846 and TLG).

(d) Eis + Christon is a key phrase in Ephesians and the rest of Paul’s letters. Importantly, Paul revisits the theme of Eph 1:3–14 later in Ephesians, where he concludes that all Christians are to grow up “unto/into him who is the head, Christ” (αὐξήσωμεν εἰς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλή, Χριστός). Moreover, throughout Paul’s letters things are described as happening to Christians unto or into Christ, using the same wording (which is less common than the far more familiar “in Christ” language): for example, we are baptized unto/into Christ Jesus (ἐβαπτίσθημεν εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν, Rom 6:3; εἰς Χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε, Gal 3:27); the Father strengthens unto/into Christ (ὁ δὲ βεβαιῶν ἡμᾶς σὺν ὑμῖν εἰς Χριστὸν…θεός, 2 Cor 1:21). So there is precedent for seeing and “unto him”=Christ sense for a phrase like this.

(e) Most importantly, εἰς αὐτόν is not really reflexive. I was surprised that no commentator I consulted mentioned this (which either means I’m completely wrong…or that I’m onto something!). As shown above, everyone who takes the theological reading whereby the auton refers to the Father must take it in some way as reflexive (“himself”) in order to make it work; NET’s attempt to make it “his” (possessive) lacks much basis in Greek syntax.

The problem is that Greek offers two ways of conveying reflexivity, and this example from Eph 1:5 fits neither of them. One way to do a reflexive pronoun (better, “intensive”) is to insert the personal pronoun autos inside a clause in the predicate position. E.g., “the man himself did X” (αὐτὸς ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐποίησεν X). The other way is with a dedicated reflexive pronoun, ἑαυτοῦ, which appears 300+ times in the GNT (and 600+ in LXX).

Doing a verbal action for the benefit of oneself or unto oneself is easily and unambiguously expressed with, say, εἰς ἑαυτόν, as seen in, e.g., Luke 15:17; 22:17; Gal 6:4; 1 Pet 4:8, 10; Heb 12:3. Hence, if Paul wanted to express that God was adopting-people-as-his-sons-untohimself, it would be more natural to use the proper reflexive pronoun (εἰς ἑαυτόν) rather than the normal pronoun which, in this form (εἰς αὐτόν), is rarely if ever reflexive.

A study of all 38 occurrences of εἰς αὐτόν in the GNT reveals that in no other case is the αὐτόν unambiguously referring back to the subject of the verb, but rather theαὐτόν refers to a different person in the context. I also do not find any in the LXX (among 23 occurrences). [Time does not permit me to search all the Greek corpus!]

The only possibility is Col 1:19–20, which, unsurprisingly, shares a lot of themes with Eph 1:3–14. Note in particular the dia and eis phrases that are remarkably similar to Eph 1:5:

ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι καὶ δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ [δι᾿ αὐτοῦ] εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.
For in him all the fulness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things unto him, making peace through the blood of his cross [through him], whether that upon the earth or that in heaven.

Some commentators and English translations take this eis auton reflexively, that is, “reconcile to himself“—that is, God the Father, who is doing the reconciling. However, I agree with Campbell (Paul and Union, 213) that this example might be better understood christologically, thus fitting with Paul’s broader teaching that “all things” are reconciled and united unto Christ, as Eph 1:10 so clearly indicates. Yes, there is a reconciliation to the Father. But importantly, in the two other places in Paul where such a reconciliation occurs to the Father, the phrasing is quite different and much clearer: κατηλλάγημεν τῷ θεῷ (Rom 5:10); τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ διὰ Χριστοῦ…κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ (2 Cor 5:18–19). Not in particular the reflexive pronouns in the latter example! So it is possible, at least, to take eis auton in Col 1:20 to refer to Jesus Christ.

One final issue must be mentioned. Robertson (Grammar,  266) observes that it is possible that some Greek writers in the first century could have elided the εἁ of the reflexive pronoun and spelled it αὑτόν (the ε dropping out and the aspiration falling on the αυ) rather than αὐτόν (note the difference in rough breathing for the former and smooth breathing for the latter). If so, he observes, this would change the meaning of Eph 1:5, among others (indeed!). However, he observes—as do Blass-Debrunner-Funk §31—that such an elided form of εἁυτοῦ was exceedingly rare in the koine period, and there are few, if any, extant examples in the GNT manuscripts for this behavior. If true, it would obviously solve the conundrum—but it seems unlikely based on the evidence.

So I would argue that the evidence points slightly towards reading Eph 1:15’s εἰς αὐτόν as christological. God predestined us for adoption-as-his-sons-and-daughters through Christ (instrumentally, by his death/resurrection) and unto Christ (that is, to be his brothers/sisters and fellow heirs as part of God’s glorious purposes of uniting all things into Christ).

So what? Connecting the the Pew

This is a lot of words about two somewhat ambiguous words in the Greek (which some ETs don’t even notice!). Why bother? I’ll give two reasons:

  • While we certainly don’t “need” this reading to shore up Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ any further—the examples abound!—if I’m right, this reading does further demonstrate how all benefits of salvation are mediated to Christians from the Father not only through but also in Christ. We are elected in him…died with him…raised with him…seated with him…and (if this argument holds) adopted by God through and unto him, the one in whom the family of God holds together as an organic body.
  • Now, I fully admit I could simply be wrong here and that the majority position is right. I’d be fine with that. But what this little exercise (over 2,400 words for 2 words) does is quite rebellious in the current political and social climate. In an era where words increasingly mean less and less, when precision and argument and proof is replaced by hot-takes and tweets and accusations-of-bigotry (to shut down any dialogue), a sustained and thorough reflection on two seemingly inconsequential words is downright revolutionary. We can agree to disagree on which interpretation of εἰς αὐτόν is correct—or any other of the thousands of phrases in the New and Old Testaments—but we must agree that we have to do the work to get as close as possible to a “right answer” as we can. Words still mean something. Reason and arguments still matter. Every word of the living Word of God is worth study to mine its riches, even if we are sometimes left with more questions than answers. Because in a polarized environment of group-think, microaggressions, safe-spaces, and censorship—debating over εἰς αὐτόν and εἰς εἁυτόν and whatnot is a worldview battle.

One thought on ““Unto Him” in Eph 1:5—A Minority Report on the Christological Option for an Oft-Overlooked Pronoun”

  1. Your careful research and calculated reasoning are refreshing. I especially enjoyed your conclusion. Thank you for all of your work!

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