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Making Sense of Predestination

August 21st, 2010 1 comment

I recently was involved in an online discussion of the doctrine of predestination. I have been meaning to write a post on this subject, and these discussions have spurred me to do so.  It is a difficult subject and one that is greatly misunderstood. Here is my take on the subject.

When we talk about predestination here, we’re not talking about the idea that every decision of your life is preordained and we go about life like mere robots. The predestination were discussing here is the one put forth by John Calvin, the 16th century theologian and one of the principal figures in the Protestant Reformation.  The following is predestination as defined by Calvin, from his greatest work Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He has determined in Himself what would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is fore-ordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestinated either to life or to death.”

To Calvin, some are predestined for eternal life, while other are predestined for eternal damnation.

The first half of this definition, the idea that God has predestined some for eternal life, does in fact have scriptural basis:

Acts 13:48 – “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”

Romans 8:28-30 – “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

Ephesians 1:3-6 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.”

Mark 4:10-12 – “But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.”

Romans 9:15-18 – “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’  Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. ”

Romans 11:5-9 – “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace…What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded.  Just as it is written: ‘God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear, to this very day.’ “

John 6:44 – “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…”

The passages above state several things that many Christians do not want to hear: that God sometimes hides the truth from some while revealing it to others, that God sometimes purposefully blinds some so that they won’t understand, and that there is an elect group of people as well as a non-elect group of people.  It is God that first must open a person’s mind and heart.

It’s the second half of Calvin’s definition of predestination, that some are predestined for eternal damnation, that is most troublesome for many Christians, and for good reason – it stands in direct contradiction to the many clear passages in scripture that tell us that God desires salvation for all men and does not wish that any should perish. A few of these passages are listed below:

John 3:16-17 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

For God so loved the world, not just some. And it’s for whoever, not just some.  And notice that God sent Jesus Christ to save the world, not just the elect.

Romans 5:18 – “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.”

This verse speaks of God’s free gift of salvation as already present for all mankind.  We can’t say that if we believe that some are predestined for eternal damnation – those unfortunate souls never had it and never will have it.

Romans 11:32 – “For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.”

Notice that it is God who is responsible for committing mankind to disobedience, and it is God who will eventually show mercy on all (not some).

1 Timothy 2:3-4 – “…God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

What could be clearer than this?  God desires all men to be saved, not some.  If it is indeed true that God predestines some for eternal life and others for eternal damnation, then it cannot be said that God desires all men to be saved. Verse 6 continues the thought, saying that Jesus Christ “… gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time“.  Jesus is the ransom for all men, not just some.  And pay particular attention to the phrase that comes after that – “to be testified in due time”.  Yes, God’s intention is to save the whole world, but in due time.  It’s not according to our timetable, but God’s.

1 Timothy 4:10 – “…we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”

This is an interesting verse – God is the savior of all men, even those who do not believe?

Titus 2:11 – “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…”

There’s that word “all” again.

2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord… is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

God is not willing that any should perish.  If we believe what Calvin wrote then yes, God IS willing that some should perish.

Calvin jumped to the conclusion that because certain scriptures speak of God’s will in the exclusion of some from His mercy that that exclusion is final and eternal.  I disagree totally.  The teaching of the apostles in the New Testament is clear and unambiguous – God desires all men to saved, and is not willing that any should perish.  There are no limitations to God’s promises. The idea that some are predestined for eternal damnation has no place in New Testament teaching.  If we believe that it is God who calls and opens the mind, and if we believe the clear, foundational scriptures that say that God “desires all men to be saved”, then it follows that we also must believe that somehow, someway, God will deal with those masses of humanity that have lived down throughout the ages and at some point open their minds and hearts to know Him and His Son Jesus Christ.

Predestination is not about “who”, it’s about “when”.  Most Christians believe that God is desperately trying to save the world now, all at one shot. But, there is a time order to salvation, and with this the scriptures agree.  Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15: 20-24, speaks of the resurrection of the dead and how “…as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive…” (there’s that word “all” again).  But, he continues, “…each one in his own order…” (v. 23).  First Christ, then the church, THEN everyone else.  Paul says basically the same thing about the nation of Israel in Romans 11.  He explains that God has hardened Israel minds and hearts (v. 7-8, 25), but that hardening is only temporary until God has completed his work with the Gentiles.  Israel’s exclusion is not final and eternal.  So, too, it is with the world. Those not now part of the “elect” are not lost eternally.  Their time has not yet come.

We may not understand how God is going to accomplish the salvation of all humanity, and God does not reveal anything about that but the slightest hints in scripture.  The New Testament writers are primarily concerned with the Church and not how the salvation of all who have ever lived will occur.  The epistles and writings of the New Testament were written either to individual Christians or to churches. God simply does not reveal to us much of what happens after the “Church age”.  And perhaps that is for good reason.  Christian theologian Lesslie Newbigin called Calvin’s view of predestination “the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism” – the idea that God chooses some for elite privilege and others for damnation.  Newbigin said that the correct biblical understanding of election is not that we are chosen instead of others, but on behalf of others.  It means being chosen for service, not privilege.  Abraham and his descendants are chosen to be God’s people from among all the nations not for some special privilege, but to secure blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3).  Election is election to service.  As Lesslie Newbigin comments, “To be elect… means to be incorporated into [God's] mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for [the] whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the first fruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all.”   The elect of the church are often called “priests” by the New Testament writers (1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6).  Where there are priests, there must of necessity be congregants.  If we are priests, then who will be our congregants?  Why, the rest of the world, of course.  The vast majority of humanity haven’t rejected Christ – they’ve never heard of Him!  God has not called us just to receive eternal life, He has called us to do a job.  And perhaps God wants us to have a little faith in Him that He can and will save the world having to explain every detail to us.  I believe He can, and will.

An interesting clue as to what God’s plan might be can be found in the seven annual feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23).  These feasts were given to the nation of Israel and centered around the yearly harvest cycle.  Three feasts centered around the spring harvest, and the other four centered around the much larger fall harvest.  One of those feasts is Pentecost which, as any Christian should know, is also when the Church was born.  Consider: Jesus is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), and the Church was born on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).  If we as the Church represent the smaller spring harvest, is there a much larger fall harvest that still awaits, waiting for the Church to be perfected and completed (Matthew 9:36-38)?

One last thought – a correct understanding of predestination also includes the idea of intention.  Too many people see God’s plan as a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, where God puts us all down here on earth, blindfolds us, then waits to see who will find Him and who will not.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that it has been God’s intention all along to give us eternal life.  It is our destiny.  It’s not an afterthought – it has been predestined,  planned from the foundation of the world.  Our salvation will not be an accident – it is certain.  I can’t think of anything more reassuring than that.