Oh no! not another post on predestination… but I struggled with this subject for a while. And still do in some ways. I just decided to write about it to clarify my ideas. If you are able to read the whole article, let me know so that I can congratulate your perseverance! So here it is:
The doctrine of predestination
Predestination has been a “hot” topic for centuries. Christians acknowledge its truth because it is a biblical concept. Eph 1:4-6 (NASB) might be one of the best Bible passages detailing this doctrine: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Predestination deals with the choice that God made before the “foundation of the world”. So He chose us, referring to Christians, to be saved through Christ by grace. He predestined us “according to the kind intention of His will” (Gr. “according to the pleasure of his will”). Even though it could refer to “adoption”, I believe it actually points to the whole idea: God’s will led to the predestination of some into adoption as His children. This is confirmed by v11 “having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” Finally, this choice was made for his glory: “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (v6).
What is the ground of predestination?
Few people would actually contest that predestination is not biblical. Issues rise when people try to understand how God predestined. In other words, what is the basis for God’s choice? Rom 8:29 says: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son”. And again, in 1 Pe 1:1-2: “Peter […] to those […] who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father […] to obey Jesus Christ”. What those verses say is that God made his choice according to his foreknowledge.
When I started to study Rom 8-11, I first advocated that God foresaw the faith of believers and then predestined them to salvation. Foreknowledge would be prescience or knowing in advance what would happen. Then I recall lying down in my bed with some sort of unsatisfaction. Something was off. I ponder this thought and another thought came to my mind: if God foresaw us and chose us because He saw us, it would mean that He chose us based on our good works. But Rom 9:11 says: “For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls.” It explicitly states that God does not choose us based on our good works nor in any kind of predisposition. The reasons of His choice lay within Himself as Deut 7:7-8 says about Israel: “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers.” It becomes clear that foreknowledge in this case is not purely prescience.
It is interesting to notice that foreknowledge is linked to God’s will and purpose. “Those whom He foreknew” (Rom 8:29) are “those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). It is not only the knowledge of what is coming but a knowledge that does something, and in that sense, I believe foreknowledge (Greek words proginoskein and prognosis) has the meaning of foreordination as KJV translates 1 Pe 1:20 “Who verily was foreordained [or foreknown – same word in Gr.] before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” The same idea is in Acts 2:23. We can replace “foreknowledge” by “foreordination” interchangeably: “this Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge/foreordination of God, you nailed to a cross.” Foreordination is the choice that God makes in planning what would happen to call someone or something to a certain purpose. “God foreknows because He has foreordained all things, and because in His providence He will certainly bring all to pass.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia). The OT has also this concept. Gen 18:19 says talking about Abraham: “For I have chosen (lit. I knew – Hebrew uses the verb “know” as for “foreknow”) him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”
Since foreknowledge and predestination carry on God’s purpose, the basis of His election/choice for salvation cannot be our disposition to faith (because it would mean that we drive His purpose) but His own sovereign will.
“No one can come to me unless it is granted to him by my Father” (Jn 6:65)
“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep” (Jn 10:26)
“Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 1 8:37)
Calvinism vs Arminianism
Here is a short parenthesis to understand the “Calvinism/Arminianism” conflict. I went through the study of Rom 8-11 without any resources except the Bible itself (or at least until I made up my mind about the topic of predestination). After studying on my own, I discovered that my previous position (foreknowledge as foreseeing future faith) was actually Arminian… and my current position is Calvinist or reformed. I have not found anything new but just wrestled with what many other people wrestled for centuries.
Why is it important
Let us be honest, this topic divides Christians and it is possible to water down this doctrine for the sake of the unity of the Church. However, predestination should be considered seriously since it is clearly taught in the Bible. I am not asking for division over this doctrine, but at least, we should be opened to study and understand what the Bible says.
One thing that I found important and helpful is that God’s sovereign election is the ground for the assurance of our salvation. In the past, I often heard that we could not lose our salvation, but now I understand the reason. Rom 8:29-30 is sometimes called the golden chain of salvation: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined […] and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” The idea of this chain is that the ones God foreknew from the beginning are the same who are glorified. There is no loss on the way. The apostle Paul seeks to comfort the readers that they are children of God as Rom 8:16 says: “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” The main point of the end of chapter 8 is to confirm that we are secured in Christ: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies […] Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:31-35). Therefore, the assurance of our salvation is rooted in the fact that God chose us before the foundation of the world.
Predestination and its challenges
This doctrine has generated lengthy discussions not so much, I believe, because Christians disagree about what the Bible says but because of its implications.
The freedom of man
If God chooses those who are saved, then it implies that man does not have the choice – or if we want to be exact, man does not the ability to make the right choice, unless God changes something in him so that he can choose to believe in Christ.
No one contests that man has to make the choice to believe as it is written in Jn 3:16 “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. However, if you believe that God chooses those who believe, then you should also believe that no one can come to God unless He gives them the predisposition to believe. To explain this, we have to remember that all men are lost: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). No one is righteous, but there is more than the fact that all men sinned. Man seems to have something in himself that eventually pushes him to sin: “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Rom 3:9). Saint Augustine wrote about the original sin that we inherited from Adam: “In the judgment of God, all are in the devil’s power, born in sin, unless they are regenerated in Christ” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book II:25). I believe 1 Cor 15 carries this idea: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (v21-22); “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly. Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v49-50); or again in Rom 5:19a “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”. The idea is that death came through Adam because of his sin and since then, we all die because we inherited his sin. This sin is what that has alienated us. We lost our free will and now, even though we still have the choice to choose God, we are unable to do it because our will is depraved.
I would say that this is not an easy argument to support and to accept. It is based on a global understanding of the Bible (or other doctrines). However I am convinced of its truthfulness because it is backed up by real life. How many of us, Christians, had this feeling that if God does not do something to change someone, that person would never come to God? You can argue and make demonstration, etc. but at the end, deep down in you, you know that there is no way that person changes unless broken by God Himself. This argument actually convinced me of God’s sovereign choice because I saw my own stubborn and utter depravity and I would have never been able to choose Him on my own.
We were not so free… free enough just to choose what is against God. Sin held us under its control. It influenced our will, even though we thought we were free to make our own choice. For example, when we want to buy a car, we are influenced by our family or culture. We want a nice looking, modern and powerful car. We still make the choice to buy that type of car but the choice is not absolutely free. Let’s think about it: if God is sovereign, then what does it say about our freedom? In the same way, if we are totally free, what does it say about God’s sovereignty? I believe the Bible clearly says that God is in control and we are limited beings. So somehow things can happen because of man’s will but never outside of God’s control.
Is there something such as altruism – from a purely human standpoint? Now this question remains because if there is any pure selfless altruism, then a person would able to choose God out of his own pure desire for God. However, the answer is no. There are hidden self-centered motives. For example, a teenage boy died to try to save his girlfriend while she was drowning in the tempestuous flood: he could have done this because he desperately needed her and could not live with her – selfish motives. A man saved kids who were drowning but lost his life: he could have done that because he had to meet his own standard “a real man cannot pass by people in danger without attempting to save them.” I know these two examples are extreme and sound horrible and far from me to say that they are not heroic people, but what I am pointing out is that our sinful (or degenerated human) nature cannot perform such a thing as pure altruism. If so, there is no way we could have chosen God since it would be an utter act of worship (contrary to idolatry) without the help of Spirit (Jn 4:23 “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”).
The fairness of God
One of the first arguments we usually have is “God would not be fair if He chooses only some to be saved”. It actually is one of the first because we understand this doctrine from our perspective. Our underlying thought process (hopefully) is: I don’t deserve mercy more than another. Why me and not another? This reminds me Heb 9 that compares the Jewish high priests and Jesus as better high priest. The Jewish priests had to bring a sacrifice for themselves but Jesus did not have to. He is more merciful because He does not need mercy but ask for mercy on our behalf while the priests needed mercy for themselves too. They had to ask. When we argue for fairness, we are like the Jewish priests. We argue about fairness because we know we need salvation too, but from God’s perspective, His fairness or justice requires that we all go to hell. God was unfair with Himself. Jesus was sent to die on the cross so that some might be unfairly saved. Let us be reminded of our lostness and God’s gracious gift of salvation “for while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). Those who were not elected would, unfortunately from our human perspective, be sent to hell (Rom 9:22) to get what they deserve to demonstrate God’s wrath and power, and to emphasize God’s glorious mercy (Rom 9:23). As I write these words, my heart aches to think that some of my closest friends or family members could be not elected. This is not something to be explained lightly and intellectually. I will do anything in order that my children are saved, but ultimately, it is the choice of God.
The responsibility of God
This issue is closely related to the fairness of God but from a different angle. As we saw previously, God is fair to send people to hell because we all deserve it, but if they only had the ability to do evil, how can He not responsible for their wickedness? Are those who go to hell responsible for their acts? This is actually the last argument of Rom 9: “You will say to me then, Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (v19).
We acknowledge that God did prepare some to eternal damnation:
“For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Rom 11:32)
“The Scripture has shut up everyone under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22)
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom 9:22)
“They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” (1 Pe 2:8)
“For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)
This makes difficult not to deduct that on hand, people are not responsible for their sins and on the other hand, that God is therefore responsible for it. In response to this logical conclusion, the apostle Paul is plain. God is arbitrary and He can decide whatever He wants:
“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right over the clay” (Rom 9:20-21a).
Paul clearly uses an authoritative argument against which no one who confess to be Christian can argue.
The Bible also says that God does not do evil (Ja 1:13; 1 Jn 1:5) even though some “evil” actions are allowed by Him (1 Sam 16:14-16). Grudem puts it this way:
“God uses evil for his purposes, but […] he never does evil and is not to be blamed for it” (Wayne Grudem – Systematic theology p328).
Moreover, good and evil are defined by God. So if there is no darkness in Him, then he cannot do evil which is anything contrary to His moral standards. Therefore, people who go to hell are responsible for their own evil and God is not responsible for them. We must remember that Christians have to submit to the authority of Scripture, even if there seems to be a missing bridge between arguments.
The love of God
From my point of view (as Christian), the real issue is the underlying deductions about God’s love for men. What can we say about His love if He chose only some for salvation? I am not questioning how He can send anyone to hell if He is love. We commonly understand and accept that we deserve hell since we rebelled against Him, but does God love all? Does He show “favoritism”? For if God loves all, why does He not restore free will to all so that they can have the opportunity to accept His gracious salvation? Does God desperately try to reach out to all but be rejected by some or does He only reach out to His people who eventually accept Him? As Christian, I believe it is important to seek to understand, if possible, God’s character.
I am deeply committed to proclaim the love of God, not because of my own conception of God or my moral principles, but because the Bible says “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). God is in his very nature love and His love may be the one thing that reaches out to the depth of our souls. We crave whether consciously or unconsciously – believers or unbelievers – for His love whatever aspect of His love it is. The only difference between believers and unbelievers is that Christians acknowledge their need for God’s love while unbelievers hope to find love in other things.
We know or experience love when our needs are met. Every day we need to be loved. Every day our God is committed to meeting our needs for attention (God’s servant love); acceptance (God’s unearned love); security (God’s committed love); trust (God’s faithful love); guidance (God’s directional love); protection (God’s jealous love); and significance (God’s affirming love). These needs never go away.” McNicol, Bruce; Thrall, Bill; Lynch, John. The Cure: What If God Isn’t Who You Think He Is And Neither Are You (Kindle Locations 1343-1346). Cross Section Ventures, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
As far as I remember, God’s love might be what attracted me as a child to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. He loved me to such extent that He gave His only Son so that I can be His. It was a wonderful message. In fact, when the NT talks about the love of God, it is often associates with salvation:
Rom 5:8 “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Eph 2:4-5 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ by grace you have been saved”
Tit 3:3-5 “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done , but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost”
1 Jn 4:9-10 “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
I honestly think connecting election to love (in term of affection) is inadequate. Some would say that God predestined those He loves for salvation and the others for damnation, or that God only loves his elects with a “saving love” quoting:
Eph. 1:4-5 “In love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will”
Eph 2:4-5 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”
1John 3:1 “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
It is true that the Love of God is greatly manifested in the grace He bestowed upon us, but it is noticeable that His love shines prior to being made His children. What the Bible highlights is not so much the fact that God loves his elect, but that He loved the elects while they were sinners/dead in their trespasses, and this makes the gospel call even more a demonstration of His love:
Jn 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”
Whether we are saved or not, His love seeks to reach out to us while we were far from Him. God desperately sought his unfaithful people:
Jer 31:20 “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him, declares the LORD.”
Hos 11:8-9 “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”
He does not take pleasure in wickedness but wishes that people repent:
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. (Ezek 33:11)
Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD . Repent and live! (Ezek 18:31-32)
Christ commanded his people to love his enemies because God’s loving kindness toward His enemies.
Mat 5:43-48 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So we can conclude that God loves all in a manner that seeks repentance. What is described in “saving love” refers actually to fatherly love and cannot be used for unbelievers. It does not imply that God does not love unbelievers or that He loves his people more, but His fatherly love can only be directed toward His children.
Now Rom 9:13 could be used to say that God loves others and not others.
Rom. 9:13/Mal 1:2b-3a “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated”
However, according to the ESV Bible Study, this verse gives insight to “saving love”: it does not refer to a particular affection, but it refers to favoritism and rejection. His election is made based on His sovereign will not preferential affection of some over others.
“Malachi appeals to God’s elective and unconditional love of Jacob and corresponding hatred of Esau. In this context loved refers to choice rather than affection, and hated refers to rejection rather than animosity” (ESV Bible Study’s commentary on Mal 1:1-3)
Deut 7 declares Israel as a chosen nation on basis of love, but it is manifest that God made a sovereign choice to favor the nation of Israel because He decided so.
Deut. 7:7-8 “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
There are examples of “outsiders” in the OT who converted to the God of Israel (Ex: Naaman 2 Kgs 5:15). So how can we understand God’s blessing for Abraham (Gen 12:1-3 “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”) if God had chosen to love only Israel since Deut 7 was clearly addressing the nation of Israel (rather than the “spiritual” Israel – v6: “God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth”)?
Therefore, I believe God has the desire to save all. His love seeks to reach out to us but only his election makes salvation effective. He will not save all for a greater reason – His glory through justice and grace (Rom 9:22-23; Eph 1:6) – so that He will be justified in the end and none will be able to contest His choices. Even His love becomes a reason for a condemnation if it is refused.
The doctrine of election is puzzling because of our finiteness. In many ways, we are biased because we are directly involved. It is difficult to see the two sides of a coin at the same at time. However, it is important for Christians to ponder this topic since the Bible teaches it. As I said earlier, I did not hold a Calvinist view until I dig into the Word myself. It can also be at times useless to try to fill the gaps to understand how everything can work together. We need to accept that the Bible does not try to build a completed view of this doctrine.
Jn 1:12-13 “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”