Predestination? What’s up with that?
July 21, 2017 § 3 Comments
If God chooses some for salvation, does that mean he chooses some for damnation?
The debate over this question has been long and heated—and, unfortunately, in many cases often not very enlightening or edifying. I am going to address this question as I understand Scripture deals with it in a series of posts and as I begin it may seem like I avoiding answering the question, so hang with me! It is possible to simply answer the question, but my experience has been that a straight up answer only leads to more questions—questions that go directly to some foundational Biblical truths.
So I am going straight to those foundational truths first—and then I will return to the question above.
What’s up with that?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that taught that salvation is “free” in the sense that it is free for everyone’s choosing if they will only believe. Most Protestant evangelicals share this view. God gives eternal life to “whosoever believes” in Jesus, no qualification.
I did not actually become a believer until I was in college, and, as a new Christian I dove excitedly into the Bible. It didn’t take long for me to find passages like Romans 8:28-30:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-20)
Predestined? What was up with that?
Then, also, I discovered Ephesians 1:3-5:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
I further saw that believers are often called the “elect” in Scripture: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (Romans 8:33, 34a)
Nobody disputes that the words “predestine” and “elect” are in Scripture; it’s what these words mean that causes the heartburn! So how are we to approach this?
I am grateful to have been mentored as a young Christian by a series of godly men who helped me to learn to think in terms of what the Bible says is true about the nature of God and the nature of man. It is from this foundation that I learned to approach what Scripture teaches but also how I am to understand what it teaches. This fact is, in my estimation, everything.
Simply stated, God is infinite and perfect—man is finite and imperfect or, finite and fallen. Whereas God’s knowledge and power are limitless, man’s is limited in two significant ways.
We are Finite
First, I am limited by the fact that I am a created being. God made me, which makes me a creature! As a creature there is a limit to what I can know and do. I can’t have infinite knowledge (that would make me omniscient, which only God can be) and I can’t have infinite power (that would make me omnipotent—same conclusion). So there is a limit to what I can understand and do.
God, by contrast, is infinite—he is that he is, as he told Moses in Exodus 3. The idea of the existence of God as an eternal, infinite and self-existing being is troubling to philosophers and scientists because they can’t fully explain it or understand it.
And don’t let the more arrogant elite “free thinkers” tell you this is an “unscientific” or something like that; scientists have been smashing up against this for centuries with no let up on the fact the foundational things escape their understanding. A good example: Light is a wave. And a particle. Waves and particles behave in exclusive ways—a wave is a wave and a particle is a particle. But light is a wave. And a particle.
Like I said, man is finite—some things are beyond our understanding!
The point of all of this is that there are some things in Scripture that God reveals that are in fact ultimately beyond our full comprehension; they are true—but we cannot fully grasp them. David speaks about this powerfully when he contemplates the omniscience and foreknowledge of God:
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:1-6)
David doesn’t say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; I can’t accept it.” He says he cannot attain it—that is, it is beyond his full comprehension.
This contrasting reality is what theologians call the Creator-creature distinction. It is foundational in our reading of Scripture. God is the Creator of all things and, by virtue of that reality alone, he has the right to do with his creation as he pleases. This is what we mean when we say God is sovereign—he has absolute control over all things.
And this is where it all goes awry. Man does not like God’s absolute control over all things because, well, man wants to be in charge. We want total freedom—autonomy.
We are Fallen
This is where we consider the second way that man is limited: we are fallen. Scripture teaches that sin has affected every aspect of our being—which is what it means to say we are totally depraved. Our minds, our will, our emotions—everything about us has been affected by sin. Though God’s grace makes us into new creations when we believe in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), we remain sinners until the die we die or Christ returns. Paul, near the end of his life referred to himself in the present tense as the “chief” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
So, even though we may now have a new nature, sin still affects the way we think about all things—which is why God calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind through Scripture (Romans 12:1, 2). Our experience confirms—and simple honesty tells us—that being a Christian does not mean we stop thinking sinfully or without error.
God’s Ways are not Our Ways
The upshot of all of this is that, biblically speaking, there are limits to what we understand about God and his ways—and what we think we do understand may in fact be wrong. He doesn’t do things the way we do—and for that we should be very glad, because we have all made confident assertions that we plain wrong.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
As we approach things like election and predestination, we have to start here. What I may think it means or what I have heard it means may in fact be off—and the same has to be applied to my understanding, as well. We must let what we know to be true about the character and nature of both God and man help us understand what these passages are saying—which is what we will do in the next post.