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Predestination


Predestination

by Dennis Pollock

In the past theological wars have been fought over the concept of predestination. Churches have split, denominations have ruptured, and friends have become foes wrestling with this difficult issue. Nowadays this hardly ever happens. Most modern Christians have such little knowledge of and interest in theology, they don't know enough to argue about it. Huge numbers of Christians today couldn't tell the difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian to save their life. This is a shame, not that Christians don't argue over these things anymore, but that they don't have enough knowledge to even discuss them.

The questions are these: Has God decreed that some be lost and some saved from the very beginning? Do we choose Christ or does He choose us? Is our salvation the result of an act of our free will or of God's sovereign choice? To many people, the answers may seem obvious, but the truth is that good men, Bible-studying men, and men of great intellect have come down on both sides of these questions.

Before we tackle the Scriptural view of predestination we have to answer a simpler question first: "Is this at all relevant?" Can't we get through our lives loving Jesus, supporting our church, and living upright lives without even considering this issue. Some people would say, "This is just too much heavy theology. I don't want theology; just give me Jesus." That sounds spiritual and seems like it might be the right attitude, but in fact it is not. Theology is not superfluous. For lack of sound theology cults thrive, for lack of old fashioned theology unprincipled demagogues lead unsuspecting and gullible people astray and keep them from the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh could never has attracted a following had their people been steeped with sound theology and the heart aflame for Jesus that it produces. When you read Paul's epistle to the Romans, you are studying theology (as with all the other books of the Bible).

Predestined According to God’s Purpose

So yes, it is OK to study theology. And one of the great theological questions that men have wrestled with since the early church is this business of predestination. The first thing we must understand is that there clearly is some form of predestination involved in the regeneration of men and women. Saying "I don’t believe in predestination" is pure ignorance of the word of God. The Bible uses this term so it cannot be wrong for us to use it. In Romans 8 we read: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son." In the first chapter of Ephesians we read, "… in (Christ) also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…" We have no choice but to believe in predestination; the only choice is, which version of predestination will we believe?

Regardless of which form we end up choosing, there is one thing that all Bible believers must agree upon: God knows who will be saved from the beginning and He calls them His elect. If the word elect is not in your vocabulary, you don’t know your Bible very well. It’s a good Bible word and concept. Paul writes, "Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10). All the sufferings and beatings Paul must endure is for one purpose – that the elect of God might receive the salvation provided them from the foundation of the world. Peter begins his epistle with these words, "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…" (1 Peter 1:1). Peter not only describes God's people as elect, he tells us how it is that they are so chosen – it is due to the foreknowledge of God. If you have been born again, you, too are elect because of the foreknowledge of God. Here's a news flash for you: God was not at all surprised when you bowed your head and received Jesus Christ as your Savior. He saw that day coming long before you were born.

Two Versions

There are two basic versions that Christians hold concerning these things (those that think about them at all). They are known as the Calvinistic and the Arminian positions. The Calvinists believe that God has decreed, according to His own will and purposes, who will be saved and who will be damned from the foundation of the world. We really have no say in the matter. Those who come to Christ are drawn irresistibly by God's sovereign grace and find themselves Christians purely due to God's choice. Free will or choice has nothing to do with this (except in the sense that God gives us the grace and will to choose Christ). Furthermore the Calvinists believe that Jesus died, not for the sins of all, but for the specific sins of the elect, the ones He planned to save. This is known as a limited atonement.

The Arminians think both these positions are ridiculous. They are fully convinced that they are saved because they chose to be saved, and lost people are lost because they reject Christ of their own free will. They have no doubt that Jesus died for all people, and anyone who chooses Christ will be saved.

Those who have only a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity will almost always end up on the Arminian side. Having heard evangelists give invitations to receive Christ, and knowing that the Bible encourages us to believe on Jesus and be saved, it seems pretty silly to suggest that people have nothing to do with their own salvation – that it is purely a work of God. However in truth there are some pretty strong Bible verses and passages for both sides. One of the most Calvinistic chapters in the Bible is Romans 9. If you hold an Arminian position you will be flinching constantly as you read these verses, some of which include the following:

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 Pharaoh, "Even for this same purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be declared in all the earth.'' Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Romans 9:15-18)

Appointed Believers

In Acts 13 we read about Paul and Barnabas preaching Christ to some Gentiles. And then we read a curious statement: "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Most of us would never have written it that way. We would have said, "As many as believed received eternal life." But the inspired Scriptures remind us that those who receive Christ are not accidents. Their salvation did not simply happen willy-nilly. They have been appointed to eternal life from the foundation of the world. To further complicate things, Jesus makes it plain that no one can be saved apart from God's special intervention, saying in John 6, "…no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.'' This makes us wonder, "If it takes God to draw us to Christ, why doesn't He draw everyone to Christ?" In another place He says, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…" If our salvation is a matter of the Father giving us as gifts to His Son, why doesn't the Father give more people to Him? Why just some?

This is not the whole story, however. The Arminians have many, many verses which stress man's need to choose Christ, and God's willingness to save all who do. In Revelation we read, "Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Revelation 22:17). And in rebuttal to the idea of Christ dying only for certain ones, the Bible tells us that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4), and that "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

Considering that the Bible seems to strongly emphasize both God's sovereign choice and our need to choose Christ, it was inevitable that many of the great church leaders and thinkers should have strong disagreements on these things. John Wesley hated the Calvinistic view, but his friend and fellow evangelist, George Whitfield, mighty preacher that he was, was firmly convinced that only the elect would ever come to Christ through his preaching – those the Father sovereignly gave as a gift to His Son. The powerful American evangelist, Charles Finney raged against the Calvinistic view as a terrible evil, but Jonathan Edwards, the brilliant theologian and leading figure in America's Great Awakening, made sure his listeners understood that their only hope was God's sovereign drawing grace. And God used both Finney and Edwards, both Wesley and Whitefield in dramatic fashion as He has many lesser lights who came down on opposite sides of this question throughout the ages.

Middle Position

Is there a middle position? I believe there is. It starts with recognizing the central truths from both persuasions: First, God wants all people saved, and secondly, the only ones that will ever come to Christ are those who God has called and drawn. How can this be? Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine a one-room school teacher from the old days whose students are playing outside before school begins. When it is time for school to start she walks to the door to call them to come inside. She considers how she should call them. Knowing her students perfectly, she knows that if she calls them in a soft and gentle voice only about one fourth of her students will respond. But if she should raise her voice loudly and boldly, half the students would immediately respond. And if she should stand on a chair and scream terrible threats at the top of her lungs they would all respond. Which approach will she choose? She truly desires that they all come in, so that none might be marked tardy, but she cannot bring herself to choose the last way. It would compromise her dignity. On the other hand the first method would result in too many students being unnecessarily marked tardy. Being the wise teacher that she is, she chooses the second approach. But before she ever calls them, she goes to her grade book and marks the students tardy, whom she already knows will not respond. By her foreknowledge and by her choice of how far she will go in calling her students, she has created "an elect" and a "non-elect."

So it is with our God. If He chose, He could easily turn up the power of His calling until every last sinner responded to the gospel. But this He cannot wisely do. He will go so far and no further in moving His creation to receive His son Jesus Christ. And because, in His foreknowledge, He knows perfectly just how we will respond, He is able to declare an elect – the elect for which Paul "endured all things." This does not relieve us from the responsibility of receiving Christ – "as many as received Him to them He gave the power to become children of God." Nevertheless we must also recognize that apart from God's sovereign grace which woos our hearts and softens our wills, none of us would ever receive Jesus. As it says in Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

Paul sums up this discussion beautifully for us: "Whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:30-32).


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