God Predestines

So, if God is sovereign and eternal and if God’s will always comes to pass, then doesn’t that lead us to a particularly thorny question? The topic of Predestination has been one of the most explosive and divisive issues in church life.  It famously led to quarrels between John Wesley’s Methodists and other leading Evangelicals, causing serious damage to the work of evangelism during the 18th Century Revival.[1]

On Predestination, Wesley said:

“Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this.  Whatever it’s true meaning be, this cannot be its true meaning.  Do you ask ‘What is its true meaning then?’  If I say, ‘I know not,’ you have gained nothing.  For there are many Scriptures the true sense neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know; better it were to say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this.”[2]

He preferred to leave those verses that talked about predestination un-interpreted, focusing on the bigger picture of God’s great love.[3]

Which leads us to look at exactly what the Bible does say.  Whilst, as we’ve seen already, there’s a sense throughout the whole Scripture including the OT of God’s sovereign and effective decree, the word Predestination comes up in two places – first of all in Paul’s letter to the Romans chapters 8-9 and then in Ephesians 1.

In Romans 8, we are told that:

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”[4]

Sometimes the suggestion is that God’s predestination arises from his foreknowledge. So it’s not that he determines and decrees in advance the detail of a person’s life, but rather that he determines what will happens and confirms his verdict on their life in advance based on what he foresees regarding their character and response to the Gospel.[5]

The problem with this is that it makes God’s action contingent on ours. Indeed, one might argue that it even puts salvation back in our court.  God saves us because we are either good enough or because we respond in the right way.

This was certainly the position of Pelagius, a British priest who was concerned that an emphasis on God’s grace would lead to a disregard for God’s commands. He also believed that it was impossible for God to make anything corruptible and so rejected original sin – seeing each person as good and able to make moral choices.[6] Later followers accepted that sin does affect us, but we are not dead in it: rather sick and able to co-operate in and contribute to our rescue.[7]

Augustine rejected this, insisting that God is sovereign, we are dead in sin and need God’s grace to raise us.[8] This was also the position taken by the reformers including Calvin, Luther and Zwingli. They insisted that it wasn’t just a case of God knowing in advance, but that our salvation, along with all the acts and events of history, happens because of God’s sovereign decision and decree.[9]

The key here is our understanding of the word “foreknew.”  The word is not simply referring to God’s ability to know about beforehand. Rather, it describes his decision to love, choose, determine. It is an active word that links closely to “predestination.”[10]

This is seen in the Old Testament where God knowing someone, “refers to his covenantal love in which he sets his affection on those whom he has chosen (cf Gen 18:19; Exod. 33:17; 1 Sam 2:12; Ps. 18:43; Prov. 9:10; Jer 1:5; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2).”[11] Knowledge, then, is not simple information about someone, but a covenant decision to know and enter into a relationship with them.

So predestination is a little bit more than God simply acting on the basis of prior knowledge which makes him sound a little bit like a Universal equivalent of an inside trader, but is very much to do with God’s ability to decree in advance. But what is the scope of this decree?

Let’s go back to those words in Romans 8:28 “in all things God works together.”  Now, just a quick exegetical note here: the word “God” as the explicit subject is missing from the sentence here, so literally we can say “all things work together for good.” However, modern translations into English are correct to see God as the implicit subject of the sentence because it is clearly God working in these things.  As Moo puts it:

“The good realized is not due to fate, luck, or even the moral superiority of believers, it is to be ascribed to God’s good and sovereign will, which has from eternity past to eternity future secured and guaranteed the good for those whom he has chosen.”[12]

The point then is that it’s God’s sovereignty over all things.  Everything comes together to do good to those who belong to him.  The sense here is of a broader good, not in a prosperity gospel sense but in that

“While… Paul’s focus is on this completion of salvation, we should probably include in the word those ‘good’ things in this life that contribute to that final salvation and sustain us on the path to that salvation.”[13]

However, the primary focus is on our salvation and glorification as we see in verse 30. However, what this means is that God is intimately involved in planning the details of history. Think about what it took for you to hear the Gospel. God’s providence over your life meant that you were in the position to hear it and that the evangelist was there to speak it.  Those factors came together at the right time and circumstances for your mind and heart to be opened. Indeed, you can look back at all the things God did to open your mind and heart, preparing the ground for the seed.  Our encounter with the Gospel was not a chance one, but the planned work of a God who loves us and pursues us to bring us to himself.

This means that predestination sits in the context of that detailed willing and decreeing over all creation.

“It is from Him that the sunshine and rain come (Matt v.45); it is He that clothes with beauty the flowers of the field (Matt 6 v28), and who feeds the birds of the air (Matt. 6 v26), not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him, and the very hairs of our heads are numbered, and not one of them is forgotten by God (Matt. 10 v29, Luke 12 v6).”[14]

Now, we will look at the whole subject of predestination in more detail later on under the topic of Salvation.  Indeed, some systematic theologies treat it exclusively under that heading. One of the reasons we are treating it here is to make it clear that this is about God’s sovereign will in operation over all things.

You see, we can still slip into limiting our thinking to God’s rescue plan going into operation in history. Predestination is then a response to the Fall. However, I think this would be to miss two points.

First of all, we need to remember that God’s salvation plan is described as something put into place before the foundation of the world. Secondly, we see in Ephesians 1 that there is a greater purpose to this planning, willing and decreeing. It is not just about our salvation. No, God’s plan for eternity was that the Father would love and honour the Son.

“10And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.”[15]

So, when we come to Romans 8 and 9 and read about God’s purpose for his people Israel, for his church and for you and me:

“The ‘purpose of election’ is clearly antecedent to the facts of history.  History, accordingly serves to affirm that existing purpose (Rom 9:11).”[16]

God’s purpose is that He will be glorified and enjoyed forever by Himself and by His creation. Everything he decrees and does works towards that ultimate purpose.

[1] In this section, we’re going to outline the doctrine and then will return later to more detailed questions about how Predestination relates to free will and how God’s Sovereignty and Human responsibility relate.

[2] See, Wesley, Sermons III, 556.

[3] Wesley, Sermons III, 552.

[4] Romans 8:28-30. (NIV 2011).

[5] See Moo, Romans, 531.

[6] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 348.

[7] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 349.

[8] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 348.

[9] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 355.

[10] Moo, Romans, 531.

[11] Schreiner, Romans, 452.

[12] Schreiner, Romans, 451.

[13] Moo, Romans, 529.

[14] Warfield, Biblical Doctrines, 33.

[15] Ephesians 1:10 (NLT)

[16] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 346.