The Pastoral Power of Predestination

The problem when we approach predestination philosophically

Predestination is often (almost always) seen as one of those tricky doctrines to be explained and defended (a bit like the Trinity). It’s something controversial and complicated. However, just like with The Doctrine of the Trinity, if we treat Predestination as one of those embarrassing relatives to be hidden away and whose behaviour we will probably have to make excuses for, then I think we lose something wonderful.

The doctrine of Predestination is designed to encourage and even to comfort us, not to scare, divide and confuse us. Now, this does not mean that we will find it easy to understand or be able to work out and reconcile all its implications.

This brings us back to an important point about God’s self-revelation. There is an important sense in which God is unknowable or incomprehensible. We are finite and he is infinite. There is no way that we could know everything about God. This, I believe, is the important distinction between true theology and philosophy.

Philosophy starts from the desire to know as much as possible about everything. It is a quest for knowledge. That’s no bad thing in itself, but it can end up being about using knowledge to demonstrate my greater intellectual ability. I know for the sake of knowing.

True Theology is about knowing God through his word (Theos and logos). It starts with the presupposition that we cannot discover God through our own efforts and that we cannot know everything about God. However, we can know what God has revealed about himself. Theology works on the basis that God tells us enough about himself for what we need to live in his creation under his rule.

It is with this in mind that John Calvin, who we most closely associate with the doctrine of Predestination, makes a warning to two types of people. He says:

“But before I enter on the subject, I have some remarks to address to two classes of men.  The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty, is rendered very perplexed and hence perilous by human curiosity which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths, and climbing to the clouds, determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored.”[1]

And so to the first group of people he warns:

It is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear.  Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest are revealed in his word – revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.”[2]

However, there is a risk that we can go too far the other way. I think this is where John Wesley ends up.

“There are others who when they would cure this disease, recommend that the subject of predestination should scarcely if ever be mentioned and tell us to shun every question concerning it as we would a rock.”[3]

Calvin appreciates their motives, but believes they fall into a danger just as great.

“Although their moderation is justly commendable in thinking that such mysteries should be treated with moderation, because they keep too far within the proper measure, they have little influence over the human mind, which does not readily allow itself to be curbed.”[4]

The Pastoral Treasures of Predestination

So, when we approach Predestination from a pastoral point of view, seeking to find out how what we believe about God’s Sovereign acts affects how we live, what do we discover?

When we go back to the two key passages about Predestination (Romans 8-9 and Ephesians 1), we discover that these are pastoral letters designed to remind God’s people in specific contexts that

  1. God is a God of love and grace who has chosen them to be his people, not because they have done anything to deserve or earn this, but because he loved them before the dawn of time.
  2. That they may not be able to understand all the great shifts and turns of history or even what is happening in their immediate locality, but that God is working everything together for their good and his glory. This includes specifically in those contexts that he is bringing people together from every tribe and tongue to be part of his people so that Christ will reign and receive glory.

Pastorally, this has fantastic implications and applications for us.

  1. It means that when we find circumstances and change around us chaotic, unsettling and uncertain, we know that God is in control and knows what he is doing. For example, when we see great movements of people around the world, it can be very unsettling for indigenous communities, especially when their fears are stoked by racism and fascism. It’s also unsettling, painful and frightening at times for those on the move, forced out by persecution or moving out of economic circumstances to a strange and at times hostile culture and environment.  So, to be reminded that God is working through all of these events should be a source of comfort and encouragement. We have begun to see in small ways how God is using this to bring the Gospel to communities where it would not have been heard and to breathe fresh life into local churches as we get a small glimpse into what eternity will be like.
  2. It means that when the devil tempts me to despair, when I am conscious of sin and guilt, when I feel unlovely and unlovable, that I am reminded of God’s great love for me. Instead of sinking into despair, I am motivated by the doctrine of predestination to respond to God’s sovereign grace with repentance, thankfulness and hope.
  3. It means that when I worry about my eternal security and am tempted to ask “Could I lose my salvation?” I am reminded that salvation is God’s sovereign work and that he is able to complete the work he began. Predestination is the basis for Christian assurance and security.

[1] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.1 . (Beveridge, 2:203).

[2] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.1. (Beveridge, 2:204).

[3] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi. 2. (Beveridge, 2:204).

[4] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.3. (Beveridge 2:204-5).