Predestination is one of the most controversial doctrines in the Bible. Churches have split and new denominations have been formed because of this doctrine. This is my attempt to give an explanation of the doctrine from the reformed or Calvinist perspective, answering questions that people often have about it.
Christians Can Disagree on this Doctrine. It Is Not Central to the Christian Faith
Orthodox, bible believing Christians can disagree on this doctrine. It is not central to the faith like the doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, etc. We should treat one another with humility and love as we struggle with the Bible’s teaching on this difficult topic.
The Word and Its Synonyms Occur in the Bible
Predestination is not a theological term made up by theologians. It and its synonyms occur 41 times in the New Testament alone (see the table below). Since this concept is found so often in the Bible, all Christians must incorporate it into their theology in one way or another. (This list does not include the many texts in the Old Testament that refer to Israel as being God’s chosen people).
Predestine/Appoint (5): Acts 13:48, Rom 8:29, 30, Eph 1:5, 11
Elect (19): Mt 20: 16, 22:14, 24:22, 24, 31, Mk 13:20, 22, 27, Lk 18:7, Rom 8:33, 16:13, Col 3:12, 2 Tim 2:10, Titus 1:1, I Peter 1:2, 2:9, 2 Jn 1, 13, Rev 17:14
Election (6): Rom 9:11, 11:5, 7, 28, 1 Thess 1:4, 2 Peter 1:10
Chose, Chosen (8): Mark 13:20, Jn 13:18, 15:16, 19, Acts 13:17, Eph 1:4, 2 Thess 2:13, I Peter 5:13
Foreknowledge in Sense of Fore Love (3): Romans 8:29, 11:2, I Peter 1:2
Its Meaning According to Those in the Augustinian, Calvinistic, Reformed Tradition
Out of the sinful mass of humanity who had rebelled against God and deserved his wrath and curse, God chose some for salvation. This choice was not based on God’s foreknowledge of their actions or their character or their faith. Why he chose some and not others is a mystery that is beyond human understanding. He has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and we cannot get beyond that. Because humans are totally enslaved to sin, without this choice by God, none would come to him and all would perish. All those that God has chosen for salvation will come to him and will be saved. Predestination is the ultimate testimony that salvation is by God’s grace alone. Our salvation is a work of God alone from beginning to end. Those that God has not chosen will follow their own sinful inclinations to the judgment.
Why Do Calvinist Believe This? They Believe the Bible Teaches It.
Calvinists believe the Scriptures teach this, and thus they must believe it if they are going to be submissive to God’s Word. If the Scriptures teach it, all arguments against this understanding are trumped since God’s Word is superior to human reason. See Eph 1:3-11, 2:1-9, Jn 6:35-40, 44, 64-65 and Rom 9:10-24 for passages Calvinists believe teach this perspective.
How Do Non-Calvinists Understand Passages Talking about Predestination?
Some of them say the above terms about election mean we are chosen by God based on God knowing who would choose him. He foreknows and then he chooses. He looks down the tunnel of history and sees which people will believe in him, and then he elects them. God only chooses those who choose him first. See Romans 8:29 where God’s foreknowledge is said to precede predestination.
How Do Reformed Christians Understanding the Term “Foreknew”?
The term “foreknow” in Rom 8:29 does not mean a passive observation of the future, but an active loving of the person in advance. The Bible can use the term “know” to mean “love.” For example, in the Bible sexual relations are spoken of euphemistically as “a man knowing his wife “(Gen 4:1). To know a person can mean to be in a personal relationship with them. Thus, the word foreknew can mean to fore love and is functionally equivalent to predestine.
How do we know this is what it means in Romans 8:29? First, because Paul uses it later in Rom 11:2. There he contrasts foreknowing Israel with rejecting her, not with having no knowledge about her. In Romans, to foreknow is to fore love.
Also, this understanding fits better with Rom 9 which seems to teach a Calvinistic understanding of predestination. If Paul’s understanding of foreknew was to foresee the future, then the potential objections he raises to his position in Romans 9:19 would not make any sense. The objections he anticipates are exactly the objections raised against Calvinists today (that the doctrine is not fair). His position must be very similar to Calvinism if the same objections are raised against him.
What About Passages Calling On Us to Believe or to Obey?
The Calvinist takes these passages at face value. Humans are moral and spiritual beings that have the responsibility to choose God. To refuse to do so is blameworthy. How does this relate to predestination? Calvinists do not try to reconcile the two concepts. They believe the Bible teaches them both. How they can both be true at the same time is a mystery beyond human understanding. God is so great, he was able to create a universe where he is absolutely sovereign over all things, including human choice, and yet our choices are ours alone. God’s sovereignty does not do away with human free will, but mysteriously creates space for it in a universe where God is in control. That some things about God would be beyond our understanding makes perfect sense since he is infinite and our minds are finite. That “how God’s sovereignty and human free will relate” would be one of those mysterious things also makes sense since that is a topic that has baffled philosophers and theologians for millennia. (Calvinists believe human beings have lost their free will, but this is a consequence of our sin, not due to predestination.)
What About Verses Where We Are Told God Loves or Jesus Saves the World or All Men?
The Calvinist says these verses do not refer to every single human being, but to all types of human beings so that God’s gospel extends to every people group. In the modern western world we are oriented towards the individual, but in the ancient world they were more concerned with group identity as are many cultures today. For instance, Revelation 5:9 says individuals from every tribe, nation, people and tongue were ransomed by Jesus. It is the fact that all groups are included that receives the emphasis. Gods in ancient cultures were not universal, but were guardians of particular people groups. The amazing thing about the gospel was that it said the one true God loved all the peoples of the world.
Let’s look at two examples. John 3:16 refers to God loving the world, but who is the world? In John 12:19 the Pharisees said “The whole world is going after Jesus.” In the very next verse, we are told some Greeks were seeking Jesus thus fulfilling the Pharisees unintended “prophesy.” John’s concern in saying that God loved the world was to say his salvation was not limited to the Jews, but extended to all the Gentile nations including the Greeks. Notice also that in John 4 where John calls Jesus “the savior of the world,” it is right after a great number of Samaritans believed in Jesus. “World” in John refers to people groups.
A second example would be 1 Timothy 2:4-6 where Paul talks about God’s wish for all men to be saved. But, what does Paul mean by “all men”? In the very next verse, Paul says he has been called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul’s concern in speaking of “all men,” is that God’s grace extends not just to the Jews but to Gentiles. These verses are not talking about every single individual in the world, but they confirm that God’s grace extends to every people group.
Why Do Calvinists Engage in Missions or Evangelism Since God Has Already Chosen Who Will Be Saved?
Calvinists evangelize for the same reasons other Christians do: because God told us to; because it is an honor to be a co-laborer with God in seeing his purposes fulfilled; because we care about the eternal destiny of our fellow human beings; because we want to see God’s kingdom advanced and thus God glorified. The Calvinist believes God has his elect all over the world, and it is our job and honor to go out and find them through evangelism and missions (2 Tim 2:10, Acts 18:1-11, esp v 10). Some of the greatest evangelists and missionaries have been Calvinists (Bunyan, Edwards, Whitefield, Carey, Judson, Spurgeon, Kennedy). Calvinism properly understood does not impede evangelism.
How Can Calvinists Offer the Gospel to All Men Knowing Only the Elect Will Be Saved?
The Calvinists believe it is absolutely forbidden for humans to speculate as to who might be elect. This knowledge is hidden in the secret counsels of God and is for him alone to know. But it is his will that the church find the elect through evangelism. All we can do is offer the gospel to everyone and then see who believes thus revealing their election. It is not our job to judge anyone’s eternal destiny, but to keep offering the gospel to everyone.
Does Election Mean There Are Some Who Want to Be Saved Who God Refuses to Save?
Calvinists believe everybody who wants to go to heaven will be there. Whosoever comes to Jesus will be received by Jesus. God’s election perfectly corresponds to everyone who has a desire for salvation. It is election that changes our hearts and gives us this desire. Without election, human hearts do not seek God nor want his salvation.
What About Fairness?
Election is not a matter of fairness. Fairness would be for God to allow all to go to hell because that is what we justly deserve. Election is a matter of mercy which God is not bound to give anyone.
Also, God is perfect in his morality, holiness, righteousness and justice; it is impossible for him to do anything unfair. If he says the above description of predestination is fair, it is fair even if we can’t understand it. God is infinite and we cannot judge him by our finite sinful reason (Rom 11:33-36) We have no claim upon God by which we can demand anything from him. We do not have a greater understanding or greater morality than God so that we can stand over him in judgment. By faith we know he is just and merciful because of the cross which is the clearest revelation of who God is. We stand on this certainty when there are things about God that we cannot understand.
The Example of Israel as God’s Chosen People
In the Old Testament, Israel is known as God’s chosen people. God choose them from among all the nations to love. There were lots of other peoples on the face of the earth, but God chose to enter into a saving covenant with Israel alone. The other nations were under God’s judgment as seen in the destruction of the Canaanites. One might say the other nations were never given a chance, but one must remember that to be chosen is a matter of God’s mercy and no one has a right to it. The Canaanites received justice and fairness. Israel received undeserved favor. In the New Testament, this divine choosing is taken from a national level (an OT shadow) and is applied to individuals from all the nations (the spiritual reality that had been foreshadowed).
How Can Calvinists Live with the Idea that One of Their Children Might Not Be Elect?
It is none of our business to speculate on such a question. It is our duty to share and live the gospel before our children and to pray for their salvation. Calvinists are confident that the Judge of the universe can do no wrong and leave the matter in his hands.
The Spiritual Importance of Predestination
Predestination supports the doctrine of assurance of salvation, giving us the greatest confidence that we will be saved. If God has ordained it, it must come to pass (Rom 8:28- 39). Predestination glorifies God’s grace, for it makes our salvation his work from first to last (Eph 1:3-6), thus teaching us humility. Predestination encourages us to godly living for it reminds us our identity is found in God’s choice and thus challenges us to live out our destiny (Col 3:12,. Eph 2:10, 2 Peter 1:5-11, esp. see verse 10.) Predestination gives us the ability to overcome the pressure society gives us to compromise morally, for if God has chosen us, our worth is secure in his love and the rejection of men is nothing (John 15:18-19). All of the above are the proper applications of predestination to the Christian life and thus one can see how important this doctrine is practically.
Predestination: A Personal Testimony
There is much about predestination that I do not understand, and there are many aspects of it that make me feel uncomfortable, but ultimately I know it is my only hope. The more I know the depth of my own sin, the more I know that I would have never chosen God unless he had first chosen me. The more I know my struggle against the old man within me, the more I know that I would run away from God if he were not holding me close by his saving hand. This is not theoretical musings on the doctrine of total depravity. From my own personal experience with my sinful self, I know predestination is my only hope.
Dangers of Predestination
There is much mystery surrounding this doctrine, and we must say only what the Bible says about it and must not let human reason go further. We must not interpret God’s sovereignty in such a way that it negates our humanity nor should we teach human significance in a way that makes God less than God. We must submit to all of God’s Word, balancing all its teachings together so that they all have their full significance.
Thus interpreting predestination in a way that negates missions and evangelism is sinful. Saying that predestination means people do not have to believe in Jesus to be saved is wicked. Teaching that predestination means some people or people groups are better than others and thus justifies them to discriminate against others is evil. Displacing Christ and the Cross with predestination as the heart and soul of the faith distorts the gospel. Making ones understanding of predestination a source of spiritual pride shows one has no spiritual experience with this doctrine which should bring us all to our knees in humble worship.