Predestination — Is It True?

Title: Predestination – Is It True?”

Text: John 3:16, Romans 9:18-21, John 1:10-13

Time: September 21, 2012

 

One of the most controversial of all teachings within Christianity is the doctrine of predestination. Although it is affirmed by large segments of the Christian church, it is also rejected by an equally large number of Christians. The strange thing about the doctrine of predestination is that while large denominations such as Presbyterians and Lutherans affirm its truth officially, it is mostly ignored or neglected in church teachings, and on a practical level it is mostly passed over by individual Christians. Hardly anyone discusses predestination today except maybe a few academics and theologians. It’s found in most systematic theology books, although it isn’t given very much space even in publications, and it’s given even less attention in sermons and messages on Sunday morning from the pulpit. Now that’s strange because for Protestants, it was a theme in most of the speaking and writings of the major Reformers of the 16th Century. Men like Luther and Calvin affirmed the predestination teaching – and taught about it. So did other major reformers at the same time. Now why would the Protestant Reformation include teaching on the doctrine of predestination? What does it have to do with biblical reform? And why did the most important Protestant reformers spend time teaching about predestination? What does it have to do with salvation by faith alone or the Bible alone or Christ alone? As a young seminary student I always wondered why Martin Luther made a point of bringing up the doctrine of predestination, because it seemed to me a distraction from the main points he was trying to promote during the Reformation. The same with John Calvin. Why teach something so controversial and something seemingly beside the point? But the bigger question we must ask ourselves today is, “What is the doctrine of predestination and is it true?” Most Christians, who hear about predestination for the first time, reject it immediately. They do so because it seems to go against our notion of human freedom of choice. We don’t like the idea that we aren’t in complete control of everything in our lives. As popularly understood, predestination limits human freedom. But as we shall see, that isn’t necessarily the case. What I’d like to accomplish today is demonstrate that the Bible teaches both free will and predestination, and that it doesn’t see any contradiction. How can this be? I’ll try to explain. Ultimately, we are dealing with a profound mystery – how human free will and divine predestination can go together and be compatible. I might not be able to demonstrate how the two are compatible, but at least I’d like to show that the Bible treats them as compatible, and encourages us to affirm both. This, I believe, is the proper Christian approach to difficult doctrine of predestination. But let me explain further.

 

First, the Bible teaches human free will. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” This is perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible, and it teaches us a form of human free will. Our salvation is conditioned upon our belief or trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ – “Whosoever believes in him.” And this is by no means the only verse that teaches human free will; there are literally hundreds of different verses found all throughout the Bible that teach the doctrine of free will. The New Testament probably includes hundreds of such verses. In fact, it’s hard to read any book of the New Testament without stumbling upon some verse teaching human free will in some form or fashion. So the doctrine of human free will is clearly a biblical teaching. And most people recognize this or understand the Bible to teach this truth. Besides, most people on their own, using only their God-given human intuition affirm free will. It’s a basic philosophical assumption of most human beings regardless of their religious persuasion. In a very real sense, we all have to affirm some form of human free will in order to think of ourselves as free moral agents who can make real ethical decisions of right or wrong. Society assumes that every individual can decide to do what is right, and so we are held accountable for our free choices. A criminal in a court of law can’t argue that he was predestined to commit the crime he did, therefore he can’t be held responsible or punished. Yes, it’s possible for one’s background and social context to influence one towards a certain direction in life. It’s possible that one’s life experiences can influence one into making certain choices in life, but we also assume that each person is free to finally make the choice how he or she will act. We hold each person responsible for how they finally decide and act. Yes, there is a move in some segments of society to withhold punishment for crimes by individuals who were clearly influenced negatively as children growing up, but if this trend is carried to extremes then the whole basis for societal justice will collapse. This hasn’t happened so far and I don’t think we’ll see our justice system do away with the assumption of free will and personal responsibility of the individual soon. Clearly, most people believe and act as if we all have free will. The Bible doesn’t undermine this assumption; in fact, the Bible affirms it. So there is really no controversy over the doctrine of individual free will. Where the controversy begins is when we begin to talk about predestination. Let me turn to it now.

 

Second, the Bible teaches divine predestination. Romans 9:18-21, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” Read through the entire 9th chapter of the Book of Romans and you’ll see the Apostle Paul teaching the doctrine of divine predestination. So in approaching predestination, we must admit, even if we are not inclined to believe, that it is taught in the Bible. What we must learn is what the doctrine of predestination means, and how it is compatible with human free will. As I said before, as a young seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, Illinois, I encountered the writings of the leaders of the Reformation, such as Luther and Calvin. I noticed they gave attention to predestination; I wondered why they did. Now I understand – it’s biblical. The Apostle Paul and others teach predestination. No, it’s not as frequent as teachings on human free will, but it’s there nonetheless. So we really can’t ignore it if we want to be true to the Bible and faithful to the teachings of Christianity. It was taught in the 4th Century by Augustine, the greatest theologian and teacher of Christianity after the Apostle Paul. And while it hasn’t been taught or assumed nearly as strongly as human free will, it is taught and assumed in the Bible and by the most important Christian teachers throughout church history. So then what is the teaching on predestination? It is simply that ultimately, in the mind of God Almighty, he predetermines who is and who isn’t saved to eternal life. Now to our human minds, that seems to contradict the teaching on human free will. But the Bible doesn’t say it contradicts free will. In fact, the Bible teaches both human free will and divine predestination. So what’s going on? We are trying to understand a mystery that is beyond human comprehension. So what else is new? It blows our mind to think about God, period. Reflect on this – God has always been, is now, and will forever be. Our minds overload just thinking about an eternal being that has always been and always will be. We keep wanting to ask, “Yes, but when did God begin to be God? Where did he come from?” But there really is no answer to that question, if he’s always been. So free will and predestination are like the question of God. They are so profound that we can’t think them through, but that shouldn’t stop us from believing in them, if the Bible teaches them both – which it does. But let me try to tackle explaining how they could both be true at the same time. Wish me luck!

 

Three, both human free will and divine predestination are true. John 1:10-13, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Here is a biblical passage found in the New Testament that seemingly teaches both human free will and divine predestination – in the same verse! But the question is, how can this be possible. Let me try to explain it as best I can. Divine predestination comes by virtue of the fact that God is responsible for the existence of everyone who exists on earth. Somewhere in the divine plan God ok’d each and everyone’s existence, their coming into being on earth. There are potentially millions, billions, an infinite number of potential persons who don’t exist, yet could have existed, if God had so willed it. But for some reason, God permits a certain number of people to be born on earth and withholds existence to millions or billions of potential people who never in fact ever are born on earth; they existence only in the infinite mind of God. Now among the ones God wills to come into existence, like you and me and others, we end up in either heaven or hell; we are either saved or not saved. There are only two possibilities. And we use our free human will to determine where we will go in response to Christ’s offer of salvation. If we choose faith, we go to heaven; if we choose unbelief, we go to hell. It’s up to us. But God always knew which direction we would choose if he brought us into existence, if he permitted us life on earth. He always knew which way we’d go. Now the mystery is that he permitted both the saved and unsaved to be born, to exist, even knowing which way they’d choose. He knew who would choose heaven and he knew who would choose hell, and so by bringing people to life, in permitting people to be born and use their free will to choose, he predestines them to either heaven or hell. He didn’t have to permit hell-bound people to be born; he could have permitted only the ultimately saved to be born. But because he went ahead and permitted even hell-bound people who would reject him in life to be born, he essentially predestined them to damnation. By giving them life, he essentially sealed their fate and damned their souls to hell. If he hadn’t brought them to life, they couldn’t have chosen freely against him, they wouldn’t be ultimately lost in hell. But by bringing them to life, he essentially predestined them to their own free choice, which turns out to be hell. Now in this sense, both free will and predestination are true.

 

I know that I’m getting pretty heavy into philosophy and theology. I know that I might have lost a number of you with my argument. You may have a problem with my explanation and maybe you even think the argument doesn’t make sense. But I challenge you to think it through and see if it doesn’t in fact make sense. I’m saying that God predestines people ultimately to heaven or hell, because that’s where in fact everyone will go – either to eternal salvation or eternal damnation. We all choose freely how to respond to God’s offer of salvation. We use our human free will to freely choose our own destiny. But the predestination part of the equation is that God permits certain people out of an infinite pool of potential people in his divine mind, God chooses or permits or allows a certain finite number of people to be born on planet earth in order to use their free will to choose for or against him, thus sealing their own fate. God knew, ahead of time, which way each person would choose, ultimately if given the chance, but he went ahead and permitted these finite number of people to be born, and use their free will, and determine their own destiny. Now the mystery is, why did God choose certain potential people to become actual people, be born on earth, make free choices and live forever with their choices? You and me, we are not potential people, we are actual people because we were born. There are potential people in the mind of God, we presume, who will be born in the future. But there are also potential people who won’t ever be born, won’t ever get to use their free will, won’t ever go to heaven or hell. They are just potential people. Only God knows them in his mind. Now why were certain potential people – you, me and all who are born on earth – why are we given life while others are not? Why are we given the opportunity to use our free will and choose either for or against God, while other potential people are not? That is the mystery of predestination. So the predestination is in God’s choosing certain individuals from the infinite potential of people in his divine mind to actualize on earth? Think about it. Why did you get to be born, when somebody else could have been? Why do you get to make your free will choice for or against God in this life, while other potentials don’t get the opportunity? It’s because God predestined you to be born, make a choice, and ultimately determine your eternal destiny. He already knew what you would choose if given the chance, he gave you the chance, and by doing so predestined you to the choice you make. That’s my understanding of predestination. Now that may not be the official version of the doctrine of predestination, but at least to me, it makes sense. I’m not asking you accept my understanding of predestination; all I’m asking is that you acknowledge that both human free will and divine predestination are taught in the Bible as Christian truth. I’m asking you to accept that predestination is true because the Bible teaches it. Whether you accept my understanding of predestination or not is up to you, but what I’ve tried to explain makes sense, and at least helps me grasp what may well be impossible to fully grasp. Let’s pray.

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