In one of our TheoPub events, the question came up about predestination. What is it? Does God’s sovereignty erase man’s responsibility? Does man have free will?
My aim in this article is not to attempt to comprehensively explain predestination because the apostles themselves never did. They did however, explicitly talk about it. My goal here is to look at the reasons why the apostles used words like “predestined for adoption” and “chosen” to show that they were meant to provoke the church into joyful celebration – not create nervous confusion.
Given the diverse opinions that quickly emerge when grappling with predestinarian themed scriptures, perhaps a good place to begin is with some common ground.
God extending His saving grace after the fall of man was not an afterthought
When man sinned in the garden, God did not fall off the throne in surprise, grab a heavenly whiteboard and begin scribbling down ideas for Operation Redemption. He already had it.
“He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” 1 Peter 1:20-21
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” Matthew 25:34
The foundation of Christian faith is that we are saved by the sheer undeserved, unearned grace of God. This distinguishes Christianity from all other religious systems of salvation.
Words like “predestined”, “chosen” or “foreordained”, draw our attention to salvation’s starting point. If the reason we are saved is because we were chosen and predestined, then the starting point in salvation was not our will or our action, but God’s will and God’s gracious action. Predestinarian language announces that the main actor in our salvation is God … which gives all the glory to God.
While the New Testament explicitly uses predestinarian language to show how saving grace is initiated by God’s will – it never negates human will. These texts provoke the church to worship because as those saved by grace, we can look back and are humbled and awestruck that salvation was never initiated by our will. When we heard the gospel, God’s grace liberated our will and by His grace, we exercised our will, responded to the gospel, and placed our faith in Christ
Grace on Display: He Chose Us
Being chosen by God to be brought into His family by His grace is the overarching message of the entire bible. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s saving grace is on display repeatedly: He initiates and extends grace, people respond and receive salvation.
We’ll take a look at how Paul uses predestinarian language in Ephesians 1 to invite the church to marvel at God’s gift of grace by unpacking the implications of being chosen.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.
In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory.
In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory. – Ephesians 1:1-14
This text invites us to bend our knee, conceding that predestination is both mysterious and gracious. Understanding the ins and outs of how we were predestined isn’t significant. Being humbled by the announcement that we were predestined is extremely significant. I used to glaze over this text and insist that predestination “wasn’t scriptural”, which was nothing more than a bold faced refusal to look at what the scriptures said and allow them to humble me.
Amazingly, when you read the rest of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul never steps back to explain how this predestination works. This radical announcement in the first chapter of Ephesians flows immediately into our gift of God’s adoption, the assurance of our inheritance on account of God’s grace.
God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
Quite often when I talk with people about predestination they describe it like ancient Greek fatalism – which it isn’t. Fatalism announces that you have no choice. Here, the church in Ephesus is told they were predestined, and it was God’s grace toward them that liberated their choice.
“…when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…”
The bible teaches us in Genesis 3 that Adam had free will toward God and he used his will to commit treason, seek fulfillment apart from God and took the fruit which was a declaration that he was his own god. We are all born into a condition the apostles describe as “dead in sin”.
“..sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” – Romans 5:12
Unlike Adam, who was created perfect, we do not come into this world perfect. Adam’s will was free toward God, but our will is bound by sin, incapable of desiring God and is in need of God’s grace to be liberated so we can choose God.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus – Ephesians 2:1-6
This text is both humbling and encouraging. It explicitly reveals that God is the One who pardons the guilty by grace. We, the guilty, are incapable of choosing to pardon ourselves. We’re dead. Dead people don’t exercise their wills. Taking Ephesians 1-2 together, Paul is unpacking God’s grace to put it on display so the church can marvel at it:
Dead. But God. Alive.
The apostles purpose in drawing the churches attention to the fact that they were chosen and did not choose themselves, is because it glorifies the Giver of grace.
Ephesians 1 (and other texts) explicitly speak about predestination to draw the gaze of the church upward into awe and praise to the fact that had it not been for His grace, none of us would desire God and all of us would continue being our own gods.
Being saved by God’s grace does not erase human responsibility. Jesus called people to respond to the gospel and believe that He was who He said He was.
After the arrest of John, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15
God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not in conflict. They aren’t competing for space. When we hear the gospel, it is as if we are looking at a doorway with the words, “receive God’s grace and trust in Jesus” written above it. Then, after believing the gospel and walking through the doorway into salvation, we turn around to find the words, “You are chosen & loved – welcome to the elect” written above it on the other side.
“Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:13
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” John 6:37
Both Jesus and the apostles called people who heard the gospel to receive and believe it. I do the same every Sunday at Redeemer. Were we chosen by Jesus or did we choose Jesus? Both. The apostles doctrine of predestination does not eliminate our choice in repentance – it unapologetically announces that God’s grace was what animated our repentance.
Jesus is the pre-eminent, death-proof Saviour who holds the universe together with a word of His power. He is not like a nervous kid in gym class, staring at us with his fingers crossed, hoping we pick Him.
He’s the King who receives and saves sinners, not a beggar hoping to be received by sinners.
We love Him because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – John 10:27-30
Being Chosen & Humble Confidence
This doctrine is humbling – which is probably why we’ve all choked on it at one time or another. It reminds us that we are not more deserving, more teachable, more moral or more anything than those who have yet to place their faith in Christ. We’re not better – we’re forgiven.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9
And now, as the recipients of the gospel we are called to be ministers of the gospel so that through His church, God will continue to do His gracious, saving work. We share the gospel with humble confidence, knowing that salvation is not something that rests on the inept shoulders of the church but on the capable, preeminent shoulders of Jesus.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – II Corinthians 5:18-20