“If God predestines those who will be saved, what hope is there in trying to help my children go to heaven?”
Such was the question of a family member out of deep, heartfelt concern for the salvation of her children. She wants more for her children than a good education, a good job and whatever else they might want in this life. She wants them to enjoy what they don’t even know they need – God! And this honorable desire for her children is a reflection of God’s own passion for these children to know his glory – the same passion that led the Father to assign Jesus to the cross and that gave Jesus joy in going.
Her question concerns the Biblical doctrine of predestination, which says that God predestines those who will come to him in faith. Jesus’ words to the crowds reflect the pervasive teaching of both the Old and New Testaments on this matter,
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. -John 6:44-47
Here we have Jesus saying that those who believe have eternal life, but that those who believe do so because the Father has drawn them! Even so, the doctrine of predestination, as with every good doctrine, can be a confounding and confusing thing. Of this doctrine, a parent might legitimately ask, “If I am told to raise my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and if God chooses who will be his, in what way am I involved in this process? If its fixed, what can I do?” It either astonishes us or it angers us. For me, upon first hearing, it did the latter. Time and Scripture, however, have had a way of bringing more and more comfort in this and other doctrines.
With this mothers question in mind, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the the wonder of predestination as a gift of God’s love. I will attempt to make a few statements about this doctrine, provide scripture that gives expression to those statements, and expound a bit on what the Scriptures say.
1) With a million opportunities to choose God for themselves, our children will deny him every time, of their own free will!
This point concerns the necessity of predestination.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, the became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. -Romans 1:18-23
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. -Romans 3:10-23
The reason predestination is necessary for anyone to be saved is owing to the extent of the sin in the human heart. Parents, of all people, know that we are born rebels. Pacifier’s don’t necessarily pacify children! I threw one at my mom from a crib. I take it I wanted to hit her – and that I did it to hurt her! Where did that come from? While each one of us is not as bad as we can be, we are yet corrupt in every part of our being. Our bodies, our moral inclinations, our rationality, etc. I wanted the wrong thing, I thought I had a good reason for it, and I acted on that twisted inclination! From the womb, we are equipped with the same sinful nature that belonged to Hitler, Stalin and Saddam.
But what does it mean that we are sinners anyway? In a word, we are traitors! We are guilty of cosmic high treason, having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). We attribute the worth that is due our Creator to the things that he has made. As those who have abandoned the source of life, we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), and our hearts are hard toward God (Ephesians 4:18). We freely do as we please and we are most pleased to do what is wrong! Even such mundane activities as eating and drinking are tainted with sin when we attempt to enjoy these gifts of God without respect to him; “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
So sinful are we, that even the free offer of forgiveness from God carries no appeal to us. For, the very thing accomplished through forgiveness is the very thing we are bent to reject – God himself! Yes, Jesus Christ came to die for sinners, and we can be saved only through faith in his death as the payment for our sins. There is no other way. But before our faith comes predestination – the active decision of God to grant us an irresistible desire for himself which results in faith filled embrace of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins. If a person desires to be made right with God and is willing to place their faith in Jesus Christ, there is no reason why they should not attribute that desire to God and embrace the truth that he has placed it within them. They need not wonder if they are predestined, only enjoy God as only those who are predestined are able and thank God for making it so!
So, why can a parent be thankful for predestination? Because without it their children are hopeless! Even God’s free offer of salvation will fall dead on their ears! Left to choose God on their own, they will choose against him every time – of their own free will!
2) Predestination does not entail the binding of our will but the freeing of our will to choose God!
This second point concerns the nature of predestination.
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. Romans 6:17-18
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
If God determines if we will come to him, in what way are we free to do so? This is a question any thinking person will ask themselves when confronted with this teaching. So, how do we manage this tension? Let’s explore two views of free will held among believing Christians.
One view, called libertarian free will, defines free will as the power of contrary choice. In this view, a person is only free if in his or her choosing they had the ability to do otherwise. This seems to make good sense. Do not God’s commands imply our capacity to obey them? And does not God’s command to repent of breaking commands imply our capacity to actually repent on our own? Proponents of this view would hold that humankind is totally depraved and, thus, cannot choose God, but believe that God gives every person enough grace to choose for or against him. But while this view is acceptable within Christian orthodoxy, it does not provide for the full embrace of the Bible’s clear teaching on God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility at the same time.
But there is a second view that says a person is free in the sense that they may do whatever they want most to do! This is the free will of inclination and is usually called “compatibalism” because it embraces both man’s total responsibility for the decisions he makes and God’s total sovereignty over those decisions. This view holds that humans are slaves to sin. Though we are able to do morally good things, we do them for God-dishonoring ends. And while we are free to choose according to what we what, we are not free to determine what we want! Thus, in this second view, God’s sovereignty over our decisions and our freedom and responsibility in making them are held together in a way that honors the Bible’s view of the human heart.
I take the two verses above to support a compatibalist view of human free will. God opens blind eyes. God frees slaves! Tim Keller provides a great illustration to help us understand the nature of how God both determines our decision to choose him while providing for the freedom of our choice.
[Imagine] a bunch of people and they are all blindfolded and they are all running into a pit of fire. you say, “stop.” They say, “Why, we’re on our way to the beach. I can feel it getting warmer.” Then you take a person and you take off their blindfold and they say, “Oh, wow! I don’t want to die.” Is that forcing someones will? Not a bit. That’s all the doctrine of election says.
3) If God is not a predestining God, he is no God at all!
This point concerns the inevitability of predestination.
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” …I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” -Isaiah 46:8-13
This verse from Isaiah demonstrates that part of what it means for God to be God is his ability to know and determine future things.
Granted the doctrine of predestination presents us with an honest tension with human free will, let’s consider our alternatives. Let’s pretend for a moment that God does not predestine future events. God, then, cannot know the future, for if God knows all future things perfectly then the future is fixed, for God would know the future as it is, his own involvement included. And if God knows the future perfectly and that future includes humans that reject him and go to hell, then he is either unable to prevent the tragedy of people who reject him or we can only wonder why he created them in the first place. But if God doesn’t know the future, then in what sense is he God? Certainly not the Biblical sense, if we are to embrace his own words to us through the prophet Isaiah. A God who does not know the future is no God at all!
So, yes, there is a sense in which we embrace a mystery when we embrace predestination – but no more mystery than we embrace with any other view of God. And if predestination is Biblical and is compatible with a Biblical view of human free will, then let’s embrace it and praise God for it!
4) God’s predestining work is an extension of his love.
This point concerns the impetus of predestination.
In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will… – Ephesians 1:4-5
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. -1 Peter 2:9
It is natural for us to ask, “why some and not others?” But the real question is, “why any?” According to the Scriptures, God is a predestining God because he is a loving God! God’s discrimination is in fact totally unfair – unfair, that is, for himself, for it cost him the innocent blood of his Son! The only people who get an unfair deal here are those whom God chooses! It is on the basis of “mercy” that we are chosen not merit. Our predestination to adoption as God’s children is “through Jesus Christ.” That is, the cost of our predestination is the very blood of God the Son, whom God sent because he so loved the world (John 3:16).
5) Predestination humbles us before the infinite wisdom and majesty of God!
This point concerns the effect of predestination.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. -Romans 11:33-36
If God met all of our criteria for God then he wouldn’t be God at all! Sinners don’t think the right way about God on their own! We require God’s help to do so! We need God’s help to understand what he is like and then to embrace that revelation. This verse from Romans comes on the heels of several chapters of rich reflection on the sovereignty of God and the wickedness of humankind! God’s predestining work humbles Paul before the majesty of God’s sovereign goodness.
6) The glory of God’s grace is magnified to the extent that our salvation is his doing!
This point concerns the goal of predestination.
In love he predestined us for adoption 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. – Ephesians 1:4-5
You were dead in your trespasses and sins…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, so that in the coming ages the might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:1-7
God’s grace is not praised in our coming to God if it is not God’s grace that brought us to him! If we as sinners could choose God on our own, would that not say something of our own innate goodness? Would we not, then, be able to look to the person that does not choose God and say, “I chose God because I am better than you?” Yes we could! But our salvation is all of God, so we cant. It’s all of grace! As Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “for by grace you have been saved, though faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God. Not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
7) We did not come to him on our own and we will not stay with him on our own!
This point concerns the comfort of predestination.
For those whom he forknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified…For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:29-39
It wasn’t my doing to come to Christ so it isn’t my doing to stay his! I will always bear the responsibility of obeying God’s commands and I will be guilty when I don’t. But for every command I obey to his glory it will be to his credit, for the desire to do so is from him! I will always carry the responsibility to share the gospel but I will never bear guilt for the person who doesn’t believe, only my faithlessness to share!
Predestination confounds our intellect because we are finite creatures and God is infinite, and because we have a wildly inaccurate view of our own goodness that distorts our view of everything else. God help us to see ourselves as helpless sinners and the predestinating work of God as a most loving and a most gracious act whereby he chooses some who, for all their efforts, would never choose him on their own. And may God be gracious to grace our children with a desire for himself and faith in his Son, Jesus Christ!
So then, how on earth should we approach such activities as prayer, discipline, instruction and sharing the gospel as parents? In part II, I will consider our role in bringing others to faith in Jesus Christ as the predestined means by which God brings predestined sinners to repentance!