Predestination and Free Will Part One: Predestination

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In our congregation, reconciling the doctrine of predestination with free will is a vexed issue.  I have been asked to address this in a blog.

First, let’s look briefly at predestination.  The Bible clearly teaches predestination.  says that God: “chose us in him before the foundation of the world”; verse five of that chapter says that “he predestined us”.

is a great chapter on predestination.  It makes clear God’s sovereign free choice to choose whomsoever he will to be saved.  He chose Jacob, not Esau, and that before they were born.  It would be wrong therefore to say that God foresaw the good that Jacob would do, or his decision to believe, or anything else in Jacob.  Such things cannot be the basis for God’s choice.  clearly states:

And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,  though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.

Note : God chose one and not the other before their birth and before they had done anything good or bad.  Note the explanation in that verse: this was so that it would be up to God’s choice, not our works (including that of believing or making a decision).

Paul’s conclusion comes in :

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Salvation is entirely up to God.  How could it be otherwise?  If I choose God then I can indeed take some credit for my salvation.  I know that I am not saved by works.  But if I am saved by my decision to believe, then I have substituted one good work that saves me (faith, or my decision) for many good works.  No, salvation is 100% all of God.  I am not saved by works – not even one.  God chooses me.  He saves me.  He gave Jesus to die for my sins.  Then he raised him from the dead, and poured out the Holy Spirit, which turned me to God, granting me repentance and faith.  Every part of salvation is entirely up to God.

even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love

9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,

“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

9 thoughts on “Predestination and Free Will Part One: Predestination”

  1. Good on you Martin for addressing this topic. It’s sad that these days people see this topic as too divisive and not worth working through together. The more I ponder on it though, the more I think it must be a foundational doctrine that the church must address. Why??? Because it address’ God’s sovereignty and glory so potently.

    In listening to a message by John Piper on this topic the other day, he mentioned that there is probably no other biblical doctrine that will test the church’s resolve for the authority of scripture then this one. If you compromise on election/predestination, then given there are so many passages that clearly teach it, I feel it’s more likely that people will start to compromise other areas of the Bible.

    Two things I feel are tragically lost with so many Christians choosing to reject this teaching due to it not seeming ‘fair’ or ‘just’:

    1) We rob God of the glory He alone deserves for our salvation. People on one hand will say that we are saved by grace alone, yet then say that it’s up to our choice and God won’t force Himself on us. Yes we still make an active choice in trusting in Christ as our Lord and Saviour, but that’s after God transforms our hearts according to His sovereign and gracious plan. If it’s based primarily on whether or not we choose to trust in God, then salvation is not by grace alone as we can take merit for it, and God doesn’t get all the glory. This would also put too much trust in our ability to choose God apart from His active work in our hearts as we are all born spiritually dead and sinful; incapable of choosing God on our own. Left to our own we will always naturally reject Him.

    2) We rob our assurance of salvation as Christians. Given our salvation is a work done by God alone, we can persevere boldly knowing God will enable us to conquer sin and live for Him, even though we will go through our ups and downs. We don’t need to worry about whether we can lose our salvation as it’s a work done completely by God. There’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation and so there is nothing we can do to lose it. Our perseverance in our faith won’t earn us our salvation, but merely highlight to ourselves and others that our salvation is genuine and not a faze in our lives. We can also boldly evangelise as we know that God in His sovereign grace can transform even the hardest of hearts.

    So election or predestination grants us boldness in evangelism, assurance in our salvation and gives God all the glory. What is so awful about that???! The fact we can’t reconcile it with our ability/responsibility to choose? No. We are not God. We won’t have all the answers. God still holds us to account for the choices we make yet clearly teaches He is sovereign over all creation. I’ll tell you what is so awful about it… it hits our pride for six because no other teaching will force us to humble and submit ourselves to God’s sovereign and gracious will more then this doctrine!

  2. Couldn’t agree more Stu. Thanks for your comments. I pick up on some of what you have said in part 2.

  3. Hi!
    Interesting post. I don’t believe can be used as a defence of the election of individuals. It is clear that the context is predominantly nations, not individuals. It is dealing with the Jews and Gentiles. It is using what’s called corporate solidarity which is where a person represents a nation or larger group of people. is a classic example of this. Esau and Jacob represent what becomes the Israelite and Arab nations. Esau is reconciled to Jacob as time passed. God has prophetic purposes for the Arabs as He does the Jews. Election here has nothing to do with salvation as you are trying to make it. Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his OWN heart before God hardened it. This does not rob God of His glory – and it is certainly not going to test the church’s resolve for the authority of scripture.
    Should we not consider scripture in it’s entirety?

    “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” ()

    The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pe. 3:9)

    This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (–4)

    “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men”

    Scripture holds these doctrines in tension
    “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” .

    God knows how it’s going to turn out, and ideally wants everyone to be saved (obviously everyone will not be).

    I look forward to part 2!

    1. Interesting thoughts Alex. I agree the bible does hold in tension our responsibility to choose God and Him electing us. Some passages highlighting God’s sovereign hand and control over our salvation, i.e. by grace alone and not works or any work by our part, are: , , , , , , , , , . I don’t profess to knowing all the answers. Frankly our finite human minds can’t :)

      Another interesting thought. If God desires all to come to Him, and He is sovereign, i.e. in control over all of creation, then how do you explain why so many reject God? Is it because our salvation is primarily based on our responsibility to choose? Is it because God is not able to save them, i.e. is not sovereign? I think in answering these questions, our understanding on God’s sovereignty comes into play, not to mention the understanding of our sinful nature.

      I have to disagree on one thing though. If our salvation is up to us at any point, I believe this is robbing God of His glory as well as the assurance He wants us to have in Him. If it rests on our ability to choose Him without any work on God’s behalf to change our hearts first, than clearly there is some merit/credit on our behalf.

      Also in , God clearly tells Moses that He will harden Pharoah’s heart before Aaron and Moses even went back to Egypt. Yes Pharaoh rejected God, but it was God’s plan to harden his heart as part of His judgement on Egypt and revealing His glory and power over all things, i.e. the Egyptians false gods.

      This is a mind blowing teaching… as we will never have all the answers! We also need to be patient with one another given it’s nature. Let’s not let trying to understand God’s sovereign hand on creation and our salvation stop us from doing what we are called to do – honour God with our lives and make disciples of all nations! Nevertheless it’s great to have robust and constructive chats as we try to discern what the Bible says, by using the Bible to interpret the Bible.

      Great stuff!

    2. Hi Alex. Thanks for writing in. First thing to say: I have two frustrations (at least!) with blog writing, and these frustrations are exemplified here. First, I have to write very brief pieces. Second, and similarly, the pieces are often in parts to keep them short. You and Stuart have pre-empted most of what I say in part 2 already! [Hope you read it anyway :)] But to answer some of what you have raised. First, I completely agree that raises issues that are corporate: Israel and the Gentiles. This is especially the case in . However the specific examples Paul uses in are about individuals within that context. “Jacob” and “Esau” here indeed become Israel and Edom, but are individuals in the verses in question. Therefore the point very much stands. Next, I think Stuart answered the objection about Pharoah. God hardens his heart as well as Pharaoh hardening his own heart. Both are true. But in this case God hardening his heart is emphasised. As for the Scriptural examples, I find it perplexing that you would quote them to back up your case. I guess that’s the difficulty in making short statements to one another over the web. None of those verses, in my opinion, would in any way back up what you are asserting, and some of them – quite the opposite. But I’m not sure we have space here to go through them one by one! Finally, in holding all Scriptures together, not only do we want to quote verses, but also to hold an overall theology together. In this case we are discussing God’s sovereign rule and power as it is applied to the salvation of individuals. Again, I think Stuart highlighted this, and I will address it in part 2 (briefly!).

  4. Stu said: “The more I ponder on it though, the more I think it must be a foundational doctrine that the church must address. Why??? Because it address’ God’s sovereignty and glory so potently.” And: “If you compromise on election/predestination, then given there are so many passages that clearly teach it, I feel it’s more likely that people will start to compromise other areas of the Bible.”
    Does this mean we have to adhere to predestination doctrine as Calvin followers stipulate or else we are compromisers? I think the thing that shows God’s resplendent sovereignty is that He would even allow us to choose. Are we so far from being made in His image that a look at our relationships on earth should not give us a little clue as to what is satisfactory to good relationships? (and just for the record – I’m not a liberal or a mystic). If we gave a gift to a person here on earth, would it cement and enrich the quality of our relationship if we decide that they must have it no matter what because we chose them to give the gift to? Does the person receiving a gift have a part to play in the making of the gift if s/he accepts it or rejects it? Is it really a gift at all if it’s mandatory? If Solomon, in all the wisdom endowed on him by God, looked at the ant to learn something of God’s ways (), then surely we should think about this with regard to the good relationships God has blessed us with. It just doesn’t make sense that God would have Christ die a cruel death on the Cross if He was doing it to have a forced salvation. Can we save ourselves? NO!! Does the Holy Spirit work in us to bring us to salvation? YES!! Do we accept or reject Christ’s death on the Cross for the sins of the world? YES!! God wants His standard of relationship with us. This is not achieved unless He allows us to choose. Calvin wrote his stuff as a virtual novice in his twenties. Are we going to keep sticking to these doctrines or take a closer look?
    Calvin ignored an important factor: that God is eternal and all-knowing and of course He already knows what we will be and do before we are born. Could this be what says: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Note that it doesn’t say “For those whom he predestined…” but it says “foreknew”, indicating his knowing the future. His predestining has to do with being conformed to the image of his Son. King David says this: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” . But just because God knows what we’ll choose and do, He doesn’t choose for us. If He did then He may as well have robots. He gave Adam choices, He gives us a choice. That’s why Jesus Christ, His Son, came to earth and died in our place, so we can be saved by Christ’s work on the Cross and humble ourselves under His mighty Hand.
    To conclude: God has the power to save whom He wills but He chose the way of the Cross, and as Alex so rightly quoted: ; ; ; . God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is for ALL!!!!! Do you not think that these words of Moses were prophetic as to Christ’s sacrifice? “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,”

    1. Good thoughts Lyn. It’s a mind blowing teaching to try and get one’s head around; one I feel is too complex for our minds to fully grasp. It’s good to know that God is not confused like we can so easily be :)

      I think Martin’s second part to this blog helps with the idea of free will/our choices, in that I feel we can easily lose sight of how sinfully depraved we are apart from the grace of God. I think it’s easy to give ourselves too much credit at times.

      At the end of the day the Bible would seem to clearly teach that God is in control and sovereign over all of creation and we have a responsibility to make choices every day to either trust in and obey God or not. How they marry together is in part a mystery. We just have to trust in God with it. It’s funny how God gives us everything we need to know in the Bible to trust in Him with our lives, however there are some things that God doesn’t reveal. That’s for Him alone to know, for He is God and we are not. As long as God get’s all the glory and acknowledgement for our salvation then I think we are on the right track. As soon as we merit any part of it to ourselves, then I think we are allowing a dangerous mindset to germinate.

      Just a little clarification on one point though you made about my comments. The reason I think it’s important not to ignore this teaching in the Bible for the sake of ‘controversy’, is that it’s clearly taught in scripture. If we choose to not look at some difficult passages, what’s stopping us not looking at others. We may understand some of these difficult concepts differently, but all I am saying is that by not discussing them we may be opening the door to compromising/neglecting other areas of the Bible and not seeking to discern what they teach. If we don’t allow the whole Bible to refine our thinking, then this world naturally will.

    2. Hi Lyn
      Well, there is much here indeed about which I disagree. That would in no way imply you or I are less Christian, etc. But we most definitely are thinking differently theologically. I would most emphatically deny that God foresees our choice of him and predestines us on that basis. That most certainly to my mind would mean that we have saved ourselves and can take credit for our own salvation. that I quoted makes the very point that God does not do this and chose Jacob and not Esau before they had done anything, good or bad. If God foresaw what they would do, such a comment would be meaningless.
      As Stuart said, my second post picks up on many of these things (I knew doing two posts would be problematic!). Spiritual corpses don’t make choices and give themselves life: we are dead in our sin; we run from God. I believe you are grossly under-estimating our sinfulness.
      It is through Jesus’ resurrection, after his death, that he ascends to God’s right hand and then pours out his Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit is entirely sovereign in working in us to move us to repent and believe. The Spirit gives life. Thus it is through Jesus’ death AND resurrection that we are saved. And that salvation is 100% credited to God.

  5. Hi Martin, We are obviously going to disagree on this issue. Sadly, I think you may have stereotyped me with your view of those who do not hold to predestination doctrines from a Calvinist/Reformed standpoint. Be assured, I take our sinfulness and need of God-provided salvation very seriously. I think where we differ is on my seeing acceptance of the gift of salvation as not part of an effort of us saving ourselves, whereas, it appears, you do see it as such. I also see that predestination has to do with the ongoing work God does in transforming us into the image of Christ which culminates at the end of the Age. I believe it is an assurance of us being perfected in Christ. We are predestined to be like Him. I also believe it is important to base our understanding of this issue on the New Covenant predominantly.

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