Straight Talk About Predestination
May 2, 2006
In the history of the Christian church, few doctrines have been so hotly debated as the doctrine of predestination. Throughout the centuries theologians and laypeople have argued over whether this doctrine could possibly be true:
It has been called the damnable doctrine of predestination.
Others have called it the sweetest truth in all of God’s Word.
Whole books have been written to prove that it is not true.
Other books say that if God is God, predestination must be true.
Leaving the rarified air of theological debate, the rest of us face some difficult questions:
If predestination is true, what happens to free will?
Are we just puppets on a string, doing what God ordained in eternity past?
Does God predestine some people to go to heaven?
If so, does he also predestine others to go to hell?
Why bother with evangelism since whoever is going to be saved will be saved eventually?
For that matter, if God predestines some people to hell, how can they be guilty of sin since they are only doing what God predestined them to do?
Admittedly, these are difficult questions. I don’t expect to answer all them in the course of just one message. However, I do want to assert one fact at the very beginning: The Bible does teach predestination. It’s a biblical word, used several times in the New Testament. No one can get around that fact.
Romans 8:29 says that those God foreknew, he “also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”
Ephesians 1:5 says that God “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.”
Ephesians 1:11 adds that “in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
Since predestination is a biblical concept, we must face this doctrine squarely whether we like it or not. It’s in the Bible, therefore we must first seek to understand it and then to ask what difference it makes.
Let me begin with a simple definition. Predestination means that God freely chooses some people to be the special objects of his grace and thus to receive eternal salvation. But I think we can make it even simpler than that: The word predestination is composed to two parts: “Pre” meaning “before” and “destination” meaning “point of final arrival.” To predestine something is to determine beforehand where it will end up. If I take a package to the post office, I don’t tell the people, “Send this wherever you like.” They wouldn’t know what to do with it. I write on the front, “San Francisco.” I have predestined my package to travel from Tupelo to San Francisco. By writing the address, I have predetermined its final arrival point and I have thereby excluded all other possible destinations.
Seen in that light, we can say that predestination means that God chooses those will be saved and determines in advance that their final destination will be heaven.
Predestination and Freewill
Now as soon I write those words someone is sure to ask about predestination and freewill. Like most Christians, I have wrestled greatly with this issue over the years. There is no single statement that can fully bring together the different strands regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. But let me give you something I jotted down a few years ago:
God is in charge of
when it happens
how it happens
why it happens
And even what happens after it happens
This is true of
in every place
from the beginning of time.
He does this for
and his glory.
He is not the author of sin, yet evil serves his purposes.
He does not violate our free will, yet free will serves his purposes.
We’re not supposed to understand all this.
We’re simply supposed to believe it.
I hope that clears up any misunderstanding! (Actually this statement—brief though it is—does summarize the Christian position on divine sovereignty and human responsibility as it has been developed over the centuries.)
How, then, should we approach a passage such as Romans 9:18-29 with its heavy emphasis on God’s sovereignty in our salvation? In his commentary on Romans, John Stott offers this quote from Charles Simeon, the great British preacher from the early 1800s. Simeon lived at a time when the Calvinist-Arminian controversy was particularly bitter, and he warned his congregation of the dangers of forsaking Scripture in favor of a theological system:
When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question (Stott, p. 278).
It is possible that some people may simply not like what Paul says in Romans 9. If so, there isn’t much I can do about it. You’ll have to take it up with the great apostle himself. As I thought about it, I recalled a scene from the movie “Analyze This,” where Billy Crystal plays a psychiatrist who against his better judgment takes on a Mafia crime boss (Robert De Niro) who can’t control his emotions and starts crying at odd moments. There is a scene when De Niro’s top henchman (a character named Jelly) comes to fetch Billy Crystal at a very inconvenient moment because the boss is having another breakdown. When Billy Crystal says, “What is this? You think you can call me any time day or night?” Jelly replies, “You’re part of the family now. When the boss needs you, you come.” Billy Crystal starts to protest but Jelly cuts him off with, “It is what it is.” That simple truth applies perfectly to our text.
It really doesn’t matter if we like it or not. It is what it is.
Having said all that, we are still left with many questions. Does the Bible really teach predestination? Does it destroy free will? Does it turn us into robots or puppets on a string? How can we reconcile God’s sovereignty with the dignity of human choice?
I. Three Answers
As we examine these verses, it helps to remember that Paul is grappling with the difficult problem of Jewish unbelief. Why have so many Jews rejected Christ if he is indeed the Jewish Messiah? This was no abstract theological issue to the Apostle Paul. His heart was broken by the reality that so many of his friends and loved one were going to hell. We may be tempted to focus on the controversial aspects and to forget the human reality behind these words. I’m convinced that Paul wept when he wrote Romans 9. These words come not from some theoretical discussion in a seminary classroom; they come streaming from a broken heart.
Let’s plunge into this text and discover together God’s answers concerning the difficult question of predestination.
Answer # 1: God has the right to do as he wills.
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? (vv. 19-21).
These verses sound harsh to modern ears tuned to talk of personal freedom. We live in a “Do your own thing” era in which the highest human value is to seek your own happiness. Our heroes are those men and women who have put personal happiness above every other consideration in life. If you don’t believe that, when was the last time you heard someone say they were getting a divorce because they weren’t happy in their marriage? You hear it all the time. Personal happiness is our national excuse for doing whatever feels good to us at the moment. Against all such me-centered thinking stands Paul’s unanswered question, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” There is no answer because the question answers itself: No one can talk back to God.
The illustration from the world of pottery-making is clear enough. The potter sits at his wheel watching the lump of clay as it spins in front of him. With one tiny touch, he creates an indentation; with another slight touch he produces an intricate swirl. By the barest changing of pressure, the potter radically alters the shape of the clay. What emerges may be an object of dazzling beauty, such as a Ming vase. Or it may be a rather ordinary, unremarkable coffee cup. Both come from the same clay. One is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars; the other is worth 25 cents. What made the difference? The potter’s hands.
Don’t overlook the main point. The coffee cup can’t say to the potter, “I wanted to be a Ming vase.” It doesn’t work like that. From one lump the potter has the right to shape the clay any way he likes. The same is true for us. We’re not all the same. In fact, God makes each one of us unique from everyone else in the world. Some have more intelligence, others less. Some are born into one race, others into another. Some are tall, others short. Some have musical skill; others can repair diesel engines. Some love to fly kites, others prefer to knit sweaters. Some will become leaders, others will live mostly in the shadows. That’s the way life is. And that’s not just the result of sin in the world. You’re different because God made you that way. No one can talk back to God and say, “You blew it.” Number one, he didn’t blow it. And number two, even if you think he did, he’s not taking any complaints from you or me.
That’s answer # 1: God has the right to do whatever he wants to us and in us and through us and with us.
Answer # 2: God delays his punishment to some in order to show his mercy to others.
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory? (vv. 22-23).
These verses teach us that although God is always just, he doesn’t always treat everyone in precisely the same way. That almost sounds un-American because we are used to hearing that all men are created equal. That’s true in one sense and not true in another. It’s true that we are all created in God’s image which gives us dignity and worth. We’re “equal” in that we are all significant to God.
But these verses specify two different groups within the human race. One group is called the “objects of wrath.” They are said to be “prepared for destruction.” The other is called the “objects of his mercy.” They are “prepared in advance for glory.”
W.H. Griffith-Thomas has a helpful word at this point:
The contrast here between “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” should be closely examined. The “vessels of wrath” are described generally as “fitted to destruction,” that is, fitted by themselves, through their own sin. On the other hand, the “vessels of mercy” are described very significantly as those which “He had afore prepared,” that is, God through His grace and mercy prepared them. Men fit themselves for hell; but it is God that fits men for heaven. (Romans, p. 148)
There is a great mystery here. However, these verses make it abundantly clear that not everyone is going to heaven. Some people are simply “prepared” for destruction. They live in such a way that their only possible destination is hell. It’s easy to think of examples: Hitler comes to mind. Or we might think of someone like Saddam Hussein.
But Paul’s thought isn’t limited to those we consider gross sinners. It really includes all of us. Left to myself, I deserve to go to hell. Left to yourself, you deserve hell. No one deserves heaven. If you go there, you go as a gift because someone else paid the price of admission for you. You aren’t good enough to get in on your own. Mercy means receiving something you don’t deserve. Paul’s point is that if God were just and not merciful, we’d all go to hell together. But since God is just and merciful, he delays his judgment on sinners in order to show mercy on those he is calling to salvation. He gives everyone more time to be saved.
Yesterday I received the sad news that the brother of a dear friend died from a sudden heart attack. My friend is grieving because of the loss of his brother and because he does not know if his brother was saved or not. He fears that he was not. What can we say in such a situation? I begin with the words of Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When my father died over thirty ago, the minister who conducted his funeral comforted me with that verse. I take it to mean that God will make no mistakes in his dealings with humanity. No one will go to hell by mistake. It’s not possible that God will somehow get the files mixed up or hit the wrong button and send someone to the wrong destination. The Judge of the all earth will do what is right–not just in the mega-sense but also in dealing with my father and with my friend’s brother and with all our loved ones and with each of us individually. There will be no mistakes in eternity. Everyone who truly belongs in heaven will be there. No one will be in hell except those who truly deserve to be there. God’s grace will take care of those who go to heaven. God’s justice will take care of everyone else.
Charles Spurgeon applied this great truth to himself:
I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love. So I am forced to accept that doctrine.
But does this doctrine not destroy all incentive to evangelism? Here is Mark Dever’s answer:
I understand that some worry that if we accept the Bible’s teaching on election we will never evangelize. Should we not also be worried that if we reject the Bible’s teaching on election we will never be humbled enough to make Christianity look like anything worth having? I love Spurgeon’s humility. I love his boasting in God. I think it is attractive. I think it is motivating to evangelism. I think it displays God’s love. A biblical doctrine of election highlights our poverty and Christ’s riches, our weakness and Christ’s strength, our need and God’s supply.
I know of a man who came to Jesus Christ after many years of people praying for him. For a long time, he seemed so close, but he couldn’t quite make the decision. Then someone shared the gospel with him and he said, “I’m not going to accept Christ tonight. I’ll do it next Wednesday.” He said he needed more time to study the death and resurrection of Christ. When the next Wednesday came, that man said, “Okay. I’m ready. Let’s do it.” And he gave his heart to Jesus Christ. His first words after he prayed to receive Christ were, “I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders.” Who was behind that? God! He gave that man more time to think about Christ. And when he did, he was saved. That’s how God’s grace works.
Answer # 3: God determined to show mercy to both Jews and Gentiles.
Even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles. As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ’my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ’my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ’You are not my people,’ they will be called ’sons of the living God.’ “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah” (vv. 24-29).
At first glance, you may say, “What’s the point of all these Old Testament quotes?” They speak to one of the primary objections against predestination. Many people think that predestination means that only a few people will be saved. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has determined to open the doors of heaven to the whole wide world. Anyone who believes in Jesus can be saved. In Paul’s day that meant that salvation was not just for the Jews, it was also for the Gentiles. Today there are approximately 13 million Jews in the world out of a total population of 6.5 billion people. Who are the Gentiles? That’s everyone who isn’t Jewish, which is roughly 99.999% of the world.
If God had said, “I’m only going to save the Jews,” he would still be fair because no one deserves to be saved. We couldn’t complain if salvation were limited to a small group if that’s what God had decided to do. Remember, no one can talk back to God. But he didn’t do that. These verses teach us that God opened the door of salvation to everyone! Hosea prophesied of a day when God would say to those who were not his people (that is, the Gentiles), “You are now my people.” God has opened the door of salvation to the world. Anyone who wants to can walk right in. Will there be any Jewish people in heaven? Absolutely. But not every Jewish person goes to heaven. These verses use the term “remnant,” which describes a smaller group out of larger population. Paul’s point is that we shouldn’t be surprised by Jewish unbelief because the Old Testament predicted it in several passages.
But don’t miss the greater point. God is so determined to populate heaven that he has invited the whole world to join him there. Anyone who wants to can go to heaven.
Jew or gentile.
Slave or free.
Male or female.
Rich or poor.
Young or old.
Educated or illiterate.
Healthy or sick.
None of those things matter with God. In his great mercy, God has opened the door and included the whole world in his invitation. All he is waiting for is your RSVP.
II. Three Conclusions About Predestination
Let me wrap this up with three conclusions about the doctrine of predestination.
1. This doctrine is true because it is biblical.
Romans 9:19-29 doesn’t use the word, but it does contain the doctrine. Some people are vessels of wrath; others are vessels of mercy. Some are chosen; others are not. God shows justice to all, saving mercy to some. The fact that we don’t fully understand this doesn’t change the truth. We would do better to simply say, “The Bible says it, I don’t understand it, but I still believe it.” In that sense predestination fits into the same category as the Trinity. We wouldn’t have thought of it ourselves, but the Bible teaches it, therefore it must be true.
2. This doctrine humbles us because it exalts God as the author of our salvation.
In the final analysis, this is why some people fight so strongly against predestination. They don’t like any doctrine that gives all the glory of God and none to us. But that’s precisely why predestination must be true. It teaches us that salvation is of the Lord. It is a work of God from first till last. It starts with him and ends with him. If predestination is true, it means that we can never claim any credit for our salvation. We don’t even get credit for seeking the Lord because he sought us before we sought him. Harry Ironside told of a prayer meeting where a man gave a stirring testimony of God’s grace in his life. Afterwards someone came up to him and said, “My brother, that was a fine testimony you gave. You talked a lot about God, but you didn’t mention your own part in salvation.” The man thought for a moment and then said, “You’re right. I did leave that out. My part was to run away from God as fast as I could, and God’s part was to run after me until he caught me.” So it is with all of us. We do the running away. God does the catching. We’re in charge of being lost. God is in charge of saving us.
3. This doctrine preserves human freedom because each person must still personally respond to Jesus Christ.
Someone may say, “Why should I bother responding? If I’m predestined, God will save me when he’s ready.” Not so fast, Bubba. The Bible says that God saves those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. No one is saved without faith in Christ. God has the first move, but the next move is up to you. Henry Ward Beecher used to say that the elect were the “Whosoever wills” and the non-elect were the “Whosoever won’ts.” If you are wondering whether God has predestined you to salvation, just answer this question: Have you ever placed your faith in Jesus Christ—and in him alone—for your salvation? If the answer is yes, then I’ve got good news, you’re predestined for heaven. But what if the answer is no. Or what if you’re not sure? One reason God has delayed his punishment is to give you more time to be saved. The Bible says that God is not willing that any should perish but wants all people to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
Think about that. God wants you in heaven. He even paid the price of admission—the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. If you go to hell, it won’t be God’s fault. He’s done everything necessary to make sure you go to heaven. Don’t worry about predestination. Make sure you know Jesus. That’s the issue that determines your eternal destiny.
Every Decision Is a Free Choice
That leads me to give you my personal understanding of predestination and free will. I confess that I struggled with this whole question for many years, and did my share of arguing late into the night. Eventually I came to an understanding that has freed me from the necessity to argue anymore. It basically consists of two points. First, from our human standpoint, we are completely free. When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice to get out of bed or to stay in bed. You can put on a red dress or a blue one. When you get in your car, you are free to drive to work or you can drive to St. Louis if you like. Every decision you make is a free choice. By that I simply mean that you do not feel constrained by some divine power that forces you to eat at Burger King instead of McDonalds.
That leads to the second point: God sees and knows everything you do. He hears everything you say. He will someday judge you for all of it. Nothing escapes him. Everything is transparent before his eyes. Yes, you have free will but you are 100% responsible for every choice you make—that includes the choices you make in the words you say and the thoughts you think. He won’t just judge the “big” things; he’s going to judge the “little” ones too.
Salvation is of the Lord
Let’s apply this truth of freewill and predestination to your salvation. Several years ago I spent an hour with two friends who couldn’t believe in predestination. So I asked them if they freely chose to come to Christ. Yes, they said. Did you feel pressured or coerced by God? No, not at all. Was is it a free choice to accept Christ? Yes, absolutely. When I got them far enough out on a limb, I sawed it off behind them. I asked a very simple question: As you look back now, are you conscious that Someone was drawing you to Jesus? They paused for a moment and both answered yes. That Someone is the Holy Spirit who draws unbelievers to Christ (see John 16:8-11).
What does it mean? When you came to Christ, you made a decision of your will. You chose him. Predestination simply means, God chose you first and if he didn’t choose you first, you would never have chosen him. To say it another way, God so arranged the circumstances that when the moment was right, my two friends literally had no other choice but to freely choose Jesus. They weren’t aware of it at the time, but in looking back, they could see the invisible hand of God drawing them to Christ.
So it is for all of us. Salvation is of the Lord. It is a work of God from beginning to end. Our choice is a free choice, but it is made possible only by God’s Spirit enabling us to believe and be saved. Someone has illustrated the truth this way. Think of the gate of heaven, and above it is a large sign, “Whosoever will may come.” As you pass through the gate, you look back and from the inside the sign reads, “Chosen before the foundation of the world.”
Or to say it yet another way: “He doesn’t make you go against your will, he just makes you willing to go.” I have often said that God will not force anyone to believe. He is a perfect Gentleman. But that is only part of the story. When the moment comes, God so arranges the circumstances that you are irresistibly drawn to Jesus Christ. He gives you a new heart and a new desire, and from that new desire you freely choose the Lord.
Run to the Cross
Here is the good news for sinners. No one has to go to Hell. If you go there, it won’t be because you were predestined for Hell. It will be because you are sinner deserving of God’s judgment. Earlier I said that no one can be saved unless God calls him. That thought may trouble you, but it shouldn’t. How do you know if God is calling you? If you have the slightest desire, then God is calling you. If you want to be saved, then God is calling you. It truly is as simple as that.
If God is calling you, then come running to the cross of Christ. Fling yourself upon God’s mercy. Hold fast to the bloody Cross as your only hope. If you want to be saved, you can be saved and you will be saved. That is the promise of God to you. No one will ever be lost who turned to Christ for salvation. No one will be in hell who truly wanted to go to heaven by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.
“Whosoever will may come” is still the gospel message. When we finally get to heaven, we will look back and discover that we were indeed “chosen before the foundation of the world.”
Come, Ye Sinners
Over 245 years ago Joseph Hart wrote one of the grandest gospel hymns ever composed: Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy. It’s set to a musical style that is sometimes called Sacred Harp music. Every verse contains wonderful truth, but none is greater than this one:
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness he requireth,
Is to feel your need of him.
This is the gospel invitation:
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
And the chorus is the sinner’s answer:
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.
If you are still without Christ, may he make you restless in your heart until you find your rest in him. If you are a believer, may you find comfort and joy in believing both now and in the days to come. Amen.