The natural outworking of the Doctrine of God’s Decrees when applied to salvation is the language of predestination, of which election is a subset. Regardless of how you understand predestination to be worked out in history, the term (and terms surrounding predestination) need to be dealt with because they are employed within scripture. With this in mind, various views on the nature of predestination have been put forth including that of God’s foreordination of some to glory and some to reprobation (Calvinistic), God’s predestination based on divine foresight (classic Wesleyan), and God’s predestination of Christ as the only elect one and believers finding their election in him (modern Wesleyan).
To better frame out this discussion, the first question that needs to be raised is whether God is active or passive in his predestination. The Calvinist will typically hold that God’s predestination of believers to glory is active while his predestination of unbelievers to reprobation is a passive activity—that of literally choosing not to act in the life of some. The Wesleyans will hold that God’s predestination of both believers and unbelievers is passive, the final decision in terms of salvation being left in the hands of the individual who chooses either to believe or to reject the things of God.
The second question that is addressed is the question of who forms the object of predestination. The Calvinist will hold that all men, both good and evil, are the object of God’s predestinating work. The Wesleyan will either argue that men ultimately choose to become the object of the predestinating work (as the work is passive) or that Christ is the only object of God’s predestinating work. It is worth noting that these theologies typically apply the language of predestination to angels as well as to humans, thus it is God who predestinated Satan and his minions to fall or that it is Satan and his minions who chose to fall on their own free and un-influenced will.
The third question that must be addressed is that of the specific language of the New Testament surrounding predestination. There are several terms that feed our understanding of God’s decretive work when it comes to predestination.
- proori/zw (proorizo): This term that we typically translate as “predestine” is constructed from two root words: pro (pro), for “beforehand” and oJri/zw (horizo)—“to define, appoint, or set a limit to.” Thus, when the terms are combined, this refers to something that is predetermined or decided upon ahead of time. Thus, two ideas must be accounted for in interpreting this word. First is that this word carries with it the idea of willful determination. God determined to do something (scripture context and theology will determine what that something may be); there is an intentionality that is contained by this word. Second, this willful act is an act that takes place before said events are realized, arguably, based on passages like Ephesians 1:4-5, said willful act takes place before the act of creation.
- proginw/skw (proginosko): Again, this term can be broken down into two constituent parts: pro (pro) and ginw/skw (ginosko), which means, “to know.” Thus, this term refers to God’s knowing beforehand things and events. There are two ways in which this “foreknowing” has been understood. The Calvinists have consistently argued that God’s foreknowing is due to his foreordaining (God knows the end of the story because he wrote the book). The Wesleyans have typically held that God, being outside of time and not bound by the linear time-stream as we are, equally sees past, present, and future, viewing the entire timeline of history from his divine vantage point (God knows the end of the story because he read the story beforehand).
The Wesleyan view ties proginw/skw (proginosko) with proora/w (proorao), or “foresight.” Thus God knows because he sees. Yet, the Calvinist points out the theological connection between ginw/skw (ginosko) and the Hebrew term [d:y” (yada), “to know.” The Hebrew concept of knowledge is relational, thus, when Adam “knew” his wife, she became pregnant. The Calvinist would thus argue that it is impossible to have a relationship with something that is simply seen in time, but that the word demands the idea of God setting his affections on those he “foreknew” ahead of time.
- ejkle/gomai (eklegomai): This is the verb that we translate as “to elect” or “to choose,” noting that this verb implies a certain degree of intentionality. This idea is also communicated through two nouns: ejklekto/ß (eklektos)—“chosen one” or “elect”—and ejklogh/ (ekloge)—“a choice” or “an election.” This is a term with which we will deal in more detail in our unit on Soteriology, but it is an important part of the understanding of predestination in terms of God’s decretive work. For our purposes here, though, it is important simply to understand the idea of election as being something that is a result of God’s intentional choice, regardless of the means by which you understand that choice being made (foresight or foreordination) or of your understanding of the object(s) of God’s electing work (Christ alone or all believers).
There is a fourth question that must be addressed, and this question, though it is one that tends to be more subjective than objective, is one that carries with it more pastoral connotations, and thus, in the eyes of many, is likely the most important question to address. This question is, “Is the idea of God predestinating fair?” Certainly, one may dismiss this concern by quoting, “Who are you, O Man, to answer back to God?” And, indeed, it is important to be reminded that we are the ones who must answer to God and he does not answer to man or seek man’s counsel. We were not the ones who set the world into place nor do we even know what tomorrow will bring. God is sovereign and man is not. As the German composer, Samuel Radigast, wrote: “Whatever my God ordains is right…”
At the same time, as we discussed before, God is not capricious and he is not unjust. All God does, he does in perfect harmony and accordance with his will. Thus, the question is raised once again, how do we understand the idea of predestination in terms of the “rightness” or “fairness” of the act that is consistent with the goodness of God’s character? The answer that we must give falls under a right understanding of our fallen, sinful estate. While we will discuss sin further when we discuss Anthropology, let it suffice to say that as a result of Adam’s fall, what every man, woman, and child deserves is the judgment of God—that is what we have earned. Thus, in terms of “fairness,” what is fair is that all mankind would face eternal judgment. In turn, the redemption that is seen in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ must be seen as the greatest of mercies delivered to an undeserving people. Regardless of your particular view on the object or means of election, a right view of our sinful states places into its proper context the marvelous, gracious, and wonderful work of our Lord on the cross. It can be said that the more seriously you take sin and its effects, the more you will appreciate the mercy of the cross.
One final note in terms of the language of predestination, in particular with respect to the Decrees of God: while there are many and varying views on how one explains the theology and theological ramifications of predestination, one must not ignore the concepts because they are scriptural concepts. One must deal honestly with the language of texts like Acts 4:28 and others, and while one’s theology may make less or more of them, one must make something of such passages in order to be faithful to scripture.
Ordinarily, this approach is rather backwards. Normally, when doing exegetical work, one should examine the words and their meanings, working from what the text literally states within its context and then deriving an interpretation from that point. Yet, in discussions as theologically charged as this discussion can be, it is worth noting that one’s theological presuppositions will often color one’s understanding of the context within which particular words may be found. If one is aware of one’s own presuppositions as they approach a text like this, it is my belief that one will be more inclined to recognize the effect that said presupposition is having on interpretation, hopefully using more discernment as the words are defined and understood.
Note that one must not be too hasty in assuming that a word can be defined accurately by combining the definitions of its constituent parts. Just as the English word “hot-dog” does not refer to a cute, fuzzy pet on a summer-time afternoon, such is often the same with Greek terms. At the same time, just as in English, many compound words do carry with them the combined meanings of their parts, and thus is the case with proori/zw.
It is important to note that a related debate in terms of predestination is that of single/double predestination. Some would argue that God actively elects some to salvation and passively permits unbelievers to condemn themselves to damnation. Others would argue that God actively elects some to life and elects others to condemnation. That debate is outside of the scope of this discussion, though it deserves to be referenced in this context.
Note that this question is often rephrased to say, “Is it just?” or “Is it consistent with my understanding of God’s character?”, but ultimately, if you read between the lines, the question that is being asked is whether or not God is being arbitrary and partial, which flies in the face of most of our understandings of “fairness.”
Also note that predestination, even in a strict Calvinistic sense, is different from philosophical determinism. God did not make automatons of mankind and though we make choices that are set within God’s will, these choices are not coerced in a negative sort of way. This will be discussed further in our discussion of Anthropology.