Predestination and Human Freedom
“In whom we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of his will, to the end that we who exist to the praise of his glory — those who first hoped in Christ; in whom you also, in hearing the word of Truth, the Gospel of our Salvation, in which you also believed and were sealed in the Holy Spirit who was promised.”
The other part of the “predestining” that needs to be fleshed out is the human part. One of the common challenges that people raise against the Biblical notion of predestination has to do with where there is room for the human will and responsibility. If God predestines all things, can it be said that we ever really make a choice of one thing over another? And, if God predestines all things, how can we be held accountable for that which we do?
These are matters that have brought debate within the Christian community across the centuries. In today’s world, it is at the heart not only of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians but extremes on both ends lead to heresy — namely hyper-calvinism on one side and open-theism on the other. Thus, it is worth picking at this question a little bit here.
To begin with, the “all” of “all things” is presented in the absolute. It is true that in some places in scripture, the “all” refers to “all kinds of things” or to “all kinds of people,” but context determines the reading of the word. In this case, there is nothing in the text to suggest anything but the most comprehensive use of the term πᾶς (pas)…or “all.” This is not a reference to God predestining this but not that; it is a reference to God predestining this and that — both the greatest things and the smallest things and all things in between.
It must also be said that the Bible affirms both that God is sovereign and that we are responsible for our actions. If we loose God’s sovereignty in our theology as does Open-theism, then we enter heresy. If we loose human responsibility in our theology as do the Hyper-calvinists, then again, we enter heresy. What the Bible affirms, we too must affirm.
So, how do we balance these two doctrines in a way that keeps our views consistent with that of Scripture? To begin with, we affirm the language we find here in Ephesians 1:11 — that God has predestined all things that come to pass according to the counsel of His will. From the birth and death of a sparrow to the birth and death of the Messiah, God is sovereign over all of these matters. Second, while our will is not free in the libertarian sense, we do make real choices every day of our lives. When I woke up this morning, I decided what I would wear and I decided what I would have for breakfast (amongst other things). These were genuine decisions where I had the option to do other than what I did. Yet, God is the one responsible for creating me and for forming my psyche as a Christian man. And thus, the decisions that I make are perfectly consistent not only with my character but with God’s eternal predestining design.
Does that mean that God has ordained my sin? In a sense, yes. Because we are fallen, we have inherited a sin-nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. This sin nature means that I am bent toward sin. It is my natural default. Think about that toy car with a bent wheel axle. No matter how you push it, the car will drift to the side and not go in a straight line. Such is the case with humans, except that our bend is far worse and far more encompassing than a bent axle.
And so, God does permit our sin. At the same time, He also permits that sin for a purpose — most commonly for the glory of God and to draw us back to himself in repentance. In other words, sometimes we need to see and experience our own depravity before we will take that depravity seriously. Also, we will never understand grace until we really understand just how undeserving we are of it. Yet, not only are there no surprises when it comes to God and our sin, but it can be said that God is sovereign over our sin as well and further, that God uses our sin in a sinless way to do His will. Somewhere that is going to cause our brain to melt just a little bit, but as this is what the Bible affirms, this is what we too must affirm if we are to remain orthodox in our thinking.
The Problem of Thanksgiving for the Unbeliever
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).
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.
Typically, when we speak of the Decrees of God, we speak of them as having taken place prior to his creative work.
Matthew 22:14; Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:22; Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12; 1 Timothy 5:21; 1 Peter 2:4; 2 John 1; Revelation 17:14.
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.”
Romans 9:20—Here Paul is citing Elihu’s rebuke of Job (Job 33:13) and Isaiah’s illustration of a clay pot in the master’s hands (Isaiah 29:16).
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.