Article of the Month
In the times that I recently preached here in the mornings, I delivered two messages on the first part of the chapter 1 of Ephesians — all very introductory material. We looked at the implications of the greeting, and at the fact and nature of the blessings which God grants his people. Now I would just like to get you started in your thinking about each one of these blessings individually. What do they mean? How are they related to us, and to the great themes with which the Bible is concerned? The first of these to which the text naturally leads us is a subject which even Calvin approached with some trepidation — the subject of predestination. In some theological circles, despite the fact that it is a biblical word and concept, it is anathema even to mention the subject. In other circles, such as our own, it is a proud mark of distinction — the Orthodox Presbyterian proudly proclaims that he believes in the sovereignty of God and his predestinating grace. The emotional reaction is quite intense — it is one those things that people seem either to love or hate. However, this doctrine, like all the doctrine which is specifically recorded in the Bible, is not recorded so that we might have an emotional or doctrinal watershed, but for comfort and edification of the church. This is something that has always been recognized by the greater minds in the church, such as Augustine and Calvin. Calvin is an interesting example, because we can trace his growth in understanding the subject. In the early editions of the Institutes, he included predestination in Book 1, in which he outlines his doctrine of God. In the later editions, he moved the doctrine to his chapters on the church, and advises us that the doctrine is not to be considered lightly.
This morning, we wish to consider predestination as one of the blessings of God, and, I would maintain, the chief blessing, the blessing from which all the other blessings seem related in one fashion or another. To that end, I want us to consider 1) what predestination is not, 2) What predestination is, and 3) what predestination is for. I do not intend, and could not in one sermon, expound a complete theology of predestination — entire books have been written on the subject. But I at least want to introduce the subject from Paul’s comments here.
What it’s not.
Why is it that people have such a strong emotional reaction against what seems to us to be such a forthrightly biblical doctrine? My mother was raised in a Presbyterian church in the 1930’s, but left because of what she called “the doctrine of infant damnation.” A famous televangelist was quoted as saying that Calvin had sent more people to hell based on “his” doctrine of predestination than anyone else in the history of the church. Let me suggest that when people have such reactions, there can be more than one cause, or more than one level:
1) It may simply be that the person knows nothing of the grace of God, and they reject predestination simply because they hate any idea of God being in control.
2) A person may not understand the doctrine, and people are loth to accept what they cannot understand. By understand, I don’t mean to imply some sort of total comprehension — the Bible does not resolve all the tensions with regard to predestination; there is an element of mystery, and we have to stop where the Bible stops, and speculate only at our own risk. But it is possible to understand a great deal more on the subject than many people think. As a corollary to not understanding, people frequently have a wrong concept in their mind when they hear the term . . .
3) Often when people reject a doctrine, they do so to protect a genuine truth or idea which seems to them more important or more fundamental than the truth which they are questioning. For people who reject predestination, this often means the free will of the human being, or they wish to point out that God does not and cannot make arbitrary decisions.
It is with these last two that we are concerned. What are some of the common misunderstandings of predestination?
God is Arbitrary
Many people feel that predestination portrays God as an arbitrary despot who uses the stairway method of saving people. He writes down everybody’s name on separate sheets of paper and throws the papers down the steps. Those that land on the top steps are saved, those that land on the bottom are not.
Now let me ask you, is this characterization true to everything we know about God from the Scriptures? Biblical predestination flows from the character of God, and is rooted in his nature and attributes — it cannot be separated. If therefore we can prove that God is not arbitrary in nature, we can prove that predestination is not arbitrary and does not reveal anything arbitrary about God.
Is there anything in our current passage which indicates that God is arbitrary? Not at all. The entire tenor of the passage is filled with language about God’s purpose, and his good pleasure. It is true that God does what he wants, but there is nothing in the passage which indicates that what God wants is not good. Indeed, when it speaks of God’s pleasure, the word in the original strongly implies the fact that this pleasure is good. We see that God has a plan and a purpose which include bringing the entire universe under the headship of Jesus Christ. The goodness of God’s pleasure, the fact that he has a plan from the very beginning, a plan to which he relates all his individual acts, is the very opposite of arbitrary decisions.
The rest of Scripture abundantly testifies to this. Over and over again, Scripture speaks of God’s reliability, his goodness, faithfulness. Does any person who displays these qualities make arbitrary decisions? Are these the qualities of a capricious person? Rather, if we go from the Scriptural witness to the character of God, then predestination is not arbitrary, but inseparable from God’s goodness, knowledge, and wisdom. The choices God makes in predestination are simply the best possible choices, and are all tied up with the purposes he has had from all eternity. In this, as in all things, we can surely trust God . . .
Philosophical Determinism, Free Will
Related closely to this is the tendency to remove predestination from the context of God’s character and purposes. When we do this, you see, we no longer have biblical predestination, but something else, and people who then dispute this type of predestination are arguing against something that is different from what the Bible teaches. They see a principle of determinism, in which no action is free, and they see a universe in which there is no justice, for even the best and purest person might be condemned to an eternity in hell if God so determines.
1) In Scripture, the context of predestination is always God’s gracious character in saving a people for himself. It never draws the conclusion that therefore every action is predetermined in such a way that we bear no responsibility. In other words, our integrity as human beings is not destroyed by God’s predestinating will, but is rather realized because of it. Our choices are real choices and have meaning; we love because God first loved us, but it is still we who love. How precisely our will and responsibility mesh the Scripture never tells us, but we a) know that they do and b) know that God has the answer to this question, and as we said above, we can trust him.
2) I’ve really answered both objections, but let me emphasize that when we remove the idea of predestination from God’s person and character, we are left with something very cold and very harsh, an impersonal and truly arbitrary principle, like a computer which randomly selects numbers. But Scripture never makes that separation. Quite the contrary, predestination is related to the personal nature of God, who loves us and has chosen us from all eternity, and this fact is utter joy to the one who knows it . . .
What it is.
Indeed, if these are some of the things that predestination is not, then what is it? To a large extent, if we reverse the negatives in the misconceptions above, we begin to have some idea of what predestination actually is. Let me venture, then, a definition based on this text, and also informed by other passages of Scripture:
Predestination is the gracious act of God by which he determines to save a people for himself.
In other words, in the Bible, predestination is always related to the work of God in Christ in terms of bringing an entire people to know him and serve him. Now, it is true, and we know from many Scriptures, that God has decreed all things that come to pass. But this specific word which is translated “predestined” is always used in the context of God’s purpose in saving his people.
What do we learn about this predestination in this passage? Last time I spoke here, I emphasized the fact that the blessings which God gives us are those blessings which he takes great delight in giving us, much as a parent enjoys giving presents to a child because he so enjoys the child’s reaction to the presents. What is emphasized here is the fact that this blessing was prepared for us “before the foundation (creation) of the world.” In other words, long before we were born, even before what we know as the world existed, God already knew of us and had determined to save us, and that which God determined must take place. There is absolutely no hint here that our election depended on God foreseeing our willingness to be saved, as some teach. Instead, we simply see that God had already “chosen” and “predetermined” that we would be his people.
Earlier I mentioned the relationship of God’s character to his predestinating will. Here there is a very important clue to that character and how it relates: the words “in love.” Now, different versions may punctuate somewhat differently here, but in the original manuscripts, there was no punctuation, and these two words happen to be dead-center between the two clauses. Paul is not trying to make precise technical distinctions here when he speaks of “election” and “predestination”; rather, he uses a variety of vocabulary to show us how rich and nuanced God’s blessings are. The words “in love” therefore modify both what comes before them and what comes after; God’s choice of us is “in love” and his predestination is likewise “in love.”
However else we might characterize predestination, we miss the entire point if we leave out the words “in love.” What we might say here is that “love” is a quality of God, and “predestination” is the concrete action which God takes. How much did God love the world? So that he sent his only begotten Son. Why did he send his Son? To practically demonstrate that love by bringing forgiveness of sin and guilt through the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and to bring us all to new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
How does that make you feel? The fact that God from all eternity chose you because he loves you? This does work down to the individual level, by the way, because the church is made up of individuals, and you can’t predestine the group without also predestining the individuals who make up the group. I know how it should make you feel: absolutely safe and secure in the hands of Jesus, for whom the Father gives him he will in no wise cast out, and no one can snatch him from his hand. And let me suggest something here. The question often arises, how do I know I am one of the elect? How do I know that I have been predestined to an eternity of fullness and joy in the presence of the Father? The wrong thing to do is to agonize over it. The right thing to do is to seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ and the truths related to him in Scripture. If what we are discussing this morning makes you feel uncomfortable or even angry, then perhaps you should take a second look and ask yourself if you really are a Christian. Use that feeling as a warning that something might be wrong, much the same purpose that pain serves when it alerts us that something is wrong with our body, and needs attention. And the attention you should give is not to yourself and your feelings, but to the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking his face, seeking to know him and serve him. Your attitude should be: “even if I were to find out I was predestined to hell and judgment, still would I seek to love and serve my Lord and God Jesus Christ.” Let me further suggest that if you have this attitude, it is almost incontrovertible evidence that you don’t have to be worried about your own election.
What it’s for.
The blessings of God are given so that we might be holy, Paul tells us. But predestination has a special object here. We have already mentioned in our definition that predestination means that God is saving a people for himself. But Paul uses a variety of terms and images which enrich our understanding of this. One such term here is “adoption.”
Now, I am going to tell a story on my wife here. Her younger brother is adopted, and like many younger brothers, he occasionally liked to tease his older sister. He used to say “Ha, ha, mom and dad had to keep you, but they chose to keep me.” Indeed, out of the mouth of babes . . . Even by today’s standards, this captures an important truth. Even with the most advanced medical procedures today, there are unwanted children. But an adopted child is almost by definition a wanted child. The parents go out of their way to adopt a child, filling out paperwork, waiting for years. They really must want that child to go through so much trouble!
But the imagery of adoption here is even richer. Often in ancient times, adults were adopted by a childless couple or individual so that they might pass on their wealth and heirlooms. Usually, such an individual was a trusted friend or servant. This is behind Abram’s complaint to God that Eliezer of Damascus would inherit his estate. Octavian’s claim to power in ancient Rome was based on the fact that he was Julius Caesar’s heir, and that everything that had belonged to Caesar belonged to him. This is the imagery that is behind the term here: we become, in effect, heirs to whom God has promised the greatest riches through Christ. We have the status of sons and heirs in the household, and we receive the riches of God’s grace abundantly poured out upon us.
One of the greatest gifts given as a result of this predestination is found in vss. 11-15, verses which deserve a great deal more attention than I am about to give. Let me simply note here that there is a real progression, culminating in the gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s people.
1) Note again the Trinitarian reference. God the Father predestined our salvation through Jesus Christ the Son, and we have that salvation guaranteed to us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
2) We really do have a guarantee. If God determined from before the creation of the world that we were to be his children, do you think he is going to let us go? Our God knows the end from the beginning, and he always brings his purposes to pass, no matter how things might appear to us in the shadows. And the way in which God preserves us and guarantees our inheritance is not through any mundane means, but through a gift that is not only worthy of a king but worth many kingdoms, indeed of greater worth than the whole world, the seal, the promised Holy Spirit.
Christian, if by now you are not immensely encouraged, then you must spend much time deeply thinking on these things. We certainly this morning have not answered every question raised by the concept of predestination, but we have seen that the idea is far richer and deeper than it is otherwise portrayed. It is not simply about who gets in and who doesn’t; it is about God’s character and God’s love. It is not simply about doctrine, but about God’s love to us, and about all the plans which God has and in which he includes us as an integral part. And we have seen that the reason God includes this truth is to encourage us and to reveal to us the true foundation for our relationship to him.
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