Simply put, predestination is the doctrine that God is the one who predetermines the eternal destiny of human beings. It’s an expression of his authority and all-pervasive power. Since this notion has so many implications, it’s worth knowing what some of the more significant ones are:
- Predestination does not mean that human beings have no freedom of choice. One of the things about God is that he is other-person-centred. That means he doesn’t override others, but allows them freedom within their natural abilities. It’s in his nature to do so. But the problem is that with our own natural abilities we are unable to save ourselves, or even be inclined to choose God. The Apostle Paul makes this point by saying that because of our sins, all human beings are like dead people (Eph 2). And dead people cannot help themselves. They can’t even try. Therefore, salvation has to be entirely God’s initiative. Not only does he provide the means of salvation (the death and resurrection of Christ), but he enables individuals to choose it by granting them his Holy Spirit that makes them ‘born again’—like a kick-start that means they are no longer dead, but alive with Christ (Eph 2 again). If God only provided the means of salvation and then sat back waiting for us to choose to be saved, he’d be waiting forever, because our fallen nature will never choose to be right with God. The human heart is deceitful beyond compare and incurable (Jer 17.9). But by granting his Spirit to select individuals, God does not override their choice, but actually begins to cure the human heart and enlivens people to make the right choice. Thus, both God’s sovereign will and free human choice are seen to work together.
- Some people object to predestination by saying that God, in his goodness, could never choose to send people to Hell. But this assumes that God consigns some people to heaven and other people to Hell arbitrarily without any reference to what they deserve. The fact of the matter is that all people are deserving of Hell as a matter of justice. But in his love, God graciously chooses to save some. This is not a question of fairness, because if God were motivated merely by fairness, he would leave us all to go to Hell. Rather, it’s a question of grace that God sovereignly chooses to save some from their deserved fate. God is motivated by love. Obviously this then raises the question of why God doesn’t choose to save everyone. That, is a question only God can answer. But the fact that we as humans cannot answer this ‘why’ question does not mean that the concept being questioned must be false. It simply means we don’t have the answer to it. Despite this, though, we can still say that predestination does demonstrate both God’s justice and his grace.
- Predestination implies that the Fall—humanity’s rebellion against God (Gen 3)—did not take God by surprise. It was not as though God created a perfect human race that surprisingly chose to rebel against him, forcing God to instigate a ‘Plan B’ to recover the perfect humanity he originally intended. No, God did not create humanity perfect, but good (Gen 1). In other words, God created humanity with a potential for growth, development, and progress towards a goal. The New Testament states that that goal is to bring all things under the direct authority of Jesus Christ (Eph 1). Furthermore, Paul states that God chose the elect (believers) before the foundation of the world (Eph 1). Thus, the fall and the whole process of salvation was God’s ‘Plan A’ all along.
- The fact that God predestines people means that he is in sovereign control of all aspects of history. This doesn’t mean that all human beings are God’s puppets or ventriloquist dummies. Far from it. The Bible makes the point that human beings are always accountable for their decisions and actions, and we will have to give an account of ourselves on Judgement Day. We are free agents, albeit limited by the natural limitations of what it means to be human (e.g. humans can’t fly, but we can choose to board a plane). Our freedoms as human beings are an expression of God’s other-person-centredness. But God is also so sovereign over his creation that he can give free choice to all human beings and yet always achieve his own will and purposes. Such is the nature of his sovereignty. He not only controls those factors outside of our control (e.g. the weather), but he controls those factors that shape who we are (e.g. our genetic make-up; the dispositions of our personalities that mean I prefer jazz to heavy metal; who our parents are; the fact that I prefer sweet to savoury, etc.). Yet God’s control of these factors never robs us of our freedom or accountability as human beings. Acts 4.27–28 captures something of this by noting how the authorities of Jesus’ day were personally responsible and accountable for the crime of putting Jesus, an innocent man, to death, and yet this was also God’s good and foreordained will.
- Some people will claim that predestination means that Jesus could not have atoned for the sins of the whole world, when 1 John 2.2 states that he did. But this objection is a misunderstanding of what Jesus did. Some theologians will phrase the solution this way: “Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.” In other words, his sacrifice has enough value to save everyone, but the fact is that not everyone is saved. This way of phrasing it is true, but the Bible actually puts it in slightly different terminology. It says that the sins of the whole world are forgiven because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. However, this does not mean that everyone is saved. Forgiveness simply covers over sins and wipes the slate clean, but it doesn’t then automatically produce a relationship with God. In other words atonement pays off all our debts, but it doesn’t put us straight into credit. Rather, forgiveness simply gets us all ready for a relationship with God. The way we actually do get a relationship with God is when God grants his Holy Spirit to us that moves us to put our faith in Jesus and unites us to him (again, note how this is God’s initiative) so that we then receive the credit for his righteousness (Rom 3.22). What this does is bring a forgiven person into full communion with God the Father through Christ by the Spirit.
So predestination is a very important doctrine that has quite a few implications. It is often misunderstood, but the objections people often bring to it are usually motivated by a concern to preserve other particular doctrines. The thing with predestination is, however, that it is able to hold all these nobly-motivated objections together and actually make sense of them within a biblical framework. Without predestination, God would not be sovereign and gracious, and no one would be saved.