At the time of the American Revolution, almost every Christian denomination in America affirmed the Reformed doctrine of predestination. Christians believed that God alone was to be credited with their salvation—even their cooperation with God’s grace was brought about by God’s grace. God had chosen some for eternal life and not others, and only God knew his reasons for the selection. Baptists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, and (of course) Presbyterians—all stood solidly upon this biblical teaching. One thing, however, was sure—God didn’t choose us because he knew we would believe. Rather, we believed because God chose us. God was God, and all the glory would go to him.
After two centuries of immersion in American culture, however, American Christianity has entered the new millennium in a state of crisis. Few Americans today believe in predestination. They may say they do, but they then define predestination as based upon God’s foresight of our faith. In the end, the reason I’m saved was because of my free will, not God’s sovereign choice. I guess the reason I believed when my neighbor didn’t is because I was just better than my neighbor. I was good enough to believe by my own free will. I thank you, Father, that I had the good sense to cooperate with you....
I’ll say this right at the outset. Free-will Christianity is a bastardization of biblical Christianity. It is inconsistent Christianity. Perhaps “heresy” is even a fair term for it. All this “free will” thinking is just another form of legalism, making salvation depend upon us rather than upon Jehovah. Don’t get me wrong—many who buy this thinking are genuine, sincere believers and will be with the Lord forever. After all, a major point in this class will be that God’s grace is more powerful than our blindness. But there has been a lack of biblical teaching here for decades. The result of this dearth has been an even bigger problem, a problem so terrifying as to threaten the very vitality of the American church. We have lost sight of God’s greatness. How rare today is a sermon on God’s majesty, his sovereign power, his wrath, his judgment, his overpowering rule over history, his supremacy, his fierceness, his eternal predestination. If we’re really, really honest with ourselves, Do we truly know God anymore? We have tamed God. Castrated him, perhaps. As one theologian laments... our thoughts of God have become far too human.
This should come as no surprise in America. For two centuries, the church has existed in an American culture whose highest values are personal liberty and individual rights. It would be quite natural for Christians here to filter the Bible through such a lens. The kingdom of God has to be all about me. It has to be relevant to my life, right? And if I am saved, it has to be because of my decisions, right? My will has to be free, right? God would be unfair to have it any other way. God has to be an equal opportunity Savior. Isn’t God a democracy? Didn’t Jesus preach about the Republic of God? All this is to suggest that American churches don’t teach predestination because they are more American than they are Christian. We have come to think that our God is small. Now it’s time for a new Reformation in the churches, a Reformation in which we honor God as God, not just as mascot. We need a Reformation in which God is glorified as God, and not just as someone who “fills our needs.” Enough about our needs! It’s far past time we let God be God. I know of no “need” more pressing than this.
Still, even with all this misunderstanding about predestination, nearly every major Christian denomination in history has felt compelled to have some doctrine of predestination. Our generation is not the first to have to work through this biblical issue. About the year 400, Augustine and Pelagius fought over this doctrine—and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic for his doctrine of free will. Then at the Council of Orange in 529 AD, the Christians united to reject free will in favor of God’s sovereign grace. And again in 855, the Council of Valence affirmed a double predestination. During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther called the doctrine of predestination the cor ecclesia, the heart of the Church. Luther wrote more about predestination than did John Calvin, even though the term “Calvinism” was unfortunately applied to the doctrine. If one looks at the greatest theologians in the 2,000 years of Christian history—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards—although these men disagree on other issues and are by no means infallible, all of them agree on this question of predestination.
“We confess a predestination of the elect to life, and a predestination of the wicked to death; that, in the election of those who are saved, the mercy of God precedes anything we do, and in the condemnation of those who will perish, evil merit precedes the righteous judgment of God.”
—Council of Valence, 855
“Predestination to Life is the everlasting Purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) He hath decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honor.”
—Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 1563
St. Augustine (543-430)
“From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will.... The angels and men who are the subjects of God's predestination are clearly and irreversibly designated, and their number is unalterably fixed.”
—The Baptist Confession of 1689
The term predestination itself is clear enough: the eternal destinies of men and women were determined beforehand (pre) by God. Before the creation, God chose who would go to heaven and who would go to hell. Christians believe in predestination for one simple reason. The Bible teaches it. No other reason will suffice. In Ephesians 1:5-6, for example, Scripture tells us when this choice took place—before creation, in eternity. And the Bible tells us what this predestination is unto—adoption through Jesus, to be holy and blameless before God. And it tells us here why God chose us—so that his glory could be praised.
“For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will-- to the praise of His glorious grace.”
The real question in not whether or not Christians should believe in predestination—the Bible clearly teaches predestination. The real question is this: whom did God predestine to eternal life, and (even more importantly) why did God choose those He predestined?
1. The optimistic view: God has predestined everybody to eternal life. Satan has predestined everybody to eternal death. God is for you, the Devil is against you—you have to cast the tie-breaker. The problem with this view is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible's view of predestination. The Bible clearly states that not everyone is predestined, but only those who will eventually believe and enjoy eternal life. Christians are frequently called the elect, as opposed to the non-elect, and are said to be the chosen ones (see Rom 8:33; 11:7; 1 Cor 1:27-29; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; Tit 1:1; 1 Pe 2:8-9)—God has not chosen everyone. God has chosen some for eternal life and rejected others. But on what basis has God chosen some?
2. The Arminian view: God has predestined some to eternal life because He saw in advance that such persons would cooperate with the Holy Spirit and believe by their own free will. God gives everyone an equal amount of grace, and those willing to take it are saved. God chose us because we were going to choose Him.
3. The Reformed (Calvinist) view: God predestined some to eternal life, not because He saw that they would have believed on their own (They wouldn’t have!), but because of His own good pleasure. God chose us despite our rejection of Him, not because we would be cooperative. God chose to change our hearts, and he has done so and will continue to do so until all of his elect are gathered.
Calvinists and Arminians agree that only some are elect, and that those who are elect will come to faith and believe until the end (if, in fact, they are elect). And everyone agrees that those who turn from sin to follow Christ are saved. The question is this: On what basis did God predestine them? Did God predestine some because He knew they would believe of their own free will, or did He predestine without regard to human choices? Was God's choice based on our choice, or is our choice itself as a result of God's choice?
In 1610, a group of the followers of James Arminius, a Dutch professor, presented a list of five grievances to the Dutch Parliament. Imbued with the humanism then arising within Europe, these “Arminians” were not pleased with the direction the Protestant Reformation had taken—objecting particularly to the doctrine of predestination as the Reformers (Luther, Calvin) had taught it. After eight years of biblical study and reflection, however, the Reformation churches meeting at Dort rejected the five Arminian objections as unbiblical. Their response followed the five Arminian objections, and has been passed down to us as the “Five Points” of Calvinism, known for its acronym, TULIP:
Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. There are better titles for each of these doctrines—and this class will not deal with the extent of the atonement (that will have to be dealt with later). The two theological systems may be compared as follows:
The name “Five Point of Calvinism” is a little misleading, of course. Calvinist churches teach more than five points—the vision is to teach the whole counsel of God! These particular five points were simply the five under fire in the seventeenth century. One might suggest that these are five of the hundred or so points of biblical Christianity. Yet the one great point behind all five points is the supreme point that salvation is of the Lord, from beginning to end. God is God, and he does as he pleases. And if he has chosen to give us salvation, we’re going to make sure that we give all the glory for it to him, not to ourselves. Predestination is not just a Presbyterian thing. As the nineteenth century English Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon exclaimed, “I love to preach the strong old doctrines nicknamed Calvinism, but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus.”