Predestination: Does God Choose Your Fate?
“I am wondering about predestination. Are some people predestined to be saved and the rest predestined not to be saved?”
Thank you for asking! The doctrine of predestination is sometimes referred to as “election,” in the sense that God chooses people for his own purposes. For example, Abraham was chosen, or elected, by God, as were his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Other chosen ones included Moses, Joshua, David, the prophets, and of course, the Israelites were the “chosen people.”
The apostle Paul wrote about predestination, or election, in several passages. In Romans 8:28-30 and Ephesians 1:3-6, he emphasized that election is “in Christ,” and that it is a matter of God’s own choice for God’s own purposes. In Romans 9-11, Paul takes the topic of election further by exploring Israel’s rejection of her Messiah.
In the course of his argument in Romans 9-11, Paul asks the question,
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)
As you might expect, this passage has been much debated over the centuries. Taken out of its context, it might sound as though some people are predestined to be saved and the rest are predestined for destruction. But that is not what the passage says, nor is it the argument Paul is making.
Paul argues in Romans 9 and 10 that Israel has failed to be found righteous before God because they sought after righteousness their own way instead of putting their trust in Christ (9:31-32; 10:3). This does not mean that God’s covenant promises have failed, however, because God is free to have mercy on whomever he chooses (9:15) and is using Israel’s unfaithfulness to draw the Gentiles to himself though faith (9:16, 22-26, 30; 10:11-13).
Next, Paul asks, “Have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:11-12).
Yes, Paul argues, Israel has rejected Christ and therefore, except for a believing remnant, falls under the covenant judgments. But that is not the end of the story, even for those who rejected Christ. Paul declares in verse 23, “And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.”
These people rejected Christ, yet God does not abandon them. The God who is forever faithful to his covenant love is so powerful that he can and does provide opportunity for unbelievers to become believers, even dead unbelievers (many of the unbelieving Israelites were dead, but God’s work of mercy involves all of them, see 11:32). We aren’t told how or when God does it, only that it is so.
Paul continues: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (verses 25-27).
God works in his own ways and in his own times, but his work is aimed toward one final outcome, his desire for all people to be saved: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (verses 32-33).
Even if God were to predestine some to destruction and some to salvation, it would be his right; pots don’t tell the potter how to make them. But the good news, the gospel truth, is that even though God has every right to destroy us all, he instead takes our sins on himself in Christ and forgives us and saves us.
The “objects of God’s wrath” who were “prepared for destruction” in Romans 9:22 are unbelieving Israel, the same unbelieving Israel who will be “grafted back in” if they don’t persist in unbelief (11:23). In other words, Romans 9:22 is not a proof that some people are predestined by God for damnation. We need to read the context to see Paul’s full teaching on it.
Probably the best-known view on predestination is the one called “Calvinism.” This view of predestination is named after the Reformation theologian, John Calvin. It was constructed in this form by some of his followers at the Synod of Dort in 1618, and is the general position of what are called Reformed churches, which includes many Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Dutch and German Reformed Churches. (However, many of the members of these churches are unaware of the doctrines that were so crucial in the formation of these denominations.)
The Calvinist view, though there are variations, is usually defined using the acronym TULIP. It looks like this:
Perseverance of the saints
Because TULIP has five points, its adherents are often called “five-point Calvinists.” Let’s look at each point of the TULIP.
- “Total depravity” refers to the sinful condition of human beings. It means that there is no part of the human condition that has not been touched and tainted by sin. Therefore, all humans are unfit for the kingdom of God apart from Christ.
- “Unconditional election” means that through his free sovereignty God chose some before the world was made to be saved by grace without any conditions being required or met for that choice.
- “Limited atonement” means that Jesus’ sacrifice is not effective for all humans. It is effective only for those who were predestined to be saved, not for those who are predestined to be damned.
- “Irresistible grace” means that the grace God gives to those predestined to be saved cannot be resisted. God’s grace has saved them no matter how hard they might resist it. The idea is that if a human could ultimately refuse God’s grace, then it would mean that God’s will can be thwarted by humans, which would undermine the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty.
- “Perseverance of the saints” means that those predestined to be saved will not only become believers, but they will remain under the grace of God and cannot ever permanently fall away, no matter what they do.
Let’s now look at how the TULIP plays out in practical terms: First, it is based on a certain concept of the sovereignty, or ruling power, of God. In this concept, nothing can ever happen that God did not, before all time and Creation, decide and design to happen. Therefore, God not only knew all along who would be saved and who would be damned, he is the one who decided it. This view is sometimes called “double predestination.”
A number of theologians who teach predestination of the saved, however, do not take a stance on predestination of the damned. They explain it along these lines: Since all humans are sinners and lost without God’s grace, those who are not elected to be saved simply receive the just reward of their rebellion. It is not that God specifically predestined, or elected, them to be damned, it is just that since God didn’t elect them to receive grace and be saved, they simply wind up getting what they deserve.
This view is sometimes called “single predestination.” Whether single or double, it boils down to this: God made lots of people; they are all sinners and can do nothing about that themselves; God extends grace and mercy to a select few and all the others are condemned.
In practical terms, it works like this: If you’re saved, you’re saved, but if you’re damned, you’re damned, and there is nothing you can do about it either way. Further, there is no way of knowing for sure whether you are saved or damned.
However, you can have some evidence that you might be saved—good works. So, it is a good idea to do lots of good works. The more you do, the more likely you might be saved. If you don’t have any good works, it is good evidence that you are probably damned (but even that is not certain). So what this doctrine gives with one hand (assurance of salvation for the elect), it takes away with the other (the only evidence you have that you are saved is your changed life in terms of good works, and you can’t even be sure that proves anything).
This doctrine is bad news for most of humanity (the damned, the non-elect), and it is hard to call it good news even for the elect (they never know for certain in this life whether they are elect or damned). The real gospel, on the other hand, is good news.
The TULIP viewpoint on predestination is based on a Ptolemaic/Aristotelian concept of the way in which God is sovereign. That is, the idea of predestination that is commonly called “Calvinist” and consists of the TULIP formulation explained above, rests on a marriage of Christianity with the earth-centered concept of the cosmos formulated by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, and on a concept of God that was formulated by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. It does not rest on the concept of God we can read about in the Hebrew Bible. To put it another way, it is rooted in Greek philosophy and not in God’s own revelation of himself in the Bible.
Aristotle taught that God is “the unmoved mover.” God is not only the original source or fount of all things, he is static, unmoved and unmovable, because, Aristotle reasoned, in order to be the original source and fount of all things, God cannot be capable of being acted upon, or moved by anything else. Further, God cannot change, since any change on his part would render him not God, because, after all, God is that which causes change, not that which changes. (In Aristotle’s view, as you might have guessed, God was an impersonal force.)
With this “unmoved mover” idea of God lying behind our reasoning, how are we to understand the way in which the Christian God is sovereign, that is, the way in which God is in complete control of the universe? Well, to review, the TULIP idea is that if God is truly sovereign, truly in complete control, then everything that happens must ultimately be caused by God. In other words, if something ever happened that was not ultimately caused by God, then God would not be in complete control. And since God is in complete control, then everything must ultimately be caused by God.
Further, God is not only omnipotent, or all-powerful (sovereign), he is also omniscient, that is, all-knowing. In other words, TULIP reasons, there is nothing that can ever happen that God has not always known would happen.
So what do we have so far? First, since God is sovereign, that is, completely in control of everything, nothing happens that God is not ultimately the cause of. Second, since God knows everything that is going to happen, nothing can ever happen that 1) God doesn’t already know about, and 2) that God hasn’t caused to happen.
Logically, this means that God is “immutable,” that is, that God cannot change. In this view, if God could change, it would mean he was not already perfect to begin with.
TULIP posits a God who is omnipotent, omniscient and immutable. It appears to have safeguarded God’s sovereignty with an airtight formulation of what it means for God to be completely in charge of the universe. But a huge dilemma has appeared: God is good, but there is evil in the world.
How did that happen? In this world in which God 1) is the cause of everything that happens, 2) knows everything that will happen from the beginning because he is the cause of it, and 3) cannot change because any change would mean he is not perfect, how did sin get in?
Did God want evil in his universe? If he did, then he would have to be the ultimate cause of the evil. On the other hand, if God did not want evil in his universe, but it is there anyway, then God must not be in complete control. And the dilemma mushrooms. If nothing happens that God has not caused to happen (including catastrophes of nature, birth defects and acts of terror), then somehow God is also the cause of human sin. And even more disturbing, if people are sinners because God made them that way, then on what basis can we say that God is just in his damning of them? And, of course, the whole idea of free will among humans becomes merely an exercise in semantical gymnastics.
TULIP plays out in some startlingly non-biblical ways. The Bible says God hates sin, yet this construct says he made some folks damned sinners on purpose. The Bible says “for God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and that God wants “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) and Christ says “I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32), yet the TULIP construct posits a God who “loves” some (most, as it turns out) by damning them before they ever drew breath.
The Bible, in striking contrast, presents God as interacting with humans in meaningful ways and even records some fascinating conversations with people in which God learns something or changes his mind.
So where does five-point Calvinism leave us? It leaves most of us predestined human wretches in hell, where God supposedly created us to go, and, according to this construct, he enjoys our eternal torment as a tribute to his supreme justice and righteousness.
The Bible draws the picture rather differently, thank God. And it might be a good idea for us to draw our picture from the Bible too, instead of reading the Bible with our assumptions about God being colored by philosophies alien to the biblical world. Let’s see what we can learn about how the Bible unpacks God’s sovereignty.
Three questions arise immediately. Can God be sovereign and perfect and also be able to change? Can God be in control of the universe and also give humans true freedom? Can God create a universe in which he is an active partner with humanity without determining every choice humans must make?
The answer to all three questions, from a biblical perspective, is Yes, God can.
After all, God is God; he can do what he, of his own free will, decides to do in accord with who he is. Consider the fact that the Holy Spirit inspired biblical writers to record occasions in which God did, in fact, change.
The Bible shows us that God created a world for himself in which he can and does abide, work, enjoy himself and rest. The universe depends on God for every moment of its existence, the Bible tells us, yet God takes pleasure in what he has made and is quite actively involved in its life and journey.
Consider the biblical picture of God. He loves a cool breeze (Genesis 3:8). He walks and talks with people (Exodus 33:11). He finds out things about them (Genesis 22:12). He makes friends (James 2:23) and gets betrayed by them (2 Samuel 12:7-9).
This God, the God of the Bible, is indeed sovereign, yet not so “otherly” that he cannot enjoy the world he made. When he finished making it, he proceeded to rest in it. And he even calls on us to join him in his rest. He is a God who freely makes things and then sets out to use and enjoy what he has made.
Is such a God, who doesn’t seem to mind “getting his hands dirty,” truly in control? It seems to me, and you may disagree, that such a God is in far more control, and has far more power, in fact, than the sort of God described by the TULIP.
As we saw above, TULIP, which describes a Calvinist view of predestination, is an acronym that stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. The “God of the TULIP” has to create what amounts to a grand DVD recording of entirely predetermined outcomes and characters who can’t wrestle with him, talk back to him, challenge him, or, conversely, can’t truly love him, except as he has written it all into the prearranged script. He is in control, to be sure, but of what? Of what amounts to a magnificent cosmic screenplay.
But the God of the Bible, who, in his own divine freedom, has created a real universe—a universe that is truly free, with truly free people—exercises his awesome creativity and genius continually, because, in spite of sinning and rebellious humans, he does bring about his purpose for them.
God is neither threatened by, nor overcome by, human free will and the time and chance he built into his universe, but works within them to bring about a human redemption that is purified in the midst of authentic relationships. He is constantly bringing good out of evil and light out of darkness through his indescribable grace freely demonstrated most supremely in Jesus Christ.
The God of the Bible does not force anyone to trust him. He doesn’t remove anyone’s freedom to refuse him. Yet, he is infinitely creative in his means of knocking on the doors of our human castles, inviting, even urging, us to invite him in. This is the God who became one of us in Jesus Christ. This is the God who is united with us and in communion with us through Christ. This is the God who loves us and who calls on us to love one another as he loves us.
God is free to be who he is. “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” is who this God says he is (Exodus 3:14). He is free to create the universe and humanity and interact with them in whatever way pleases him, and what pleases him is to be faithful to and with his Creation.
The fact that God is able to create a windup, predetermined universe does not mean that he had to. The Ptolemaic-Aristotelian concept of God, reflected in TULIP, demands that God had to. It demands that a proper, logical, totally sovereign God could have done things no other way. That concept, in its effort to safeguard God’s sovereignty, winds up tying God’s hands by limiting him to one particular and nonbiblical way of being sovereign with his Creation.
If, on the other hand, we are to take the biblical record of God’s self-disclosure seriously, we must conclude that God is free both to create and to interact with his Creation in any way he pleases, because he is free to be and do as he pleases in accord with who he is (and he is “I Am Who I Am”).
Our freedom to be who we are in Christ is not a freedom that we have simply by virtue of existing. It is a freedom given to us by God, entrusted to us, and dependent on God’s own freedom to give it to us.
In other words, we are free to accept or reject God’s grace only because God holds us in the palm of his hand, not because we have personal sovereignty in and of ourselves. People can reject God, but in rejecting God they are also rejecting themselves, because their freedom is upheld only by the God they are rejecting.
Immutable and impassible
In our efforts to discuss and describe God, we have no choice but to use analogies and comparisons to created things we know about. But we must keep in mind that in all our analogies and comparisons, God is not even on the same plane as any of the created things—whether objects, roles or passions—we might use in describing him. Even the pronoun “he” is only an analogy; we should not get the idea that God is actually male or female. (The term “Father” refers to the relationship between the Father and the Son [John 1:14, 18, 34] and the Father and creation [Ephesians 3:14-15]; the Father is infinitely greater than any human concept of “father.”)
God—Father, Son and Spirit—is the source and cause of all being and existence. He brings everything into being without anything bringing him into being. He is pure Being, that “Is-ness” from which all other being flows. All things depend on him for their existence, and he depends on nothing for his existence.
When we say God is “immutable” or “unchangeable,” we do not mean that God cannot change as he, in his uncreated freedom, chooses to change. We mean that God cannot be changed by anything outside himself, as though he were a created being.
But what about Malachi 3:6: “For I the Lord do not change”? This and other passages about God’s unchangeableness are declarations of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise. (“Therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished,” he continues.) And within that unchanging faithfulness to his beloved people there are many ups and downs, twists in the tale, disappointments and surprises. In other words, God declares that despite all your trials of faith and doubt, he will not change his mind about loving you and saving you.
God’s covenant faithfulness is the theme throughout the Bible. God made promises to Abraham, and those promises included the salvation of the whole world through the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16, 29). The Bible is the record of God’s faithfulness to those promises.
So, when we say that God is “immutable” (unchangeable) and “impassible” (incapable of feeling), we do not mean that God cannot change or feel. We mean, rather, that God cannot be changed or moved or hurt against his will by anything outside himself.
But in his divine freedom, God can, and does, of himself, change and feel. In other words, God cannot be acted on against his will, but he certainly, in his divine freedom, acts. When God created the universe, he freely in grace and love became something new—Creator—and he did so in the freedom of his grace and love. Likewise, when the Son became flesh in the Incarnation, God became something new—human like us and for our sakes. God did not have to create, nor did he have to become flesh, but he did so in his divine freedom out of the abundance of his grace and love.
In his eternal serenity and tranquility, God is not depressed, confused, worried, or bowled over by human sin, tragedy and disaster. After all, he knows his power and purpose and what he is bringing out of it all. As Michael Jinkins put it, “God the Creator is intimately, passionately involved in creation continuously from beginning to end and at every nanosecond in between…. All things spring continuously from the God who loves them into existence, loves them redemptively throughout their existence and loves them toward God’s final and full purpose” (Invitation to Theology, InterVarsity Press, 2001, p. 90).
The universe is not “on its own.” While there is indeed “cause and effect,” “cause and effect” is not all there is. The universe functions according to general rules laid out by its Creator, but it is not detached from its Creator’s free and gracious will and creatively sustaining presence.
God made things in such a way that they bump and collide their way through what we might call a “randomly ordered” existence. We are subject to “time and chance,” yet we believe, as Christians, that our loving God uses these very real, and often painful vicissitudes of “time and chance” to mysteriously and graciously bring us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The “God” of Plato and Aristotle could not change, because for “God” to change would mean that “God” was not already perfect. So “God” was called the “unmoved mover.” But the God of the Bible has no problem with changing whenever he decides to, and he remains perfect and perfectly God all the while. He haggled with Abraham over the fate of Sodom, agreeing to change his plan under certain conditions (Genesis 18:16-33).
God changed his mind about saving the Israelites when they started worshiping the calf at Mount Sinai, then allowed Moses to talk him out of killing them all and starting the whole plan over with Moses’ children (Exodus 32:7-14). He accommodated himself to Israel’s desire for a king even though they were making a mistake and still will ultimately deliver them from their rebellion (1 Samuel 8; Hosea 11:9; 14:4). He changed his plan regarding wicked King Ahab’s punishment (1 Kings 21:27-29).
God is sovereign, but God, who is none other than Father, Son and Spirit, is sovereign the way he chooses to be, not the way the greatest human thinkers conclude the ultimate cause of all things must logically be. God will be who God will be. And he has revealed himself to be, for us and with us, the Father of Jesus Christ, the Sender of the Holy Spirit, the Forgiver of sins, the Lover of souls, our Savior, our Deliverer, our Comforter, our Advocate, our Helper, our Strengthener, our Righteousness, our Peace, our Hope, our Life, our Light, our Friend and many other good and wonderful things.
God doesn’t behave the way we would expect. We cannot package him to make him more appealing. We cannot mold him into our imagined idea of what a proper and respectable, board-certified God ought to be like.
God is not an unmoved mover who created a windup world of preprogrammed automatons. Nor is God “way out there,” merely looking down and watching and judging us as some detached Super-being.
He is the immanent one, that is, God with us. He is here, has been all along, and always will be. All because he wants to be. Because he loves us. Because he made us real, to be real with him and in him and through him.
Far from some platonic impersonal “other,” this God is ever active and involved in his creation. He gets his hands dirty. He takes this reeking and sin-infested hovel we have turned the world into, and by the power of the bloody and unjust crucifixion of his own incarnate self, cleans, redeems, transforms and ushers both us and it into the joy of his eternal kingdom.
In Christ Jesus, God brings humanity into union and communion with the very essence of who he is. We are one with him by his action on our behalf, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of Christ, who became for us the perfect human.
If we are in him, we are in union with God, not as Gods, but as humans in union with the God/man, Jesus, who is human and divine for our sakes. Our continual communion, or fellowship, with him is a continual confirmation of and participation in that grand truth—we are God’s children in Christ.
Free in God’s faithfulness
We must not get the idea that God has to create, or that Creation necessarily (that is, automatically, like a fire must produce heat) flows from him. God creates entirely in his divine freedom, not because he is a creation machine.
Nor must we get the idea that God creates because he is lonely, or because there was something “missing” in God that compelled him to create. God is not lonely. The triune God is utterly complete in every way, including in love, joy and perfection, without the Creation.
God does not need the Creation. God does not depend on the Creation. The Creation does not add anything to God that God “lacked.” The Creation happened because God freely made it happen in the abundance of his joy and love, not because he had to or needed to, but simply because he wanted to.
So when we talk about God’s covenant faithfulness, we can begin to see how certain our trust in God can be. God brought the world into being for the sheer joy of it, redeemed humanity because he loved the people he made, and holds all things, all existence, including yours and mine, in the palm of his hand.
We can trust him because we know we exist only because he says so. If he has gone to all the trouble, while we were still his enemies, to redeem us through the cross (the hard part), how much more certain can we be that he will through his life, now that we are his friends, see our salvation through to the end (the easy part) (Romans 5:8-11)?
God creates and God redeems because he wants to, not because we asked him to, or got him to, or talked him into it, or convinced him to, or behaved really well. He did it because he is good, because he is love, because he is who he is. Your behavior is not going to change who God is, nor who God is toward you. If it could, he would not be God, because God cannot be changed by any incantations or spells or nice or naughty deeds you can throw at him.
You cannot manipulate God or coerce him. You can only trust him and receive the good things he has given you, or not trust him and refuse the good things he has given you. You have that freedom, a created freedom that reflects and derives from God’s own uncreated divine freedom. It is freedom to trust him, to commune with him, to love him. You can turn it into freedom to reject him if you want, but you don’t have to.
Assurance of salvation
Since the blood of Christ covers all sin, and he atoned for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2), then predestination, or election, in the sense of being chosen by God to be his people only by his grace and not by works, applies, through Christ, to everyone (Ephesians 1:9-10). It is received and enjoyed only by those who accept it in faith, but it applies to everyone.
Some people are called to faith in Christ and experience his redemption before others do (verse 12). Those called to faith early are a living testament to the grace God has poured out on the world, a grace that will come fully into view at the appearing of Christ (Titus 2:11-14).
And it is all done according to the foreknowledge of the God of grace who has been working out in Christ his gracious plan for humanity from the beginning (Matthew 25:34). When it comes to assurance of salvation, we trust in God who justifies the ungodly, which we are. We are saved by grace alone, not by our works, so our assurance rests in the sure word of the God of free grace.
Here is what we know, then, by the testimony of Jesus Christ, to be certain: God loves us, and we do not have to fear that we won’t be saved. He saves us in spite of our sins because he is faithful and full of grace. The only people who will not enjoy his salvation are those who do not want it.
Now someone will say that in this treatment of predestination we have oversimplified a complex theological matter, and no doubt we have. But this we know: God calls on us to trust him. And if you and I are to trust him, we have to know that our relationship with him matters. We have to know that we are more than hapless cogs in a deterministic gristmill of human pain, sorrow and tragedy. We have to know that God loves us, that he loves us so much that he sent his own Son to bail us out of a lifetime of horrible decisions, fool’s errands and sin by taking all of it on himself in our place, even though we didn’t deserve such mercy.
Without a doubt, we can trust a God like that. We can throw in our lot with him and follow him to the ends of the earth, because we owe him our lives now and forever.
Please do not take anything I have written here to mean that I think people who hold the TULIP position are in any way “lesser” Christians than those who don’t. That would be a great mistake. Christians are people who put their faith in Jesus Christ, pure and simple. We are not measured by our theologies, but by God’s grace freely given to us in Jesus Christ. Our faith is in him, not in theology books. Theology is important, but it is not the root of our salvation. Jesus is.
Devoted and faithful Christian theologians have struggled throughout the centuries to find adequate words and concepts to inform our faith about how God exercises his sovereignty in the world. They do not always agree. Even so, the Christian struggle to understand and talk about God theologically is a worthy pursuit. It reflect our desire as Christians to use the reasoning power God has given us to seek greater understanding of our biblically grounded and personally experienced faith.
Though we may disagree with one another on certain points (none of us has perfect understanding), as believers we are all God’s children, washed in the blood of our Savior, and he calls on us to love one another.
In Christ, we can respect one another’s views, hear the issues that we each raise, in humility form our own conclusions, and still love one another as fellow partakers of the mercies of God.
J. Michael Feazell