Ask anyone who does not adhere to reformed theology what comes to mind when they hear the term “Calvinism”, and more often than not they will respond with, “predestination”. Predestination is certainly a vital component of the doctrines of grace, and as we began to touch on last week, it is part of God’s eternal decree. But what is it about the term predestination that causes so much dissonance among believers, and even among those within reformed circles? Why is this aspect of God’s sovereign will a cause for so much confusion, and why is it often the butt of anti-Calvinist jokes and pickup lines (i.e. “God predestined me to not be a Calvinist”)?
The concept of predestination often carries with it a notion that human beings are mere robots who can only do what God has “preprogrammed” them to do, which somehow makes the non-elect out to be victims of God’s predetermined designation and doomed no matter how much they seek God, and makes the elect out to be mere puppets who were brought into the kingdom of God kicking and screaming against their will. It is precisely this gross misunderstanding of predestination that I seek to challenge in today’s blog. Is it true that absolutely nothing happens outside the sovereign will of God? Scripture testifies that this is absolutely true. As we saw last week when we looked at Ephesians 1, He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (v. 11). “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). “And He [Jesus] is the radiance of His [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). But what is not true is that God is culpable for our sinful choices. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.”
We may not have an autonomous will as God does, but God did create humanity with a creaturely will, meaning that we are rational beings with the freedom to make our own choices in accordance to our innermost desires. At the deepest level, all of us only do what we do because we desire to do that thing. We do things we do not like doing all the time, but in the end we always do what we want because the alternative choices in any given situation are less desirable. For example, no one likes to get arrested for committing a crime, yet the vast majority of criminals who are placed under arrest don’t resist the officer, but instead allow him to put on the handcuffs. Why? Because in that moment, to resist arrest only to reap a harsher punishment or to risk death is less desirable than to cooperate with the officer. Though it is true that as Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord”, our creaturely will is simply a reflection of the image of God that each of us bears as human beings and the fact that all of our decisions fall under God’s providence; it has absolutely nothing to do with what the Bible teaches concerning predestination. In fact, when we study the concept of predestination in key texts such as Romans 8 and Ephesians 1, we find that predestination is concerned not about our everyday decisions and actions, but about the ultimate outcome of those whom God has chosen according to His eternal decree.
We can sum up the decree of God concerning our salvation in this manner: election is the what of the decree, and predestination is the how of the decree. In other words, God has elected us for salvation in eternity past, and He has also determined in eternity past the end result of our election through predestination. The apostle Paul masterfully demonstrated the relationship between our predestination and God’s foreknowledge of us in what is commonly known as the “golden chain”, when he wrote these amazing words:
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).
This is a passage that we can take great comfort in, because it is these very words that remind us that no matter what happens in this life, our final destination is eternity in the new heavens and new earth, forever with our Lord and Savior, because our destination was determined before time began! Unlike the non-reformed positions which teach that God predestined us on the basis that He knew in advance what decision we would make, the biblical view says something much different. It was “in love” that God predestined us for salvation (Ephesians 1:4-5), all for one ultimate purpose: “to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:6,12,14). Indeed, God does all that He does for the glory of Himself. God is glorified when He draws lost sinners to Himself and saves them from the wrath that is to come, and He chose us so that we can forever glorify the Lord for His lovingkindness and grace that was shown to us through the finished work of Christ.
Predestination is a wonderful doctrine that we can take refuge in as we go about our lives day to day, even as we walk through all of life’s trials, but that does not by any means downplay the difficulty that we can have in grasping its deep implications. Even within reformed circles, the doctrine of predestination is subject to debate. Some have argued for a view known as double predestination, which teaches that God predestines His elect people for salvation, and in like manner predestines non-elect people for eternal destruction. To better explain this, let’s consider marbles on a conveyor belt. On each side of the conveyor belt, there are two bins: one is labeled, “eternal life”, and the other, “eternal death”. According to the double predestination view, all the marbles on the conveyor belt are to be thrown in one of those two bins. This is simply not the biblical presentation of predestination, because we do not find anywhere in Scripture where it says that God predestines people for hell in the same manner that He predestines people for heaven. It is true that our omniscient God knows in advance who is going to heaven verses hell, but I would submit to you that those who are not of the elect are going to hell because that is what they justly deserve for their sin; it is only the elect who go to heaven because they are predestined to go there, not because we deserve it but because God was so kind in saving us. There is no symmetry here, only asymmetry.
And it is this asymmetrical view of predestination that I am persuaded is the biblical understanding of this doctrine. Going back to the marble and conveyor belt illustration, all the marbles are on the conveyor belt, but there is only one bin off to the side, and it is the one with the label, “eternal life”. God chooses some of the marbles from the conveyor belt and places them in the “eternal life” bin, but He passes over the other marbles and leaves them on the conveyor belt. There is no separate “eternal death” bin; the conveyor belt is eternal death. All of us, from the moment we are born, are on that belt of death and it would be perfectly just for God to leave us on that conveyor belt because of our sin. But God, who is rich in mercy, decreed from eternity past to show His grace toward us and take us off that conveyor belt of wrath and place us in the “eternal life” bin. As we will see in our next blog, the people whom God chose in the Old Testament are as wicked and depraved as any of us are, yet God chose them not on the basis of how loveable they are (because in their natural state they were anything but), but how loving and kind He is.