As I indicated in my previous blog, almost every one of the philosophically-heavy questions that a Christian can pose to his/her creator are answered in the pages of God’s Holy Word. For that courtesy we should be eternally grateful because it takes a lot of the worry out of being profound. However, some subjects are not so clearly spelled out and that’s undoubtedly due to our limited ability to comprehend that there’s a whole unseen forest stretching out behind and beyond the visible tree line. One of those deep matters is predestination (which includes election and foreknowledge) on the part of the great I AM.
While the Bible doesn’t shy away from bringing these issues up, the modern church most definitely does. And for good reason. Unless a believer is willing to study intensely what the scriptures say about those doctrines and rely on the Holy Spirit to lead them through the mental maze they present, they’re extremely vulnerable to becoming utterly discouraged. The confusion the endeavor can foster in even the most open-minded of Christians can bring on depression and a sense of futility, both of which are destructive impediments to efficiently broadcasting the good news of the Gospel. Therefore to have a negative reaction to what the Bible has to say about predestination is not what God intends.
As in anything concerning our intellect, the gathering of trustworthy information is the key to forming a rational, coherent opinion on any matter. This is no exception. A person’s endorsement of and adherence to a particular viewpoint about something is only as useful and valid as the amount of research they put into their understanding of it. For many lofty concepts that’s all it takes to remove all misconceptions that might arise. For other principles the deeper you dig the bigger the hole gets and that can easily become the case with predestination. That’s why an unassailable and firm trust in the unwavering goodness of our Father in heaven is a prerequisite to delving into its complexities. Without that solid conviction you’ll soon entertain counterproductive doubts that may possibly lead you astray. So be careful.
I’m going to present one at a time, as well as I can, the basic foundations for the five major schools of thought concerning predestination in the Christian religion. My intent is not to convey what I personally think of each conclusion its practitioners have arrived at but to give the reader an unfiltered, textbook description of their scholarly conjectures in order to educate those who may not even know what divine election is. (At some juncture down the line I’ll most likely offer my own perspectives but not for a while yet. I’m still mulling the whole deal over, under, around and through my own crowded cranium.)
I’ll begin with the most recognizable, Calvinism.
John Calvin was born in 1509 and died in 1564. He was an extremely influential French theologian and pastor who rose to prominence during the Protestant Reformation. To say he was controversial is putting it mildly but a great deal of his writings have formed the backbone of what modern Protestant churches endorse today. His take on predestination just may be the most recognizable of all although he actually derived his opinions based on what the revered Augustine of Hippo said about it back in the fourth and fifth centuries. In other words, Calvinism has a respectable pedigree. Yet it was Calvin who consolidated the different aspects into an organized, intelligible set of definitive statements.
There are five points to the Calvinist position that can be easily remembered by the acronym TULIP.
The T stands for total depravity and it’s based on Romans 3, verses 10 through 12 in particular: “…There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” (Actually, Paul was borrowing generously from David in Psalms 14.) What total depravity means is that, because of Adam and Eve’s blunder in Eden, we’re so morally corrupted we don’t even have the ability to believe the Gospel. We’re literally “dead in sin.” We have no free will due to our being wholly enslaved to our evil nature. That situation makes it impossible for us to choose righteous acts over iniquitous ones in the spiritual realm. Because we’re such incorrigible sinners we have to die to our selves and become reborn as new creatures possessing a new nature in order to be considered acceptable to our perfect God. Faith is not generated on our own so it’s not something we can contribute to our salvation. Rather, any amount of faith we might have is imparted into us by God’s unmerited grace. It’s our Father’s gift to us, not our gift to Him.
The U signifies unconditional election. Bruce Ware explained it thusly: “[It] may be defined as God’s gracious choice, made in eternity past, of those whom He would save by faith through the atoning death of His Son, a choice based not upon anything that those so chosen would do, or any choice that they would make, or on how good or bad they might be, or on anything else specifically true about them (i.e., their qualities, characters, decisions, or actions) in contrast to others, but rather based only upon God’s own pleasure and will.” No one is saved due to foreseen response or obedience on their part because God only grants the gift of faith and the desire to repent to those He has selected. Thus a person’s election has nothing to do with how virtuous they are. Those who surrender to Jesus are able to solely because God has given them the power to do so. Therefore it’s God’s choosing of the sinner, not the sinner choosing Him, that’s the cause for their salvation.
L is for limited atonement. What it means is Christ suffered and died on the cross exclusively for God’s elect and no one else. He took the punishment for certain specified sinners and paid the penalty of their sins only. He completely erased the stains of their trespasses against the Heavenly Father and secured for them everything they need to be made righteous in His sight. The necessary faith involved is infallibly bestowed upon those for whom Christ died, guaranteeing their salvation.
I represents irresistible grace. While there is a general, external call to salvation announced to everybody who hears the Gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to God’s elected souls a special, internal call that compels them to undergo conversion. The external call usually goes in one ear and out the other but the Spirit’s internal call is impossible to resist. The Holy Spirit never fails to draw those sinners God selected to Christ. A person’s will has nothing to do with it. Subconsciously, the Spirit causes the hopeless sinner in question to cooperate, to believe, to repent and to come without hesitation to the Lord and Savior. Therefore God’s grace is an invincible, unavoidable spiritual super-magnet that always attracts and secures those whose names He has written in the book of life.
The last letter is P: the perseverance of The Saints. Simply put, God’s chosen are redeemed by His Son’s atonement, granted faith by the Holy Spirit and will be with their Father in heaven for eternity to come. Those whom God has selected from humanity to be His adopted children can never lose their salvation because they belong to the great I AM and will live on in His presence forevermore. No exceptions.
(Now, if you’ve never been exposed to what the Calvinistic outlook on predestination is you might be in shock right now. This is a hard teaching to reconcile with our Sunday school image of what the Heavenly Father is like. Yet you might be even more surprised to find out that this is an accepted doctrine of your local church that’s never mentioned or preached on because it’s a highly combustible tenet that has the potential to run people off. If you’re freaked out I urge you to hang in there. There are four other ways of looking at predestination and some are not as rigid.)
All stated positions on any subject must be able to withstand scrutiny and objections. There are plenty when it comes to the Calvinistic approach to election. I’ll mention just a few that you yourself might be entertaining about now. The first thing that may come to mind is the fact that the Bible repeatedly stresses that God is love and His love is the same for all men and women. Are Calvinists really saying folks reject Christ because God mandated they do so? Wouldn’t it have to be a result of them coming to their own conclusion about Jesus? Else where’s the love?
Calvinists agree that God loves everyone but that there are different kinds of love and the most prominent found in the scriptures is the one that stresses God’s discriminate affection for His own people. They point out that God favored the nation of Israel at the expense of many lives of the Egyptians and other ethnicities living in Canaan. They also defend God’s partiality via Paul’s admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. They reason that if a man loves all women equally then his love for her is not particular, selective and discriminate. Therefore it’s not husbandly love at all. God is biased towards his own church.
That retort inevitably leads to a related challenge: The Bible states in 2 Peter 3:9, for example, “The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Since He wills that all be saved then unconditional election is out the window. It has to come down to a choice being made by the individual human being as to where they end up spending eternity.
Calvinists again agree but quickly remind everyone that the Bible says much more than that, including the passage in 2 Timothy 2:25 that says “Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth.” To their thinking this proves that God may, indeed, wish that all will be saved but unless He grants them a repentant heart they’re doomed. While this looks, on the surface, contradictory, Calvinists are bound to follow the inerrant Scriptures and that’s what they indicate. They conclude that there are greater values and higher purposes that can only be accomplished in God’s choosing to not save some that He could save. They insist that we must let God be God. Calvin himself believed that to continue to ask “Why?” is to “seek something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.”
Some contend that Calvinism raises two huge moral problems: (1) if humans can’t choose then there’s no such thing as free will and (2) God can’t possibly hold a soul responsible for rejecting Christ if they couldn’t have done otherwise. This inflexible view undermines both human freedom and moral accountability, making humans merely preprogrammed robots.
The explanation given for the first point is that our supposed “freedom” is an illusion of sorts. Calvinists say what we really have is “freedom of inclination.” In other words, in any situation we’ll opt to do exactly what we most want to do. They refer to Isaiah where God used the evil Assyrians to bring His judgment on Israel by allowing them to do what they liked to do most, conquer and pillage. God used them for His purpose even though, unwittingly, they were condemning themselves to His wrath by their wicked behavior.
Secondly, they cite passages in the Bible that say unsaved people have natures that do not seek God (Romans 3:11) because they’re dead in their iniquities (Ephesians 2:1), that they’re blind to the truth of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4) and are intrinsically hostile to God (Romans 8:6-8). When they reject Christ they’re doing what they most want to do. Here’s the conclusion they arrive at: Were it not for God’s election of some to be saved out of all humanity deserving damnation, none would have ever believed in Christ and been spared from hell. According to Bryn MacPhail, “This doctrine is the most God-glorifying doctrine. It gives God all the glory. God elects us, sends Christ to pay for our sin, sends the necessary faith and grace to save us, and sustains us until the end. Man does absolutely nothing.”
Last but not least, Calvinism prompts the query: If one only goes to heaven if they’re among God’s elect then there’s no reason to pray for or evangelize to the unsaved. The elect will be saved and the non-elect won’t. End of story. So why pray? Why share the Gospel?
Calvinists say that the answer is that God has not only ordained the “ends” but also the “means” by which the outcome is to unfold as He’s planned. In other words, the elect are the vehicles that carry the message of the cross to the elected souls who haven’t heard it yet. They cite 2 Timothy 2:10 as confirmation where Paul writes, “So I endure all things for the sake of those chosen by God, that they too may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus and its eternal glory.” And, as far as prayer goes, Christians are to pray in order that God’s purposes in saving the elect will occur.
It’s important to keep in mind that to share Calvin’s view isn’t to cop a cold-hearted, I’ve-been-selected-and-you-haven’t-and-that’s-too-bad attitude towards others. Calvin emphasized that God’s decree is not whimsical or capricious in any way and that, if understood correctly, it should be a cause for celebration. He believed the Bible indicates that when God elected people in Christ, He chose those who needed to be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:13), that His selection of them was itself a gracious and unmerited pardon (Romans 11:5), that He elected them to be forgiven of sin and to be made holy in His Son (1 Peter 1:1-2), and that, through their being chosen, they’d be justified, glorified and guaranteed eternal life (Acts 13:48). Calvinists consider their conclusions to be inevitable so they opine that, instead of questioning God’s motives, we should be grateful that He even bothers to save any of us at all.
Charles Spurgeon, a staunch defender of Calvinism, said “I believe that nothing happens apart from divine determination and decree. We shall never be able to escape from the doctrine of divine predestination – the doctrine that God has foreordained certain people unto eternal life.” Calvinists see no alternative, for to think otherwise is an act of ingratitude. Loraine Boettner wrote, “But no one with proper ideas of God believes that He has to change His mind every few days to make room for unexpected happenings which were not included in His original plan. If the perfection of the divine plan be denied, no consistent stopping place will be found short of atheism.”
The cornerstone of Calvinistic thinking on predestination is the opening chapter of Ephesians where Paul praises God the Father for the wonderful blessings He has granted us in His Son. Paul then goes on to list what those blessings are and the one topping the chart is: “For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will – to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved son.”
Obviously election was of supreme importance to Paul. Calvinism insists that if we think one way about something and the apostle thinks another way then we are the ones in error – not Paul or the scriptures. Surely Paul knew this subject could be so controversial it might cause fractures within the church membership but he insisted on making it a highlight of his teachings nonetheless. Calvinists believe he had no choice but to preach the truth as given to him by Jesus himself.
In conclusion, their perspective on predestination and election comes down to this: Since the fall of Adam and Eve everyone who came after is a hopeless sinner unworthy of mercy. Had God not intervened, not one of us would want Christ because we’re dead in sin and the dead can’t do anything. The fact that the Heavenly Father chooses to save any of us at all is a testimony to his unfathomable grace. That’s where Calvinists stand.