Predestination (Part 3) – Who Decides?

In Part 2 of this series, we considered the question of whether anyone is capable—prior to God supernaturally changing the disposition of their heart—of heeding the Holy Spirit’s call to repent and to receive Christ.  The two predominant schools of thought are Calvinism and Arminianism, and while both camps would agree that sin’s pervasive impact upon our hearts prevents us from naturally seeking after God, they differ in their understanding of those whom the Spirit supernaturally seeks out and draws to Christ.

Calvinists believe that predestination / election is entirely a function of God’s choosing, such that His “saving grace” is extended only to those whom He intends to save.  Those whom God chooses to save are known as the “elect”, and all of the “elect” are ultimately saved by virtue of God giving them new hearts.  They are spiritually “born again” and given the gift of faith, which opens their eyes to the beauty of Christ and compels them to joyfully embrace Him as Savior and Lord.

Arminians, on the other hand, believe that the work of the Holy Spirit is meant to open everyone’s eyes to both the magnitude of their sin, as well as the incomparable majesty of the Son who died to redeem them:

When [the Counselor] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because people do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
John 16:8-11 (NIV)

Accordingly, our eternal destination is ultimately determined by our decision to capitulate to the conviction of the Spirit…or not.  As such, predestination effectively becomes a byproduct of God’s omniscience, since He knows who will respond to the Spirit’s call and ordains (predestines) them unto salvation…rather than judgment.

Just to be clear, Calvinists also affirm that our willing choice to receive Christ is what confirms our status as one of the “elect”.  The difference is that until God intervenes and regenerates our hearts, Calvinists contend that we can respond to the overtures of the Holy Spirit with nothing but contempt (see Part 2)…regardless of how much grace God shows us prior to regeneration.   Our hearts and wills are so intrinsically hostile to God that He must first give us the ability to desire something other than our sin, at which point we become able to freely choose Him. 

So when it comes to understanding the doctrine of predestination and how it relates to the doctrine of salvation, it’s helpful to think about both doctrines in the context of an overarching process that has four main steps:

Calvinists:
  • Predestination: God chooses / predestines all those whom He intends to save, i.e. “the elect.”  This happened in eternity past, before the world was even created.
  • Calling: God convicts all of sin and calls us to repent (per John 16), but only the elect are eventually “drawn” to Christ (per John 6)
  • Regeneration: This is what we refer to as “spiritual rebirth” or being “born again”, whereby God regenerates / changes the hearts of the elect, which means:
    • Their eyes are opened to the majesty of Christ
    • They now have the ability to respond in faith to the Holy Spirit (per Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Conversion: They surrender to God of their own free choice and put their faith in Christ, at which point their standing as one of the “elect” is confirmed
Arminians:
  • Predestination: God knows all things, including fore-knowledge of all who will choose to receive Christ, i.e. “the elect”, and He predestines them for salvation instead of judgment.  This appointment also happened in eternity past, before the world was even created.
  • Calling: God “draws” all people to Christ (per John 6) by convicting the world of sin, showing them the majesty of His Son, and calling all to repent.  (per John 16)
  • Conversion: While many continue to reject the Spirit, some willingly surrender to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and throw themselves upon the mercy of God.  It is at this point that their standing as one of the “elect” is confirmed.
  • Regeneration: This is what we refer to as “spiritual rebirth” or being “born again”, whereby God regenerates / changes the hearts of the elect and gives them the gift of faith (per Ephesians 2:8-9)

From a practical standpoint, the crucial difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is that Arminians view Conversion & Regeneration like two sides of the same coin.  They are inseparable events, unlike Calvinism, which allows for a time of indecision / continued resistance between receiving the God-given ability to respond in faith (Regeneration) and the actual exercise of that faith (Conversion).  This separation is an essential aspect of Calvinist theology, because apart from separating the receipt of faith (which is a result of God’s action) from a person’s decision to act upon that faith (which they freely choose to do once they have it) there would be no place for free will in the process.

Conversely, the area where Calvinists and Arminians are in complete agreement is that everyone who refuses to yield to the Spirit’s call will suffer eternal condemnation as the consequence for their intransigence.  This seems almost counter-intuitive to the entire message of the Gospel, that Jesus died to pay for our sin, so why is this particular sin deemed by God to be…unforgivable?  Because when the Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin and you choose to argue with or otherwise ignore Him, you’re basically calling God a liar:

“I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.”
Mark 3:28-29

In the final analysis, though, the primary point of contention is Calvinism’s assertion that for all those who ultimately suffer God’s eternal wrath, conversion was never even a possibility.  It’s a simple matter of cause and effect, because unless God chooses to change someone’s heart, they will never receive the gift of faith that enables them to follow Christ.  Consequently, apart from receiving the gift of faith (per Ephesians 2:8-9) a person is destined / doomed to remain beholden to their sin, which thereby subjects them to its curse and to eternal judgment.

This singular tenet of Calvin’s theology is what makes Calvinism so contentious, since it seemingly obliterates any notion of free will: first for the “elect”, who are effectively powerless to resist God’s saving grace, but more so for the condemned who are unable to choose anything other than their “default setting.”  Because if the condemned are truly incapable of choosing between two options, do they really have a choice?  And if they don’t have a choice, then how can they be held responsible for a decision they weren’t able to make in the first place?  How is that “fair”?  Or loving?

Calvinists counter that since God’s wrath against sinners is clearly justified, He would not be unfair / unjust if He never chose to save anyone.  That being the case, the fact that God chooses to ransom anyone from certain judgment is a clear demonstration of His mercy and His grace, which necessarily flow out of His love for us.  Therefore, since we also know that God is perfectly good, loving, and holy, we know we can trust Him and should rejoice in His decision…rather than disparage it.

While these affirmations are indeed Scriptural, and their argument is not illogical, that’s not the same thing as proving that their conclusion is incontrovertible. Furthermore, even though these statements about God’s justice, mercy, grace, and love are eminently true, Calvin’s conclusion nonetheless begs the bigger question: how does God decide whom He is going to save?  Or to put it differently, what can we do to make sure that God chooses us? This is where Calvinism tends to completely lose people, because Calvin’s answer is as blunt as it is disheartening: “you can do nothing.”  

Calvinists not only decry the Arminian belief that we retain the ability to submit to the conviction of the Spirit, but they also declare that a person’s standing as a member of the “elect” is not predicated upon anything they do…or don’t do.  Our actions, either positive or negative, are of no practical consequence in God’s decision making process: He is God, He is sovereign, and since He is holy and perfect, He relies upon nothing outside of His own will and counsel to decide whom He will ultimately redeem from certain judgment through His sovereign act of regeneration.  In short, someone’s status as one of those predestined unto salvation is completely due to the actions of a loving, sovereign God who has decided to change their heart and open their eyes.  It’s all for His glory and in accordance with His choice, which means that He gets all the credit for those whom He decides to save…and likewise takes none of the blame for those whom He chooses to leave to their fate. 

It’s a hard teaching, to be sure, and it drives many into the Arminian camp simply because they can’t stomach this aspect of Calvinism; however, it really doesn’t matter if we like this doctrine or not.  The only question that really matters is whether this central affirmation of Calvinism is actually true.  After all, the Bible teaches a lot of things that tend to rub people the wrong way, but our feelings about a particular teaching are irrelevant if it is indeed Scriptural.   And once again, Calvinists turn to the book of Romans and call upon Paul as their primary witness:

When Isaac married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose,  and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.
Romans 9:10-16

Unpacking this passage warrants a blog post all on its own; but for now, suffice it to say that this is the point where most Calvinists simply rest their case.  And why not?  They paint a pretty convincing picture:

  • There are none who seek after God.  (Romans 3:10-12)
  • Unless God draws / drags us to Christ, none would come to Him willingly.  (John 6:44)
  • Not only that, but even our faith is a gift from God! (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Finally, we see that God reserves the right to do as He pleases, even when it comes to extending mercy and compassion. (Romans 9:10-16)

Conclusion: God chooses all of the “elect” and acts to ensure their salvation.

Indeed, when you put all the pieces together, the conclusion seems virtually inescapable: we are saved because God willed to save us.  We don’t choose Him; rather, He chose us from all eternity and purposed to change our hearts in accordance with His divine will. Not because we deserved it or because we asked for it, but in order that His only begotten Son would receive the inheritance that His Father has promised Him:

Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession.
Psalm 2:8

For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.
Romans 8:29-30

Those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them. For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will.  And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day.  For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day.”
John 6:37-40

And yet, there are verses like John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 which would appear to contradict—and therefore invalidate—Calvin’s conclusion.  Because if it is in God’s power to save everyone (which of course, it is) and if God isn’t willing that anyone would perish (which is also true) then why doesn’t He simply regenerate everyone?

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9

Calvinists are quick to respond that what Peter actually means is that God isn’t willing that any of the elect would perish.  This is a logical and self-evident statement which happens to be true regardless of how you define “elect”, but there’s nothing in the text that requires us to make this assumption.  Moreover, since Peter explicitly refers to the “elect” at other places in his epistles when he wants to make a distinction, it seems odd to suggest that he wouldn’t have similarly done so in this particular passage.

Upon pointing this out, Calvinists typically invoke the difference between God’s prescriptive will, which always comes to pass, versus His permissive will, which allows for things to happen that are actually outside of His perfect will for us…like when He allows us to sin, for example.  In short, since we know that not everyone is saved, Calvinists deduce that this statement from Peter must therefore be teaching us something about God’s permissive will rather than His prescriptive will.  And since they believe His prescriptive will is what governs who is actually saved, their theology remains in tact.

Fair enough, but doesn’t it stand to reason that if God truly desired everyone to be saved, He would simply predestine…everyone?  Put differently, why doesn’t a loving God choose to predestine / elect everyone so that no one would ever perish?  Why leave anyone out?  What would be the point of not predestining someone?  These are the kind of questions which have fueled the debate between Calvinists and Arminians for centuries, and the inability to answer them definitively either way is why we’re still talking about them some 500 years after Calvin first put his ideas on paper. 

So in light of this apparent impasse, is it even possible to get to the bottom of what predestination is all about?  The short answer is “yes”, and the key to finally unpacking this doctrine is actually quite simple: we have to set aside the broken lenses and attendant baggage which have inadvertently been passed down to us over the years.  We’ll start that process next time, as we expose the most fundamental flaw in our assumptions about predestination, namely what predestination is really all about.  Because while everyone tacitly assumes that predestination is primarily concerned with explaining how some get to spend eternity in Heaven while others end up in hell, where you “end up”—your eternal “destination”—isn’t really the point.

If you don’t believe this, just use your favorite Bible search tool and look for the word “predestination”.  It’s not in the Bible.  The words that are in the Bible (depending upon the translation you use) are “predestined”, “foreordained”, or “chosen in advance”.  This distinction may seem like nothing more than a meaningless technicality, but it is foundational to a proper understanding of what it means to be “predestined”.  Because ultimately, being predestined has a lot more to do with our “journey”, than it does with our eternal “destination”.

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