Perhaps the longest running disputation in “Christendom” involves understanding the tension between divine grace and God’s sovereignty versus human freedom and free will. One of the major points of contention in this realm involves predestination. Paul the Apostle speaks about predestination, but its precise meaning, purpose, and implications have been argued over for centuries, and involve noted personalities like Augustine, Pelagius, most of the Scholastics, Calvin, and Arminius.
“Predestination” translates the Greek word proorizo, which, according to Thayer, means “to predetermine, decide beforehand; God decreeing from eternity; to foreordain, appoint beforehand.” The fact that God has predestined believers is made evident by Paul in Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:5, 11:
For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
Having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will.
Some have argued that predestination in these passages refers only to God’s plan or to the collective of God’s people and not the individual believer. While it is true that both God’s plan and the church were foreordained by God (Ephesians 3:10-11), it is difficult to make those realities fit into Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:5, 11. Paul says that those who are predestined are also called, justified, glorified, and adopted as sons (Romans 8:30, Ephesians 1:5), and it is very difficult to argue coherently that God’s plan of salvation or the collective church can be justified or adopted as sons. Therefore, Paul does teach that God has predestined individual believers. The main issues, however, are by what and to what are believers predestined? What is the basis of predestination, and to what purpose are believers predestined?
When many people think about predestination they immediately think of God making arbitrary decisions about who is saved and who is condemned. This is thanks to the consistent popularity of the Augustinian/Calvinist view of predestination.
According to this view, first set forth by Augustine in the late fourth century, if God is truly Sovereign, then God must have willed everything that has ever taken place. God is the only one sufficient to act to save or to condemn. Therefore, God must have predestined everyone to salvation or condemnation. This predestination was decided solely by God and His sovereign will, entirely divorced from what people would or would not do. God, by His power, would save whomever He will, and condemn the rest.
While this view was strongly pushed by Augustine and accepted by John Calvin, among others, it has always had its detractors. Many fifth century theologians were uncomfortable with the extreme to which Augustine had gone– and were equally uncomfortable with Pelagius, whose group was teaching that humans could become perfect and sinless and naturally good. Arguments and disputations were to follow for the next millennium and a half, with some people advocating the pure Augustinian view, and others showing great discomfort with it.
The problem with the Augustinian view is that it is based more in Augustine’s view of God than what the Scriptures reveal. Augustine was committed to the Greek Neoplatonic view of God, and his views about how God “must be” sovereign, in the end, are not entirely necessary.
Furthermore, there are plenty of verses in the New Testament that militate against the Augustinian/Calvinist view. Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:4, says that God desires for all men to come to the knowledge of the truth. In order to make sense of this, those following Augustine are forced to understand “all men” as “all the predestined,” even though there is no justification for such an interpretation from the text. The whole process of proclamation of the Gospel and the conversion of sinners is made suspect– if God is going to act anyway, why bother? And then there is the thorny issue of knowing whether one is one of the predestined or not– what if you strive all your life to please God but you were already decreed for condemnation? Paul teaches that there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11)– how, then, could God arbitrarily decide who is to be saved and who is to be condemned? It is exceedingly difficult to understand the God revealed in the New Testament when seen through Augustinian/Calvinist lenses.
Predestination in the New Testament can be understood in different terms than the ones provided by Augustine or Calvin and in a way that is consistent with the rest of the message revealed there. Paul, after all, wrote long before Augustine or Calvin!
Paul declares that God’s predestination of believers is based in His foreknowledge in Romans 8:29. What would God know beforehand? What people would do– that people would accept or reject His message and prove obedient or disobedient to Him. Therefore, we can understand God’s predestination of believers in terms of God’s foreknowledge of human decision. Those whom would be obedient would be predestined for adoption as sons on that basis (cf. Ephesians 1:5). Some argue that in such cases God’s sovereignty is imperiled since His decision is based on man’s action. But there is no good reason to believe this, for the Bible reveals many instances when God changes things because of circumstances (cf. 1 Samuel 23:1-14, Jeremiah 18:1-10, Acts 27:9-11, 21-25). Others argue that free will demands that God does not know what will happen, but again, Scripture provides examples indicating that God does know the future, for He is beyond time (cf. John 6:70-71, 2 Peter 3:8). God, therefore, does predestine believers (no mention of unbelievers!) on the basis of His foreknowledge of their obedience.
We also should consider to what believers are predestined– to conform to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) and to receive the adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5), and all of this according to His will (Ephesians 1:11). God also calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies those whom He predestines (Romans 8:30).
None of these things have to be understood in terms of unbelievers or those who will ultimately be condemned– they are not being addressed in Romans or Ephesians. Instead, Paul is encouraging believers in their faith. He is reassuring them that this is not all some accident, as if there is no God or Creator in the world. Instead, God has predetermined through His Son that people would come to faith in Jesus Christ and to receive the opportunity to be saved. There is no hint of the idea that they would be compelled or coerced to believe against their will or that God arbitrarily determined it all beforehand.
Predestination can be understood without working against free will. God predetermined that those who would be willing to conform their will to His will would be able to do so and that such persons would receive adoption into the household of God. Those believers must still come to belief in God, and, in the end, people will be saved or condemned on the basis of whether they sought to follow God’s will or not (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Let us prove to be the predestined by serving God!