I’m wading into a topic that has puzzled, frightened, and divided Christians for ages: predestination/election. Being that it is so complex of a topic and so many volumes of theology have wrestled with it and analyzed it, I’m not going to pretend that I can cover everything in a short blog post. What I do want to present, however, is how I generally approach predestination theologically and pastorally. While I generally don’t spend too much time fretting over it, I have had several conversations with people about it recently and I have also been assigned to preach out of some biblical texts that address it.
In theology, predestination and election go together and the terms can generally be used interchangeably. Theologian, Daniel Migliore, in the glossary of theological terms in his systematic theology textbook Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, defines Predestination this way: “The doctrine that God has eternally ordained the destiny of human beings. With deep roots in Scripture, this doctrine has been taught in some form by many theologians…In scholastic Calvinism the doctrine was interpreted to mean God’s election of some people to salvation and God’s rejection or reprobation of others to damnation.” This doctrine has been the major feature of Calvinist/Reformed Protestant theology, though it also plays a sizable role in Lutheran and Catholic theology.
It is easy to see, from the definition above, how this doctrine can produce a great deal of anxiety. The way it has often been taught, especially in the Calvinist tradition, strongly implies that human beings have no choice in the matter of whether they will go to heaven or suffer eternal conscious torment. That decision was made by God long before the creation of the earth. Some versions of this even teach that God actively chooses to create people for eternal conscious torment to display the glory of his eternal justice. This is called Double Predestination: before the world was made, God has chosen person A to be saved and enjoy eternal life and he has chosen person B to be damned to hell. The work of Jesus on the cross to forgive sins, in this theology, only is for those who have been predestined to be saved.
I had a conversation with a woman not too long ago who was really tormented by the logic of this theology. She was in tears as she asked how God could possibly choose to do something like this; those people have the deck eternally stacked against them from the beginning. She asked, if God makes all the decisions about who is saved and who is not, why doesn’t he choose to save everyone? With a bit of fear of sounding blasphemous, she said, it would be better for those people to never have existed.
I can’t deny the power of that case against predestination. In the form it most commonly known, it can lead to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Even John Calvin thought this eternal decree seemed terrible! When we think about it in abstract terms, it may seem less harsh, but when we bring it down to the reality of the destinies of actual people, it becomes nearly unbearable.
Because of this, when I have conversations about predestination with people, I find that they tend to be more tied to a sense of existential angst that simply asks: is there hope for all people, or is there not? So as I have studied Scripture and Christian theology I have come to start with five major theological commitments around this issue. Here they are:
1. God is perfect love, loves the whole world and desires that everyone be saved (John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 4:8-10).
2. The work of Jesus on the cross is more than sufficient to undo the effects of the sin of Adam (Romans 5: 16-18; 1 John 2:2)
3. As God elected Abraham out of grace so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), we should think of our election and life in Christ as being for the purpose of bringing the good news to those who have not heard (Romans 10:9-17; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
4. The one who judges all people in the end, is also the one who died for all people (Hebrews 9:26-28; Revelation 1:17-18).
5. When we see who Jesus is in Scripture, we see exactly who God is and what he is like–in other words God the Father is just as compassionate and loving as Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:2-4).
While this does not fully explain how predestination and election work, I think it can give us assurance that God is more committed to saving people than any of us ever could be. If we can recognize that our own love and concern for other people is imperfect and pales in comparison to God’s and that we as sinners with limited knowledge of other people desire for them to be saved, how much more does God want them to be saved? He, after all, is perfect and knows each person completely, including all of the details and experiences of their lives. So, even if we are not sure how it all works out, we can trust that God’s love and commitment to every person surpasses anything we could come up with.
Before any suspicions arise, let me say I’m not a universalist and I don’t think Scripture teaches that. I do believe Scripture teaches that through the cross, God made it possible for all people to be saved, but it also seems to teach that it likely won’t happen. That part, however, I leave up to God who is more committed to saving the world than I am, and is also capable of judging the world with perfect justice.
The passage I preached on recently, Romans 8:30, says, “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” I told everyone that this passage isn’t supposed to inspire fear or cause us anxiety over whether we are elect or not. Predestination and election are taught in Scripture, I believe, not to encourage us to speculate about who is in, who is out, and how that all happens, but in order to give us full assurance that no matter what, we belong to God.
When we read the texts that mention predestination or election, we should bear in mind that Scripture nowhere explicitly teaches double destination, but only teaches this to give believers assurance in their status as God’s people. If you believe, you are elect and that can’t be taken away from you. If you believe, it is for the purpose of extending the kingdom in the world as part of God’s people so that other people can join it.