Predestination is one of the most divisive and challenging doctrines within the Christian tradition. Even many within the Reformed tradition reject it, or simply ignore it. This article; however, provides readers with a clearer, Bible-centered, and perhaps more understandable articulation of the doctrine.
Originally published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK). Please click "read more".
The Presbyterian tradition – of which the Church of Scotland is a part – is rooted, in large part, in the Reformed theology of John Calvin and some of his proponents, such as John Knox.
These great Reformed thinkers contributed much to theology and the church. Indeed, their legacy continues to shape our thought and approach to the Christian life today. Yet, while their contributions were so vast they are often remembered for one particular tenant of their theology: predestination.
Predestination is the idea that God has “elected” some individuals to salvation and others to destruction. In other words, whether individuals would go to heaven or hell were pre-decided by God before the individual was even born.
To the modern ear, such a theology feels somewhat abhorrent and certainly unjust. It feels like an antiquated model for thinking about God’s justice and mercy. However, before we pass such a judgment it’s important to place predestination into context.
John Calvin was a thinker, but he was also a pastor. As such, one of his great ambitions was to comfort his congregation and instill in them a sense of Christian hope. Predestination was, actually, one of the ways in which he achieved that. You see, at the time of Calvin’s work there was a great degree of angst regarding salvation. Many devout Christians worried that they were not faithful enough to be saved.
Calvin embraced the idea that salvation came through faith alone (sola fide). To him, faith was not something that we cobbled together but, rather, it was a gift that we received from God. As such, espousing the concept of Predestination allowed Calvin to suggest to his congregants that by virtue of their Christian faith they could take comfort in knowing that they were amongst the elect and that no shortcomings in their life could shake that reality.
As a Reformer Calvin also sought to achieve two basic goals when constructing his theology: 1) A faithful witness to the Scriptures, 2) A return to the practices and thoughts of the early church (as opposed to the modern, corrupted church).
In regards to Scripture, Calvin found a great deal of material to support his thinking. For instance, Matthew 24:31 and Luke 18:7 both make explicit mention of God’s elect. Likewise, Paul’s epistle to the Romans contains a great many references to election and God’s foreknowledge (8:28-30, 8:33, 9:11, 11:2), as do a number of number of other Pauline letters (Ephesians 1:5 & 1:11, 2 Thessalonians 2:13), and a number of other New Testament references.
In regards to the early church, it is important to remember that Calvin did not invent the idea of predestination. Rather, it might be said that he re-discovered it. Early church writings seemed to promote the idea of election within early Christian communities. Saint Augustine, for example, writing some 1,000 years before Calvin, wrote extensively on predestination.
Shifting gears to today, it is important to note that the concept of predestination has not be rejected. It remains a component of our formal belief structure and confessions; however, due to the discomfort that it causes many people it rarely makes an appearance in formal church pronouncements or sermons. And so it’s quite easy to forget about it or to assume it no longer has a place in our thought.
What troubles most people about Calvinistic predestination is the reality that it is what is called “double predestination”. That is to say, it includes election to both heaven and hell. The idea that God elects some to hell would seem to undermine our understanding of God as compassionate and forgiving. Furthermore, what point would there be to the church’s evangelical mission if everyone’s fates were already determined and unchangeable?
Allow me, if you will, to share some thoughts regarding what I consider to be a better way to think about predestination.
Calvin, I believe, is absolutely right when he notes that God works through choice. This is, simply, an undeniable truism of Scripture. God chooses to work through individuals such as Abraham and Moses and Paul and all the prophets. Likewise, God chooses the nation of Israel. I think there can be little doubt that election does occur and is one of the primary vehicles through which God works in the world.
However, where Calvin falls a bit short, I think, is in his assumption that the choice of one individual or nation represents a rejection of the others. To him, it seems, choice is a bit like grocery shopping: when you select one banana you inevitably leave the other bananas behind. However, when God works through choice He is doing so for a purpose.
Israel is chosen not at the expense of other nations, but so that it may be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Paul is chosen by God to be an “instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). In my reading of Scripture I cannot find a single example where God has chosen (or “elected”) someone (or some nation) at the expense of others. In all instances, God’s choice is tied in with a responsibility to proclaim God’s word or build God’s kingdom.
I also agree with Calvin that faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8) which we receive from God. As a freely given gift, faith is a marker of choice or election. Thus, as people of faith there is a sense that we have been chosen by God.
However, this ought not give us a big head or inflate our egos. As with every other example of choice, God works through chosen people for a purpose – and often a very difficult purpose at that. Our purpose as Christians, I think, is to live into the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). And so when we consider predestination, the real question is: are we doing what we have been chosen to do?