Predestination (Big Topic!)

  • Question from VN, United Kingdom:
    Dear freelance theologian, can you please give an overview of the whole predestination/free will debate, and give a solution?

    And from GT, United Kingdom:
    If we are predestined (Ephesians 1 v1 and other places too I think), does that mean that some people aren’t predestined and therefore can’t be saved?

    There are a number of starting points for any debate on predestination. The Bible would be an obvious place to start, except that there seem to be some contradictory passages. How do you reconcile Ephesians 1 v 4 (‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’) with 1 Timothy 2 v 3 (‘God our saviour desires all men to be saved‘)? [To add to the confusion both those statements are attributed to Paul.]

    Most people when addressing this issue tend to ‘proof-text’, quoting the sections of Scripture that agrees with their point of view. However, this is not a recipe for good, coherent and intellectually satisfying theology.

    There are problems with both views. Absolutely rigid predestination and unconditional human freedom have aspects that do not make much logical sense.

    If God created people and picked some for eternal salvation, then he automatically destines some to Hell. Calvin stated that in his Institutes as what has become known as the ‘doctrine of double-predestination’. In this respect, Calvin is merely being intellectually honest. If the decision to save people is ultimately God’s, then the fact that some people go to Hell is the flipside of that decision.

    In fairness to Calvin, he adopted an extreme view of predestination because he simply could not understand why someone would not accept and respond to the Gospel. He felt it was inconceivable that anyone would turn down the offer of salvation, so he concluded it must be because God did not choose those people that failed to respond. Calvin was awed by the sovereignty of God, and the ‘irresistible grace’ shown to human beings. Calvin felt it was bordering on the offensive to imagine that a mere created being could reject its creator, unless God had willed it that way.

    However, there does not seem much point in creating people whose sole purpose is to sin and go to Hell. Calvin believed that the righteousness of God could be seen in God judging those people, but to create beings just to prove a point seems arbitrary in the extreme. It also fails to explain those passages in the Bible that imply God’s will is for any and everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2 v3, John 3 v16ff, 2 Peter 3 v9 etc).

    The problem with advocating that salvation is solely dependent on human free will is also severely deficient. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, the idea that humans are free is a false one. Just by knowing all outcomes, God is in a unique position to influence each situation. If God knows what will bring a person to him, and does not act to bring people to him, then he is effectively making the choice for them.

    If God does not know every outcome, then we have to ask how that can be. It may be that God has surrendered some part of his awareness, in order to allow human beings to make truly free choices. This seems incredibly reckless – why would God risk anybody rejecting him? There is no perceptible reason why God would create beings who would turn against him, and, anyway, in creating beings with the capacity to rebel and choose Hell as their eternal destination, God is ultimately responsible for the existence of those creatures. At some point, the decision to be the creatures they are and to end up in the place that they choose, rests not with the creature, but with the creator. Either way, total free will seems to be an illusion.

    So, what’s the solution? As ever in this sort of debate it lies somewhere in the middle. An ingenious proposal by Karl Barth, the twentieth century theologian, runs something like this:

    ~Christ through his divine nature is the God who chooses people to be saved
    ~Christ through his human nature is the one perfect human being who has been chosen for salvation.
    ~Human Beings are able to ‘share in the death of Christ’ and therefore appear as righteous in the eyes of God (following on from Martin Luther’s belief that when we are declared righteous it is because God sees the righteousness of Christ that we share).
    ~Human Beings are free to choose whether to share in Christ’s righteous standing before God.

    This approach means that all human beings, except for Jesus Christ, are predestined for Hell. But, because Christ took the punishment for all of human sin (which through his eternal divinity he could), human beings can opt, through repentance and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, to share in Christ’s status as the only human chosen for salvation.

    This neatly ties up the difficulty of reconciling the Biblical concept of human free will with the Biblical concept of God’s sovereign will. Basically, all humans can do is claim the righteousness of Christ through faith and that means they can avoid the punishment ordained for them.

    I hope that goes some way to answering your questions, VN and GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology. Thanks also to RF, whose Biblical awareness was much appreciated.

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