Three Tips for Understanding Predestination

“Do you believe in predestination or free-will?”

I’m not a famous Christian leader by any means, but I do get asked this question at least two or three times a week. Most often it’s from the mouth of a young person, newly familiar with their “label,” who wants a quick soundbite to confirm my orthodoxy. They’re rarely satisfied with my answer: “It’s not that simple.”

I’ve been in Christian leadership for about seven years now and over the course of that time I have changed my mind repeatedly about how to interpret biblical passages describing God’s action of election, or predestination. Thus, I am fairly humble in my approach to the doctrinal debate. I am confident, however, that my ability to parse the issue has grown as I’ve been exposed to more and more of the church’s best theologians.

These days, I generally give three “theological guidelines” as a general rule of thumb for how I approach the biblical notion of election/predestination:

1) Election is primarily Christological

“Jesus Christ is the basis of the doctrine of election. All its statements must be statements about Him.” – Robert Jenson

The heart of God’s eternal choice consisted in choosing to be radically for us in the person and work of his Son and through His Spirit. Christians are chosen “in him” (Eph. 1:4) and are predestined to be adopted as sons “through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). Before election/predestination has anything to do with specific human beings, it concerns God’s choice to love, pursue, and redeem his creatures through his love for his Son. God’s “choice” is not a mystery – but is revealed through the person and work of Christ. If you want to know God’s eternal decision about you, it is that he has chosen to relentlessly pursue your rescue no matter what it may cost him. Martin Luther says it beautifully: “When wondering where and how to find the Creator God of predestination and majestic holiness, remember there is no other God besides this man, Christ Jesus. See God revealed, hanging on a Roman cross, for your sins.”

2) Election is primarily Corporate

We often approach the Scriptures with an inherited worldview of hyper-individualism. However, election (in both the Old and New Testaments) is a corporate concept. God elected Israel to be his “chosen” people. But there were ways that individuals could get into the chosen community and ways that they could get out of it. Similarly, Paul uses inclusive pronouns to refer to election – “us” – and never tries to distinguish between individuals in a local church. He assures the baptized, believing, Spirit-filled community that they are the chosen ones. A corporate understanding of election doesn’t deny that humans have legitimate free will. The crisis that election creates is not contemplation over whether God chose you behind some secret curtain before history, but over whether you have joined the chosen community. God has not chosen between Sally vs. John – he has chosen to redeem all those who are in Christ. He desires that both Sally and John are united to Christ, though they have legitimate freedom to reject the offer. Even when I was a hyper-calvinist, I agreed that “no one who believes and follows Christ will come to find that they have not been chosen.” Thus, the world God has created is not one in which Sally or John might join the believing community only to have an angelic bouncer tell them that unfortunately they weren’t “on the list.”

3) Election is primarily Doxological

When the Scriptures speak of predestination, it is almost always in the context of overflowing praise. That is to say, the doctrine of election is intended to be unequivocally good news. The moment that it becomes bad news, or cause for worry and sleeplessness, it has been horrendously misunderstood. Israel is constantly reminded that they were not “chosen” because God loved them more than the other nations or because they were his favorite – their election was actually good news even for the nations around them (“I’ll bless you to be a blessing.”)  This doctrine is not meant to be a mystery that causes fear in the hearts of Christians, but a truth that is recognized by believers that causes unexplainable joy. Likewise, it is not meant to create an “us” versus “them” mentality or to divide the world neatly into two groups: the people God loves and the people God hates. Hans Urs von Balthasar summarizes this point nicely: “How can a person seriously believe that God is love and has given himself up for us on the cross, because he has loved and chosen us from all eternity and has predestined us for an eternity of bliss in his presence- how can anyone seriously believe this ‘to be true’ and at the same time refuse to love God in return or despair of God’s love?”

One thought on “Three Tips for Understanding Predestination

  1. Mike- a deft handling of a topic that is fraught with theological land mines. It’s like my pastor says: “if you’ve decided to follow Jesus, you done been chosen.”

    We Christians tend to look for an “either/or” proposition but forget we serve an “all-in” God.

    Like

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