Predestination may be the most offensive word in the Bible. I know what you’re thinking: the Bible is full of words that offend one faction or another. What about incest, submission for wives, or the use of abomination to describe sexual activities now accepted by law? The difference is that the mere mention of predestination can instantly create emotional rancor among saints who otherwise agree on nearly every other scriptural idea. For some reason, it can get church people riled up. It can send otherwise serene pastors into denunciation mode.
You don’t have to be a Calvinist (I’m not,) to recognize the idea that God selects some people in advance is clearly taught in Scripture. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” That is the clear teaching of Romans 8:29. There’s no question about God sealing some in advance. The real debate centers on what is meant by “those he foreknew.”
- Some suppose it means God knew them in an exclusive way. That is, God knew some with a familiarity or a preference he did not express for others. Reformed theologians support this with verses like Romans 9:13, “Esau I hated, but Jacob I loved.”
- Others understand that an omniscient God can know in advance who will someday trust him, so he predestines those people- the ones already on track to someday choose him. Advocates of this viewpoint point to John 3:16, the promise that God loves the whole world so much that Jesus came to die for them all.
It’s important for the saints to remember that there are serious men and women of great faith and integrity on both sides of the issue. There are no ulterior motives on either side; no one attempting to distort clear teaching in order to water down the truth or justify some old sin now in fashion again. The recognized voices in both camps root their convictions entirely in scripture.
I happen to be one of those who believe that God knows in advance who will eventually trust him, and that he somehow seals them ahead of time. But I have huge respect for Christian thinkers who don’t agree: there’s absolutely no doubt that John MacArthur and John Piper and David Platt are godly warriors who would love to see the whole world saved. In fact, some of the most outstanding leaders of the Great Awakening could be called Calvinists. The celebrated sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was preached by Jonathan Edwards, an evangelist who was convinced God selects some and deselects others. He preached to everyone he could get to listen because he had no idea who was elect and who was not.
At Providence, we’re halfway through a series of 12 messages called “Fire and Spirit.” The main point is that the God of the New Testament is not ashamed of the Old Testament. There are profound mysteries at the heart of our faith. We can’t boil it down to an outline or a pithy slogan or a tidy formula: the mind of God is too vast for you or me to understand. That’s why it’s so important that you and I learn to trust God at all times and be comfortable with mystery: the things we can’t comprehend yet.
And when I find that other holy men and women read a particular Bible verse in a way that differs slightly from the way I read it, my first response must not be “What’s wrong with you?” The central ideas of Jesus Christ and His Gospel are so clearly expressed and so broadly accepted, it’s okay if you and I don’t completely agree on every mysterious idea that awaits us in God’s Word.
No matter what you or I believe about the Elect, only God knows who they are. Neither proponents of Calvin nor advocates or free will can detect them in advance: only after the fact. What’s important for now is that we all cooperate to get the Gospel to every creature. We all agree on that. Let’s begin there.
To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Living in the Mystery, “click here.
Lift up the Cross!