Wrestling with Predestination and Election
Question: I'm really wrestling with this whole idea of predestination and election. Isn't the idea of election just another word for fatalism?
Thank you for your question. First of all, you are not in any way the first person to wrestle with the weighty issues of Sovereign election over against free will. Many have walked this road before you. In fact, I too have not always believed what I now believe. You can be sure that much mental and emotional wrestling took place as I was in the process of learning what I believe to be the Biblical doctrine in this area. We all have traditions, and as a friend of mine, Dr. James White says so well, "the people most enslaved by their traditions are those who don't believe they have any."
When I first heard the message of Sovereign Grace and election taught, I have to admit that I resisted it. Though the teaching I heard was backed up with Scripture, I thought I had other Scriptures that would negate the ones I heard. Then I went to a question and answer session on the subject (the first of many, I might add). This proved to be invaluable for me, because many of the questions I had were raised, and, I had to admit, were answered from Scripture, in their proper Biblical context.
I was immediately alarmed by this, as I came to understand that this whole issue required a lot more research than I had previously thought. Knowing that I needed to believe what Scripture taught on the subject, I ordered much material, and began my research. It is never pleasant to examine firmly held traditions, and I felt that this was especially so in my position, when I had taught other things at various times in my ministry. No one wants to admit the possibility that they may in fact have been wrong.
What I was considering was not some new "way out" doctrine... in fact, it was what I had been believing up until then that was the novel idea as far as Church history is concerned. No, I was looking into the historic orthodox Christian position, held by such men as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century, as well as perhaps the most gifted theologian of all time, Jonathan Edwards, along with men like George Whitefield and C. H. Spurgeon - in other words, some of the most outstanding men in Christian history. In more recent times men such as B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, James P. Boyce, Arthur W. Pink, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones and Dr. James Montgomery Boice could be added to the list. In our own day we could mention Dr. J. I. Packer, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, Dr. James White, Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Mark Dever, Dr. Robert L. Reymond, Dr. John Frame, Dr. Wayne Grudem, Dr. Michael Horton, Dr. R. C. Sproul and Dr. John Piper. Of course, many other names could be listed here.
Well it took more than a year of researching the issue in depth, before I realized that there was a consistent and clear Biblical doctrine of election and predestination. I also came to see that in order for me to believe what the Bible taught in this area, I had to dispense with my traditional understanding.
Although now embracing the doctrine, I continued on with my study, and yet waited another year before preaching on the subject at the Church. There's no doubt this issue is controversial. I think many pastors and teachers who believe it, do not preach about it for this very reason. The question then becomes, who are we trying to please - God or men? Jesus preached it and watched many in the crowd walk away when He pressed the claims of Divine Sovereignty in election. In John 6:65, 66 we read, "And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore."
It is extremely humbling to think that God alone gets the credit for our salvation. This doctrine destroys all human pride once and for all, and elevates the graciousness of God in saving a people for Himself, for His own glory alone. Not everyone wants to hear this. Yet I am convinced, as C. H. Spurgeon said, "Christ's sheep will not be offended by Christ's voice."
Of course, this subject is not all that I teach, but in that it is something spoken about regularly in Scripture, if I am a Bible teacher, I have to teach something about the subject. I have no right to cut it out of the Bible or out of my teaching, if, as a pastor, I am called to teach the contents of the Bible, which of course, I am.
All Christian denominations have some doctrine about predestination and election. "Predestination" and "election" are biblical words. Therefore the question is not whether we should or should not have a doctrine of election; the question is, "are we embracing the biblical doctrine?"
As I say, what I was considering was in no way a new doctrine, but one held for centuries by orthodox Christians. Here are a couple of quotes from some of the historic creeds of mainline Churches. Firstly, from the 16th Century, the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England (also known as the Anglican or Episcopal Church):
"Article 17 - Of Predestination and Election
Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation as vessels made to honour. Wherefore they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's purpose by His Spirit working in due season; they through grace obey the calling; they be justified freely; they be made sons of God by adoption; they be made like the image of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ; they walk religiously in good works; and at length by God's mercy they attain to everlasting felicity."
Here's a quote from the London Baptist Confession of 1689:
"Chapter 10: Of Effectual Calling
1. Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, He is pleased in His appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
2. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, nor from any power or agency in the creature, being wholly passive therein, being dead in sins and trespasses, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit; he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it, and that by no less power than that which raised up Christ from the dead."
I have a strong and deep desire to be biblical in what I believe and teach. That means that I must continually hold up my traditions to the light of Scripture to see if they are in agreement. So, I would encourage you to keep wresting with these lofty concepts. It is well worth the effort.
Some people just say that the Church has been divided over these issues for centuries now, and I've actually heard more than one person say that they believe both in Sovereign Election and free will, saying, "The Bible teaches both Sovereign Election and free will, and its a mystery that will be explained to us in heaven." The reason I don't believe that is because the two sides teach opposite and contradictory things. One says that God is the cause of our "choice" to receive Christ, and the other side says that in the final analysis, we are. It has to be pointed out that both sides can't be right. One is wrong and the other is right. I am convinced that God breathed Scripture, having its origin in God Himself, is therefore always consistent. It does not teach two opposite and contradictory things on any subject.
Certainly, there are mysteries. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that our finite minds cannot fully grasp. Yet there is no contradiction in saying that there is one God - one in essence and three in personality, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Contradiction is not the hallmark of truth, but of untruth, and there are no contradictions in sacred Scripture. Some say there are, of course, but I am convinced that solid research shows that apparent contradictions are just that - they seem to be contradictions until examined closely.
Now, immediately someone will say that they are right in the middle on the issue... that there's a "happy medium" between the two extremes. I used to believe that myself. However, my research has shown me that every attempt I've ever heard to explain an in-between position was simply a presentation for the free will side. The bottom line is that either, to quote Jonah 2:9, "Salvation is of the Lord," period!!, or else it is offered by the Lord, but whether or not it takes place is up to us: we are the deciding factor.
Your question assumes that Sovereign election implies fatalism. I would strongly disagree with that assumption. Here's what I mean. To suggest that everything that happens in life is in some sense planned by God, immediately makes some feel that we're talking about fatalism. But fatalism is cruel and impersonal. God is certainly not either of those things. But the opposite side to this would say that nothing is planned by God... I don't know of a more unbiblical statement than that one. To say that all the evil things that take place on this planet happen without any purpose to them at all... is that a better position than saying that they happen for a purpose - that God will work out His purposes in spite of the evil taking place? I don't think so. God is personal and His plans are personal.
Without doubt, the most evil action of sinners in recorded history was the crucifixion of the Son of God. There is no doubt this was unspeakably evil. But we have the record of the Early Church praying, in Acts 4:27-28, "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. "
The actions of men were evil, and they are entirely responsible for their actions. But God intended this, and planned this, for the unspeakably good purpose of bringing about His entire plan of salvation. This is what theologians call, the biblical doctrine of compatibilism.
In a similar way, Joseph's story in the Old Testament shows that although what the brothers did to Joseph was evil, God planned the events to bring about His good purposes. Joseph, later said to his brothers, in Genesis 50:20, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive."
The third chapter of the historic Westminster Confession of Faith opens with these words: "God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass" (adding the qualification that God is not the author of sin and that people aren't puppets). This statement was based on Eph. 1:11, "having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will."