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Predestination and free will

Many struggle with how we can be predestined for salvation, but still free to choose. We look at what the Bible says.

Read time: 8 minutes and 31 seconds

If two people look at a coin from different sides, what they see will be utterly different. If they are British, one will insist they see the monarch’s head, while the other insists they see an emblem. Are they seeing a different coin? No—just the same coin from different sides. And that’s how many truths are in the Bible; they can appear very different depending which side you are looking at them from. And it’s when people insist there is only one side that problems and disagreements arise. Nowhere is that truer than in this area of predestination and free will.

What do these words mean?

Predestination is the belief that God has eternally chosen those that he intends to save (“the elect”) and that he works everything out in life towards that end. His grace searches out those he has chosen and that grace cannot be resisted—if you are called, you will come. Those following this approach are often called “Calvinists”, after the 16th century French theologian John Calvin who was a strong proponent of it. While the word “predestination” itself only occurs five times in the Bible (all in the writings of the Apostle Paul), the idea of people being chosen or “called” by God for his purpose (“election”) is found throughout the Bible.

The Bible teaches both predestination and free-will—and doesn’t try to reconcile them, leaving this within the mystery of God himself.

Free will is the belief that people have the capacity to make decisions independently of God or any other external influence. God’s “election” of people is therefore based on their own faith-response to him, and his grace can be either resisted or accepted—we can say “yes” or “no” to him. Every human being therefore has a choice concerning his or her eternal destiny. This approach is often known as “Arminianism”, named after Jacobus Arminius, a 17th century Dutch theologian who proposed it as a reaction to Calvin’s teaching, which some Christians saw as too harsh.

In short, those who take a “Calvinist” approach believe that they owe their faith to their election, whereas those who take an “Arminian” approach believe that they owe their election to their faith.

Truth in Tension

The Bible contains what often seem to be paradoxes—opposites that seem irreconcilable (like the two sides of the coin we mentioned earlier). But this is because we see everything from a limited, human, time-bound, this-world-perspective, rather than the limitless, divine, timeless, other-world dimension of God. So things that we often see as irreconcilable opposites are, to God, merely aspects of his multi-dimensional truth. We often want to major on one aspect of that truth, while God can hold all the different aspects in perfect tension.

This is particularly true in this area of predestination and free-will, both of which can be found in the Bible. People often end up emphasising one aspect rather than the other depending on which parts of Scripture that they major on, or their own circumstances or background (that inevitably colour us, even when we think they don’t). But the truth is: the Bible teaches both predestination and free-will—and doesn’t try to reconcile them, leaving this within the mystery of God himself.

God can work out his will and purposes in and through the acts of people in such a way that his will is always done and yet human will is never violated.

For example, Acts 13:48 says: “all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” In this short statement, we see that salvation involves both divine appointment and human faith. On the one hand, God absolutely “elects” (chooses) people—“all who were appointed for eternal life” (see also e.g., Deuteronomy 7:7-8; John 15:16; Romans 8:33; Ephesians 1:5-11; 1 Peter 2:9), for there is no way that sinful human beings could possibly save themselves. And to underline this, the Bible even says that God chose us before our lives (Jeremiah 1:5) and the world itself (Ephesians 1:4) came into being. So if that doesn’t take away our part in salvation, and doesn’t show that it is wholly dependent on God, then what does?

Yet on the other hand, that same verse also says that “all who were appointed for eternal life believed”—in other words, people had to play their part too. In fact, throughout the Bible, choosing God and his ways is seen as our own responsibility, which is why people are constantly called to make a choice and to repent and turn to God (e.g., Mark 1:15; John 1:12; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 16:31; 17:30)—meaningless if we have no ability to do so. And since the Bible often shows that God’s heart is for everyone to be saved (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9), how can this be true if he only chooses to save some?

Here then is an example of truth in tension. Another example is found in Romans 8:28-30: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” The idea of predestination to salvation and purpose in these verses could not be clearer; and yet those that God “predestined” are those that he “foreknew”—in other words, he knew us before we knew him, and also knew that we would choose to respond to him and his love, which is why he chose and predestined us.

Both aspects—God’s election and human response—are absolutely and equally essential. Yet how these fit together remains a mystery—even though Paul tries his best to explain it in Romans 9–11. What is clear throughout the Bible is that God can work out his will and purposes in and through the acts of people in such a way that his will is always done and yet human will is never violated (e.g., Proverbs 16:1-4, 9).

If God can live with truth in tension, then maybe we should too. It is certainly preferable to anathematising those who disagree with us on this.

Continued below...

Christianity Predestination and free will

The Purpose of these Doctrines

It is vitally important to remember that “doctrine” (a body of core beliefs) in the Bible is never given for its own sake. If that were the point, then God would have given us an encyclopaedia rather than a book with an unfolding story. Rather, doctrine draws together truths from various parts of the Bible and various points in its story to help us see more of God and his purposes. And that’s true of these two doctrines.

If salvation were dependent on “me” and my successes, most of us would feel very uncertain of our salvation at all.

The idea of predestination is designed to bring home to us the certainty of salvation in Christ. If salvation were dependent on “me” and my successes, most of us would feel very uncertain of our salvation at all, for, if we are honest, we generally have more failures than successes. But because salvation is utterly dependent on God, and on what he has done for us in Christ through his death on the cross, then we can have an incredible assurance that we will get to be with God in the end. That’s why the truth of predestination is often found in the Bible in situations where God’s people needed encouragement that they would indeed make it through or that God’s plan was not going to fail.

Likewise the idea of free-will is designed to bring home to us the importance of not just getting on with our lives and waiting to be saved (or not), but rather actively exploring the truth that Jesus brings and making a decision to follow him; and then not just “sitting back” once we are saved but rather pursuing Christ with all our might (e.g., Philippians 3:7-14), playing our part as “God’s fellow-workers” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:9).

Both sides of the coin are taught in the Bible; and both sides of the coin are needed.

Someone once described it like this: Before we become a Christian, it is as though we are standing outside a door that has a sign over it saying, “Whoever wants to come in, can.” But after we go through it, we look back and see a sign over the same door saying, “Called and chosen by God.” The door that invites is the same door that reassures.

But instead of arrogance, the wonder of being chosen and called by God should bring humility, wonder at the privilege of being God’s children, encouragement in our hardships, and provocation to our sinful, selfish ways.

The Need for Humility—and Action

The doctrine of predestination (being chosen and called by God) should not make us arrogant, leading to any sense of “God has chosen us and not them”. This is sadly what happened with the nation of Israel, a people chosen and called by God yet who were rejected (at least temporarily) when they rejected their Messiah—a complex juxtaposition of predestination and freewill if ever there was one and a mystery that Paul explores in depth in Romans 9-11 (with an exciting outcome!).

Sadly, the same arrogance has sometimes been found in some branches of the church throughout its history.

But instead of arrogance, the wonder of being chosen and called by God should bring humility (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), wonder at the privilege of being God’s children (Ephesians 1:3-12), encouragement in our hardships (Romans 8:28-39), and provocation to our sinful, selfish ways (Colossians 3:12-14). It should also stir us to share the good news of Jesus with those who do not know him yet—if we are Arminian, because we want to give everyone a chance of hearing and responding; if we are Calvinist, because we want to be used by God to find those that he has chosen.

Whichever approach we take, it should lead to action!