Each week at Simple Free we read some various passages of Scripture which we get from the Church Lectionary (see link at bottom) that many churches worldwide use. (It gives you a psalm, an Old Testament passage and two New Testament passages to read for each day– we put ours up on the site under ‘passages’). Anyway, our passage from the NT letter last night was from Ephesians 1:3-6 which mentions predestination:
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Eph 1:3-6)
We talked about a number of things in this passage, but no one mentioned predestination– I think people were being polite, because we have people who are more Calivinistic– believing that God selected only a few to be saved before time began– and those who believe God wants all to be saved, and that free will plays a role– i.e.– that each person has a chance to choose Christ. My goal in this blogpost is to try to explain both sides, particularly the free-will explanation of this passage. But I want it to be clear that I think that the Calvinist/Reformed position has a strong argument and a tight systematic theology as well. I just personally don’t subscribe to it.
So in our group, I said, “well its obvious that a Christian has to believe in predestination, because its written right here, right?” which got a rise out of some in the group. And its true– every Christian has to believe in predestination if they accept the Bible. But the question then is: what is predestined, and who is predestined. Is individual salvation predestined, or is a salvation option for many predestined? Are Christians predestined, or is the plan of sending Christ to earth predestined? Those are the key questions here.
I think one of the best preachers on the Calvinist/Reformed view that a select few are predestined is John Piper. Here is the sermon if you want to read it or listen to it: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByScripture/3/791_God_Has_Chosen_Us_in_Him_Before_the_Foundation_of_the_Earth/
Piper says of verse 4 (For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.):
“Your salvation did not begin with your choice to believe in Christ—a choice which was real and necessary. Your salvation began before the creation of the universe when God planned the history of redemption, ordained the death and the resurrection of his Son, and chose you to be his own through Christ.”
The focus of Piper is that God in his power chose Christians not because they are good or beautiful, but just to glorify himself by choosing weak things and transforming them into his own. This is a mystery, and there is no human basis for this chosing– it is purely God’s sovereign will. So Christians can be assured that no matter what they do they will always be chosen because it wasn’t based on what they did in the first place.
Now someone like myself who believes in a less reformed (more arminian) free will position can read this passage as follows:
God planned to send Christ to die and provide salvation even before he created Adam. Paul is here pointing out to Christians that they are part of this plan which originated before time began. Their salvation comes through Christ– that Christ would come and provide salvation was part of the plan all along. God knew what he was doing, is faithful, and provides. He is sovereign over all things. This predestined plan is now obvious, although it was not clear how God would fulfill his promise to Abraham– but now we know that was all about Christ coming, etc. (v9) So without this plan of salvation, planned from the beginning of time, we’d be in trouble. Christ is the means of our reconnecting back to God.
So what is the main difference or sticking point between the calvinist/reformed view and the free-will/arminian view? Both believe in God’s sovereign power, both believe that this plan was made before time, both believe that those who are saved are predestined to be children of God. But Piper believes that only certain people were chosen from the beginning of time, and so, while everyone ‘makes a choice’ to follow or not follow Christ, most people are chosen (at least by default) to make the choice to not follow Christ, while only a few are chosen to make the choice to follow Christ. The free-will believer says that what was predestined here was that Christ would come and offer salvation– this is not a limitation, but rather a focus on how Christ is the culmination of God’s sovereign plan to offer redemption to humanity through his Son. Does that mean everyone chooses Christ? No. Does it mean everyone is saved? I don’t think that follows necessarily. It does seem to mean that everyone gets a shot at opting into ‘the plan’.
So there are obviously some questions to deal with if you hold this free will position. Every position has its questions.
First, doesn’t the bible say God hardened Pharohs heart, and other people too? And if so, doesn’t that mean some people don’t get a chance? My answer: I don’t think it means that. A. Pharoh may have had plenty of chances before God ‘hardened his heart.’ B. Even if God does that in remarkable cases in the Bible, those might be exceptions, not the norm.
Problem 2: If people have to choose Christ, doesn’t that mean that only humble people or smart people will be saved? Doesn’t that mean salvation depends on us somehow and not just God? My answer: Well, I think our free will does play some role, and thats why we are held responsible. Later in Ephesians 1 Paul is praying that the believers will see the power they have to live redeemed lives in Christ. The power is there and available, but they still have to make a choice, and I think this resonates with us– living a Godly life does take work, and determination, and effort– and none of that can work without the Grace of God working powerfully in us. So its not an either-or. I mean, if God wanted to completely take me over and make me do all the right things He could– no doubt. But thats not how God seems to operate in the world. And Scripture calls us again and again to repent and follow God. He constantly calls on the Israelites to do that (the chosen people of God) and some do, and some don’t (and get killed). I think his plan for the Israelites is a mini-version of his plan for humanity. We are all chosen now, in Christ, but only some of us will be faithful– a small remnant (like Israel, again). That one was of the chosen people of God in the OT did not automatically mean God would make everything work out– it was still a cooperative relationship.
3. But do all people have a chance at this salvation plan really? Don’t a lot of people live and die without knowing anything about this plan? My answer: A. It sure seems like lots of people never hear of Christ, so aren’t in on the plan. How God deals with them is unclear. Here are some options: 1. They are not saved. 2. They are judged according to how they responded to what they did know (Rom 3:25 might help, but thats another topic) 3. Other options: they are anhilated (don’t exist anymore); they are reincarnated; they do get a chance after death; ‘easier’ level of punishment (think Dante’s inferno here). (I’m not a fan of these last positions)
4. Doesn’t us having free will make God less sovereign? Doesn’t that make God unable in some ways, since he isn’t in total control if some of this stuff is up to us? My answer: Being in control and causing everything are different issues. To me being sovereign means having the power to intervene, not causing everything to happen. A king is sovereign if he can at any time make happen what he wants to make happen. IF God wills that people have freedom, and deems that more important than what I might think is a more perfect plan– then what I probably need to do is trust God more. It seems obvious that God has made us free, and has provided Grace to help enable us to live redeemed sanctified lives.
5. So doesn’t this focus on freedom take away from the importance of Christ’s work on the Cross and the Grace of God? My answer: No. None of this is possible without Christ’s work on the Cross both to reconcile me to God and to empower us to live resurrected lives. Christ is the necessary condition for any of this. None of this starts or happens without Christ and the preordination of the plan of salvation.
6. Doesn’t this mean that I can thwart God’s predestined plan though? My answer: I guess I think here of the man who put on a feast and invited all his friends and no one came– he still had the party. That couldn’t be thwarted. Some missed out, but that wasn’t his doing. He chose those on the street to come– the lowly. This reminds me of Christ who generally couldn’t get much respect among the respected and powerful– he mostly got followers who were despised and rejected– prostitutes, fishermen, tax gatherers. Did he call them? Yes. Did they chose to follow? Yes. Did he call others who didn’t follow him? Yes. (Rich young man)
Does God call people to himself who don’t follow Him? Yes– the Israelites did it all the time, and I don’t think that when God goes global and makes relationship with him through Christ available to all (not just Israelites) that he has less people rejecting his call. But that doesn’t take away from his sovereignty.
I hope this attempt is fruitful to you. After we talked about the Calvinist position on this verse, one person at Simple Free last night said that while they didn’t hold that view (they hold the free will position) that it helped to talk through how the Calvinist read the passage, and he could see the beauty in that view. He wasn’t convinced– but on some of these issues its at least helpful to glimpse the reasoning and value of positions other than your own, even if at the end of the day you disagree. I hope that whether you agree with my position or not, that this helps you personally think more about this issue and come to an understanding of it.
May God have mercy on us all.
PS: for those of you who don’t like theological debate stuff, sorry 🙂
For more reading on this sort of debate in Christianity you might want to look at these books:
The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism – Craig R. Brown
Why I Am Not an Arminian by Robert A. Peterson
Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities – Roger E. Olson
Grace, Faith, Free Will – Robert E. Picirilli
Debating Calvinism: 5 Points, 2 Views (White, Hunt)