Predestination, as I see it, is foundational to a proper understanding of the Gospel. More specifically, it is in affirming that God predestines those who would be saved that tells us that God saves us out of sheer grace alone. This is what is taught, it seems to me, by Paul in Romans 8-9, and Ephesians 1-2. It is also taught by Jesus in John chapter 6 and 10. I won’t argue for the theological and biblical grounds for predestination. Rather, I want to reflect on some pastoral implications that come out of predestination.
First, predestination challenges the pridefulness that comes out of our desire to earn God’s grace. It is a misunderstanding of the doctrine if one believes that it implies that God determines the destinies of individuals without a regard to what they choose or do. Rather, the doctrine affirms that, without God’s sovereign and effectual power in making sinners come alive, fallen men and women simply would not choose God. There is a natural and moral inability in the fallen individual – an inability to freely choose God. The problem is not that human beings are seeking God but God is somehow hiding or being elusive. Rather, the God who is present to all men perpetually and personally is being resisted by us (Rom. 1). Our natural tendency is to run away from God.
One way we seek to run away, to maintain our autonomy from God, is to affirm that we can actually earn or attain some measure of goodness without him. We like to think that we can do much good to gain some heavenly blessedness or glory. Hard work pays off. Here is where the doctrine of predestination kicks in – it teaches us that any good works we do that could be pleasing to God cannot be done with our own power or our own freedom. It is not up to human exertion or willing, but to God’s mercy, that we come to God (Rom. 9:16). Without God’s enabling power, none of us would desire to please him. In a culture where honor and keeping one’s standing in society by our own efforts are central, predestination challenges our assumptions about our own capacity to do any good and our tendency to think we are more righteous than our neighbor.
Second, predestination proclaims incredible good news to the distressed sinner. It takes away the focus on our own power and our own resources to pursue God and redirects us to God alone. For those of us who tend to say “I can’t do this, I can’t be good, I can’t come to God”, the Bible teaches us that, in agreement with this, God is the one who comes to our aid, apart from our initiative, to unconditionally awaken in us a new desire for himself. Predestination is the ground on which we pray: God change our hearts, we cannot do it on our own. If God leaves us to our own free will, if God merely seeks to woo us, the distressed sinner will have no basis for hope – if it were up to us, even a little bit, our salvation would always be at risk. Rather, predestination teaches us that God saves, and saves to the utmost. He finishes what he starts, and the new man that he implants into us cannot be “unwilled” by our delinquent freedom. Rather than making prayer unnecessary or obsolete, it is predestination, with the sovereign God behind that doctrine, that makes our prayers strong.
Third, predestination curbs our rationalistic tendencies. Contrary to popular belief, I contend that it is the Reformed faith that actually upholds a God that confronts intellectualism and rationalism. The God of the Bible is not a God that can be fully comprehended by our faculties of reasoning. It is intellectually so easy, almost intuitive, for us to believe that God is not in control of our free wills, that if he were in control, if he were to “cause” the sinner to repent, then it would be for him to render us all robots. It seems too easy to reason that if God were truly in control, then we would not be responsible for what we do. That love requires libertarian freedom.
It is only the Reformed faith, it seems to me, that affirms wholly that God is in absolute control of all that comes to pass, and that this is nonetheless done without coercion. Our wills remain relatively self-determining. It is only in the Reformed faith and in its biblical doctrine of predestination that teaches us that two seemingly incompatible truths: that we are responsible, and that yet we are wholly under the sovereign sway of God’s will, are both taught in Scripture and for that reason alone ought to be affirmed. We may come up with philosophical defenses of how the two are ultimately compatible, but that is still, at least in my view, besides the point. We have to think analogically and depend on God’s revelation of himself. And if God truly is God, we should expect that significant aspects of our theology would be paradoxical.
One theme unites all of these three points: human dependence upon a sovereign God. God challenges our pride because he is the one who is in control of whether we approach him in good works in Christ. God is the savior of the helpless because he is the one who initiates and carries us without our initiatives. God also challenges the rationalist because he proclaims truths that no finite mind can fully comprehend. Predestination is a unifying thread that underlies much of what I believe is a basic trait of Christian piety – our conscious dependence upon a sovereign God.