I believe in predestination, because the Bible plainly teaches it. But I do not accept the Calvinist view. Nor do I accept the traditional view of non-Calvinists, such as most Church of Christ scholars.
Rather, I think the answer is found in an alternative approach — a Third Way.
“Predestination” as a word occurs in two passages. There are other passages that many consider to deal with the same topic, but these two will be enough for our purposes:
(Rom. 8:28-32) 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 likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
(Eph. 1:4-14) For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment-to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory.
Too frequently, we have “explained” these verses by pointing out the many verses that teach that we all have free will. We point out that God does not make us believe in him. We are free moral agents, and we choose or don’t choose to accept the gospel. This is entirely true, but it is also true that predestination is taught by the Bible and must be taught by us.
My suggestion is that we approach these scriptures with a heightened awareness of the power and superiority of God. We must not limit God by making him more like us than he is.
When God made the heavens and the earth, he knew that he would make Adam and Eve. He knew that they would fall, and he knew that he would sacrifice Jesus to save his people. God knew that most people would reject his Son. But he knew that some would accept him, and he knew whom they would be — including me.
(Eph 1:4-6) For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Paul is not making an abstract argument in Ephesians. He is trying to offer his actual readers actual comfort.
(Eph 1:7-8) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
Promises such as these are of no comfort or encouragement unless they are aimed at particular people. If God foreknew and predestined an abstract class of people — the church — without predestining particular people, then he isn’t telling them anything but they are in the church (which they already knew).
But if he’s telling them about God’s plans for them in particular — both as individuals and as the church — then his words are of immense encouragement.
God was not looking into the future. He was seeing the existing universe in four dimensions. Our future is as real to God as our present — and as certain. But the certainty that I would be saved did not result from God making me accept his salvation. The certainty comes from God’s foreknowledge (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29, 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2), which is perfect. It does not take away my free will.
God is omniscient. He knows everything and therefore has never chosen to not know something, as many have argued.
Foreknowledge without causation
The problem that many have with predestination is that they see God as being too much like us. I can only predict with certainty those things that do not involve free will. I know for a fact that my car will wear out. It is the nature of created things to wear out. My car cannot choose not to wear out. I know for a fact that I will die (absent the Second Coming). But I don’t know for a fact whether my wife will cook my dinner tomorrow night. She might choose not to cook for me for any number of reasons outside my control, including just not wanting to. I can’t eliminate the uncertainties because my wife is no automaton.
We instinctively conclude that if God knows with perfect knowledge what we will do in the future, it’s because he predicts the future as we do — by knowing the laws of nature and extrapolating current facts forward.
We can only predict the future conduct of things that have no free will. How well we can do even that depends on how well we know the present. We conclude that, as God knows the present perfectly, he can predict the future perfectly by extrapolating from his perfect knowledge of the present. After all, this is how we think. It’s the nature of our existence. And so we conclude that if God can predict our future decisions, he must predict as we predict — from things that have no free will.
But this is just not so. God has perfect knowledge of the present, but that is not how he predicts the future. I will spare you the details, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as well as Complexity Theory prove beyond any doubt that the future cannot be predicted precisely-even with perfect knowledge of the present and even when dealing with inanimate things. In fact, if God had to predict the future based on his perfect knowledge of the present, even he’d have a hard time of it. This is no problem, of course, as God has better ways of seeing what to us is the future.
He predicts the future based on his perfect knowledge of the future. He just looks at what in his higher-dimensional existence already exists. Because in God’s world our future exists before God even looks, God does not cause our future.
Predestination because of causation
A point often overlooked in these debates is that “predestines” is an active verb, implying that God does something to cause the future to happen. And he does. God is a player in this world. He has periodically intervened to change history — and doubtlessly is doing so even now.
Therefore, he could have caused things to have turned out differently. He could have chosen the Chinese as his people, rather than the Jews. He could have sent Jesus earlier or later. Any number of changes might have prevented the United States from being a “Christian” nation, and I might have no more knowledge of Jesus than I have of Buddha.
God could have made things turn out such that I would never have heard of the gospel, but he didn’t. He didn’t!
God knew precisely what he was doing. And he did it despite (or dare I image “because”?) it would result in my being in heaven with him! From before the Creation, God knew I’d be among those to “hear” and “believe.” He knew every single sin I’d commit. Every stray ungodly thought. And he acted in our time and space to change things — to change things in a way that led to my salvation!
(Rom 8:31-32) What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Do you see Paul’s point? God created the Universe and acted over and over in time and space to make a world in which you and I would be saved! And if God would do all that for use — including giving up his Son — for individual, known believers, then how can we imagine that God would ever abandon us?
Now, I might one day foolishly abandon my God. I’m quite capable of such stupidity. But God will never abandon me.
The hard question is: why me? Why pick a course of events, a chosen people, a time, a place that would let me be saved when so many others never even had a chance?
I’m saved by choice, a choice God foreknew, but my free will choice. But God also chose to shape history in my direction and not the direction of, say, many Muslims who’ve never heard the gospel. I chose God, but God also chose me.
And the answer is: I don’t know. I really don’t.
But God is love. He didn’t shape history to exclude anyone. Rather, I can only imagine that God considered every possible option consistent with free will and his loving nature. And the actions he took, his choice of Abraham and the Israelites, his choice to send Jesus when and where he did — all the countless decisions God has made and will make — will one day — in sum — give the best possible outcome … will save the most people.
And so, in a sense, I was just fortunate. I had the good sense to say yes. I made the right decision. But I was very, very fortunate to have had that decision to make.
And so, Calvin was close to right. We are certainly predestined and foreknown. However, we also have free will. But God acts in history and makes decisions that affect who get to hear the gospel.
Of course, so do we. When we decide not to speak to our neighbor or not to send a missionary, we make decisions that change the future of the world, too.
And it works the other way. One conversation over lunch may save a soul who in turn brings the next great missionary or evangelist to Jesus.
We are all part the dance of history, being led and leading, being changed and changing others, choosing and being chosen. And while we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, we know that God does. And God has given the best of all possible histories — not the best imaginable world, but the best world that could be given to people with free will and a loving God.