Her name is Emily. She is a college student; a gifted singer/songwriter; a joyful and winsome participant in the pilgrimage; and a faithful follower of Jesus. She is also my friend.
Recently, Emily e-mailed me for the purpose of picking my brain (and sharing her own thoughts) on the issues of predestination, God’s sovereignty, and human free will. (You know, the kind of light stuff about which people chat while enjoying a latte.)
We came to the conclusion that our back-and-forth e-mail conversation might make for the kind of interesting (albeit lengthy) blog post that might resonate with those of you who are at all intrigued by the longstanding theological effort to speak meaningfully about how it is that predestination and free will relate to God’s sovereignty.
What follows is a composite of my e-mail dialogue with Emily, shared completely with her knowledge and permission. I greatly appreciated, not only the theological territory that we explored, but also the spirit in which differing viewpoints were accommodated.
Emily: Hello Eric Park!
Eric: Why, hello Emily!
Emily: I wanted to reach out to you because your most recent Facebook post about “freed will” (as opposed to “free will”) was really relevant to the heavy theological concepts that I’ve been hashing out lately. I really just want to share and discuss my journey with you and hear your thoughts.
Eric: Ah, the plot thickens. Good!
Emily: So, up until recently, I never gave the concept of predestination any significant thought; this is most likely due to the fact that the idea scared me and didn’t really align with what I felt I knew about God. So I just brushed it off as a controversial topic which I chose not to believe in.
Eric: I think I see where this is headed.
Emily: I have been dating a great guy for the past three months. So about two months ago, we were having a discussion in which he mentioned that he believed in predestination. It took me off guard, and when I asked him why, he replied, “because it’s biblical.” We didn’t discuss it any further, but his words planted a seed in me that has been growing like a weed ever since.
Eric: Looking for some theological weed control, eh? OK. I’m game. Go get the beverage of your choice, put on your jammies, and get comfortable. This is probably going to take a while.
Emily: I’ve been approaching these questions from what I believe is a healthy perspective: one of reliance on God’s righteousness (something on which we’ve been focusing heavily in my Bible study, which has been helpful) and my human inability to comprehend Him and His ways.
Eric: This is a good place to start—by acknowledging that we will never be able fully to comprehend the mind and methodology of God. Therefore, a conversation about God’s providence must always begin with humility and an earnest recognition that, irrespective of our particular interpretation of the pertinent biblical texts, we will not be able to fit God’s providence into a theological equation.
In my experience, both staunch predestinarians and staunch “free-willians” are often guilty of saying more than God has clearly revealed. I will attempt to avoid this pitfall in our conversation, although I will most likely be unsuccessful at points.
Allow me to give you a bit of my personal history related to the theological issue at hand. I first began to struggle with the predestination/free will debate when I was 15. A Presbyterian friend said to me in the school cafeteria, “Do you believe that God predestines people to heaven and hell?” That single question opened the door to a time of theological discernment that, in many ways, has continued for over thirty years. I talked to my Dad about it, which, for me, was always an awesome place to start. Dad, in a language that I could comprehend, helped me to understand the different ways in which Christ-followers have approached the issue over the centuries. Dad also helped me to understand that we, as United Methodists, have historically aligned ourselves with the Arminian viewpoint while not separating from those who see the issue differently. I read everything that I could get my hands on. I plowed through Calvin’s Institutes and the works of Arminius and Wesley (arrogantly believing that I could fathom the profundity of their theology as a 15 or 16-year-old!). While I did not come to any firm conclusions, I had a pretty clear understanding of the significance and the expansiveness of the issue by the time I was 17.
During my college years, I had a number of both pleasant and unpleasant interactions with students and faculty who had been schooled and trained in Reformed Theology. The pleasant interactions were pleasant because the person with whom I was speaking saw his/her viewpoint as one approach among several approaches that could be accommodated by Christian orthodoxy. The unpleasant interactions, by contrast, were unpleasant because the person with whom I was speaking had become, in my opinion, rigidly dogmatic to the point of idolatry. In fact, I remember being told by a fellow student once that, if I did not fully embrace the doctrine of double predestination, I was guilty of perpetuating a truncated understanding of God’s sovereignty, which would place my salvation in jeopardy. When I responded that I must have missed the verse in Scripture that makes one’s stance on predestination a soteriological litmus test, the conversation pretty much came to an end.
All of this is to say that I am no stranger to this conversation, Emily. The responses that I offer below may help you to understand how one humble pewboy has navigated his way through the deep theological forest.
Emily: I have been very motivated to seek more knowledge and understanding. I found in my own studying that my boyfriend was accurate in his assertion that predestination is explicitly pointed to throughout scripture, and many unsettling questions were raised: How can I believe in an all-loving God when that same God creates people only to use them on Earth for His will and then condemn them to damnation? Where is this supposedly all-sufficient grace for those who are not chosen?
Eric: Okay, this is where it gets interesting. You have articulated a hermeneutical position that demands a clarification of terms. Specifically, you have asserted that “predestination is explicitly pointed to throughout Scripture…” The question is, what kind of predestination does Scripture describe? If you will permit me to focus on the 3 segments of Scripture upon which predestinarians have historically built their case, it may help us to cut to the proverbial chase. Those three segments are as follows:
1. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus;
2. a clear reference to predestination in Ephesians 1; and,
3. the frequently-debated Romans 8 and 9.
First, concerning the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, while it is most certainly true that, ten different times, the book of Exodus speaks of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, it is also critical to realize that, five different times in Scripture, we are told that Pharaoh “hardened HIS OWN HEART” (Exodus 5:2; Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:34; and 1 Samuel 6:6). If we are going to be thorough in our interpretation of Pharaoh’s hardened heart (and Paul’s reference to it in Romans 9), we must resist the temptation to read into Scripture the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in a manner that was against what Pharaoh had already decided to do. In my opinion, a far more holistic reading of Scripture is to see God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as God’s effort to utilize redemptively a rebellion that Pharaoh had already decided to wage. In other words, God hardened this particular heart, not against its owner’s will, but in concert with what Pharaoh had already decided to do. God raised up for destruction, not a random and expendable “vessel,” but a vessel that had already made a firm decision to set itself violently against the purposes of God. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, then, can hardly be seen as a biblical foundation for a rigid doctrine of predestination.
Second, turn with me to Ephesians 1, where we find these words:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined (or predestined) us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
Here Scripture makes clear that a doctrine of predestination is absolutely necessary if we are going to interpret Scripture faithfully. We are told in no uncertain terms that God “chose us before the foundation of the world” and “predestined us for adoption.”
So, the critical question for me is not “Do I believe in predestination?” (Yes, I do—because Scripture reveals it.) Rather, the critical question for me is “What kind of predestination is it that Scripture reveals?” This is a different question altogether.
When Ephesians tells us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, who is the “us” that is being described? A staunch predestinarian would most likely say that the “us” refers to each individual soul—meaning that God “chooses” who is saved and who is damned. In a more Arminian hermeneutic, however, the “us” is a corporate and collective reference to all of those who have CHOSEN the way of Christ—which against the backdrop of the entirety of Scripture, makes much more sense to me. God chooses us how? IN CHRIST, says Ephesians—implying that God chooses those who have chosen well. God chooses those who have chosen to be in Christ.
When Ephesians tells us that God predestined us for adoption, what is it that is being predestined? Is it our individual choice? A predestinarian sister or brother might say yes. I believe that it is far more consistent with the entire narrative of Scripture, however, to come to the conclusion that it is not our individual choice that has been predestined, but rather the methodology of our salvation. How is it that we have been adopted? AS HIS CHILDREN THROUGH JESUS CHRIST, says Ephesians—implying that God predestined a Christological and salvific adoption FOR THOSE WHO HAVE CHOSEN TO ALIGN THEMSELVES WITH CHRIST.
Quite frankly, Emily, this nuanced and corporate understanding of predestination is the only interpretation that enables me to make sense of 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9, both of which affirm that the desire of God’s heart is for all—ALL—to be saved. There are no qualifiers present in those scriptures that would lead us to believe that ALL is a reference to a pre-selected assembly. Rather, the clear teaching is that God desires for ALL to be part of the elect. God desires that ALL would come to a knowledge of God’s predestined Way—Jesus Christ.
Emily: I found over the course of all of this that I admittedly felt something of a confused hardness toward God and his decision not to rescue everyone, as my understanding of the Calvinistic doctrine would suggest. Thank you for directing me to scriptural evidence that suggests otherwise.
Eric: Finally, come with me to Romans 8 and 9. I have already addressed the issue of Pharaoh, which covers a good portion of Romans 9. I would simply add that, for me, a key reference in Paul’s teaching is found in Romans 9:22: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, HAS ENDURED WITH MUCH PATIENCE, the vessels of wrath made for destruction?” I highlight this verse for the purpose of raising a question: Would divine patience and endurance be required on the part of God if God were simply dealing with people whose choices and behavior were divinely predestined? In other words, why would it test God’s patience to endure the behavior of a “vessel” whose behavior God had already predetermined? I assume you get my point. It is thoroughly possible (and perhaps advisable) to believe that God raised up Pharaoh for destruction, not in the sense of predetermining Pharaoh’s decisions, but in the sense of giving Pharaoh over to an evil course of action that Pharaoh had already chosen. If this were not the case—if Pharaoh were not responsible for his immoral choices—than Paul’s reference to God’s patience and endurance would make no theological sense whatsoever.
And what about Romans 8:29-30? “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…and those whom he predestined he also called…and those whom he called he also justified”
Again, one of our predestinarian friends may cite these verses as proof positive of God’s isolated predestination of individual souls, some to eternal salvation and others to eternal damnation. However, I would ask you to read the text carefully. Raise the same questions that I raised concerning Ephesians 1. What is predestined in this moment of Scripture? Is it individual acceptance or rejection of Christ? To say “yes” to that would be to bring us into tension with God’s clearly-revealed desire for ALL to be saved. Rather, as was the case in Ephesians 1, what God predestines is not our individual choice, but the consequence of our choice: “to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
To put it another way, when Romans 8 tells us that we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, we are not being told that our CHOICE was forcefully predetermined. Instead, we are being told that, if we love God and respond to God’s call and God’s purposes (which, by the implication of Romans 8:28 is the result of our God-graced decision-making), then God has predestined us to be justified. Did you get that? God predestines for justification those who have utilized their God-graced ability to respond to God with love and obedience.
Emily: The suggestion that our predestination is not of our salvation but rather our justification is one that I had not considered, and find myself very attracted to. It liberates the entire issue of free will to be a separate conversation. Furthermore, it affirms the kind of deep, dynamic, intimate, nuanced and intrinsically REAL nature of a two-way RELATIONSHIP with our creator, one which I feel I have been experiencing and growing in for the better part of my life, but which my recent thoughts have called into question.
Eric: Excellent points. I should make clear at this point that, based upon what I have written thus far, some of my Reformed sisters and brothers would be quick to cry “foul.” Over the years, I have been accused of manipulating semantics for the purpose of making Scripture say what I want it to say. Perhaps my critics are right in that regard (although I hope not). The bottom line for me is that I see nothing in the biblical texts I have referenced that necessitates and justifies a rigid and ungracious doctrine of double predestination. Can a doctrine of double predestination find a place under the large umbrella of Christian orthodoxy? Absolutely. But is the doctrine necessary? Absolutely not. In fact, based upon my interpretation of Scripture, I would argue that embracing a doctrine of double predestination is not even the best and most holistic reading of the biblical texts. If, however, a sister or brother in Christ chooses to espouse such a doctrine, that is a difference of theology that the body of Christ can accommodate.
Emily: I wonder, how does God’s grace relate to free will in our acceptance of God? And does an emphasis upon God’s perfect sovereignty imply that we do not have free will in any aspect of our lives, or is there a gray area in which God occasionally chooses to intervene and take control?
Eric: Hmmmm. Well, I am a Wesleyan in my theological approach. A Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace would have us to believe, not in an intrinsically FREE will (since our fallenness has corrupted and distorted our will in this regard), but rather a FREED will—a will that has been sufficiently graced by God to make it possible for “all to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). It would make no sense for God to want all to be saved if there were not a prevenient grace sufficient to make a salvific choice possible. So, in answer to your question, I believe that God’s perfect sovereignty is manifested, not in the form of a micromanagement of human decision, but rather in a prevenient equipping that makes it possible for us to choose or reject.
Emily: I spoke to my pastor today, and he helped shed a lot of light on all of my concerns. I have arrived at these inconclusive conclusions:
Eric: OK. Good. First, I am very glad that you spoke to your pastor. And, second, “inconclusive conclusions” are precisely the right way to approach theological mysteries!
Emily: Here are my inconclusive conclusions: God’s grace is offered to and is sufficient for all people. God loves all of us and desires for all of us to love him in return. However, we are thoroughly incapable of choosing God on our own. We are granted free will, but in our slavery to sin we are only ever able to use that will to reject Him. Therefore, God’s wrath falls upon us, and we are given our just consequence, death. This is hard to accept, but God is wholly righteous in doing so, and it brings Him glory. But in God’s mercy and compassion, he has chosen some of us to rescue from our own, freely willed decision to reject Him—the “elect”—for which Jesus’s death goes beyond sufficiency and into efficiency. We do not know how God chooses his elect, but we do know it is for nothing we have done, so that truly, we can boast in NOTHING but Christ.
Eric: I agree with parts of this conclusion, but disagree with other parts. I agree that “we are thoroughly incapable of choosing God on our own” because of our enslavement to sin. However, another orthodox understanding of grace maintains that God has made it possible for all people to make a liberated (freed) individual choice either for sin or for righteousness; for alienation or for reconciliation; for Christ or for rejection of Christ. Indeed, this choice is not ours IN WHICH TO BOAST, since it is entirely dependent upon the prevenient grace of God that makes the choice possible. However, it is still a choice. And, as I see it, acknowledging the urgent need for our liberated, freed, individual response is the only way to make sense of the entire biblical narrative’s emphasis upon choice: “Choose THIS DAY whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15). To take away the possibility of a grace-enabled individual acceptance or rejection is to ignore a major thrust of the biblical witness and to force a doctrine into the text that the text itself does not support.
Emily: Once we are chosen, God fulfills that salvation completely, giving us a new identity that is no longer enslaved to sin. We are then capable of choosing to do good and follow God, but He is still sovereign. And our new nature which gives us the inclination to do good is still a gift from God, so even in our free will post salvation, we cannot boast in our good deeds.
Eric: For me it is not “once we ARE chosen,” but rather “once we HAVE chosen,” i.e., once we have utilized the grace-created capacity to choose, we are able to experience the justification and sanctification that God has predestined for us.
Emily: As for an approach to ministry, we do not know whom God has chosen, but he uses us as the media through which He brings his chosen people to Himself. What an honor this is, regardless of whether it is done of our own choice, to be used by God in such a way! But in his predestination of our souls, he has taken all of the pressure off. He has called us not to make the Gospel attractive, but to simply preach the truth. It is not our responsibility to convince someone of the Gospel- for then we would be in a way in control of their fate, which of course we are not. It is merely up to God to allow them to understand. Once we have done His bidding and presented them with the word, our work is complete.
Eric: In my own personal theology, as I have probably already made clear, I am not comfortable using “chosen” in the manner that you are employing here. For me, the chosen are those who have by grace chosen well. The elect are those who have by grace elected to respond to God’s gracious initiative. However, practically speaking, our approach to ministry would be the same. Where you have said “we do not know who God has chosen,” I would say, “we do not know who might respond to God’s saving work.” In either case, we cannot afford to pick and choose who it is to whom we minister.
Emily: Yes, we are put on this Earth to fulfill the will of God. Does that mean we are merely puppets on a string? I don’t believe so, but even if we are, there is no one more perfect and loving that I would want operating them.
Eric: There is nothing at all in Scripture—in either testament—that would lead us to the conclusion that we are puppets on a string. All of Scripture bears witness to a much more creative and dynamic relationship than this between Creator and Creature.
Emily: I guess I’ve been in a transitional period in my understanding of God and the world’s purpose.
Eric: I sense that.
Emily: Up until now, my central idea has been love. Love is the inherent definition of God, the world was created so that God could love and be loved, and everything on Earth, good or bad, is an expression of that love. I am now coming to understand that the Earth’s purpose is not to display God’s love, although it certainly does, but rather to bring Him GLORY. Because of God’s perfect, omnipotent nature, He simply MUST be glorified in everything, and nothing else is deserving of glory but Him. All of these questions and answers point to that; for if we had chosen God on our own, we would have cause to boast and receive glory- and that is unacceptable, because it detracts from God’s glory.
Eric: I would suggest that you resist unnecessary dichotomies in your transition, Emily. To believe that our purpose is to bring God glory does not in any way necessitate an abandoning of a commitment to bear consistent witness to God’s radical and relentless love. In fact, if 1 John 4:8 is to be believed—that God IS love—then the only way to bring God glory is to reflect God’s very nature. That nature, according to Scripture, is love.
I disagree with your conclusion that “If we had chosen God on our own, we would have cause to receive glory.” First of all, the phrase “on our own” does not apply in a doctrine of prevenient grace (freed will). Second, to say that we would have cause to boast in our God-enabled decision would be like saying that the drowning man had a right to boast in his decision to accept the embrace of the person risking life and limb to save him.
Emily: My response to all of this is: I am severely humbled and incomprehensibly grateful. I now understand the concept of fearing God.
Eric: Irrespective of one’s theology of predestination, humility, gratitude, and holy fear are the only appropriate responses to God’s saving grace.
Emily: I could continue on this for a great many more paragraphs, but I will end it here. Thank you so much for taking the time to read through this. I am grateful for your perspectives.
Eric: Well, I guess I have indeed offered my perspectives, haven’t I?! Please know that I offer them with a humble heart and an ecumenical appreciation. I pray that I have done so respectfully. Please forgive me if, at any point, I was inappropriately dismissive or cavalier.
It is most certainly not my desire to be pitted against another pastor or another individual. But I did want you to hear from one of your former pastors who speaks from the Arminian portion of Christian orthodoxy.
It sounds to me, Emily, like you have found your way into a Reformed church. If the church proclaims Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and offers a comprehensive and Christ-honoring ministry, then I celebrate your connection there. Be attentive to the fact, however, that even the most discerning among us tend to acclimate to the theological priorities and language of the people with whom we are worshiping and fellowshipping on a regular basis. If this acclimation (and resulting discernment) leads you into a Reformed understanding of Christianity, please know that you will remain my precious and beloved friend and sister in Christ, even though we may wind up differing on some particular doctrines.
I would simply ask you to be careful not to become idolatrous about a doctrine that Scripture simply does not insist upon. More specifically, resist the temptation to allow a rigid doctrine of double predestination to become the litmus test by which you judge all understandings of God’s sovereignty. Also, recognize that Christian orthodoxy is expansive enough to enable us to treat the matter of predestination as an in-house debate, not a thing worth dividing over.
Emily: I want you to know that the viewpoints that I’ve described to you are in no way fully formulated or firmly grounded in my mind. Remember that this entire epiphany (for lack of a better term) took place, really, in less than 24 hours. I certainly am not so confident in my ability to discern and understand God’s providence so as to think that I should rigidly hold to this interpretation (hence my use of the phrase “inconclusive conclusions”). Really I just wanted to give you an idea of where I landed. I am no less than delighted to hear that you disagree with some of what I said.
You see, my goal here is not to arrive at a tidy conclusion and check off “predestination” in the list of categories on which I must determine my stance, in search for a rigid set of beliefs I can cling to. Rather, my desire, and my intention for e-mailing you, is to gather as much knowledge, perspective, and wise council as I can get my brain on. On my own I have not delved into the scriptures with a holistic enough approach to truly trust what I believe at any time—at least when it comes to heavily debated theological concepts that are, in the end, inconsequential to our salvation or how we are called to live, and, like you said, not worth dividing the church over.
I am very hesitant to strictly define my faith by a set of beliefs named after an old theologian. I stubbornly refuse to allow myself to place God in that kind of box, or become so arrogant as to believe I fully understand much at all about God’s methodology. With whatever knowledge I have gained on subjects like these, I just pray that in my conversations I can lovingly continue to acknowledge the credibility of several interpretations- so long as they are not glaringly in contrast with what scripture teaches. Thank you for helping to bring me to that place.
Eric: I, too, am grateful, Emily. Your good thoughts and insightful comments have forced me to spend more time thinking about God’s sovereignty than I have spent in a long time. You are helping us both to move more deeply into holy mysteries.
Emily: The cry of my heart is only to know the truth of God’s own word. I want to be careful not to overly dissect the language of scripture in an effort to project my own constructed belief system onto it. The Bible is, and always will be, the final determinant in what I believe- so I definitely am trying to study it more. As a matter of fact, prayers for diligence, patience, discernment and humility in that task would be very appreciated.
Eric: I am indeed praying for you, Emily—even as I type these words. You know, the conversation that we have had here may prove to be helpful to others who are struggling to find their way through some of these issues. Please pray about whether or not you would be willing to allow me to share this conversation as a blog post. If you are uncomfortable with that, I completely understand and will abide by your wishes. However, I think that we have probed some depths here (in a conversational way) that would prove helpful to some of our sisters and brothers.
Emily: I would be honored if you used any part of our conversations in your blog! You just go for it. But let me know so that I make sure not to miss it!
Eric: Super. I will keep you informed.
Emily: I love and miss you, friend. I hope you’re having a good week! Love Always, Emily
Eric: I love and miss you too, Emily. Thank you for allowing me to stand with you upon the sacred ground of prayerful discernment and theological dialogue. Your friend, Eric