Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament. They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”
Certain words and phrases create apprehension.
IRS audit. The boss wants to see you…now. “Some assembly required.”
The word predestination can have such an effect on Christians. It has vexed theologians, divided churches, and plunged who knows how many believers into a sense of despair.
What exactly does it mean? Predestination is the Bible’s teaching that the final spiritual destiny of every human being is decided by God not only before that person dies, but before that person is born. That’s because salvation is God’s business, not ours. We don’t choose God. God chooses us. Predestination declares that despite all our wishes to the contrary, we are never in control when it comes to God. We cannot have a desire for God that is not surpassed by his desire for us. And we cannot have a desire for God that he did not in fact put there himself.
In case you’re wondering, “Who in the world could ever believe such an unfair, unjust, unamerican doctrine?” you might be surprised to learn that the previous paragraph is consistent with the teaching of virtually every Christian body in existence.
And it’s not a minor doctrine cowering behind a handful of verses. Predestination is a pervasive New Testament idea.
It actually appears twice in the first chapter of Ephesians. Paul declares in verse five that we were “predestined to adoption” into God’s family. And in verse 11 he writes, “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.”
It may be true that Christian denominations almost universally affirm that God chooses God’s own people.
But then we come to a fork in the road. On what basis does God make such choices? Here is where different groups cling to different answers.
Catholics traditionally believe that all human beings retain at least a tiny power to choose salvation for themselves. Just desiring God and wanting to be a good person are credited to our account. On the basis of both his grace and our merit, God grants salvation. Most Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals would agree.
The major figures of the Protestant Reformation, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, strongly disagreed. They insisted that spiritually dead people (as Paul labels us in Ephesians 2:1) are really and truly spiritually dead. And dead people cannot resurrect themselves and go looking for God. God is the one who graciously plants within us a desire for his company, as well as the capacity to believe.
The first group asserts that our response matters. Maybe God even looks into the future and foreknows how we will respond. The second group insists that our response has no power to change God’s mind.
It can safely be said that most Christians have little interest in turning back the clock 500 years to refight the theological battles of the Reformation. Here in America, it’s enough to say that a “reasonable” God would surely give us the chance to choose our own eternal destiny. Everybody should get to vote, right?
Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you who are weary…” (Matthew 11:28). He also says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:36).
So which is it? Does God do all the choosing? Or do we get to choose as well?
No one has yet preached a sermon or written a book or given a presentation concerning predestination that makes everyone say, “Well, that resolves everything.” You can be sure this reflection will fall short, too. But Paul’s words in Ephesians 1 are calculated to generate assurance, not confusion – deeper security, not runaway insecurity. So we’ll know that we’re on the right track if we end up where Paul began back in verse three: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” He clearly saw predestination as grounds for celebration.
Among many questions worth exploring, two in particular stand out.
How can we ever reconcile predestination with human free will? And what if I’m afraid that I’m not one of the chosen?
The answer to the first question is straightforward: It can’t be done, at least not on this side of heaven. God’s sovereignty (that is, God’s ultimate control over everything) is a core teaching of scripture. That can’t be disputed. But if free will doesn’t exist, then human beings cannot love. Or trust. Or grow. And that would make the gospel meaningless. Theologians are content to say that God rules the cosmos in such a way that human freedom isn’t trampled. How that can be, we do not know.
Imagine approaching a door, over which you read the words, “Enter here if you want a life-changing relationship with God.” You walk through the door. When you look back, you see these words written over the inside of the door: “You were chosen!” That’s one way of looking at things.
When our children were young, they were free to do all kinds of things – run, play, yell, quarrel with their siblings, read, or laugh. As they got older, their freedoms increased. But they always lived underneath the umbrella, so to speak, of the far greater freedoms that belonged to Mary Sue and me. Our kids were truly free – but not so free that they could drive off in one of the family cars before the age of 16. In a similar way, human freedom, while real, is contained within God’s overarching freedom.
Such illustrations are helpful for some people. But until we step into the next world and experience some major “ah-ha’s,” the mystery of human freedom will remain just that – a mystery.
The second question seems scarier: If God does the choosing, is it possible that I’m not on his invitation list?
The answer, once again, is straightforward. If you want God, you can have him.
When we desire to know God, and to live the kind of life that only he can provide, it’s because he has planted a homing device in our hearts. Jesus makes it very clear that “everyone who keeps asking will receive, and the person who keeps searching will find, and the person who keeps knocking will have the door opened” (Matthew 7:8). If you’ve been in a spiritual search mode for a long time because it doesn’t feel as if you have enough of God, don’t be afraid. You’re not broken. You’re blessed. Such seeking is God’s gift to you – a deep spiritual undertow that will keep challenging you to a deeper response of trust.
We often overlook a simple reality: Everybody who yearns for citizenship in heaven will be welcomed with open arms.
We may say, “Well, everybody wants that.” Actually, that’s not true. If we understand “heaven” not as Club Med but as the place or dimension where God is at the center of everything – instead of our own wants and desires and ego-needs – a great many people will run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If a person has no interest in bowing before him in this world, then the expectation of doing so forever in the next world would be dreadful.
But those who have said Yes to Jesus can’t imagine a better forever. That’s what it feels like to be chosen.
What is the ultimate blessing of predestination? We are relieved of the intolerable burden of trying to be in control of our own lives.
When I was very young and my family was traveling by car, I was not in control. That was a good thing. My dad was usually behind the wheel. If it was nighttime, I would typically curl up in the backseat and fall asleep. When we returned home, my parents would carry me inside, and I would wake up the next morning in my own bed.
It never occurred to me to worry whether my dad had had enough coffee to drive safely through the night. Or to remind him to be extra vigilant concerning drunk drivers crossing the center line. Or to wonder why in the world I was born in the era before child safety seats, let alone the availability of ordinary belts for the back seat.
Instead, I fell asleep in the expectation that all would be well.
When Jesus says we cannot enter his Father’s kingdom unless we become like little children, it means we can’t be spiritual backseat drivers.
We don’t have to worry ourselves sick about how God is managing the universe.
He’s doing a great job.
And by his grace, he will ensure that we arrive at our true home safely and on time.