The Predestination Paradox

This is a repost from June 4th, 2008. A friend of mine and I were discussing this tonight and I was trying to recall where I’d read this reconciliation of the two viewpoints. Funny I should find myself the author.

This is only the lightest of treatments of what has muddled many a mind and rankled many an argument over the vast span of history between Christ’s walking on earth and out present day.

Let me begin by putting all my cards on the table:

Predestination (or election) and choice and free-will in salvation are not mutually exclusive and in fact are both true throughout both the moment of salvation and the life-long process of sanctification.

First up in the list of evidence is that passage many evangelicals love to hate, Romans 8. This excerpt from verses 28 through 30 contains the most difficult bits:

(28) And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (29) For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (30) And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

The meaning of this verse is not open to much discussion or debate, it is rather clear on it’s face: we are not responsible for our salvation or sanctification. We are merely fortunate to have been chosen.

Next up, Romans 9: 6-22:

(6) …it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, (7) and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” (8) This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (9) For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” (10) And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, (11) though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— (12) she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” (13) As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

(14) What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! (15) For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (16) So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (17) For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (18) So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

(19) You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (20) But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (21) Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (22) What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,

This is very similar to God’s ultimate response to Job at the end of his complaining. God tells him his mind is too small to understand all the purposes behind His working in the world. Trust is not trust when we see the whole picture or comprehend the entire situation.

But then what of choice? It seems that Paul has not left any room for choice and free-will in either salvation or sanctification.

So then we get to the “friendly” passages. The ones that are quoted every Sunday and most every other day from thousands of pulpits and soap-boxes around the world promoting the ease of access to God’s redemptive plan, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

As we can see, there is little debating this scripture either. “Whoever” is an inclusive word with the only limiter being one of undebatable choice: “believes”. The choice is obviously ours to make when it comes to salvation.

So then there is a paradox, there are two apparently mutually exclusive claims made regarding salvation and it’s cause and effect.

Using these verses and their context, it is not difficult to see how they fit together like two sides of the same coin.

John 3 begins with the account of Nicodemus’ talk with Jesus. Jesus was telling an unsaved and searching man how he ought to find salvation.

Romans 8 and 9 are revealing a greater understanding of salvation, sanctification, and the Christian walk to those already saved.

When God speaks to those who need Him and who He desires to come to Him, that is all of us, He speaks of our need and choice. And when He speaks to those of us who are working out lives defined by His process of sanctification, He speaks of His own supremacy and unmatchable ability to reach out to us, draw us, save us and sanctify us and of our own inability to accomplish any of the same.

God’s omniscience and His perspective seeing our entire lives, He sees our beginning and our ending at the same ‘time’ and therefore knows how we will choose before the choice is even presented. This is confirmed and expounded upon by Paul’s statement that “He works all things together for good to those called”. However, in much the same way an observing scientist’s knowledge that a mouse will eventually reach the cheese in the maze does not negate the free-will in the choices that mouse made reaching the cheese, God’s knowledge and awareness of our entire life-path at all times and His active work in our life-path do not negate the fact that we are responsible for the choices he has given us.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Update 8/31/09:

Neil at 4Simpsons links to an article attempting to reconcile Predestination and Free Will at the blog Winging It. David argues that God’s predestination and election awakes the heart to experience the free will capable of accepting salvation.

6 thoughts on “The Predestination Paradox”

  1. All people, Christian or not, reasonably ask the question once or more in their lives where does my choice begin and end – more or less. I don’t choose where I’m born, my name, parents, color, religion (at first), etc. There are in fact very few things we get to choose. We must eat, sleep, cloth ourselves, protect ourselves, stay healthy and hopefully have children. Other than these our life experiences, for a large part, determines the rest, which isn’t to say someone comes to you and changes your mind. Jesus Christ came to man and changed his mind; but it was not man who changed it in the first place, God had to come.

    Don’t get me wrong, while I say our life experiences determine much of our choices, we do fundamentally retain the ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But we are quite limited. I prefer to use the metaphor of the game Monopoly. The board is set, cards are shuffled and the dice are made. However, it really depends on how YOU role the dice. Life is more complicated but comparitively I think that is really how much choice we really have. Plenty though to be responsible for our actions; I realizse the limitations of my metaphor.

    In the context of being a Christian I believe we are only then called or chosen. We are chosen because of Christ and only in Christ. Which is another way of saying we have a specific purpose called by God to do something. Jesus Christ was called by the Father to do something, thus Christians are also; but not unbelievers. Which is why all good things work towards God’s purposes for those who believe. I do also think that unbelievers are used for a simliar purpose. Tyranny, strife, stress, poverty, etc humbles people to hope, which is the message of Christ; although people confuse it with the hope of the State. No man can answer to question of why one person lives or dies, but at least we can have assurance in the rest.

    Logically if God so loved us he gave His son, then that means is He does the best for us all which is the very best; better than what any man can do. So no matter what He does I trust Him. I don’t NEED to understand it because logically we are talking about the omniscient and omnipotent being.

    Lastly, tell me of anyone like Jesus Christ and all that he bore upon himself. Muhammed? Buddah? Mankind? For all their good and bad, none of them honestly compare to the good of Jesus Christ.

  2. Something else I had been thinking about is how our lives are narrowed by the word of God and thus predetermined (in a sense). Maybe there’s a better word for it but as a loyal Christian we to follow the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, with the explicit and implicit teachings of the NT I’m to live my life a particular way and thus further limiting my choices. You add everything up and our path is indeed narrow. Although this by no means negates our volition. I can be a electrician or an engineer and that is obeying the word of God.

  3. You said "God’s omniscience and His perspective seeing our entire lives, He sees our beginning and our ending at the same ‘time’ and therefore knows how we will choose before the choice is even presented."

    Are you linking this with election. i don't think you are but it seems a little ambiguous, so I thought I'd ask you to clarify. Simply because his choice isnt based on foreknowledge of our choices.

  4. I'm linking it with election to the extent that God's knowledge each of our entire lives as an entire story gives Him the ability to know our choices "before" we make them. But I use that only as a human explanation of a divine mystery. God has the innate ability, as God, to contain the entirety of the past, present, and future of the entirety of the universe in His mind at once. His foreknowledge is not dependent on this fact, but this fact serves to illuminate the possibility of a human comprehension of His foreknowledge.

  5. Sounds good. Just wanted clarification. Some point to foreknowledge as the basis for election… that God sees who will choose him and elects those.

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