One of the longest and most persistent controversies in the history of Christianity has been the debate over predestination. The Scriptures themselves seem to provide the ammunition for the conflict. On one hand (e.g., Romans 8:26-9:24, Acts 16:14), they speak of God appointing men for salvation, drawing them into faith, opening their hearts and closing them. On the other hand (e.g., Romans 10:6-21, 2 Peter 3:9, Revelation 16:11), they speak of God's desire for the salvation of all men, of His exhortation for men to repent and believe (which seems to presume some ability to choose), and of man's hardening of his own heart. Each line of reasoning is quite easy to understand -- as long as it is isolated from the other. It is easy to understand man being free to choose and responsible for that choice; it is also easy to imagine God taking all the initiative and the responsibility for a man's salvation. What is hard -- and for many, impossible -- is seeing how they can both be true together. Both of these affirmations cannot be equally true at the same time: so it appears to many. The result of this doubt is the tendency to side with one group of Scriptures more than the other group. If you have read the debaters, you will have seen that one group of Scriptures is received quite simply and literally, while the other group is not received in the same simple and direct way, but is modified and forced to fit into the opposing position. This procedure is true for both the Calvinist camp (upholders of God's initiative) and for the Arminian camp (upholders of man's freedom).1 I think it safe to say that in our day the Arminians outnumber the Calvinists by a rather large margin; and I suspect that most of those who claim no affiliation nevertheless think with Arminian logic.

The Arminian reasoning often argues thus: If it is true that the initiative for the individual's salvation is on God's side then it must logically follow that the person not elected to salvation is condemned to hell unjustly, for He has had neither the opportunity nor the freedom that must be possessed before one may be justifiably held responsible for his failure to accept Christ. The only way a man may justifiably be damned is if he freely and consciously rejects the grace offered to all men in Christ -- he must have the freedom to decide either to reject or accept that grace. And since -- so the reasoning continues -- we know that God calls upon men to make a choice (which no Calvinist denies), and since God wants all men to be saved, man must have the freedom the Arminians say he has; and the "predestination" sounding language of the Scriptures must be modified in the Arminian direction before it can be accepted. They furthermore sometimes reject Calvinism on the grounds that its God is inhumane -- having the power to predestine all men to salvation, yet electing and calling only a few to actually enter it.

The Calvinists, on the other hand, reply that the predestination language of the Scriptures is too clear to be set aside or watered down; that man is far too entrapped by Satan to be able to exercise his will toward God; and therefore that no individual can ever be saved if left to his own power and freedom. Furthermore, they would argue, God is not at all unjust in not electing the majority of the human race to salvation, for all men truly deserve condemnation -- God, therefore, is only leaving the non-elect to their just sentence. There is a logic in this, formally speaking, and yet it hardly ever convinces the man who has not already decided for predestination upon other grounds. That logic seems to cause something noble in man's heart to recoil.

If the modern Arminian and the classical Calvinist positions are the only two possible ones, it is very understandable why men should ignore the debate and refuse to take sides (consciously, at any rate). The Calvinists are indeed right: the predestining group of Scriptures are far too clear to be set aside or to have their obvious meaning watered down. Furthermore, no true saint of God ever talks to Him as an Arminian: they spontaneously thank God in their prayer for taking the initiative in their salvation, even if they deny God's initiative in their theology. And yet I believe the Arminians are right in their suspicions about the unloving character of the God of the thorough-going Calvinist. "But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17): if a man stands condemned for not aiding a needy (though undeserving) person when it is in his power to do so, a God who passes by a sinner for all eternity when it is fully within His power to elect him for salvation must also stand condemned by that same Scripture. The talk about this passing the sinner by being "just" is an offense to our Spirit-given instincts of love, compassion and generosity.

This problem between the two sets of Scriptures often seems incapable of solution, and those who have made a choice seem to have gotten the satisfaction provided by the position of their choice only at the expense of being burdened down by that position's unscriptural elements. The Calvinists start with simple and childlike acceptance of the "God initiates" kind of Scriptures, but suddenly abandon their childlikeness and will only accept the "man is responsible" kind of Scriptures after extensive modification of the language's meaning. The Arminians, conversely, start with simple and childlike acceptance of the "man is responsible to choose" kind of Scriptures, but suddenly abandon their childlikeness and only accept the "God initiates" kind of Scriptures after extensive modification of the language's meaning. What then shall you and I do?

For one thing, we must absolutely refuse to prefer and set one passage of Scripture against another; and we must refuse to believe that we must adopt different standards of interpretation for the two different groups of Scripture, when each group is clear enough in itself. True believers must not be lovers of Calvinism or of Arminianism, but only lovers of Scripture.

And now let us look at representatives of the two different groups of Scripture. Let us affirm exactly what each group affirms, and then see if we cannot come to one understanding that makes good sense out of both groups, each group being received it its natural sense.

Scriptures that affirm God's initiative

All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me... (John 6:37).

No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him (John 6:44). one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father (John 6:65).

These verses from John seem to say quite clearly and emphatically that the Father must take some kind of initiating activity on behalf of an individual before that individual can come to Christ, do they not? They seem to say that apart from the Father's drawing of the individual, that individual cannot come to Christ: is that not the most natural and straightforward meaning of the passages?

...and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).

Surely, the use of this kind of language necessarily creates the clear impression that those who believe and trust in Christ do so because, even before they actually believed, it had been decreed by God for them to receive eternal life, does it not?

And a certain woman named Lydia... was listening, and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).

Does not this manner of speaking forcefully direct us to believe that she responded to the things spoken by Paul precisely because God opened her heart to do so?

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called, and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

If we follow the straightforward implications of the text, this passage certainly requires us to believe that God had "foreknown" and "predestined" those who later came to believe in Christ, and that He did it long before the moment He actually called them into belief. Whatever part they played in repenting and believing could never lessen the fact that He foreknew and predestined them long before they ever believed.

It is exceedingly common for those of Arminian persuasion to interpret "foreknowledge"2 in a way that makes the predestination mentioned in this passage become merely God's response to a man's future initiative, based upon His knowing in advance that that person will choose Christ. This interpretation, besides going against the strong emphasis upon God's sovereignty throughout this passage, does not fit well with the meaning of God's "knowing" someone in the Scriptures:

The meaning of this phrase [i.e., "whom He foreknew," from the Greek "proegno"] must be determined by the Biblical use of the word "know," which is very marked and clear: e.g., Psalm 1:6, "The Lord knoweth ("gignoskei") the way of the righteous;" Psalm 144:3, "Lord, what is man that Thou takest knowledge of him?" ... Amos 3:2, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth;" Matthew 7:23, "Then will I profess unto them I never knew you" ... In all these places the word means "to take note of," "to fix the regard upon," as a preliminary to selection for some especial purpose. The compound "proegno" only throws back this "taking note" from the historic act in time to the eternal counsel which it expresses and executes.3

... So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy ... (Romans 9:16; read verses 1-24).

This passage, too long to reproduce here in full, is the longest and perhaps most explicit passage of all. Paul reasons thus: God deliberately and publicly rejected Esau from being the child of promise in favor of Isaac, before they had been born and before either had done anything good or bad, precisely because He wanted to show that His purpose stands not because of any works of man, but because of His choosing and calling; the gift of the covenant does not depend upon the man who wills but upon the God who grants His mercy to that man.4

Paul next says that, just as with Pharaoh in the Exodus, God extends His mercy (of acceptance into the covenant) to those whom He has chosen to enter it, and hardens the hearts of the non-elect against coming into the covenant (so that they choose against it, like Pharaoh chose against Israel). It seems obvious that Paul knows exactly the effect this statement has upon the reader, for he next anticipates their response: "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?'." At this point he does not give them an answer to their objection, but only states that any person who offers objection to what God has clearly revealed has no right to do so. He then states that God prepares some people ("vessels") for condemnation, and some for mercy and glory. This "preparing" must refer to His bringing each man into being by knitting him together in the womb (Psalm 139:13; Jeremiah 1:5). Thus, when He is creating a man that He has not elected to salvation He is "preparing him for condemnation." God is portrayed here as not simply neutral toward the non-elect; he actually hardens them against Him, like Pharaoh. Paul does not here explain the doctrine of God's election, nor does he here tackle the question of "theodicy."5 He simply states the bare data of the dogma of God's initiating role in our salvation. He does not even hint here at the basis upon which God elects one person and hardens another, or whether there even is any reasonable or understandable basis. That there is such a basis, and the nature of it, must be derived from other Scriptures.

He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will ... having been predestined according to His purpose, who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:4-5, 11).

As with the other passages, the most natural and obvious meaning is that all of us who believe after listening to the message of truth (vs. 13) do so precisely because that grace had been extended to us and appointed for us before the world was created. No explanations are provided to suggest why He predestines the ones that He does.

...those who disbelieve ... stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed (1 Peter 2:7, 8).

Peter is very clearly pointing out two levels of causes here: unbelievers stumble because they are disobedient to the word (which calls upon them to repent and believe). And, furthermore ("also"), they are disobedient to that word and stumble, precisely because they were "appointed" to this end: in other words, Peter teaches that unbelievers are as predestined by God as are believers. As with Paul in Romans 9, so with Peter here: the apostle is not giving the reason for such an appointment, but only the basic data of fact. We may choke -- in the flesh -- at the awesomeness of this revelation, and the terror of it. But it is too clear to be simply set aside. If you do set it aside because it is "illogical" are you not demonstrating that you serve and prefer your reasoning powers rather than the clear revelation of God? To say that it is not in fact clear is to abandon the idea that language can communicate anything. Believe it because it is revealed by your God, or you shall never understand it and derive the benefit from it that it has for you.

Scriptures that seem to contradict God's initiative

Several kinds of Scriptures are often understood to argue against the teaching that God personally chooses whom He will and will not save. It is often argued that if we can establish that God wants all men to be saved then that would disprove the idea that He only selects some, and would also invalidate the idea that salvation is on the basis of His personal initiative at all. Secondly, it is often argued, if we establish through the Scriptures that God offers His salvation to every one, it proves that He does not withhold it from any (and therefore does not call only some into belief). Finally, it is argued, if we can see Scriptures that demonstrate a conditional element in this salvation (i.e., if remaining in a state of salvation depends to some extent upon man) then salvation is not simply effected and maintained by God, but does in fact depend to some degree upon the will of man.

And all three of these things can be seen in the Scriptures. First, the Scriptures do teach that God truly wants salvation for all men:

(The Lord) is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9);

(God)...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

The Calvinists refuse to take these Scriptures in their grammatically natural sense: they insist that since God is omnipotent, and since salvation is initiated by Him, if He truly wanted all men to be saved then all men would be saved. But if language means anything at all, these passages teach clearly that the true and earnest desire of God's heart is for every single person in the world to turn away from sin and enter into the salvation that has been provided for all men (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:6) through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

Secondly, the Scriptures do indeed teach that God offers His salvation to all men.

The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out (John 6:37);

If any man is thirsty let him come to Me and drink (John 7:37); For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him (John 3:17).

God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent (Acts 17:30);

(The Lord is)...abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:12-13).

For God to invite all men into salvation if He has no intention of permitting the great majority of them to enter into it would be cruel indeed. Think of your attitude toward a doctor who announced that all may come to be inoculated against a dreaded virus, and who then inoculated only a few with the real serum -- the rest being injected with water only. Such must be our attitude toward a God who acts like the Calvinist's God in making such an offer of salvation to all, of having the power to save all, but not having any intention of really doing so. For them to say that the Scriptures do not really mean what they clearly state (i.e., God wants all to be saved), is to jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. For in saying this they are abandoning the very principle of interpretation that they insist must be followed when dealing with the predestination-affirming Scriptures (i.e., interpret them in their natural, literal sense).

Finally, the Scriptures do teach that men may enter into the grace of Christ and then turn away from it (not "fall away," as if it were forcibly taken from them).

...they (i.e., unbelieving Jews) were broken off for their unbelief, and you stand only by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness, otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:20-22).

For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, "A dog returns to its own vomit," and, "A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire" (2 Peter 2:20-22).

These and similar Scriptures (e.g., Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-39), if received in their natural sense, teach that men may actually escape the defilements of the world, may enter into the grace of Christ, may have their former sins washed away and be "sanctified" (Hebrews 10:29), and then return to their sin and be cut off by God. We cannot use a Scripture like 1 John 2:19 to negate the clear and obvious meaning that is in these passages.6 People do truly enter into God's grace and then do truly sever themselves from it (Galatians 5:4).

A solution to the apparent dilemma

We must conclude here as we have in all other areas of study, that both groups of Scriptures are to be affirmed wholeheartedly. God personally selects, prepares, calls and nurtures those who are His. They believe precisely because He calls and enables them to do so. Those who interpret the "foreknowledge" of Romans 8:29-30 to mean only that God predestines to salvation those whom He knew ahead of time would believe anyway are confusing effects with causes, because in the other Scriptures we have seen clearly that it is His call that enables them to believe. There is no getting around this doctrine, unless we twist the meaning of the Scriptural words and refuse to let them say what they obviously do. If you are in His salvation, it is because He has marked you for special treatment, because He has brought many different influences into your life, because He has opened your eyes so that you can see your need for Christ, and because He enabled you to turn your back on the God of this world who had held you in bondage.

And yet we must conclude that God truly wants to save all men, not only those whom He actually does save. We must conclude that any man who will turn away from sin and believe in Christ enough to become His disciple will be granted the salvation that is in Him.

I can see only one way out of this apparent dilemma; and that is to understand that God cannot save all those whom He would love to save.7 Because of the very nature of the human being He has created, and because of the purpose He had in mind in creating human beings, He has imposed upon Himself a limitation of His power.

Remember now, salvation involves far more than being juridically stamped by God as "approved -- admit to heaven." If it were, then perhaps all men could and should be saved. Similarly, let us remember that salvation also involves more than coming to believe that Jesus is who He said He is. If it were, then perhaps all men could and should be saved. But in order for a man to be truly saved he must also be experientially brought by God to the point of, (1) freely renouncing all Satanic deception, all worldly ways and all domination by one's own flesh, and (2) freely choosing to surrender to God all real and imagined self-rule and freely coming under God's authority. A man simply cannot see through the deceptions he is involved in, and cannot exercise his corrupted will unto submission, unless God works over a period to time to enable Him to so see and so choose. God can bring some men to see and choose early in their lives, and some men late in their lives (and some not at all). But however and whenever a man may so see and choose what is necessary for his salvation, when it does occur it must be something he freely chooses, and chooses with all his heart.

God can certainly indeed open up any man's mind to see the truth of Jesus' identity; but he simply cannot bring every man to that necessary place of free and unconditional surrender of heart and will. Man's heart was made in God's image, and while God can skillfully guide a man's heart from amazingly deep corruption into surrender, He cannot bully it against its will (without causing the man's heart to cease being in His image). Some men will never be willing to accept that this world is evil, or be willing to accept that self-rule is intrinsically evil. He might get them to freely renounce murder, adultery and all of the gross manifestations of self-rule, but not the self-rule principle itself. He could terrorize them into acting very submissive, or bring them to a condition of non-rebellion by preventing them from being tempted to rebel (two conditions that will apparently exist during the millennium -- see Revelation 20); but that is not the same as freely choosing to serve God's will. Only such a freely chosen self-enslavement will be able to endure the glorified, virtually deified condition of our heavenly nature (Revelation 21:1f), without falling into the same self-exaltation and rebellion that Satan did.

And because God cannot bring all men to such a freely accepted surrender, and because He knew it from the beginning, He has elected/appointed/predestined only those whom He can bring through the gospel sequence to that place. Before He ever created anything, He knew by name all those that He would be able to shepherd into the malleability, the insight, the repentance, the trust and the obedience necessary to be conformed to the image of Christ (i.e., He "foreknew" them -- Romans 8:29). The person predestined for salvation may come into his adulthood far more wicked or malformed a person than many of those not elected to salvation. But God, Who knows all things from all eternity and who sees the heart, has marked that person from the womb for His special creative dealings. Indeed, in this particular instance, allowing him to experience such depravity has been one of the elements in that creative dealing. That elected person had from the womb always been securely in the grip of the One who would bring him to see his need and his true Savior at the moment ordained for him by God.

God will be able to bring some of His elect to a once-for-all surrender, and enable them to grow fast and bear fruit a hundredfold (Matthew 13:23); He will be able to bring others to bear fruit only thirty-fold -- and even then, only after working with them through shallow initial commitment and several backslidings. But He knew all that long ago. Holy is His Name!

Among the non-elect there are some who believe in the identity of Christ -- men like Simon the Magician seems to have been (Acts 8:21). Such believers may well think themselves sincere, and must be accepted on the basis of their profession -- for only God knows who they are for sure. But they will never choose to die to this world with Christ when they are brought to the testing places that restore us to His image, nor will they truly bear the fruit of the Spirit. God may even use them ("Lord, Lord..." -- Matthew 7:22), but they are not Christ's (and He never had any doubts about it). The Church cannot prevent them from entering the fellowship, but it seems to be a fact of history that the further away from Christ's truth and holiness that a body is, the more such "man-made" believers there will be.

The doctrine of predestination is God's revelation of how things concerning you, a true believer, look from His side. It is not a doctrine that can change the way a Church functions, for we cannot know another man's election with certainty. From Acts 8:21, we could never know for sure whether Simon the magician was not elect or whether he was one of the elect who was getting off to a bad start. That is why we can only operate upon the basis of profession of faith and of behavior.

The doctrine of God's election and initiative should prove to be a source of great comfort to you. When you see the nature of the evil in your flesh with some new depth of insight, or if you succumb to old temptations, and you begin to worry that God may find you repulsive and no true follower of Christ -- when this happens, the doctrine of His predestination is there to comfort and assure you that you are only able to see that evil and feel that sorrow because He had drawn you to that place of insight and sorrow. It is there to comfort and assure you that your relationship with Him depends incomparably more upon His ability to hold on to you than upon your ability to hold on to Him. This revelation from God to the disciple will come to him with certainty at a certain point in his walk with God: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!" (Isaiah 43:1). But the disciple can claim it from the very beginning. It will encourage the true disciple to relax in the hands of God, however weak and unstable he may still be, and to trust Him more. It encourages him to dare to believe that he who deserves none of God's promises is heir to all of them. Praise be to God!



1 Arminius himself, however, was apparently much more Calvinistic than those called by his name. <back>

2 That is,"...whom He foreknew, He also predestined..." <back>

3 William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, Fifth Edition (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), p. 217. <back>

4 Note carefully that Paul does not say that man does not do any willing in all this. What he does say is that the blessedness in which we come to stand does not depend initially upon that willing, but rather upon God's prior willing on our behalf. <back>

5 i.e., God's justice in doing what He does. <back>

6 Besides, that passage is talking about devious "antichrists" (2:18), who infiltrate the Church in order to teach their destructive heresies (2:22-23; Acts 20:29f) and then withdraw from the Church and draw away as many disciples unto themselves as they can. <back>

7 This is, of course, my speculation. If you don't want to accept it, come up with your own solution, as long as it honors all the Scriptures equally well; or be content to simply affirm both sets of Scriptures. <back>