(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Predestination from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Today we look at the always electric topic of predestination. After the gospel itself, and your view on justification, (a topic we’ll take up later) there is probably no doctrine that has a greater effect on how you interpret scripture and how you evangelize, than where you stand on predestination.
We’ll begin with some technical definitions. Keep in mind that these are, at the moment, only definitions. They are provided so that we all are on the same page. The definitions do not constitute a proof of the doctrine of predestination—that will come later.
Foreordination: This means that God ordains, or decrees, or determines, or appoints, or at the very least permits all that comes to pass, from and until all eternity. Nothing surprises God. A denial of absolute foreordination leads one to the realm of open theism—the idea, expressed simplistically, that God does not know the future, at least not in perfect detail.
Predestination: This is a subset of foreordination; it involves those aspects that specifically concern free moral agents—that is men, angels, and demons. In particular, of course, we are concerned with predestination as it applies to man as a free-willed moral agent.
We further subdivide predestination into election and reprobation.
Election: The part of predestination that refers to saving acts. In particular, election teaches that from before the foundations of the earth, God did predestine the acts of certain men (the elect) that would lead them to salvation, but without violating their free wills. Furthermore this was done without any regard to the future actions of the elect—in particular the predestining is not done in advance and applied to those whom God foresees will accept the gospel. Instead, those whom God elects and only those will be changed so as to accept the gospel.
Reprobation: This refers to the acts of men that lead to their damnation. It means that such evil acts of men are part of predestination. It does not, however, mean that God causes men to behave in a wicked manner leading to their damnation. As with election, we acknowledge that men are free moral agents. In reprobation, God chooses not to restrain men from committing evil.
Positive Decree: Election is a positive decree meaning that God not only foreordains who should be saved unto eternal life; He also actively works on the elect to empower the sinner to accept the Gospel. God does something to the elect; He is active in their lives in such a way to ensure that they will come to call on Jesus at their Savior. He gives them a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone.
Permissive Decree: Reprobation is a permissive decree meaning God foreordains those who will be lost but does nothing active to ensure or energize their sinfulness. God does not dispose or incline men to wickedness, rather God refrains from taking action, thereby freeing man through his own nature and inclination to choose evil and suffer eternal damnation.
Example of positive (election) vs. permissive (reprobation) Decrees
Consider John 14:6:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)Here Jesus teaches both reprobation and election. He begins with a universal negative: No one comes to the Father. That is, all men, left to themselves, are incapable and/or unwilling (actually both, but from this verse alone we cannot say) to seek out the Father. Notice that the reprobation is permissive. God does not actively cause man to shun Him; men, in fact all men, do it quite naturally. This is also evident in an earlier teaching from Jesus:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)Man, left to his own devices, loves the darkness over the light—precisely because he is evil. God does not have to dispose man to prefer the darkness—it is as natural to man as breathing.
Notice the rest of John 14:6: except through me. Here Jesus demonstrates a positive decree and election. He teaches that Man cannot on his own gain access to the Father—Jesus must be involved.
This is probably more evident in the role-reversed version earlier in John’s gospel:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)Again we see a universal negative, and here it is clear that man, on his own, is actually incapable of coming to Jesus: No one can come to me. Once again, this is permissive in nature: the verse does not teach that God prevents man from coming to Him, nor does it teach that God inclines man to stay away.
On the flip side, we see a positive decree pertaining to election: unless the Father who sent me draws him. This drawing is referred to in John 3 as being “born again”, and the same verb is translated as drag in Acts 16:9 and James 2:6. It carries the force of the phrase “compels by irresistible force”. God does something active in the elect, compelling and empowering them so that they can come to Jesus by their own free will. With the elect, God takes divine initiative, bringing life to those who are dead. Not only that: we see that this coming to Jesus does in fact equate to salvation, for this same group that is drawn, and this same group than comes to Jesus—this group Jesus promises to raise on the last day.
Again, even at the beginning of John’s gospel we see this teaching:
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)It is perhaps useful to paraphrase verses 12 and 13:
Those who believed in Jesus were saved—those who were born again through God.
Notice in particular what may not be apparent at first glance: the “born of God” describes the condition of those who received Jesus; it does not describe a consequence of receiving Him.
The rejection from those who “did not receive him” is done with no help from God. Those who did receive were reborn not of flesh nor blood but rather of (by) God. This rebirth is the act of receiving from God a new heart with new inclinations toward righteousness—it is the “drawing” from John 6:44.
We must understand what theses passages teach. It is not: If you choose Jesus you will be born again. It is: If you are born again you will choose Jesus.
Next we examine the final definition we will need:
Total depravity: this is the doctrine that man, as a result of the Fall, is totally depraved in the sense that his entire being has been corrupted. It is not that man is as bad as he can be—that would be utter depravity—it is the idea that man cannot do anything that is good and righteous. Every single action is tainted by sin, and hence every action of fallen man—regardless of any superficial goodness—is revolting in the eyes of God. Man is completely inclined toward wickedness, even when he presents a good façade.
C. S. Lewis, in the poem As the Ruin Falls, captures the essence of total depravity:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
St. Augustine describes the effect of the fall this way:
- Before the fall, man (Adam and Eve) could choose to sin, or choose not to sin.
- After the fall, natural (unsaved man) cannot choose not to sin.
- Regenerated man can choose to sin, or choose not to sin.
- Glorified man cannot choose to sin
It is also worth noting that those who oppose the doctrine of predestination are more properly said to oppose the doctrine of total depravity. For once you accept the doctrine of total depravity, you are then left with only two choices:
- Nobody will ever be saved
- God will intervene to ensure at least some people are saved
Those who reject predestination must first reject total depravity. They absolutely must reject the idea that man is incapable of any good whatsoever in the eyes of God. There must be a vestigial goodness in man that, with the help of God’s grace, permits him to choose God before, rather than after, he is reborn. Those who reject predestination must also reject Augustine; they must believe that unregenerated man enjoys the same moral options as Adam and Eve before the fall: the ability to choose sin and also the ability to choose not to sin.