Thursday, December 11, 2008

Predestined to holiness

When I first started studying theology in Bible college as a new Christian almost 20 years ago I was introduced to the Calvinist/Arminian debate over free will and predestination. I was attending a Free Methodist Bible College, so they were of course promoting the Arminian view of free will. That was a good thing as the Calvinist position made no sense to me. If God has already determined who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell in advance without any power to change that on the part of the individual, then what’s the point of all of this? Besides that, Scripture frequently calls people to repent and believe, which certainly seems to strongly imply that they can choose to do that. If they don’t, what’s the point of telling them to? You may as well command someone to swim the ocean.

In the years since then I’ve continued to study this debate. And I can report that the Calvinist position still makes no sense to me! But I do understand that Calvinists sincerely believe that their view is clearly taught in Scripture, and so they are obligated to believe it even if it doesn’t make sense to them. There’s a sense in which I agree with that – sometimes there are things that are difficult to understand that we believe on the basis of reliable authority. This is true not only in matters of theology, but in many areas of life. I don’t believe, however, that this is one of those areas.

Scripture does talk about predestination, or at least of people being predestined. In Ephesians 1:3-5 we read this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would 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, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

What does this passage actually mean? Does it say that we who are believers were chosen to be saved while the rest of the world goes to hell? Actually, no. It says nothing about heaven or hell at all or even salvation. What it says is that firstly, we were chosen “that we would be holy and blameless before Him,” and secondly that God predestined us “to adoption as sons”. The emphasis is important here. It does in fact say that we were predestined (more in a minute about who the “we” refers to), but not that we were predestined to be saved or even predestined to believe, which is the Calvinist position. Rather, it says what we were predestined to: namely to be holy and blameless and to adoption as sons. The predestination involved here is just what it means – that the destination or destiny was determined in advance. In other words, God determined that he wanted a people who would be holy and blameless, and who would be his children. But how to do that, especially when you’re starting with people who are naturally stubborn, rebellious, and sinful? So God also determined the process that would produce this result – namely the atoning sacrifice of Jesus that would cleanse and purify a people for himself (Titus 2:14) and the adoption of those who have faith in Christ as children of God (John 1:12). God predestined or predetermined the end result and the process needed to produce that result.

What it doesn’t say is that he predetermined which individuals would end up “buying in” to this process. It says nothing about him arbitrarily deciding before you were born whether or not you would believe. When Paul says “we” were predestined to this or that, who is he talking about? He’s talking about believers – about those who have placed their faith in Christ and repented of their sins. So God predestined that those who have believed in Christ would end up holy and blameless and as the children of God – quite an amazing concept!

But isn’t all of this just about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Isn’t that what the Gospel is all about? Actually I don’t think so. Not that that’s not an important question of course, but it’s not the only question or maybe even the most important question. Heaven and hell are simply consequences of our decisions in this life. But salvation is much more than getting a “get out of jail free” card or “fire insurance”, or some other similar analogy. It’s about becoming the children of God – of the Holy One who created us, and who gives us “life, breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). We are predestined to holiness. For many of us it’s high time we started acting like it. But that’s another topic!

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.