I don’t normally discuss in open public format my particular theological views that may perhaps insight strong disagreements for numerous reasons. For some, division to the point of costing unity may occur. It shouldn’t, but it does. In many cases, people would rather not talk about this at all, and rest on the motif “God is sovereign, we agree on that” and leave it there. I don’t think we can really do that. I do believe this is a gospel issue–not in the sense that it means that those who do not agree with me are not saved, but in the sense that if we don’t understand how God rules (to the capacity that our puny brains can) and what the nature of man is, then that will in fact govern how we do evangelism and how we do church. This subject touches on every aspect of our thinking and action.
Many people in modern, conservative evangelical and even in some forms of liberal evangelicalism love to talk about how God is sovereign, God is in control. I know many people who firmly hold to that conviction, and love verses like Romans 8:28, where Paul says that God works all things to the good of those who love Him. That is of course a great passage to cite when you want to comfort someone in times of sorrow. A favorite Christian cliche that I think even Joel Osteen would admit is, “God has a wonderful plan for your life”.
The simple fact is that the Scriptures show us a God who is absolute power, and so that is the God we want to portray. It is a good thing to want people to believe that God is “in control” of everything. Ask any evangelical Christian of conservative leanings if God can be stopped by any power outside Himself from doing what He wishes and I am confident the majority of them will easily say ‘no’ to that question.
But how many of them are going to take that saying to the necessary conclusion? I think if you begin to press deeper and deeper, people may still agree that nothing outside God can stop Him from controlling His purposes, but then they’ll begin to question just what exactly God is in control of. These views have consequences, and we must be willing to address them if we want a more biblical understanding of who God is, and who we are in that light. In this article, I am going to explain what predestination from a biblical standpoint means. I am a Calvinist who has studied this subject soberly ever since I became a Christian just under ten years ago. I’ve watched debates, read books and listened to lectures on the subject and have come to this conclusion after these studies. Looking back in hindsight, I did accept Calvinism long before I really began to understand it, but it took several years for me to truly grasp what it was actually saying. Even today, I am still in a process of learning.
But with that, it is my desire to explain what exactly it is Calvinism is saying regarding predestination and why I believe it is the biblical, consistent view for all of evangelical Christianity to hold to. I don’t write this because I want to drive a wedge between like-minded Christians. My own church does not accept the teachings of Calvin, and I imagine many of my congregates will read this. I hope that they do, and if they don’t agree with me, they will not find me attacking their positions. None of this is meant to negatively critique non-Calvinist perspectives, but rather to provide clarity on what Calvinism is saying and not saying. This is meant to edify and to help explain what it is Calvinism is truly saying.
God’s Sovereignty in Scripture
I think it is best to start where all Christians agree. We all believe that God is sovereign. That is, He is in control, that He is not taken by surprise, and that He is able to save to the uttermost. Therefore, we begin with showing how the Bible teaches this. The Scriptures are our epistemological starting point. We must begin with them to understand God, not on our own ability to make sense of things. Scripture teaches us that God is triune in His nature–one being in three persons; three persons in one being. It makes no attempt to explain to us how that works logically. In the same way, God’s sovereignty over all of time and space is not explained to us. We are called to believe it, and to start with this, not reason to it. That’s absolutely key in this subject.
[Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.] -Psalm 33:8-9 (ESV).
Here the psalmist, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares that it is by God’s command that all the inhabitants have existence, and hence, continue to exist. This includes human beings. For this reason, the psalmist can say what he says next.
[The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.] -Psalm 33:10-11 (ESV).
All humanity derives its power and existence from God. Therefore they cannot do anything without God, in some sense, giving them the power to do it. We see here a form of determinism, wherein external factors provide the necessary grounds for certain entities to act. However, the external factor here is an omnipotent being, who is personal. Therefore upon the epistemological starting position of a triune, personal God, His deterministic attributes include personal, plural existences that are very real. This is why God can create real creatures that make real choices, that exist in a plurality of existence, all while being in a unity of existence, under God’s sovereign rule.
Hence God can decree in such a way that human activity, human consciousness is not cancelled out. You see how Yahweh “frustrates” the plans of the people. He cannot frustrate things that are robots who are not capable of rational reaction to God’s activity. The humanity is not sacrificed to God’s sovereignty. In fact, it is established on the basis of God’s sovereignty. An infinite, triune and personal God is able to make such a universe.
[all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”] -Daniel 4:35 (ESV).
Here we see Nebuchadnezzar declare by divine revelation God’s power over all time and space. See how the reality of humanity is not cancelled out by God’s ontologically superior existence, over and above man. Instead rather, Nebuchadnezzar defines man’s will and existence in light of the sovereign God. We will see more of this pattern throughout Scripture. But quickly here, man’s power is derivative from God Himself. That is, without God first acting, man is not able even to exist, let alone act.
[this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.] -Acts 2:23 (ESV).
Peter’s sermon at Pentecost to the Jewish people acknowledges that Jesus’s crucifixion was always part of God’s ultimate plan, and as Christians, we must affirm this. Otherwise God’s redemptive plan was only a possibility, so long as humankind went along with the plan. And if it must be this way in that God has to try and manipulate “free will” mankind, then God becomes a shadow conspirator, manipulating and hence distorting, in other words, sinning to bring about this plan. We will discuss the nature of this issue later, but for now, the context.
Nevertheless, Peter does not exclude responsibility upon the Jews for their killing of Messiah Jesus. They are still guilty of murder, despite the admission that their action was always part of God’s plan. The conclusion? That God can and does use sin for His own purposes, which are altogether good (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).
[for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.] -Acts 4:27-28 (ESV).
The believers here again show that they believe that God is in complete control of time and space, going so far as to say that God had predestined the events surrounding the crucifixion, and if God is going to predestine the crucifixion, that means God must be in control of everything that led up to the crucifixion. It had been God’s purpose all along to demonstrate the glory in the cross (Ephesians 1).
And yet, as before, the human element and responsibility is not cancelled out due to God’s predestinating act. In fact, it is God’s predestination that establishes the human activity.
Understanding God’s Sovereignty
These are but a few selected passages that demonstrate God’s absolute sovereignty and control over all time and space, and how God’s sovereignty does not diminish nor exclude human responsibility. But now the question is, how can we possibly make sense of this fact? How is it possible that God can be the primary means by which we make decisions, and yet those decisions are our own?
John Calvin’s name is often the one by which this doctrine is attributed (what we call Calvinism today), and his critics accuse Calvin of going beyond the Scriptures, into philosophical nonsense, deceiving many into a doctrine of devilry, and that consequentially his own followers delved into philosophical, Gnostic mysticism to develop this idea. How many of them have actually read Calvin on the subject of predestination, however? What did he really have to say in regard to the subject? I think that since he is the name by which this idea is originated to the most, it’s fitting to begin our attempt to explain election and predestination by his own words:
“But before I enter on the subject, I have some remarks to address to two classes of men. The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty, is rendered very perplexed, and hence perilous by human curiosity, which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths, and climbing to the clouds, determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored. When we see many, some of them in other respects not bad men, everywhere rushing into this audacity and wickedness, it is necessary to remind them of the course of duty in this matter. First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter an inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within Himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which is His pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also His perfections may appear. Those secrets of His will, which He has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in His word–revealed insofar as He knew to be conductive to our interest and welfare.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Third; Chapter 21, Section 1.
Calvin then makes a conclusion on this disclaimer:
“Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the word of God, is no less infatuated than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Third; Chapter 21, Section 2.
In other words, Calvin very plainly admits, before he attempts to tackle this subject, that he himself doesn’t understand how predestination works. It is mysterious to him. Calvin never claimed to have some special knowledge (Gnosticism) on this subject. This is important to note because many anti-Calvinist rhetoric argues against Calvinism under the idea that as we claim God has an electing purpose and predestination, we also know that. None of us have ever, ever made that claim. What’s being asserted here plainly is that God has a sovereign decree. We don’t know that decree, only that it exists.
[“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.] -Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)
Not all things are given to us. As Calvin says, God has given to us what He sees fit to give to us, for our good and benefit. He has not told us how His decree works, just like He has not told us how His triune nature works. He’s given absolutely no such explanation, nor attempted explanation in Scripture. We are not called to explain it logically through our human reasoning capacity.
There are a lot of bad understandings of the Trinity out there right now, and most of them arise out of the fact that people try to explain it in a way that is comfortable to their human knowledge. In the same way, there are a lot of bad attempts to explain God’s sovereignty in Scripture in a way that makes it comfortable for human capacities. This is what makes a mess out of the Bible. We are not called to understand how this works. We are called to be faithful to what God has revealed to us, and that is quite simply all Calvinism is trying to say.
God has a divine, decretive purpose, and the knowledge of that is supposed to bring us comfort in all the trials we face. It is not for us to try and philosophize away, and my contention is that it is most often my non-Calvinist friends who tend to drift off into non-biblical understandings of God’s foreknowledge (molinism for example) that causes problems, not Calvinism. Read God’s word, be faithful to what is plainly being taught to you on the text, and do not fear that God is in control. That God is in control of your life ought to bring you immeasurable comfort, not despair, and when we are troubled at this reality, I am very troubled. Are we saying God cannot be trusted with our destiny? I want God to be glorified in all things, including my destiny, whatever that means.
But while we admit very plainly that we cannot truly wrap our minds around this difficult subject, does that mean there is no way in which we can use human reasoning to make some sense out of it? To make some kind of category distinctions? Not at all. After all, in the Trinity, while we cannot understand exactly the nature of God, nevertheless, we formulate categories and logical reasoning to explain, as best as our human understanding can grasp, what the truth is.
We are not attempting to provide a thorough explanation as to what it is. If we could, then analogies regarding God’s triune nature would work. They do not, because His nature transcends in every aspect these simple explanations. No single concept can grasp it, but it can help us to understand it. Another way to look at this is to think of doctrine and category development as guidelines, or guardrails. They aren’t there necessarily to teach you how to walk, but they keep you from falling out of bounds. The formula of one being and three persons is a basic formula to help us not fall out of orthodoxy and into heresy.
That’s what doctrine is. It’s not so much teaching us what it is, but rather what it isn’t. In this light, we can develop language that helps us to understand better what we cannot fully understand. Recognize here that what we are doing is humbly admitting that we are not able to comprehend this truth, but being faithful to its reality, we subject our human thinking to it, not it to our human thinking.
It is out of this that Calvinism attempts to develop doctrine and one such is called Compatibilism. What compatibilism is telling us is quite frankly what I was showing repeatedly above, that God’s will is over and above the human will, and it is because of this order in ontology that man’s will exists at all. If you start with the triune, personal and infinitely powerful God, this is very easy to grasp. But if you start with the limitations of human capacities, then either God’s sovereignty cancels out human will, or human will cancels out God’s sovereignty.
Epistemology and ontology are key here. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, how we know what we know to be true. What is the starting point that enables us to understand all of reality? Ontology is the study of the nature of being. It’s almost an ecclesiastical idea, except the ecclesiology is not directed at titles, but rather the being itself. Ontologically, I am superior to my dog as a human being–by the nature of my very existence. God is the epoch of all ontology, Himself being the standard and absolute existence.
If the ontologically superior, triune God is your epistemological starting point, then you have the necessary grounds by which to have absolute, predestinating, determined, decretive sovereignty that is able to have meaningful, real, conscious creatures within it. You have, as it were, a unity for the plurality (the one and the many), just as the triune God Himself is one and many.
In his book, The One and the Many, R.J. Rushdoony explains this dilemma in predestination from a trinitarian perspective:
“The tendency of Mohammedan thought, when not arrested by statist action, to run into mysticism is an obvious and natural one. Since the one alone has ultimate reality, the proper goal of the many is absorption into that one. There is no Reformed or Augustinian distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Indeed, if two ingredients are lacking in a system of thought, i.e., the ontological trinity and a distinction is bluffed, in that both proximate and ultimate causes, if the difference is made, are alike derived from a common well of being and are basically one.” (Page 12).
Rushdoony is demonstrating the failure of Unitarianism in Islam to explain the plurality of existence by the Islamic god. Since the Islamic god has no plurality in his being, plurality in the universe doesn’t have any real meaning, and hence Islam defaults to statism, and to hard determinism. Rushdoony continues,
“For Calvin, responsible proximate causes rested precisely on the total, all-comprehensive ultimate cause; that is, the Christian doctrine of free will rests on the eternal counsel of God, on predestination.” (Page 12)
In conclusion, if the ultimate being is Unitarian, having no plurality by which he or it can bring forth existence, then plurality simply is not a valid equation in whatever the ultimate being created. However, if the ultimate being does have plurality in its one being, then the plurality finds its wholeness, it’s origin within that one being, yet not without the plurality having true existence and true meaning.
Primary and Secondary Means
To this, we move on to explain, as best as human knowledge allows, how this works. Remember, that all that I explain is meant to help us develop categories to prevent us from going too far (such as preventing us from accusing God of sin). As much as it seems like we are drifting into philosophy, which we are in a sense, nevertheless, our philosophy is derived from biblical parameters; our categories are derived from biblical parameters. If God is predestinating all actions, then He must be doing it in such a way that does not disqualify human will (and its freedom insofar as Scripture grants it), as well as in a way that He is not the author of sin that humans commit, which they commit by their own, yet under God’s sovereign authority.
Hence we focus on the two words I underlined in quoting Rushdoony’s book, proximate and ultimate causes. The ultimate cause (primary) would be God, since it is by Him and through Him we have our being (Acts 17:25-28), and hence all action and all things that exist must first pass through His mind in some fashion before they ever come to exist. Then there are proximate causes (secondary) which are committed by the creation itself as a result of the primary cause.
It is in this way, through these definitions that we can best make sense of God’s interaction with His world. How is it that God is able to predestine, yet in such a way that He is not the author of sin?
[As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.] -Genesis 50:20 (ESV)
Here we have Joseph forgiving his brothers for the evil they did to him, and the evil their sin had brought upon Joseph all his life. Joseph acknowledges and fully believes that God was in control of all of it, right down to the very evil plot of the brothers. You see one action (selling Joseph into slavery) and yet two parties, two motives for the action. You have the brothers’ motive, and God’s motive, but yet God’s motive for the sin was over, above and greater than the brothers’.
[If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.] -1 Samuel 2:25 (ESV).
Eli calls his wicked sons to repentance. Yet they refuse to repent and listen to their father. And then we see that the reason they did not repent was because God had a purpose, God had desired this. Nevertheless, the refusal to repent is sin imputed to the sons; they do not escape responsibility. God’s will gives rise to man’s.
In each case here, we see a relationship between God’s will and man’s, that they are distinguished from one another, but yet have an inseparable relationship. More than this, however, it is God’s will that gives rise to man’s. It is God’s ontological nature that allows God to be the primary cause and use secondary causation and means to accomplish His ultimate desire. This is how we come to these conclusions, and how we make sense of the biblical data. As I said, there are more areas of Scripture we could go to, but I wanted to go to the ones I am most familiar with and I think best help flesh these things out.
I hope here that I have provided a meaningful argument on what Calvinism is talking about, and where we get the doctrine of predestination, and of compatibilism. We are not making this stuff up. We are not attempting to deceive people. Much criticisms of Calvinism that I discover attempt to critique Calvinism without going to the biblical texts that we use to make our arguments, as if we don’t derive any of our beliefs from Scripture itself. What I have shown here is that we do, in fact, derive our beliefs from Scripture.
Perhaps my interpretations are incorrect. If they are, then the non-Calvinist has to show that, not simply ignore our argumentation. Nor is it proper to tell others that we believe God makes people robots, and makes people sin. That’s slander, and it is not what we are saying. We believe that God is in control of all human activity, but not in the way that humans understand it. We believe it in such a way as God is ontologically capable of doing, not us. As I said in the opening, we all believe God is sovereign. We understand that sovereignty differently, and for me, I do not see how you can have a God who is sovereign who is yet not therefore the primary cause of all things. I don’t believe He is the direct cause of sin, but sin ultimately is allowed to exist and is used by God for His purposes.
I hope that this will help clear away any confusion on this subject. The best we can hope for is clarity. In this way, may we have real discussions on this issue, all to the glory of God.