A Look at Predestination Apart from Election

When the word predestination is used, people get nervous. Are we about to have a fight about the gospel, about the love of God, about Calvinism? So much emotion is invested in the discussion of salvation, free will, and the extent of the atonement that I fear that many do not see things that Scripture says quite plainly.

This thought came to my mind as I was reading through Acts 4, in a passage where the word predestined is used. Here we see a thing God predestined that is not individual salvation. Perhaps a look at this will help us think more clearly about the use of predestined in other places.

Acts 4:27-28 – 27 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The disciples, in a prayer to the Lord, acknowledged that God had used Herod and Pilate along with the people of Israel to accomplish the crucifixion. And in that declaration, they said that these people did what God had predestined to take place.

What must we understand the word predestined to mean in this context? God had determined beforehand that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ would happen. Not only that, God had determined that Herod and Pilate along with the religious leaders and the crowds would be a part of what happened. The destination of events, the final outcome of events, was set by God “pre” or beforehand. In simplest terms, that is what predestination means: to set a destination or outcome before it takes place.

Now, ask yourself a few important questions about the predestination mentioned here by the apostles. First, is there any possible way that the crucifixion of Jesus could have not taken place? Did God leave the door open to a potential future where Jesus was not crucified? The answer here must be no. God predestined that Jesus would be crucified. This was his eternal plan. It could not have not happened.

Second, ask if there is any way that Herod and Pilate could have avoided being involved? It surely does not look like it from the passage above. God predestined that Jesus would be crucified. God also gathered in Jerusalem people who were predestined to be involved in the crucifixion. Nothing in the text indicates anything other than the idea that these men, Herod, Pilate, the crowds, the religious leaders, they were all going to be involved in doing exactly what they did.

What about free will? Did Herod, Pilate, and the others not make a free choice? Of course they did. Herod chose in accord with his greatest personal desire. Pilate chose in accord with his character. Every individual in the crowd or on the religious council did exactly what they wanted to do. There is nothing in the text to indicate that God overrode their freedom to accomplish what he had planned.

So, what happened here? Is the issue here simply that God knew the future? Did God simply understand what these men would do if put in a particular situation? Did God only shape events to make the outcome of the crucifixion an extremely likely outcome based on the free choices that he could foresee? That is not what the text says. The text says that God predestined the crucifixion. God determined beforehand that it would happen and that the men involved would be involved.

Here is what we must conclude. God, by his power and for his glory, set beforehand exactly what would happen. He set it in such a way that there is no possible way that it would not happen. Nor was there any possible way that the people involved would not be involved. And, as the people involved did what they did, they acted in perfect concert with their deepest desires. God is totally sovereign over the event. The people acted from their freedom. Which is the greater determiner? At no point should we assume that man’s freedom is greater than God’s sovereignty. But, from within that sovereignty, God never committed sin or forced men unwilling to commit sin to sin.

I know that I have Christian friends who struggle with the issue of predestination. So often the primary issue has to do with a defense of free will. Can I simply encourage you not to take a worldly view of human freedom? Is man free? Yes. Is God free? Yes. Is God sovereign over all? Yes. Who is more free, man or God? We must conclude, if we are to have a biblical worldview, that God’s freedom, God’s ultimate will, and—yes—God’s predestination is more important than human freedom.

Understand, dear friends, that God predestined the crucifixion and the involvement of men like Herod and Pilate. But God never wronged those men. The sovereign will of God was accomplished. Herod and Pilate were willful sinners who brought the wrath of God down on their souls for participating in the unjust execution of the Son of God. And all is in concert with the glorious eternal plan of God to glorify his name as he saves a people for himself.

Sovereignty and Responsibility in a Shipwreck

When discussions arise of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, we often have a hard time. So much emotion is attached to the topic of free will and predestination, election and responsibility, that many cannot allow room for thinking past our feelings. So, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider sovereign decree and human responsibility from a more temporal angle, one with less feeling included.

In acts 27, Paul and his companions are on a sea voyage to transport the apostle to Rome. Along the way, there will be a shipwreck. And that shipwreck has the potential to kill all on board.

What we need to notice for our look at the topic of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are the two guarantees that Paul makes in the chapter. First, Paul will make it clear exactly whom God will keep alive in the upcoming ordeal. Then, just after that, Paul will set forth a condition that, if unmet, will prove his first guarantee false.

Acts 27:21-26 – 21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

God promised Paul that Paul would make it to Rome. And, more importantly for our purposes, God promised Paul that all on board the ship would survive. That was a guarantee. It will happen. God has sovereignly decreed it, and Paul knows it.

So, one might argue that Paul need take no action at all to see this happen. Paul need not speak to anybody about anything. Paul need not give warnings to any.

But watch what happens next.

Acts 27:30-32 – 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

A group of the ship’s crew determined to use the boats to escape the doomed vessel. They were going to slip away unnoticed by the soldiers. But Paul gave the Roman soldiers a very significant warning. If those sailors leave the ship, the soldiers will not survive the wreck. If the sailors leave, the guarantee from earlier will not be true.

The sailors are not allowed to escape. That leaves the sailors on the ship to bring the ship in as close to the beach as possible. And, in the end, every life on board is spared.

Now, let’s talk sovereign decree and free will and possibility. Was Paul telling the truth when he said that God would spare every life on the ship? Of course he was. That was the ultimate decree of God. Nothing was going to change that.

Well then, was Paul speaking nonsense when he warned the Roman soldier that the people would die if the sailors left the ship? No, not at all. God intended to save the lives of all on board the ship through the means of the active work of the sailors.

Well, then was it possible that the people could die? It depends, of course, on what you mean by possible. The people genuinely would have died had the sailors left. But God used the means of Paul’s warning to prevent the sailors from leaving the ship. That allowed the sailors to remain and steer the ship. And through the means, God worked the physical salvation of all the lives on board. On the one hand, it was possible that the people could have died—hence Paul’s warning. But, from another perspective, there was no way this was going to happen. God decreed the end of the adventure as well as the means he would use to bring about that end. Was Paul free? Yes. Were the sailors and the Romans free? Absolutely. Did God work the outcome with absolute sovereignty? You bet. Were the people responsible for the choices they made? Of course. Were their decisions genuine? Yes. But, in the end, was God the ultimate cause of all that took place to save those lives? Absolutely.

Perhaps this will help you to think better about God’s sovereignty and our salvation. All we see here is parallel with our salvation with a few exceptions. Like the sailors, we are headed for doom if we stay on our natural course. Unlike the sailors, we are far more bent against God than they were bent against staying on the ship. Sin blinds us and our hearts are dead within us before God moves upon us. But, our choices, like the choices of the sailors and the Romans, are genuine choices. And God uses means, very real means, to move us. Yet, in all, we know that God has decreed the end from the beginning, and our salvation is based on his sovereign will and election.

God Sent Me-Some Thoughts on the Sovereignty of God and the Freedom of Man

How do you deal with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? Of course we know that this issue has been one of struggle and controversy among Christians for centuries. The issue can seem quite mysterious. Scripture does not always let us know how the sovereign hand of God and the choices of humanity work. But some places in Scripture do a lovely job of pulling back the veil and letting us see.

Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. In chapter 37, we learn that Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated that his father preferred him to them. They hated that Joseph had given a bad report of their activity to their father. They hated that Joseph told them of dreams in which he was in a place of honor and authority over them. And so the brothers determined to do something about it.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joseph’s brothers first decided to kill him. Then they changed their minds and determined to sell him to slave-traders. And just like that, Joseph was on his way to Egypt.

Now, whose choice was it to send Joseph to Egypt? We all would say that Joseph’s brothers chose to send him to Egypt. They, by their free will, did exactly what their hearts longed to do. They certainly sinned against God and committed what, in later Scripture, would be ruled a capital offense.

But look at the words of Joseph to his brothers when they were reunited.

Genesis 45:4-8 – 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Three times in that paragraph, Joseph says to his brothers that God sent him to Egypt. Three times, Joseph made it absolutely clear that his presence in Egypt was a sovereign work of the Almighty. Three times is significant.

So, who sent Joseph to Egypt? Whose choice was ultimate? According to Joseph, God’s choice, God’s hand, God’s sovereignty was ultimate. But, in chapter 37, it was clear that the brothers were choosing based on their personal desires, acting according to their understanding of their own freedom. In 42:21-22, the brothers admit that they saw Joseph’s distress and made a choice to sell him anyway. They knew they were guilty. They made no indication of being forced to act under compulsion against what they would have wanted.

So, we see two things. We see that the brothers acted exactly as they desired. They felt free. They did exactly what they naturally would have wanted to do. And yet, according to a greater understanding, according to God’s word, they acted under the direct hand of God to do what God sovereignly determined to do.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, do not let yourself be confused. One of the big objections to the doctrine is that, if God is sovereign over our affairs, he must be forcing people away from himself by his sovereign decree. The objection is that God must be reaching into the hearts of basically good or even neutral people and driving them toward the devil. But such is not the case. The word of God is clear that men do, in almost all cases, exactly what they want to do. And the God who made us all is still over it all, sovereign, in control.

In truth, the biblical picture of God changing our will to match his will is not often exposed to us. The place it happens most clearly is when people who are naturally evil are drawn to the Lord for salvation. There we see the mighty and sovereign hand of God working to bring into sinful people new life and new desires that would not be theirs naturally.

So, in a super-simple summary, we can say that the sovereignty of God is fully compatible with the freedom of mankind in almost all circumstances. Joseph’s brothers did exactly what they freely wanted to do. They were fully to blame for their sin. And yet the sovereign, almighty, omniscient working of God brought about that Joseph would be in Egypt saving lives and preserving the promise of God. The same sort of thing can be said for hundreds of other events in the Bible where God was sovereign even as evil men made evil choices.

What about our salvation? God does not have to interfere with a human being’s freedom for any person to reject him. That is the natural disposition of the human heart. But for any human being to be saved, the Lord God must bring a dead heart to life (Eph. 2:1-4), God must forcefully and powerfully draw us to himself (John 6:44, 65), God must give us new birth so that we can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It is in turning us from evil to himself that God must take an action to interpose his sovereignty over our hearts to change our course. In that change, we will make an honest choice. That choice, however, is preceded by a sovereign move of God that we cannot detect on our own to move us to desire what we would not naturally desire, as no human being, on our own seeks God (Rom 3:10-12). Thus, the salvation of any person is all of grace, a gift given by God.

Is man free? Of course man is free. But man is not more free than God. Is God sovereign? He has to be. Otherwise, if the universe is spinning on its own without the control of the Lord, there is no guarantee of the promises of God. If the universe is more free than God, then God is not God.

We are not often privileged to see behind the veil and understand when something is being done by the sovereignty of God in comparison to the full freedom of mankind. But we know that God is God and we are not. We know that God works in all things. We know that God moves people where he wants them even as they act according to their own deepest desires. And we know from his word that, for a sinfully dead heart to desire him, that heart must be supernaturally changed by God.

Who put Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers acted according to their freedom. God moved and sovereignly put Joseph where he wanted him. Let us understand that God is God, working in ways we cannot see, but always working in perfect righteousness.