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.

Salvation Belongs to Our God

In Revelation 7, we see a multitude of people from every nation offering praise to God. Often when I read that passage, I am struck by the content of the multitude, the multi-national collection of people to the glory of God. But this time I am more interested in the content of the song of praise.

Revelation 7:9-12 – 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The claim that is made by the multitude, a claim intended to honor our Lord, is what has my attention. These people declare that salvation belongs to the Lord. O, I know, that is not a shocking thing. You’ve read this before. But stop and think. God inspired in his holy word a reminder for us to see that the proper way to worship the Lord includes an understanding that the Lord owns salvation.

Compare this to how many people think, and perhaps you will see the implications of the claim. I’ve been in multiple conversations with people about the issue of salvation. Sometimes these have been with folks who claim Christ and sometimes not. But I’m no longer surprised when I hear people being critical of the plan of salvation. I am not surprised when a person, whether by word or by tone, lets me know that they simply do not approve of the way that God has chosen to save. And here I’m not even thinking of the issue of sovereign election. I’m simply thinking of salvation that is exclusively by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

If you talk with folks who do not know Jesus, and with some who claim to know Jesus, you will find that there is something off-putting about the idea that there is only one way of salvation. You will find that folks are bothered by the fact that God does not bring about the salvation of every human being. You will find folks bothered by the biblical claim that those who are faithful followers of other world religions are lost.

But remember what the song of praise in Revelation 7 tells us, “Salvation belongs to our God.” The entire issue of salvation, from its doctrine to its accomplishment, belongs to the Lord. It is God’s property. It is up to him and to him only to determine how he will save, by what means he will forgive any. We must recall that it would be totally just of God not to save any human being.

If salvation belongs to our God, if it is his and his alone, how can we be anything but sinful if we question his goodness for saving in the way that he saves? If this is God’s property, we have no right to tell him how things should be done. WE have no right to pretend that, were we the owners of salvation, we would do it differently. That is, of course, just another way of telling God that he is wrong for not saving in the way that most pleases us in our limited understanding.

Christians, be careful not to allow yourself to look at that which is God’s property and then make a moral judgment as to how God ought to dole it out. Be careful not to let yourself think you know things better than God. Be careful not to assign to yourself cleaner motives or greater kindness than the Lord displays. Be careful not to allow your lack of understanding of the ways of God lead you to question the perfection of those ways. Salvation is God’s. It is right for him to accomplish it in exactly the way he does. To question that is to put yourself above and against the Lord, and that is dangerously sinful.

Does He, or Doesn’t He?

What the Lord says about himself carries great theological implications. When God says that there is no other god besides him, that is a significant statement. Is it true or is it false? If it is true, it is tremendously important. If it is false, then the God revealed in the Bible cannot be trusted.

Jesus declares there to be only one way to God, through him. Is he correct, or isn’t he? If he is correct, then Christianity is truly the only way. If he is not correct, then he is utterly unreliable.

Or how about this claim in Isaiah regarding God and his sovereignty?

Isaiah 46:9-10

9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

Contextually, this passage is part of God’s promise to bring someone from the east to accomplish a particular purpose with the people of Israel. That purpose, of course, was accomplished. God did exactly what he said he would do.

But what about the bigger picture. Are these words of God, these claims of God, always true? Does God declare the end from the beginning? Does God accomplish his purposes? These questions are one and the same. Does God accomplish everything he sets out to accomplish or not?

Stop and think of the potential answers, and really let yourself wrestle with their implications. Can you say no? Can you, as a believer, suggest that God fails to accomplish things he sets out to do? What would that say about God? What would that tell you about his claims of his power and knowledge and perfection?

Or dare you say that God sometimes accomplishes his will? What would that mean? What would it mean that, in some instances, God accomplishes what he wants, but in other instances, he just cannot get it done?

Perhaps you want to suggest that, in some instances, God makes sure his plan is accomplished. In others, you might add, God just leaves the outcome to chance or the actions of his creatures. Is that logical? If God knows his creatures inside and out—including their future decisions—can there be a zone in which the Lord still does not declare the end from the beginning? It would seem that, in order to make a part of creation where God does not accomplish his will because of the freedom of his creation, you would also have to limit God’s knowledge of his creatures and of the future. You would have to make God less than God for such a thing to be the case. Regardless of logic, the real question is whether or not Scripture speaks this way of God. Does the word say of God that he sometimes accomplishes his will, that he sometimes declares the end from the beginning, that he sometimes does all that he pleases, but in other cases he does not? Such a claim would be hard to find.

The word gives us some very clear claims of God. HE is God, the one and only. He is over all. HE declares the end from the beginning. His counsel stands. His purposes are accomplished. This is true in big governmental and empire issues. But it must also be true in the day-to-day. This does not mean that we, in our finite wisdom, can grasp those eternal purposes of God. We have no ability to judge the purposes or the practices of the Lord. And we will face hardships we cannot understand. WE will face circumstances we do not like. WE will face pains that we cannot imagine being good. But we must not comfort ourselves with a declaration that God is somehow less than God. WE cannot find comfort in thinking God is less powerful, less knowledgeable, or less active in accomplishing ultimate, perfect, holy good.

The question remains: Is he, or isn’t he? Is God sovereign or not? Is God over all things or not? Does he declare the end from the beginning or not? Does he accomplish his purposes or not? Our answer to these questions, our arrival at the true answer to these questions, our acceptance of Scripture, will have a significant impact on our theology, our understanding of Almighty God.

The Emptiest of Comforts

If you have lived through much hardship in this life, you will know the emptiness that is so often present in the words folks use to try to comfort you. Standing by a casket in a funeral home, sitting in a living room after receiving horrible news, watching a tragedy unfold on the national stage, in all such settings, people say things to you that just do not help.

Of course we need to be kind here. People are doing their best. Quite often a person who has no idea what to do with a hard situation feels that he or she must say something, anything, to try to salve your sorrow. And so they try their best. They try to give you something to help you pull through. They want to show you that they care, that they understand, that God is still good. And we need to be gracious with folks who try, even when their efforts leave something to be desired.

Let me give you an example of the emptiest of comforts that a believer might receive. In the middle of hardships, I’ve heard this one. A person is suffering. A person has faced hurt. And a friendly, well-meaning believer tries to assure that suffering saint that God had nothing to do with their hardship.

Have you heard that one? Perhaps have you said that one? Stop and think a step deeper. When you say that God had nothing to do with an ugly event, what are you really saying? Are you saying that God wishes he could have stopped the sad thing, but was powerless to do so? That does not offer comfort. Are you suggesting that God did allow a bad thing to happen, but he washed his hands of it? Are you suggesting that God let a sad thing occur without purpose, without meaning, without anything redemptive in it? That is not comforting in the long run.

To say that God has nothing to do with our dark times is not only empty comfort, it is also unbiblical.

Isaiah 45:7

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.

When God was speaking of King Cyrus the Persian through Isaiah’s prophecy, God wanted folks to know of his sovereignty. God was going to bring some great things to pass. God was going to bring some very hard things to pass. And God wanted all who were watching to understand that he, the Lord, always accomplishes his will.

Friends, we do not honor the Lord when we say that God can be responsible for good but that he has no purpose in hardship. WE do not honor the Lord when we depict him as sorrowful over a situation he just wishes he could have changed. We do not honor the Lord when we pretend that bad things happen, and nobody knows why. We honor the Lord, and we comfort one another, when we remember that God is good, that his purposes are perfect, and that is understanding is infinitely beyond our own.

How then do we need to comfort others in pain? I’m not suggesting that, when a person hurts, you go and give them a theological treatise on divine sovereignty and suffering. It is far better for that doctrine to be worked out in your life and theirs before the hardship hits. When they suffer, weep with them. Tell them you care. Tell them that you hurt with them. Tell them that their pain is real and not a thing to pretend does not exist.

But, when you speak to a person in pain, do not tell them something false. Do not paint a dishonest or impotent picture of the Lord. That is the emptiest of comforts. Help believers who suffer know that God is good, even when we have no concept of what he is doing in a particular situation.

Does He or Doesn’t He?

Sometimes, when we read something in Scripture, we need to be sure that we are really willing to consider what its truth means. It is one thing to read a psalm and hear the psalmist speak of the need for clean hands and a pure heart if you are to ascend the hill of the Lord, but when sincerely considered, that concept shows us that we cannot approach God without righteousness given to us as a gift. When Jesus says he is the only way to God in John 14:6, that means something significant for the entire human race.

In Psalm 115, we see another claim of the Lord’s that we must consider.

Psalm 115:3

Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

This little verse is not hard to understand or interpret. God is in the heavens. He is not a statue on earth. He is not confined to the borders of any land. He is the God who looks over the whole globe. He is omnipresent.

But the second line is the one we need to think about. The Bible says of the Lord, “He does all that he pleases.” This is the line that I want to ask, “Does he or doesn’t he?” Is this true? If it is—and of course it is—then we must know something about the Lord.

God does all that he pleases. This means that God is never thwarted. God is never defeated. God is never on his throne wishing something would take place but incapable of making it take place. There is no good that God is telling us that he wishes he could pull off were he not confined. There is no evil that God wishes he could prevent if it were not for some power or some restriction he faces. God does all that he pleases.

The question for us is, “Does he, or doesn’t he?” If God does all that he pleases, you and I must grasp that God is truly sovereign. That raises problems for us, of course. It reminds us that we must learn to accept the decisions, judgments, and ways of the Lord. God’s ways are not our ways. He does not run the universe by our standards. He will not do all that we please. And we have no way of knowing what we would do in the Lord’s position, as we lack his power, his knowledge, and his perfection.

But, Christians, if you grasp that God does all that he pleases, then you can submit to him in trust. God is not defeated. He has not lost control of the world. He has not found himself incapable of fixing a government or a broken-down vehicle. God is God. God does what God pleases. God will not be defeated. And this should lead us to hope, to surrender, and to worship.

Amazing Examples for Us

When reading through the Old Testament, Christians often shake our heads at the ancient people of Israel. How could they be so disobedient? They gave in to idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God, and grumbling against the Lord. Why did God put up with them? Why did he let them keep going?

Interestingly, the New Testament answers those questions for us, and in a way that I think many of us would find to be a surprise. You see, God has always been working out one plan. And we see evidence of that one plan in what Paul says to the Corinthians even as he warns them against committing the same sins as did Israel in the desert.

1 Corinthians 10:6-13 – 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Take note of the repetition in verses 6 and 11. God let these people sin as they wanted and then recorded the outcome for our instruction. These things happened as examples for us to teach us. Or, as Paul says, “They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

Before even looking at the sins, stop and think. God says that the things we read in the Old Testament are recorded for our example and our instruction. Israel in the desert with their unfaithfulness is there for us to learn from. Their bad example is a warning for us.

Again, do not see this as a coincidence. God is not saying that, since that stuff happened anyway, it should at least be useful as an example for us. No, God allowed the nation to follow their sinful heart for the purpose of warning the people of God in the latter days. Paul does not say that these things took place for no reason, but we can learn from them. Paul says that these things took place for us to learn from them. God was working out his purpose for his church more than a millennium before Jesus walked the earth.

What are we to learn? Briefly, we see that idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the limits of God’s patience, and grumbling against the Lord are all temptations that we too will face. Notice especially that the idolatry is tied to the people rising up to play, to party around a golden calf. Our temptation toward idolatry is not likely to be to bow down before a statue so much as it will be to worship our pleasure, our autonomy, our sexual liberty. Sexual immorality has been a human temptation since early on. Pushing our limits and grumbling that God does not do what we want is a normal failure. And all of these are destructive.

God tells us to look at Israel, see her failures, and learn. Learn to be guarded against sin. Learn to take sin seriously. Learn to take heed lest we fall. Learn that God offers us a way to battle every temptation. Learn from the example that God gave us through years of Hebrew unfaithfulness.

This passage should cause us to take heed and guard against sin. It should cause us to watch out especially for the sins listed. But it should also cause us to praise God and be in awe of his ways. This stuff happened for our edification, our instruction, our example. May we praise the God who was preparing lessons for us more than three millennia ago.

All Things?

When reading about God, we need to be careful not to miss the way that the Lord has allowed himself to be described. After all, inspired, inerrant, holy Scripture tells us the exact truth of who God is and what he is like. And, if we are not careful, we will let ourselves skip past the descriptions of God in one part of a sentence in order to get to the verb. We like to read about the actions of God. But we must not miss his attributes.

Note how God is described here. Ask yourself if you are willing to believe what God says about himself. Because, if you believe it, you accept a serious doctrine.

Ephesians 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

God is here called “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Believing this requires the acceptance of the sovereignty of God in a significant way. God works all things according to the counsel of his will—all things, God’s will.

Of course, this is not a new thing in Scripture. We can look other places to see a similar truth claim (cf. Psa. 115:3; Rom. 8:28). But, ask yourself, “What changes in my worldview if I accept the fact that God works all things according to his will?”

Before you let yourself become discouraged, this is not to say that God enjoys evil. Nor does it mean that God is declaring all things to be good things. But, if we grasp that God is purposeful and not random, and Scripture is clear that God is not and has never been random, then we can trust that God has purpose even for our greatest pains and the darkest evils of history. It is a logically flawed view that declares that if God is all good and all powerful, he must eliminate all evil. In truth, the God who is all good, all powerful, and all wise has the ability to have a purpose for all things, good and evil, that is beyond our limited ability to comprehend. And that same God can use all things without himself being tainted by the evil of the actions of mankind.

What the truth that God works all things according to the counsel of his will does declare is that no event on earth, no event in the universe, no great good, no terrible hardship, nothing happens apart from the ultimate and sovereign will of God. Every cubic inch of the universe is under God’s power. Nothing is beyond God’s control. Nothing, absolutely nothing, thwarts God’s will. Life and death, kingdoms rising and falling, harvests and disasters, salvation and damnation, all things work in accord with the ultimate will of God to his ultimate glory. Yes, these include things in which God takes no pleasure. But they never include things that God is powerless to change. God is he who works all things according to the counsel of his will. And such a God is the one we are far better to serve than to think we could ever oppose.