Calvinism, Part IV: Predestined Before the Foundation of the World

April 18, 2009

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined them to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would become the firstborn among many brothers; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. Romans 8:29-30

The above passage from Scripture along with Ephesians 1:4 & 5 have been used as the proof texts of Calvinists far and wide to justify their belief in the Predestination of all mankind.  In the Ephesians text, the Apostle Paul said: ...He chose is 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,...

Calvinists often speak of these verses as "the golden chain," an unbreakable sequence of steps in God's sovereign plan leading from unconditional, individual election to final glorification.  The elect can find great comfort in the assurance that all those who begin the process (by God's election) will make it through to glorification.  All those who know for certain that they have been justified possess an ironclad guarantee of their final salvation and glorification.

The first hesitation I have in accepting this interpretation stems from the warning Paul issued to the Romans only sixteen verses earlier: If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (Rom. 8:13).  Paul makes it clear that glorification depends on a Christian's continued connection to Jesus: If we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we hare in His sufferings (Rom 8:17). Later we find Paul again warning his readers that those who veer away from God's face face fearful prospects. If God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either.  Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness.  Otherwise, you will be cut off (Rom 11:21-22).  My question is this: Why would such a warning ever be uttered if the "golden chain" of Romans 8:29 & 30 functions as an absolute guarantee for individuals?

As noted in the previous articles, Calvinism relies on and logically stands on its five points.  Logically, philosophically and theologically the five points are interlinked and that it is impossible to be a 1, 2, 3 or 4 point Calvinist without accepting all five as true!  This has tremendous ramifications for those who believe in eternal security, or "once saved-always saved."  The implication being if man has the freedom to choose God and His accept His Son as Lord and Savior, then he looses his free will or freedom of choice upon receiving salvation and being saved.  Our question would then be does man have the freedom of choice up until the time he is saved and then looses it?  We will save this question for another time as we are, with this article, searching for the meaning of predestination, or to put it in the form of a theological question: What, or Whom is Predestined?"

The doctrine of predestination is Biblical!  Paul makes it one of the main subjects at the heart of his teaching about the love and grace of God.  Following on the heals of my last article, to the Calvinist, if man is totally depraved, unable to save himself (which he can't), but still unable to make the move toward the one who saves him (which Calvinists teach), then he is forever lost in his sin and by extension consigned to hell.  Calvinists teach that God does all the moving and all the compelling, moving man toward Him and His will by issuing a "call."  God does all the work. Man has no bearing in the choice and in no way assists in the choice by any freedom to follow God's will.

For the purpose of this article I propose that we take a look at those passages which talk of predestination as God's act in past history of choosing those whom He would love and who would be incorporated into His kingdom.

As we saw in the last article, to the Calvinist, man's total depravity renders him incapable of making a move toward God, much less willing any kind of relationship with Him.  If God, then chooses to issue the "call" to a person, then he is said to have been predestined. We have also seen that the Calvinist system is grounded in the theology of Augustine as synchronized with the teachings of Plato.  The "determinist" model of man's plights can be summed up in the following historical narrative:

In The Odyssey, Homer depicted the gods and the movers of events and man around, as it were, a chessboard.  Plato, nearly 500 years later, removed the gods and put the stoicheia as the prime movers in history and man's plight.  Sir Isaac Newton would call these stoicheia by such terms as nature and natural events and factors, such as gravity and the movement of the stars.  But Newton was no determinist in the same way Calvin was and his followers would soon propagate what is called the Newtonian world machine as the mover of man's actions.  From the followers of Plato came Augustine who 700 years after the philosopher's death would say that it is not the stoicheia which governs and serve as the prime motivator of man, but God.

Another huge shift in the teachings of Augustine from Plato was the former's attention to the Ephesian 1:4 & 5 text in which he places God's action in the past, whereas Plato (and Homer before him) places the actions of the prime movers in the present.  Augustine, and later Martin Luther (a former Augustinian monk) and John Calvin, would teach that God acted in the past and that all of man's actions in reference to God have been predetermined. 

If all men everywhere are predestined, where does that leave personal responsibility?  For this and other questions I would draw your attention to several references wherein Paul addresses both personal responsibility and life's choices.  In Galatians, for instance, he identified the two lifestyles and their consequences: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).  This warning itself reemphasizes what Paul had declared to the Galatian believers earlier: I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).

Many Calvinists argue that these warnings expose no eternal danger to real Christians.  We are told either that Paul was not addressing genuine Christians at all or that he was envisioning purely temporal dangers, such as illness or premature (physical) death.  But neither of these explanations can account for the specific content of these passages.  At other times we are asked to imagine that Paul was engaging in rhetorical overstatement to spur his readers on to good behavior.  This suggestion is both psychologically and morally troublesome, reminding us of parents who use empty threats to manipulate their unruly children.  If Paul believes that the elect are absolutely guaranteed ultimate salvation and that this guarantee forms the very bedrock of Christian confidence in the face of suffering and trial, then it is puzzling to find him undercutting this very guarantee with warnings to the contrary. But if these stern warnings teach that the journey from election to glory is not inevitable, then we doubt that Paul was attempting to establish just the opposite in Romans 8:29-30.

If there is good reason to question of the Romans passage, what other viable understandings might this text suggest?  One answer relates to the verb tenses found in the fivefold sequence of God's actions: He foreknew, He predestined, He Called, He justified, He glorified.  Many have pointed out that Paul expresses the last step in the past tense (glorified) even though for Paul and all Christians to date, glorification lies in the future.  Less often realized is that the third and fourth steps (called and justified) are likewise presented as past events, though God has been and continues to be about the business of calling and justifying people down through the ages.  This may show us that Paul is viewing the end of human history, after God has brought to completion the whole redemptive plan.  Seen from the end of history, Paul observes that all Christians who have been glorified have of course been foreknown, predestine, called and justified.  Paul is not asking his readers to reflect on the classic problems of determinism and free will, or thinking in terms of a decree which excludes as well as one which includes.  His thought is simply that from the perspective of the end of time, it will be evident that history has been the stage for the unfolding of God's purpose, the purpose of the Creator fulfilling His original intention in creating.

A second (non-Calvinist)understanding of Romans 8:29-30 takes is cue from Paul's teaching in Romans 5 and 6 that sinners who once lived in Adam's lineage may 9through faith) be incorporated "into Christ" through baptism (Rom 5:12-17 & 6:3-4). Those residing "in Christ" live in a new reality and benefit from the mighty events of death and resurrection that Jesus Himself experienced.  The apostle can therefore address believers themselves (all of whom are "in Christ") as those who have buried with Jesus, or as those who have died with Him, or as those who walk in newness of life, or as those who will experience resurrection "with Him."  Since Jesus is the primary character in the events of God's redemptive plan, we experience these events only indirectly, by being "in" the lead player.  It is difficult to overstate just how significant for the whole of Paul's theology is this corporate vision of the church finding its identity, its salvation, its wealth and its security in Christ.

Here we come to the Ephesian passage alluded to above.  Here believers are described as having been chosen and predestined "in Him."  This encourages us all the more to read Romans 8:29-30 as referring not to a specific, set number of persons who individually progress through the five "steps" without mathematical gain or loss, but to the whole body of Christ, without particular focus on the individuality of its members.  The people of God as a whole, having been incorporated into Christ, are most certainly destined to arrive at the goal God has established from the beginning.  Each of us is assured of participating in that most certain end, provided we remain among this people and remain in His kindness (Romans 11:22).

A cursory reading of the first chapter and a half of Ephesians presents the reader with a conspicuous phrase "in Christ" or (a similar expression), which occurs twelve times in the singular sentence forming Ephesians 1:3-14.  This unusual linguistic feature serves to fix our attention on Jesus as the source of all spiritual blessing, especially on redemption in all of its dimensions.

I should point out that the language in the Ephesian text is not simply that spiritual blessings come to us through Christ, as if He were merely their conduit, but that these rich treasures are found in Jesus.  Since we have been baptized into Christ(Rom. 6:3) and have been united with Him (Rom. 6:5-8), we who have been redeemed have a new location, a new cosmic address.  Now that we have been incorporated into Christ, we have entered into the drama of his own story.  His death has become our death, His resurrection has become our resurrection (Ephesians 2:5) and His position of privilege at the Father's right hand brings us an immeasurable wealth of grace (Eph. 2:6-7).  Only by being in Him can we share in the blessings He provides.

The reality of our incorporation into Christ permeates Paul's thinking and helps us grasp the idea of divine choice and predestination as taught in this passage.  It is in Him that we have been chosen and predestined (Eph 1:4-5), just as it is in Him that we have been seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6-7).  This means that Jesus Christ Himself is the chosen one, the predestined one.  Whenever one is incorporated into Him by grace through faith, one comes to share in Jesus' special status as chosen of God.  This view of election most fully accounts for the corporate nature of salvation, the decisive role of faith and the overarching reliability of God's bringing His people to the destined end.

The correct way to understand election and predestination is not to ask who God predestined, but what?  God, predetermined a plan wherein "whosoever wills" can find eternal life.  The plan was the sacrificial death and the glorified resurrection of His Son in whom we have been incorporated.

How do individuals enter (and remain in) the redeemed community of God's people?  Ephesians 2:8, says that it is by grace through faith.  All agree that God's salvation requires a believing response to God's gift of grace.  His part, or rather His plan which was predestined, was grace.  Our response is the receiving of that grace through faith.  Not all, however, agree on the nature of this faith, especially on how faith itself arises.  Calvinists are quick to point to other verse where an exact description of faith's origin appears to be provided: "through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

If faith is not our doing but God's gift, then the well-known features of Calvinism fall into place.  Those who "have faith" have been given faith by God, and those who don't have faith have not been given faith by God.  By this view, faith becomes a function of divine causation operating according to the individual electing will of God.

Grammatically, though, the terms faith, this and it are not neatly connected in the original Greek.  The two pronouns may seem to refer back to the nearest antecedent in English (which they would), but in Greek the pronouns would refer back to the nearest antecedent which matches in gender and number.  Greek was and still is an inflected language, and depends upon "tags" that are attached to words for guiding the reader.  If Paul desired his readers to connect faith directly to the pronouns this and it then who would have used the feminine gender for the pronouns as "faith" is feminine.  Instead, Paul uses the neuter gender in the pronouns to point us back several words earlier - to the idea of salvation express by the verb.  Accordingly, we should read the text with a different line of connection as follows: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this {salvation is} not from yourselves, it {this salvation} is the gift of God."

Many Calvinists fear that any retreat from the conviction that God causes faith will make salvation a human accomplishment.  If faith is something we do, then salvation rests on our deeds and no longer on God's grace.  If faith is viewed as our part in the process of salvation, then salvation must be viewed as a cooperative affair, thus forming that synergism referred to in my first article.

Calvinist are quick to deny that man has any role to play in the experience of salvation.  They often decry Wesleyan-Arminian interpretations of Romans 8:29-30 as failing to provide a sufficiently strong sense of comfort and security to the believer.  But it is ironic to hear Calvinists reject these interpretations on these emotional grounds, since it is Calvinists who often charge others with interpreting Scripture so as to gratify human emotions and sensitivities.  In the case of Romans 8:29-30, I can claim that I am challenged by the human demand for absolute certainty and comfortable security, while the Calvinist interpretation caves in to that demand. 

Man's plight, then, has not been predestined before the foundation of the world but that his plight is wrapped up in the predestined plight of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection.  He was the one predestined to suffer, He was the one predestined to conquer death and raise in glory and if we choose to accept the predestined gift, then we, too, will be numbered with the elect.

The next article will answer the questions as to whether Christ died only for a few or for the world, and if His grace can be thwarted (resisted).

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