Predestination refers to God’s action in deciding, from outside of time, whatever will happen. God has advance knowledge of all events, but does not necessarily direct them.
Most people talk about predestination in terms of an all-powerful God who actively directs what will happen to each soul, from the beginning of time. In particular, God chose which souls to save and which to damn. The ‘elect’ are the souls God chooses to save. The Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church puts it this way. God “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Notice the past tense. It says that God ‘ordained’, not ‘ordains’.
Predestination is a very difficult idea. It denies human free will. Also, if God has already chosen, why does it matter whether or not a person leads – or even can lead – a faithful life?
Origin of predestination
The concept of predestination of the elect does not occur in the Gospels or in Judaism. Although the Hebrew Scriptures refer to the Jews as God’s ‘Chosen People’, this is not predestination. It refers to the covenant that God made with the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 17: 7) that, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Jesus’ famous saying in John 3:16 completely denies predestination. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes clear that some will be accepted into the Kingdom and others will end up “in outer darkness”. But this is always because of how they behaved while on earth.
St. Paul was the first to write about predestination, just as he did with the concept of atonement. For example, “Those whom God had already chosen he also set apart to become like his Son, to make the Son first among many believers” [Romans 8: 29, Good News Bible]. But Paul did not say that God would decide which souls to save and which to damn. That came later. Paul wrote that repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Saviour are enough to set a person right with God.
St. Augustine (354-430) had a complicated opinion about human free will. He defended it strongly against the idea of fatalism. Fatalism was common in his day. It assumes that people are simply like corks that outside forces toss about on the ocean.
Later on, Augustine said that peoples’ relationship with God changes as they develop. The young person has weak free will. God’s grace is stronger. As the person develops, their will gets stronger.
Yet in his debates with the Welsh monk Pelagius, Augustine seemed to down-play free will for older people. Pelagius argued that free will is an example of God’s goodness. People have the option of whether to sin. But Augustine said that the Fall [Genesis 3] and Original Sin gave people only one choice. That was to sin.
The common view of predestination comes from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers contested Roman Catholic piety. They taught that salvation requires only Scripture, faith, and God’s grace.
John Calvin (1509-1564) developed Augustine’s ideas about God’s will versus human will. God’s will, he wrote, completely overwhelms human choice. Human depravity is total. But Christ’s atoning sacrifice paid more than the price for the sins of the elect – those preselected by God. God, being almighty, chooses whom to save (the elect) and whom to damn. This is called “double predestination”.
There was soon disagreement within the Reform movement. Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) disagreed with Calvin. He said that free will must play a part in salvation. Therefore, salvation depends on God’s grace working alongside a person’s belief in Jesus Christ. Atonement is available to everyone, but God only grants it to those who trust in Jesus Christ. Even so, atonement needs God’s grace. It cannot be achieved by someone on their own.
Arminian belief is closer to that of St. Paul than of Augustine or Calvin. However, the Synod of Dort, in Holland, reaffirmed the hard-line Reform position (1618-1619). The Five Points of Reform Calvinism are usually known in English as TULIP, from their five initial letters. These are: Total depravity of man; Unconditional election by God; Limited atonement, because Christ’s sacrifice atoned only for the sins of the elect; Irrevocable grace of God; Perseverance of the saints.
Progressive views about predestination
Neither the Anglican nor the Methodist Churches subscribe to the Five Points of Calvinism. The official Anglican doctrine with respect to predestination is set out in the Articles of Religion of the old Prayer Book (1662). The language that the Prayer Book concerning predestination is rather convoluted. It begins by asserting that God chose the elect from before time. This is the Calvinist doctrine. But it goes on to give essentially the Arminian position. doctrine, which was declared to be heretical by the Calvinists at the Synod of Dort. Thus, it affirms God’s will to choose the elect. But it allows the believer each person to act in a manner that is consistent with God’s will. In other words, God knows who will be saved. But God leaves it up to them to live a life that will allow God’s mercy will accept them for salvation at the appropriate time.
The Methodist doctrine is that everyone needs to be saved. They can be saved, and can know they are saved. They have free will in this life to choose how to behave.
Progressive Christians, including progressive Anglicans, accept that God’s created people have free will. God does not interfere with it. God’s grace makes salvation possible for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.
In the end, I suggest that the question of predestination is unknowable. God is so much greater than human comprehension that this is something that we cannot know. But Scripture gives us a model, and that model is love. Jesus gave us the New Commandment to love each other. St. Paul wrote that love is the “more excellent” way, and is the fulfillment of the law of Moses. As Progressives, our concern is to follow Jesus in this life. Perhaps we should simply work to bring God’s Kingdom here on earth, and allow God to be God in the hereafter