Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Calvinism is predestination; that is, God’s sovereign choice from all eternity of some among fallen humanity to be saved and receive eternal life. This further involves the passing-by of others, who are left in their sin and ultimately condemned as reprobate.
This doctrine affirms that if any are to be saved, God must do it. It also affirms that God has a purpose, an eternal plan for human kind, which determines who will be saved, and which is worked out according to his sovereign decrees.
The basis of this teaching is the nature of God. The Bible reveals him to be sovereign. He is almighty and therefore nothing can take him by surprise. He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), simply because it is all part of his overarching plan and purpose. In the outworking of his sovereign purposes, there are several things told us in the Scriptures. Let us consider them in turn.
The Bible speaks of God ‘foreknowing’ whatever comes to pass. He knows beforehand who will be saved. Paul says that ‘whom he foreknew, he also predestinated …’ (Romans 8:29).
Someone might say: ‘Yes, God knows beforehand what is going to happen, but he doesn’t determine what will happen’. Yet, if he knows beforehand something that will happen, it is a certain event. By what means is it so determined, that he knows it will occur, if it is not he himself who determines it?
Paul is simply saying that the basis of the predestination of some to be saved is the love of God for them, a love set upon them from before time according to his purposes. The knowledge of which Paul speaks is not just the Lord’s ‘knowing’ as a matter of information, but the positive act of setting his love upon them, as a matter of purpose.
Writing to the Ephesians, Paul explains that in his eternal purposes, God ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). In other words, there are no chance events. There is no contingency with God. He foreknows all things and foreordains all things.
Included in the foreordination, of course, is predestination. This involves the choosing from before time of sinners to be saved in time. Some from the fallen mass of humanity are chosen to life, and others are passed by. In some he does not work the gift of faith. In others he does, uniting them to Christ. He so works in those whom he has chosen in his eternal purpose. ‘He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world’, writes Paul, ‘being predestinated according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:4; 1:11). Those he predestined he also calls and justifies, and finally glorifies (Romans 8:30). Paul is nothing if not clear in such statements.
God’s choosing of sinners to be saved, in his eternal purposes, is obviously unconditional. It cannot in the nature of the case be otherwise. They cannot possibly be chosen for any good in them — for all mankind is guilty of sin and totally depraved, according to the clear teaching of Scripture (see last month’s article on ‘Total depravity’).
It is inevitable, no doubt, that people will ask: ‘What, then, is the basis of election? Why are those particular souls chosen and not others?’ That is an unfathomable mystery to us. We know it is not for their inherent good or merit, of which fallen people have none that can possibly avail with God. The cause must forever lie in his inscrutable will.
However, the Arminian will speak of ‘foreseen faith’, that is to say, God, beforehand, sees faith being exercised and uses that as the grounds on which he elects people from among fallen humanity. These people believe by their ‘free will’, but God foresees them doing so and in response he elects them to eternal life.
But is that what the Bible says? We are bound to say, No! Election must be unconditional, for several reasons:
1. Man is dead spiritually. Paul speaks of Christians in terms of their being made alive by God from a dead state. ‘You he made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1), an argument he goes on to develop in the first ten verses of the second chapter of Ephesians. The necessity of the new birth (a work performed by the Holy Spirit from above), before any can enter the kingdom of God, also indicates that God’s electing love cannot be based on any intrinsic merit on the part of the elect.
2. There is no contingency with God; otherwise he would not be God for he would not be in control, but would be limited by the supposed free will of man. The Scriptures tell us that the saved are ‘given’ to Christ by the Father (John 6:37) and that it is his will that none of those be lost (John 6:39). In Acts 13 the salvation of the Gentiles is attributed to their being ‘appointed to eternal life’ by the Lord (v. 48). The salvation of the Christians in Thessalonica is attributed to their being chosen for salvation ‘from the beginning’, that is to say, before they believed (2 Thessalonians 2:13). There is no doubt that Scripture teaches unconditional election (see also, for example, Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:4-5).
In Romans 9 the decrees concerning the salvation of men is seen to embrace both elect and non-elect. Paul there uses the figure of the potter’s power over clay. That is how it is with God. Obviously people may question the justice of it all. How can that be resolved? Only by realising that God is absolutely just and that his will is perfectly executed. No one deserves to be saved. That any are saved is at once a marvel and a mystery.
Why some and not others is something for which we have no ready answers. That is simply God’s perfect and unfathomable will. At the same time we must recognise that, as far as the non-elect are concerned, they are always condemned on the basis of their sin which (in time and experience) they would not relinquish.
The ‘passing by’ of the non-elect is usually described as preterition. God does not need to work anything in them for them to be condemned; he simply passes them by. It will always be found in the end that they never wanted Christ, never wanted to be saved, never wanted repentance and forgiveness. They are found to be ‘reprobate concerning the faith’ (2 Timothy 3:8; see also 2 Corinthians 13:5-7).
Marks of election
Desiring Christ, wanting to be saved, repenting of sin and seeking forgiveness are marks of election. The chosen will invariably show such marks in their lives and this will prove their election. This is stated directly in several prominent passages on the matter of predestination. He has chosen us, writes Paul, ‘that we should be holy and without blame before him’ and ‘has predestinated us to adoption as sons’ (Ephesians 1:4-5). Peter speaks to the ‘pilgrims of the Dispersion’ as ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:2). In other words, the predestination of God cannot be seen as an excuse or occasion for carelessness. A proof of election will be found in the practice of holiness and the experience of obedience.
In the final analysis, the doctrine of eternal predestination should fill us with praise to God. It provides a basis of real confidence, and even assurance, amongst those who have been converted by the transforming power of God to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.