The Function of the Doctrine of Predestination

Some thoughts from the sermon today:

Alister McGrath, in his biography of John Calvin, asserts that the doctrine of predestination became much more important to subsequent generations of Reformers than it was to Calvin himself, that it became a lens through which everything else was viewed. I have not studied the later Reformers like Beza or Turretin enough to confidently assert that this is true, though it appears to me to be the case. What I do know is that people often do just this sort of thing, for reasons of group identity, which is what McGrath asserts about the later Reformation. Predestination attained a greater importance than it might have done otherwise for reasons of group identity- it was the doctrine that distinguished them from Lutherans. Group identity is a huge motivator in people’s behavior- that much is clear just from reading the headlines from the Middle East. And it seems all too common that we Reformed view the doctrine of predestination as important because it shows how we’re different than others.

But how does Scripture view the role that the doctrine of predestination holds in our theology and lives? In John 10, one of the strongest passages to present the doctrine, we see that it basically functions to help us understand other things, not as a goal of itself.

24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me.
26 “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you.
27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
28 “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.
29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.
30 “I and My Father are one.”

Here, Jesus clearly teaches the doctrine- they don’t believe because they’re not His sheep. It is His Father who designates who are His sheep- He is the One who grants those sheep to Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t present this truth as an end goal of itself; He didn’t just one day start telling people about the doctrine of eternal election. He uses the doctrine to explain why it is that they reject Him- they don’t believe because they’re not His sheep. We see the same thing in John 6-

64 “But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.
65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

Here, the statement (which is just one of a series of similar statements in John 6- see verse 39 and 44 as well) comes directly as an explanation of why they reject Him- it is because it has not been granted to them by the Father to come to Him. This is the reason for the statement.

This is precisely one of the uses of the doctrine that people often shy away from- as an understanding of why people don’t come to faith. And yet this is exactly how Jesus uses the doctrine. When people reject the truth of Christ, we don’t want to ascribe that to God’s election- it feels harsh and unloving. We don’t know God’s election and so we cannot confidently assert that someone who rejects the gospel is not elect and will never accept the gospel. But if God is sovereign over our salvation, and determines our ability to come to faith, then at least we can say that the one who doesn’t come to faith was not predestined to come yet. The day may come when they will, but in the meantime we can stop beating ourselves up that we somehow didn’t present the gospel right and confidently assert what Christ asserts- “My sheep hear my voice”. In that case, all we have to do is do everything we can to assert that the words we are speaking are actually the words of Jesus, and not our own invention. If we speak the gospel faithfully, we can have complete confidence that Jesus’ sheep will respond.

The second way that this doctrine is used is to illustrate the true nature of our faith. And both in John 10 and in one of the other cardinal passages on this subject, Romans 8, predestination is presented as the grounds for our confidence as Christians. In John 10, Jesus describes what it means to be His sheep, granted to Him by the Father- they hear His voice, they follow, and nobody can ever take them away from Him. Why? Precisely because our Father who is greater than all has given them (us) to Jesus, and who is powerful enough to countermand the decree of the Father? Similarly in Romans 8, those three verses that every good Calvinist has memorized, 28-30, are presented not simply as teaching predestination for its own sake, but as the grounds of the complete confidence that the Christian can have that all circumstances and forces, both external and internal to himself, are working toward the goal of his salvation.

We as Reformed then ought not use the doctrine of predestination simply as a group identity marker, something showing how we’re different (and better) than other kinds of Christian. It should instead function in our lives as it does in Scripture- to help us understand why some accept the truth and others don’t, and to show us the true nature of the salvation which Christ has assured for us.

11 thoughts on “The Function of the Doctrine of Predestination

  1. Thanks, that helps to further clarify the question in Sunday School. For myself personally the doctrine does bring great comfort in that I know I am not responsible for ‘begging’ my family to believe, something I think that is common amongst those who embrace the free will of man. Afterall, if one can ‘choose’ Christ, why then can’t the other?

    Would you say it is an important lens in refuting the doctrine of free will, scripturally?

    Could you give me an example of something we might view by the lens of predestination that we don’t need to? I guesss that is the only bit of confusion on my part (you know how easily that happens to me)! Thanks Matt!

  2. Eileen,
    Sorry for the late response. But here’s a couple of thoughts.

    I think the rejection of common grace is one example of this. I think another is the denial that God has any love at all for all men, and only has love in any sense for the elect. I think both of these positions are the result of an overemphasis on predestination. Does that make sense? I’d be happy to draw this out in more detail if you like.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, I’m patient! It would be interesting to visit about common grace sometime as you and I never have had any type of communication on it.

    I think sometimes that terminology can play a definate part in this debate, some using the word and meaning of Grace interchangeably with kindness, providence, good gifts,( sun & rain-Matthew 5:43-45) etc. For me, to say that God loves the reprobate and hates them at the same time calls into question His immutability. They have been created for His wrath, so if He has a general love for them here, won’t He retain that general love for them in hell? If not, then to me, He has changed. Just a quick thought or two!

  4. It’s not that God changes, it’s that the reprobate changes. While they are in this world, God’s upholding grace prevents them from being as wicked as they could be. There is a remnant of the image of God in them still, and it is this that God loves. God is utterly constant- He loves what is good, and hates what is evil, and there is a remnant of what is good in the reprobate. He loves that remnant, and hates the rebellion and wickedness that so characterize the reprobate. In hell, that good remnant is gone. They are completely separated from God and will become as evil as they could possibly be, and thus God will no longer have any love for them at all. This is what it must mean to be eternally separated from God.

    Grace simply means good gifts, unearned favor. There is a particular kind of grace that the elect receive, efficacious and saving grace. But the word of itself is not restricted to this meaning. The Scripture uses the word beyond just God’s special saving grace to man- it speaks of favor between humans, goodwill and the like. It is right therefore, I believe, to speak of God’s good gifts to all of mankind as grace. I think Acts 14:17 strongly supports this particular doctrine.


  5. Matt,

    Great explanation. I think you are on to it. After reading Gerald Bray’s book “Doctrine of God” I struggle with these things a bit. I do not doubt the immutability of God, and neither does Bray. But, He has a definite means of distinguishing between the substance of God and the actions of the Persons of the Trinity. Could we also say that, although it is true that God does not change in His Being, His substance, He, or, more properly “they”, in reference to the Three Persons of the Trinity, nevertheless change in their personal action toward men? For instance, we know that God is angry with the wicked everyday. Yet, one day the Father will bring His loving rains to water the fields of the reprobate. The next day, He will bring wrath upon them in one manner or another. It seems to me that the eternal, unchanging intention of God toward the wicked would have to be properly attributed to substance, as the Persons interact with individual men in different ways at different times. That is, God’s eternal intention toward them, His hidden decree, does not change, though God’s actions toward them will. So, is it that God loves the reprobate, or is it that the Persons act in a loving manner toward them now, for a time to fulfill the purposes of the Divine decree? This question may not make much sense. Again, I am struggling with the issue.

    Not to change the subject, but only to add an example of the issue, take the Person of the Son. At a point in time and space, He took upon Himself the nature of a man and annexed it to His Person in hypostatic union. So, at the moment before conception in the womb of Mary, the Son did not have a human nature. Then, after conception, He did. This is a change. Yet, in the construct that Bray sets forth, if I understand him correctly, we could maintain the immutability of God by simply stating that Christ did not change according to His divine nature, His substance, although He changed in His person. This all gives me a throbbing headache, but I think he may have a point.


  6. Andy,
    I guess the hypostatic union requires some kind of change in the second person. Jesus as fully God and fully man must imply that change- otherwise I think we’re docetists or Nestorians. He “took upon Himself” that change. Yes the substance never changes, otherwise God is not immutable in any sense. But Jesus as a person must have- before the incarnation the second person could not have truthfully said that He didn’t know anything- yet Jesus says He doesn’t know the time of His return. We deny that God’s knowledge changes, but Jesus had two knowledges- one as man and one as God, and that only became true of Jesus after the incarnation.

    So I think we’re on safe ground asserting that Jesus changed in His person as a result of the hypostatic union. How that would apply to God the Father and His dealings with men is not as clear to me. But yes, His dealings change over time- obviously the wicked aren’t always in hell. At a certain point they enter that stage. But if double predestination is true then that was always their fate, and the change takes place only in time. God’s not subject to time, so none of this implies change in God Himself.

  7. Matt,

    Then, would you agree that when we speak of the immutability of God, practically anyway, we are speaking of the Divine decree, and when we speak of actions that change, we are speaking of the Persons, who do in fact interact with time and space, though they are not subject thereto? If so, as predestinarians, could we say that nothing changes in God’s decree, although He changes in His actions and disposition toward the wicked for the reasons that you explain above? I ask because I think this manner of expressing it squares with your explanation, but I wanted to verify lest I am missing something.



  8. I guess I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that, Andy, though I know what you’re saying in general. The problem is, we always attribute actions to the person, right? An essence, or a knowledge, or a will, never does anything. It’s an attribute. It’s the person that acts. So all of God’s decrees must be attributed to the person, right?

    So I guess I would think of God’s decrees toward all men as being unchanging, but still flowing from the person, as they are products of God’s own free choices. I would say however that they are unchanging, in that they are set in stone from eternity, not in that one person does not experience a range of things in the decrees. If God’s decree is for me to die at a certain date and then go to heaven, then that is His decree. It’s not a change in Him that right now, I’m alive and not in heaven. That’s His decree too, for this particular point in time.

    Likewise for the wicked. The wicked will experience particular things from God- in this lifetime, wrath and warning of further wrath to come, as well as blessings flowing from God’s common grace. At a particular point in time, God’s decree is that this wicked person die and then experience no further blessings, but only wrath. Now God hasn’t changed with respect to anything at all. The unbeliever has changed, and entered into a new phase of his interaction with an unchanging God, just as the elect do at salvation.

    I’m not sure that I’m really disagreeing with you at all substantially. Except in particular, I would think that the decrees would have to be attributed to the person. So I’m not sure we can really predicate any real change to God other than the hypostatic union, an utterly unique feature both from God’s side of things and from man’s.

    But yes, it certainly does give one a headache. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous to even delve this far into the divine mystery.

  9. Matt,

    I think we do agree. I also agree that we must be very careful when discussing this topic. One certainly cannot divorce the decree from the Persons because we cannot separate the one divine substance from the distinct Persons. But, I think the key to understanding immutability in time and space is to realize that the Persons do interact with us on our level. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit decreed from eternity to make the heavens and the earth. Yet, at an actual time appointed, the Father spoke the worlds into existance through the Son and by operation of the Spirit. So, from our perspective, there was a time when the Persons were not creating, then there was a time when they were, then they ceased creating and began their fellowship with man. So, I think it would only be a problem to say that God loves the reprobate if it conflicted with His decree, not insofar as it would seem to conflict with temporal actions of the Persons of the Trinity. The view of predestination is from the perspective of the eternal decree. The view of common grace is from the perspective of how the Persons interact with man in time and space. They do not conflict, of course, but the former never changes, whereas the latter does change IAW the former. I would say that the reason for the change is due to the explanation that you give.

    BTW, I think Bray’s concepts do much to reconcile Van Tillian thought with that of Clark and others. But, I will hold that discussion for another day.


  10. Anonymous says:

    Eileen & Matt,

    2 Corinthians 5:20 implies that we are to beg the nonbeliever to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. Just because God’s decreed all things outside of time and space should not cause us to be any less emphatic to a perishing world to flee to Christ before the day of final judgment.

    Go on and beg, plead, dialogue with your unbelieving family members because you are filled with the love of Christ.

    pax, timbo

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