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.