FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #7
“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” Ephesians 1:11
Question: Has God really predestined some for salvation and some for damnation? This seems to contradict passages where Jesus died for all (e.g. John 3:16)? See also Romans 9. It seems unfair – as if humans are God’s pawns.
Stacks of books have been written defending various views on this topic so I’m definitely not going to be able to provide an adequate answer here. For a brief summary of the two main positions, check out my response to a similar question from Church at 6.
I think sometimes we have a hard time seeing beyond certain words in Scripture. Predestination is one of those words. When we see “predestination” we automatically attach a theological understanding to the word: God has predestined a select group of people for salvation. We have to work really hard to read the rest of the words around that word (the “Context” from our CAPTOR model) and make sure that our interpretation of the passage is not saying more than Paul, inspired by the Spirit, intended to say.
In Ephesians 1, Paul is saying that “we” were chosen as part of God’s destiny to be for the “praise of his glory.” The Judeo-Christian worldview is that history is moving towards its climax when everything will be put under God’s rule (Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament). This means that God had a purpose for creating the world and everything in it – including humans – and that, despite the rebellion of humans and spiritual beings, God will accomplish his purpose. In other words, creation has a predestined purpose. Because we handed our authority over to the powers of sin and death and placed ourselves in subjection to them, we could no longer fulfill our destiny. However, God has freed us through the life, death, and glorification of Jesus so that, if we have faith in Jesus, we can once again fulfill our predestined purpose for the “praise of his glory.”
So does Paul mean that we are predestined in the sense that humans were created to bring glory to God and now those who put their faith in Jesus are able to fulfill that predetermined destiny? Or is Paul saying that God has predetermined which humans will put their faith in Jesus? Ephesians 1:4-6 seems to indicate the latter: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace…” However, in all of this Paul is talking about the larger context of God’s predetermined purpose for all creation.
I had a prof who would present the various views on a topic and then move on. Inevitably, a student would ask, “Sir, which do you think is the correct view?” The prof would respond, “What do you think?” I understand what he was doing, but I hated it! I much preferred another prof who would present the different views and then say something like, “If you asked me today, this is where I would lean towards. But, I’m still learning and I might change my mind.” So, I’m going to tell you where I lean today: Because I believe God is in control of the whole universe without fully understanding what that means when it comes to issues of evil, suffering, and “predestination” I think Paul is saying that God has chosen humans who will put their faith in him. I am not certain if this is based on God’s foreknowledge –he knew who would put their faith in Jesus and therefore chose them – or if it based on God’s will – God made a sovereign choice to have certain humans put their faith in him. But based on my understanding of Scripture and how God has worked in human history, this is where I lean today. However, I could be wrong! So my first prof’s question is still important: “What do you think?”
This brings us to the second part of the question: if it is true that God predetermines who will put their faith in him, is it fair? Or are we just God’s pawns? Paul addresses this question in Romans 9.
Again, we have to consider the context. In Romans 9 Paul is wrestling with Israel’s place in God’s divine plan for creation. The question behind the passage is: if God has included Gentiles into the multi-ethnic family of Abraham, does that mean that he has permanently “moved on” from Israel?
Most Israelites believed that the whole people group would be saved because they were children of Abraham. Paul reminds them that not every descendant of Israel was an heir of the promises: Abraham had two sons but only one of them received the promise (Romans 9:6-9). Then Isaac, the recipient of the promise, had two sons, but only one of them received the promise (v.10-13). So it is not a guarantee that you are an heir of the promise just because you are genetically connected to a particular people group. God chooses some to receive the promise.
But the question remains: is this fair? Paul argues that it is. He argues that God is not unfaithful because he did not choose Esau but he is faithful because he chose Jacob. No one deserves to be a recipient of God’s mercy but God, as is his right as God, has chosen some to be recipients of his mercy and compassion (v.14-18). Apparently, just as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that “the Egyptians may know I am the Lord” (e.g. Exodus 9:16), so God has hardened most of Israel so that the Gospel would spread to the Gentile nations.
The question remains, how is it fair that God hardens some so that others can believe? Is it fair that God would hold us responsible if he predetermines our response to the Gospel? Paul anticipates this question (v.19) and gives two responses in the form of rhetorical questions:
1. Who are you to talk back to God (v.20-21)? Doesn’t God, as Creator, have the right to set some of his creation apart for a special purpose?
2. What if we can see God’s glory more clearly in his patience with those who will not put their faith in Jesus? (v.22-24)
I know, not very satisfactory. Paul acknowledges that it is mysterious – that we cannot fully wrap our minds around it.
It seems like God’s choice is locked in permanently. Except, if we keep reading in Romans, we find Paul saying that God has hardened the hearts of Israel so that the Gentiles would believe so that the children of Israel would grow envious of God’s blessing on the Gentiles and put their trust in Jesus so they, too, could receive the blessing (Romans 11).
Paul believed that the hardening of hearts was temporary: as they saw what life under the blessing of God looked like, they would be attracted to that life and respond by putting their faith in Jesus. This means that we, who are included in the faith-based, multi-ethnic family of Abraham and therefore heirs of the promise by faith in Jesus, have an obligation to demonstrate and proclaim the benefits and blessings of living in God’s kingdom so that others may see and, in turn, perhaps put their faith in Jesus. This is God’s predetermined purpose.
Finally, it strikes me that when Paul talks about predestination it results in praise: “In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6); “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined… in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12); and at the end of his long discussion about God’s purpose for hardening Israel’s hearts, Paul bursts into song: “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever give to God that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
We might not fully understand his mind, methods, and purposes. But we can trust that God is fair, good, and loving. We see this over and over again in the Bible and in the story of redemption. Because he is those things, we can praise him even though we don’t fully understand him.
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