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What do Presbyterians believe about predestination?


Jane Dempsey Douglass interviewed by Vic Jameson

Reprinted from the September 1985 issue of Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)

What do Presbyterians mean when they speak of predestination?

Calvin defines predestination as "God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each [person]. For ... eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others." So predestination is an act of God's will through which God elects or chooses those whom God calls to faith and thus to eternal life, and through which God chooses those who will not receive faith. Other theologians have seen in predestination only a positive calling to eternal life. Still others have seen it as God's foreknowledge of who would choose faith.

God's grace transforms the will so that it can freely obey God's will, though not perfectly.

Where does the idea come from?

All of these views of predestination are rooted in the Biblical images of God's calling a chosen people: the people of Israel and, through the work of Christ, the new Israel. Among the favorite texts from the Scriptures cited to support the doctrine are Deuteronomy 7 and Romans 9.

How do we get from the Bible to Calvin's view?

It was Augustine who gave the idea of predestination its classical shape. He focused on the idea that God chose from all eternity who would come into the kingdom of God, to replace the fallen angels, to fill up the ranks of the heavenly choir. He stressed that since Adam's fall, all humankind was under the curse of original sin and could not hope to have life with God after death without God's saving action.

Augustine understood that the work of Christ was God's choice to save elected sinners, in order to show God's mercy — but God also chose to allow others to remain in their sins, unsaved, in order to show God's justice.

For Augustine the choice as to who would be predestined to eternal life was entirely in God's will: Only those God had chosen from all eternity could turn away from their sins to God, because God would grant them grace.

This idea — the very strong stress on predestination as being entirely the result of God's will, God's own choice--was very difficult for tradition to hold on to. Within about a century a church council dealt with the controversy over the issue by retaining Augustine's idea that God must first take the initiative to give grace to sinners so that they could turn to God, but it opposed the idea that God would determine those who were not saved.

Through the Middle Ages there were a few strict Augustinians who held to Augustine's view of predestination, but there were many theologians who redefined predestination. Because the term was Biblical, they didn't deny it, but they said God "chooses" the elect on the basis of God's foreknowledge of how they will lead their lives. Therefore, they held, the choice as to whether a person will be saved or not is no longer in God's will, but it is in that person's choice about God's gift of grace — whether to accept it or reject it.

Why does Calvin usually get the credit — or blame — for predestination?

At the time of the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin returned to Augustine's understanding of predestination as rooted in God's choice of the elect. Luther saw the doctrine as Augustine had defined it, as absolutely necessary to Christian theology, and Calvin followed him in this. But neither Luther nor Calvin wanted the focus to be on predestination itself, but on justification by grace alone.

Calvin and Luther saw predestination as protecting the doctrine of justification by grace. They understood Christians to be people who have received the undeserved gift of faith from God, and who by this faith can confess their gratitude that God has chosen them to be among the people of God.

They insisted that Christians should not take pride in having been chosen, as though God had made the choice on the basis of human virtue. Like Augustine, they insisted that God's choice is rooted in God's will alone and not in God's foreknowledge of human virtue.

The opponents of the Reformation were very unhappy with the Reformers' use of predestination; they thought it was a dangerous doctrine to preach to ordinary people. They feared it would lead to despair. But the Reformers insisted it was a doctrine that was important, precisely to safeguard the doctrine that Christians are saved only by God's grace, and to give comfort and assurance to Christians that their salvation is in God's hands.

And the effects were ...?

Both Calvin and Luther saw predestination as relieving the great late medieval anxiety about salvation; there was no reason for Christians to devote their energies to pious acts intended to improve their status in God's eyes. Because of the confidence Christians experience in faith, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit in their hearts that comes with faith, Christians can rejoice in God's gift of grace and in thanksgiving turn their energies toward serving the needs of their neighbors.

As the natural consequence of a proper understanding of the doctrine of predestination the Reformers saw a great deal of energy released for serving the needs of other people. Luther said there was no reason for buying indulgences; it would be better for people to spend the money instead on food for the poor.

Luther rejoiced in the doctrine of predestination, which he believed is so clearly taught by Paul and, in fact, in the whole of the Scriptures--but he quickly stopped short of trying to explain why God works this way. He simply said it is a mystery that God has not revealed. If people are troubled by the doctrine of predestination and worried about whether or not they are saved, they should look at the wounds of the crucified Christ. There they will see what they need to know, what God has revealed — that God loves sinners enough to die for them — and they will be comforted.

Calvin worked harder than Luther at trying to explain systematically how the doctrine of predestination works. But he too finally admitted that we must stand in awe of the mysteries of God's decisions, which are unfathomable by human minds.

The context in which Calvin placed the doctrine of predestination was the means of grace: how it is that God's grace comes to us. Later Calvinism tended to place far greater stress on predestination than Calvin did, and to give it a more prominent systematic place.

At the beginning of the 17th century came another significant church council, the Synod of Dort, which had to deal with a new quarrel about predestination. As a result of that quarrel, a large group of Calvinists followed Arminius in saying very much what the medieval church had said: Yes, God's grace is necessary to salvation — God must take the initiative in offering grace to sinners in order that they can turn away from their sins to God--but individuals must decide whether to accept or reject that grace. Augustine, Luther and Calvin assumed that God's grace was irresistible and that it healed the sinful will so that those who received the gift of grace would gratefully accept it.

So the doctrine of predestination was already a problem in the 17th century, even within the Calvinist tradition, and there had been similar quarrels within the Lutheran tradition.

Obviously we're not all of one mind about it ...

Most of the Reformed confessions of the Presbyterian tradition reflect a doctrine of predestination as a part of justification by grace; some are more explicit than others. But many 20th-century Presbyterians have been very concerned about the few statements in the confessions that suggest that God has from all eternity condemned some people to eternal death. There has been pressure to revise the Westminster Confession, for example, to remove statements that teach God's eternal condemnation of some people. The United Presbyterian Church edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically repudiates this teaching.

All through the history of the church this has been a doctrine that has been warmly embraced by some but has caused problems for others.

It is my impression that most contemporary Presbyterians have not been nearly as interested in the doctrine of predestination as people outside the Presbyterian Church assume they must be. If there is a popular stereotype of Presbyterianism, it's that Presbyterians believe in predestination as a kind of fatalistic belief that God determines everything in advance.

Presbyterians have perhaps been forced to take up the question recently for two reasons. In the second half of the 20th century there has been pressure to write new confessions, and in writing these the church has had to ask quite seriously how we now understand this doctrine. There has also been pressure from ecumenical conversations: The renewal of Catholic-Protestant dialogues and also dialogues with other Protestants have brought the questions of justification by grace and predestination back into the ecumenical conversation.

What's vital about the subject for us today?

I think at least four points are important. First of all, the Reformed tradition has always stressed the freedom of God, and predestination has been connected to a doctrine of God's freedom and of God's lordship over the universe, over all creation. The doctrine of predestination re-emphasizes that God alone is Lord.

In the second place, the doctrine of predestination functions for us today, as well as it did for Luther and Calvin, to safeguard the doctrine of justification by grace. I think our experience is that faith comes as a gift from God; we understand that God comes to us with God's grace--to which we can only respond with gratitude. And Reformed predestination is a way of saying God has taken the initiative in giving us these gifts.

Third, I think that, along with the Reformers, we can see this doctrine as a source of assurance of God's love for us. It is a doctrine that gives us confidence as we stand before God as forgiven sinners.

Finally, we need to see the doctrine as the Reformers did as part of a doctrine of providence: God cares about everything God has created, and God has a purpose for each person who has been created.

Those of us who are called to faith can give thanks for God's initiative in dealing with us so graciously. But most contemporary Presbyterians are reluctant to assume that we know anything about God's purpose for those who seem to have rejected faith. We perceive it to be dangerous to move beyond the mystery of predestination to try to explain what God has not revealed.

The whole history of theology reflects tension in relating a Biblical concept of calling or election or predestination with an equally Biblical doctrine of human responsibility. The Reformed tradition has held that sinners are responsible for their sinful acts even though they are unable to turn away from them without the gift of God's grace. But it has also insisted that God's grace transforms the will so that it can freely obey God's will, though not perfectly.

The Christian is therefore responsible for finding God's will and living in accordance with it. We are free to obey God. We must continue to work theologically at relating God's calling or predestination with human responsibility.



  • We tend to get hung up on the word Predestined. But, lets take a look at the whole verse of Romans8:29. It says "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren." Those who respond to God's call (free will), are born into His family, and are then Predestined to become like Christ (No Choice). Those who are God's children are (once again) Predestined to become like His Son (In that we have no choice, we WILL be made like His Son). by Scott Hansen on 05/07/2014 at 2:26 p.m.

  • question, if grace of God is given freely to everybody,so do we need church . what happen with the person who received grace and be sin again? is the grace of God still there remain in the person? by Deetje Tiwa on 05/05/2014 at 9:49 a.m.

  • Why would God create abject rags of sin? That doesn't say very positive things about him. A potter works the wheel, he aims to make intact, useful pots, from the get-go. A repaired pot is never strong or reliable as a vessel. by Sally on 05/02/2014 at 2:44 p.m.

  • I am troubled by the idea that a loving and merciful God would willfully choose souls to reject and send to hell. Such is the teaching in my reformed church. I understand that God is sovereign over his creation, and I believe his grace is necessary for one to desire to seek and follow him, and that he knows who his followers will be. But I have to think that man is given a measure of free will to consider the claims of Christ, and to either accept or reject those claims. by Leslie on 04/30/2014 at 6:15 p.m.

  • Predestination is probably the most difficult teaching of the Bible for us to understand. It is totally backward to us. Remember, God said our ways are not His ways. All of creation was made for the purpose of Glorifying God. It's not about us, that's our problem in understanding the beauty in predestination. It simply says that because we all are dead in our sin, unable to seek God, God must save or no one would be saved. We think we have a choice, the problem is we can't make a saving choice because we are all born dead in sin, objects of God's wrath. We don't see it as fair that God would save some and not others. That argument can't hold up on any level for I could stand before God and say,"Why didn't you appear to me like you did the Apostle Paul, all you gave me was a book." The beauty in the Gospel is not that God offers it to everyone saying, "please believe in me, I really want you to believe." The beauty is in that he would save ANY of our wreached souls for we and all our righteous acts are as filthy rags in His Holly presence. When I understand that I deserve destruction, then I can finally understand His Grace and love that he would choose to give to me His Spirit that I may commune with Him. He did this not because I reached out and excepted His offer, but I was so lost that I was dead and I had to be born again to see Him. Just ask yourself which way of salvation gives God the greatest Glory for Salvation, that you had the good sense to accept it, or that he had to awaken your dead lost soul. He had to DRAG you from your dead lost state or you would have never known Him. Knowing that it was God who saved me, and that it had nothing to do with me is the most hubbling experience I have ever known. I can no longer look at others who are not saved and feel any pride because I was smart enought to respond to God's offer of salvation. It also brings about the greatest feeling of assurance of my salvation because it is God that keeps me and it is He that will finish the good work he began in me. Jesus said that He will not lose a single one that the Father has given Him. That is rest! Christ is the sabath, He is rest because salvation is 100% His work and He says He will finish it. It's all about God and His Glory for He is the only one that is perfect therefore there can be Glory in no other. Let your pride fall by the way side and read the complete Gospel. you can't ignore all that is in the Bible when it comes to God's elect, His Chosen and those He predestined. All if that is in the Bible and you can't ignore it as most churches do. Those whom God is saving were chosen before the foundation of the world. Read Romans Chapter 9, Paul answers your objections very plainly. The Glory of God and predestination is all through the new testement. Jesus said come to me all who will, but only those whom God chooses to awaken from their Spiritually dead state will. by Robert Powell on 04/20/2014 at 7:09 p.m.

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