Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Predestination FAQ

Please read the post on Predestination first.

After many years of sometimes heated debate, realised there are only so many questions frequently asked about big bad Predestination. FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions, not GRA (God's Right Answers). After the recent round of discussions, thought it might be useful to list the common questions and what we think are the biblical answers. Please mail me if you have comments or additions (I should check my mail at least once a year). Cheers.

Q: Does God have the capacity to change the human heart?
God is in charge of the mighty forces of nature, and also in charge of human nature. He made us and understands how we function. If God were unable to influence and direct the human heart, the fulfilment of prophecy would be uncertain. In fact, in the case of the death and resurrection of Jesus, these things were determined long before they took place, "by God's set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23).

Yet, at the same time, those who did these things were responsible for their own actions: "you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death..."(Acts 2:23). And so we read of Lydia that "the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16:14).

Q: Why then does the gospel message call upon us to respond in faith and repentance? If we cannot resist God, how can we be said to have these obligations?
Remember the power of God who made and understands too well human nature. His way of salvation is not to bypass human response, by to create the appropriate response. Thus he both calls forth faith and repentance, and he gives them to us as well:"So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18; also Eph 2:8).

God enables us to decide for him, and we decide to follow God; we now know God, "or rather are known by God" (Gal 4:9). Our wills were in bondage to sin; he gave us a will that could rightly choose to serve him and so find true freedom.

The elect are brought into the kingdom by God's choice superintending their own, and the Bible speaks of the same person his own rebellious hardening of heart and God's hardening of their heart (Rom 9:16-18; cf Exod 8:15, 10:1). Thus our choices and our repentance and our faith are real and spring from human effort - but they are only possible because God enables them.

This means that we can never pride ourselves on our choice of God, or boast that we have been good enough or clever enough or wise enough to believe in Jesus. This would be a return to the old way of self-justification. On the contrary, we must recognise that even our choice of God as Lord is really his choice of us, neither can we be proud about the manner of our coming to God or the reasons for which he may have chosen. The very reasons for the Lord's choice have nothing to do with the importance, attractiveness, cleverness or strength of the person chosen (Deut 7:7-8; 1 Cor 1:26-31).

Q: Is predestination the same as foreknowledge?
The use of the word "foreknew" by Paul in Romans 8:29 has frequently led to the suggestion that predestination is merely the foreknowledge of God; ie. God chooses those whom he sees in advance will choose him, so election is God's confirmation of our choice. This seems to be an attractive solution to one of the alleged difficulties of predestination: the lack of human free will.

But this approach does not seem biblical:
  • first, Paul does not mean merely God's capacity to see the future when he uses the word "foreknew". In the Bible, knowledge is often, as here, seen as a relational concept. To "foreknow" is to relate in advance, to take knowledge of;
  • second, the suggestion wrongly assumes that the human will is free in a significant sense, and so does not do justice to the biblical testimony about the bondage of the will to the flesh. Our will is free from external constraint, and therefore free enough to be responsible, but not free from the sinful habits that are part of being human;
  • third, the idea that our salvation depends on our choice of God puts too much emphasis on human effort, and so endangers the express concept of the gospel of God's grace.
Q: Can I know whether I am elect?
We should not be wary of teaching on this subject. New testament writers like Peter, Paul and John were quite happy to address their readers as elect (while in the same letter offering strict warnings about the dangers of falling away).
  • we can be sure that no human being has access to the book in which God has inscribed the names of his chosen ones;
  • the evidence of our election is not in the heavens, but in the gospel by which we have been summoned into fellowship with the living God, and in the faith with which we have received the gospel: for those who have heard and received the gospel by faith, there is the assurance that they are of the chosen people of God;
  • the clear warnings in the New Testament (eg. 1 Cor 10:11-14; Heb 6:4-12) are also accompanied by words of encouragement and assurance. These warnings have to be taken with utmost seriousness; those whose faith is genuine will heed the warnings and so the warnings will succeed in keeping them secure until the end.
Q: What is the point of evangelism and prayer if God does all the work anyway?
It is frequently assumed that a strong doctrine of election must discourage both evangelism and prayer and lead to a "quietistic" approach to the Christian life in which everything is left to the direct action of God. The people who have gone to this extreme must have misunderstood the way in which the Bible reveals God's method of working with us.

What the Bible shows is that God normally acts with and in his creation, including human nature, to bring to fulfilment his eternal plans. Eg. God does not bypass the human will - he restores its capacity to choose appropriately and ensures that it does. In evangelism, he normally uses the method of preaching the gospel, weaving the preacher and the occasion into his purposes, so that human effort is fully engaged and yet God is the one who is responsible for all. As Paul put it: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor 3:6).

Likewise, God does not need our prayers to accomplish his purposes in the world. He graciously weaves our prayers into his purposes, so that our intercessions have a genuine force, and yet his wisdom is never baffled or out-manoeuvered.

Far from being a disincentive to prayer and evangelism, the truths of election and predestination are a great encouragement to engage in both. In praying and evangelising, we are co-operating wonderfully with God, but he is doing what is right and wise. We don't have to agonise over getting a "decision" from a person, because it is actually God who does the regenerating. Our part in it all is to pass on the message in a godly, non-deceitful manner. We may leave the results to God.

Q: Isn't God unjust to elect some and not all?
  • first, we must remind ourselves of the limits of our knowledge. We do not know, eg. how extensive the elect numbers are, although Revelation 7:9 suggests they are gianormous;
  • second, we need to remind ourselves that God does not have to choose any at all. He is not bound to us, and he may treat us as he will: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exod 33:19). We all deserve wrath and condemnation; the wonder is that he has chosen to redeem any at all. Jesus' parable about the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) shows how God's methods of being both gracious and just can sometimes stump us and yet be absolutely correct;
  • third, we should note the comments of Paul when faced with exactly this question:"But who are you O man to talk back to God?" (Rom 9:19, but read whole chapter).
Some good questions to ask might be:
Q: Who created this universe?
Q: Who, more than any one else, knows how this universe works?
Q: Who gives the perfectly accurate account of reality?
Q: Who is completely perfect?
Q: Who is absolutely just?
Q: Whom can we trust totally?
Q: What can we trust about him?

Possibly, it boils down to what we mean when we say that we trust in God. What is the object of our trust? Is it not two-fold: (1) that God's character is trustworthy: that he doesn't change his mind, that he will do what he has promised, that he is perfectly just and perfectly loving and gracious; and (2) that all his words are a true reflection of reality?

Are we more just than God to be able to say that he is unjust? If we say we are more just than God, are we not God over him? More perfect than he?

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