Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Predestination

As Christians, Miss Manner's dictum of the 3 forbidden topics of dinner conversation cannot hold true. A little "P" word with 5 syllables, however, will probably do the trick. The same little word makes bible study leaders' eyes bulge as someone giggles nervously and several peace-loving individuals rush to say,"Let's not go down that road!"

Yet, after many sweaty encounters, I realised that it's really about as scary as e-filing your income tax: it's true, it works, you just need to get your butt off the sofa and the connection up and running. If you're scared by the doctrine, you're probably reading something wrong.

There's only one main pre-requisite for understanding predestination: you must be a bible-believing Christian (someone evangelistically tried it on me once while I was still pagan. I state emphatically: it does not work.). As a bible-believing Christian, you would have a healthy respect for the sovereignty of God and a healthy disgust at your own sinfulness.

Predestination is clearly taught in the Bible
Look for example at Ephesians 1, Romans 8-9, John 6, Acts 13:48, 1 Peter 1. We can't run away from the fact that predestination is clearly taught in the Bible. It is therefore not something we must try to explain away or hide from. It is God's truth and irrevocably linked to the gospel.

It is linked so irrevocably that even if the Bible didn't teach it explicitly, it would be a natural and logical conclusion from the gospel:
The Nature of Humanity
The Bible begins its account of humanity by first introducing us to Adam, the first man. He is first not just chronologically but representatively (Romans 5:12-20; 1 Cor 15:20-21) in that his being and actions have affected us all. Adam's relationship with the world is constitutive of our relationship with the world, so too his relationships with God and with Eve, his wife. So what is said of Adam is significant for us.
  • we are dependent not autonomous: much contemporary culture has committed itself to the view that human beings should strive for personal and social freedom as a fundamental purpose in life: the philosophy of autonomy is exalted, the idea that above all we are intended to be self-directed and hence responsible to ourselves alone.
  • the biblical perspective on humanity is radically different and radically opposed to this secular view. Authority does not arise from within us but comes from God. He is the Creator, and we are utterly dependent upon him for our physical lives as well as all aspects of how we should live and what it is to be human. Our fundamental obligation as human beings is to glorify and thank God (Rom 1:21, 1 Cor 10:31). He has created us from the very moment of our existence and knows our every thought and action even before they occur (Psalm 139:1-16). He sustains all things, feeding, clothing, and watching over them, "For in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
  • true freedom is therefore to live as God made us to live: in a right relationship with God, depending on him, trusting him and having faith in him; and in a right relationship with each other, loving others.
  • sin is living in a wrong relationship with God, depending on ourselves only; and so living in a wrong relationship with others, being selfish and self-centred. The secular world calls it freedom and autonomy but it is really a euphemism for ungrateful, wrongful pride; exalting ourselves above our own creator.
Sin is Universal and Deep-rooted
Sin is universal in human experience. There is no point demonstrating that human beings are capable of prodigious feats of evil, a short discussion with any man on the street (if you get a taxi-driver, a long monologue) will attest to that. The Bible is quite clear on that:"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"(Rom 3:23); "if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

Sin taints and has tainted every human being (with the notable exception of Jesus). All the heroes of Sunday school classes: eg. Moses, David, Paul, were sinners.

Sin also taints every aspect of being human. No part of our personality is free from the influence of sin, and even the best of our works show the effect of its grip on us. It makes us self-centred and self-serving, and on examination we find that our motives are mixed and our actions seldom unambiguously good. This is what is meant by "total depravity". Sin has permeated every part of who we are and we are never free of its effects.

We do sinful things because sin is deeply rooted in our hearts. We like to think of ourselves as possessing free will and thus having the capacity to choose the good or the bad. This is not a true view of reality: in sinning, we have given ourselves to a new master other than God, and we serve the new master whether we like it or not:"everyone who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). The plight of the Christian sinner is described painfully by Paul,"When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:21-24).

Sinful people cannot control their evil desires. The sinful heart generates sin, which we cannot prevent. Yet, because it is ours and comes from our own hearts and wills, we are responsible for it. We are free agents but we choose to sin over and over again because by sinning we enslave ourselves to sin.

So we are incapable of our own accord, with our own resources, to choose to serve God, to live in a right relationship with him. We "cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor 4:4). "The mind of the sinful man is death...the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (Rom 8:6-7).

So let's not try to explain away the truth of predestination with the Arminian (or Wesleyan) heresy about how God loves us so much that he lets us use our free will to choose between right and wrong. What free will? The fact is that we have chosen to sin and are now sin-infested and capable of choosing only to do evil. We can only sin. What kind of loving Father would leave us in that state? Leaving you with the "free will" to choose to do evil is actually God giving you over to your sins; God's judgement on you (Rom 1).

God's love is shown in not leaving us to our sin, which can lead only to judgement and death, but by rescuing us from our sin, by electing us and predestining us to be saved from our rightful punishment.

Human Beings Cannot Turn to God by their Own Strength
Most people like to harbour a positive regard for themselves, even when they have been involved in many wrong things. We like to think that we can change if we want to, and that our capacity to choose the good remains more or less intact. But these are self-deceptions. Neither human experience nor the Bible confirms such romantic notions of ourselves. We are creatures of habit, and no habits are stronger and more difficult to break free from than our habitual sinfulness. The fact that we are born "in Adam", as part of a race that has rebelled against God means that from the very beginning, we easily and habitually offend against God: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5).

We are permeated with sinfulness in our hearts and our wills and are unable to turn to God to depend on him as we should, to repent and have faith in him and to serve him. No wonder Paul cries out:"What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24). Immediately, he gives the answer to his own question:"Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:25).

God is the Sovereign, Just and Gracious Lord
Before we get to Christ, let us consider the nature and extent of the almighty power of God:
  • first of all, he is the Creator who made and who rules the entire universe. Everything has come from his hand, and all things remain under his power. This applies to the drop of rain and to the earthquake, to the animals and to the molecules;
  • second, he is the Lord of history who "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). Might empires and great rulers are under his sway. If he is able to govern the rise and fall of nations, as the Bible reveals him to do, he can and does govern the hearts of those responsible:"The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases" (Proverbs 21:1);
  • thirdly, the Lord is both just and gracious in his sovereignty. These characteristics are revealed in his very name:"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished..." (Exod 34:6-7). The Lord also says of himself,"I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exod 33:19)
God's Salvation is Both Just and Gracious
God's sovereignty, his justice and his grace are revealed in what he has done for the human race. He is a Saviour who saves us "not by works, so no one can boast" (Eph 2:9). In saving us he has acted entirely in accordance with his character of sovereignty, grace and justice. We sinful and condemned. Yet, the Son of God entered our race as one of us and lived amongst us a life entirely pleasing to God. Condemned to die upon the cross, Jesus the innocent one suffered as our substitute, bearing in our place the wrath of God due to sinful creatures. His righteousness is attributed to us; our unrighteousness is attributed to him (2 Cor 5:21). We were utterly helpless and hopeless; he was the sovereign Lord completely able to save with his perfect love from his perfect justice. His love is the love of grace, the unmerited favour of the God for the ungodly who do not merit his love in the slightest.

God's Call is Gracious and Effective
So how does God deal with the problem that in our own strength, though Christ has died for us, we cannot turn to him to claim our salvation?

Through the death of Christ, our sinful debts are fully met. In this sense, God's people are saved at the cross. But we are not saved from wrath until the gospel of Christ calls us forth and by faith and repentance we submit to the Lord Jesus and receive God's forgiveness and mercy.

Yet, we are so sinful that we are incapable of calling upon God on our own steam. We can be super-religious but never repent or trust in God (Luke 18:9-14). Thus, our salvation requires the "effectual call" of God, in which by his word and the power of his Spirit, we are born again and given the gifts of repentance and faith. This happens without our deserving it, and happens without our being able to make it occur. It is all of the gracious, irresistible work of God.

God's effectual call will never be fruitless. His word does not fail and when he calls his people, they will obey. More than that, when he calls them, they are kept from then on. The Lord's sheep are both obedient and secure:"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one" (John 10:27-30). Salvation is something the sheep must seek and persevere in themselves, but in the end it is God who keeps his sheep, not they who keep themselves (because they are incapable of doing so).

The doctrine of predestination is imminently logically because our totally and utterly sinful state renders us unwilling and unable to turn to God on our own and grab hold of the only rope of salvation. We are so helpless and hopeless that we need God, though the Spirit, to illumine our minds to understand the gospel, and energise our hearts and our wills to turn to him and submit to him. We are so helpless and hopeless that even after this conversion, we need his Spirit to keep dwelling in us, to keep us turning to God daily, submitting to him, serving him and living in a right relationship with him just as he made us to live.

The doctrine of predestination is ultimately humbling and comforting:
  • it reminds us of who we are in relation to God. There are few other truths in the Bible more in-yer-face-ly more antagonistic to sinful human pride than predestination and election. It is not a doctrine we would have invented to make ourselves feel better. By placing salvation, even to the point of our own responsiveness, into the hands of a sovereign gracious God, predestination removes the last vestige of our pride. It emphasises how lost and dead we were until God in his kindness made us alive.
  • one of the things to note when reading any part of the Bible is that certain things are written for different reasons: predestination wasn't a cold little doctrine written in to mess up the lives of bible studies thousands of years later. If you look at the context in which you find mention of this doctrine, it is concerned with encouraging Christians in the trials, dangers and uncertainties of their lives. When we are faced with opposition, the stuttering of our own confession of Christ, and the weakness of our faith, it is of enormous encouragement that God is stronger than all these things. He will shield us by his power until we reach the imperishable inheritance, and so we rejoice, even in trials (1 Pet 1:3-6). If he is for us, who can be against? Who can separate us from his loving, sovereign grace, whereby he predestined, called, justified and glorified us (Rom 8:28ff). Against the uncertainties of our own performance, and the violence of the opposition we face (spiritual and temporal), predestination stands as a rock of certainty.
Predestination FAQ

Sources/Look-see look-see:
Peter Jensen & Mark Thompson, "Doctrine 2" (Moore Theological College Correspondence Course)
Tony Payne, "The Very Practical Doctrine of Predestination"

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