It’s strange how Calvinism and the doctrine with which it is most commonly associated i.e. predestination, evoke such passionate hostility. When I was doing a theology degree in a Baptist college in 2005, one of the lectures in the subject of Theology was John Calvin’s view of election. The lecturer, who had previously been a Baptist pastor, dealt with the subject even-handedly, and I was impressed with how well balanced the lecture was. So I was very surprised when I saw the hostile reaction it had provoked among many of the students after the lecture. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised given that this was, after all, a Baptist college. But the lecturer wasn’t saying we had to accept Calvin’s theology – all he did was to very capably present Calvin’s view – and, after all, he was addressing theology students who ought to be able to listen to another point of view without being threatened or offended by it.
Who is in control?
Those who so vehemently oppose Calvinism do so because human free will is their sacred cow. And they reason that if Calvinism, particularly predestination or election is true, then Man is not able to choose his eternal destiny and therefore he is no better than a robot. But the discussion is not really about Man, it is about God – either God is in control of his creation or he is not. If God is not in control of his creation, then someone or something else is; or nothing is, and everything that happens is random. If God isn’t in control of his creation, who is? Is it Satan? No, that couldn’t be because Satan needs God’s permission to do anything (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Mark 5:7-13). Is it Man? Again, no. Scripture is clear as to where Man is in relation to God: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom 9:20). If Man has the ability to choose his eternal destiny, if he has free will, then God does not have full control over his creation.
To get around this and allow Man to have free will, some falsely and vainly say that God can see the future and he knows what people will do; he knows how they will respond when they hear the gospel, so when God sees those who do choose Christ, he predestines them to salvation. But that puts God in the position of playing catch-up, instead of initiating and orchestrating events according to his good pleasure and the counsel of his will (Eph 1:5, 9, 11). The very term “predestination” means the initiative is with God who determines, foreordains, predestines, the fate of every individual who has ever or will ever live.
The only other alternative that I can think of is that nothing is in control; but if nothing is in control then that is chaos. But the universe isn’t chaotic; it operates under strict and observable laws. So we have to come back to God because he is the only one capable of controlling his creation. If you read through the book of Revelation you will see that God is in control of heaven, hell, earth, the cosmos, angels, devils, Satan, humanity, and every event – all things happen according to his will, and nothing happens that he doesn’t know about or hasn’t initiated.
What does the bible say?
So what does the bible say? That alone is the Christian’s authority. Perhaps the most obvious place to look first is Ephesians chapters 1 and 2. Even if there were no other reference to predestination in the bible, this passage is rich in it and it shows how salvation is God’s work from start to finish. How can any Christian read it and not see predestination there? Here we see that God has chosen or predestined us to salvation according to his pleasure and will and he is glorified by it; that Man is dead in sins and in bondage to sin and Satan and helpless to save himself, and that God in love and mercy reached down and rescued us and glorified us; that salvation can’t be by Man’s free will because salvation is by grace alone so that he will have nothing to boast about before God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
But even more clearly, in Romans chapter 9, we see election spelled out. Speaking of Jacob and Esau, Paul explains, “(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom 9:11-16). Can anything more clearly demonstrate God’s absolute sovereignty and that he determines the destinies of individuals and of nations?
But even in Paul’s time there were those who questioned this. Paul’s answer is uncompromising and unapologetic. He says “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Rom 9:19-23).
Can a doctrine be more clearly stated? Is it any wonder that there are Christians who believe that God chooses whom he will save, when we read passages such as these? The wonder is rather that there are Christians who reject predestination and God’s right as the Potter to choose what he will do with his creation.
There are three words in this passage which seem harsh and make no allowance for human beings to play any part whatsoever in their own salvation.
God hated Esau
(1) The first is God saying “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom 9:13). Does God actually hate people; doesn’t John 3:16 tell us that God loves the whole world? But even more startling is that God said he hated Esau before he was even born; before he had done either good or evil; before he even had a chance (9:11-13)! No wonder Paul imagined some people aghast and asking “Is there unrighteousness with God?” (9:14). He emphatically replies: “God forbid” And the reason he gives is God’s sovereign will: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom 9:18). He takes the initiative away from Man completely and puts it squarely where it belongs – in God’s capable and loving hands.
So, did God hate Esau maliciously? Is he capricious? Not at all. God is governed by his attributes, some of which are his love, his mercy, grace, kindness, faithfulness, and justice. The Greek word for “hate” is miseo, and while it does mean “I hate”, it also can mean “to regard with less affection, love less, esteem less” (The Analytical Greek Lexicon); it is also defined as “hate, reject, not choose, (Rom 9:13) opposite eklego (choose, select) as divine election” (Friberg, Friberg and Miller, 2000, p. 264).
Paul then gives another example, of how God worked sovereignly with Pharaoh, and reiterates “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (9:17). And again, Paul imagines someone asking, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?”
If I were asked that question I’d answer it by saying that Esau and Jacob were both conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5) because they inherited Adam’s fallen nature (Rom 5:12), just as we all do (Eph 2:3). They were “children of wrath” and consequently God was angry with them (Psalm 7:11), but God in his infinite mercy and grace chose to love Jacob and so to rescue him, while at the same time leaving Esau to his fate. Esau’s fate was deserved so he had no right to complain, while Jacob’s was totally undeserved and he had no grounds to think he was better than his brother.
But, although true, that is not the answer that God gives. He answers firstly by putting us in our rightful place and reminding us who and what we are; and secondly that it is his will and he is glorified by it. He makes no concession to our injured sense of justice and insists on his sovereign right as God.
It should be observed here that when Paul imagines the questioner asking “who hath resisted his will?”, it’s not in his thinking that God has seen into the future that Pharaoh would harden his heart against God and refuse to let the people go, and that therefore God would harden Pharaoh’s heart – not at all! Paul talks about resisting God’s will; going against something that God has already determined. It is not God deciding what to do after Pharaoh makes his decision – that puts Pharaoh in control. It is rather that God determines what is going to happen without reference to anyone but himself. God is the potter; Pharaoh (and all mankind) is the clay and is fashioned by God into whatever shape he determines. So Paul’s imaginary questioner is complaining that God’s will is irresistible and unfair.
God hardens whom he wants to
(2) The next difficult word is “hardens”. Friberg, Friberg and Miller (2000, p. 351) define the Greek meaning of this word in 9:18 as “of God’s judicial action cause someone to be stubborn, make someone refuse to listen, refuse to yield”.
The passage in Rom 9:18 tells us that God hardens whomever he wishes to. To illustrate this, Paul quotes from Exodus 9:16 where Moses is speaking to Pharaoh: “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (9:17). This does not mean that God merely gave Pharaoh over and allowed him to fall in his own folly. No, the initiative is with God – he makes the first move. In Exodus 4:21 God assures Moses “I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go”; and in 7:3, 4 God again says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…..Pharaoh shall not listen to you….”
In fulfilment of this, we’re told, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go” (Exod 7:14). The fact that we’re told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, as in Exodus 8:15, only shows the outworking of God’s prior hardening; God was working out his purpose i.e. “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord….” (7:5). See also 9:16 and 10:1-2.
Then does this mean Pharaoh had no choice? Was he merely a robot? No, because the passages in Exodus tell us the decision was Pharaoh’s choice e.g. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said” (Exod 8:15). He did what he wanted to do; the choice genuinely was his.
Prepared for destruction
(3) The third difficult word is “prepared for destruction”. This tells us that those whom God rejects for salvation are chosen and prepared for destruction so that he might be glorified, and his wrath against sin and his power made known. Just as the potter selects part of a lump of clay to make an ashtray and from the other part he makes a beautiful vase, so God, who describes himself as the potter, is able to, indeed does, make one person for wrath and another for glory – and he is perfectly just and without fault or blame when he does so.
An example of this can be found in the book of Joshua. The Lord had commanded Israel to enter Canaan and kill every living human being – not one was to be spared. For Joshua to achieve this and not make peace with any of those nations, we’re told “Joshua made war for a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle. For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favour, but that he might destroy them, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Josh 11:18-20).
To whom else shall we go?
I must admit that I often can’t grasp the significance and implication of all that scripture teaches – and it can be tricky to get the balance between election and free will – but I do accept what scripture says because it is God’s revelation. If I reject his word, no matter how unpalatable, then what do I have? Peter, when Jesus asked him if he also would leave, said “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). I don’t understand all I read in the bible but I believe and accept it. Predestination and reprobation are hard concepts to fathom – and yet they are very simple. “We all like sheep have gone astray” and consequently are headed for destruction; but God in his grace and mercy and love has reached down to save some of us. Even though he answers to no human or angel, he graciously tells us why. It is that he may be glorified – and in this I am content. I trust God that he is righteous and holy and just and he can never do anything wrong. When he was interceding with God for the righteous within Sodom, Abraham summed it all up so neatly when he asked “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25); and this is what I rest in when I consider the hard things that I find in scripture.
And Nebuchadnezzar, who understood absolute sovereignty because he possessed it himself as ruler of a great empire, having come out of his madness, praised God saying: “And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up my eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:34-35).
But what about the Gospel?
If it’s true that only those can come to God whom he has chosen to do so, what’s the point of preaching the gospel? The bible answers this question. It tells us that the gospel is the means by which the elect are gathered in and saved. Ephesians 1:11-14 tells us “In whom (Christ) also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory”. This passage clearly brings all the elements of the gospel of salvation together, and we see God in control and Man responding to the gospel by faith. A more concise statement is in 1 Thess 1:4-5: “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. For our gospel came not unto you in words only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance”.
Again, it is clearly stated that we are precluded from life and heaven by unbelief: “And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not. So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Heb 3:18-19).
When the gospel is preached, the invitation to come to Christ is genuine. When the elect hear it they are made willing and they come to Jesus (Acts 16:14). They acknowledge their sin, repent, are born again and receive the Holy Spirit. They receive Christ and his gift of eternal life by faith and they commit their lives to him and rejoice that he has shown them mercy. As Paul states: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). And so the gospel is the means by which the elect are brought in to the kingdom. They’re not saved, and their election is meaningless, until they respond in faith and repentance to the gospel.
Unregenerate sinners unable to turn to Christ
When the reprobate hear the gospel, they reject it because God has not made them willing. In their natural state, they reject Christ because they want to, they choose to; unless God first softens their heart, they will never come to him. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). And Jesus said, when speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:19-20). Unless God does something to and in unbelievers they will never turn to him because by nature they are hostile to God; but this is another issue and though an essential consideration in the process of salvation, is another doctrine, the 1st of the Five Points of Calvinism, called Total Depravity, and the 4th Point called Irresistible Grace, and therefore won’t be discussed here.
In John’s Gospel, there is a very significant passage in chapter 6. Jesus pointed out: “No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him….no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (Jn 6:44, 65); yet he still calls, still invites sinners to come. He says “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst” (6:35); then he rebukes them because they didn’t believe in him (6:35-36). Those who reject the gospel do so because they choose to, and God will justly hold them accountable for it. They act in accordance with their fallen nature and they would feel violated if their will was overridden; as Paul writes, “they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess 2:10). But the elect do respond positively to the gospel.
Whom will you serve?
In “The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach” also known as “Ecclesiasticus” in the Apocrypha, there is a passage which talks of the freedom of the will. It says, in part, “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him…He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin” (Sir 15:15-17, 20 NRSV).
Is this not this a similar sentiment to that when Joshua challenged Israel? “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose ye his day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15).
Is there any reader here who is angry at God because He hasn’t chosen you? That is hardly likely, because if you’re not serving the Lord it’s because you’re choosing not to. But if you do want to serve him, don’t hold back in fear that you’re not predestined to do so. These two scriptures demonstrate that you can and must choose him.
Non-Calvinists accuse Calvinists of not preaching the gospel. But Jesus and Paul both taught election and preached the gospel. Many famous evangelists and preachers were Calvinist – John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, David Brainerd, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards, to name a few. These all believed in the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) and won thousands to Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Did they encourage their hearers to try and work out if they were elect? Did they exhort them to trust in their election? Of course not! They told their hearers to come to Christ and put their trust in him.
Election is God’s secret work and we have no idea who the elect are. It is the Church’s responsibility to preach the gospel so that the elect may be drawn in. This is the means God has ordained to save his elect people. That’s why it doesn’t matter who the evangelist is, or whether Calvinist or not; if Christ is preached then sinners will be saved. That is the gospel. That is the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20).
How do I know if I’m one of the elect?
If you’ve trusted Christ for your salvation, then you are one of the elect. You can never know before you’ve come to Christ, only after. You only see the fruit of election – your salvation; the origin is in the mind of God: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). As a Christian you are exhorted to prove your election by doing good works. The Apostle Peter, having given a list of instructions for believers, finishes it by saying “Wherefore, the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Pet 1:10).
Is God unloving and cruel?
Of course not! Scripture is full of the love of God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
The whole of humanity in its natural state is in rebellion against and at enmity with God. We were born that way because we each have inherited the guilt of Adam’s first sin, called Original Sin, and consequently we sin because it is our nature to do so. Scripture says “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin: and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom 5:12; see also 1 Cor 15:22; Ps 51:5). Death is the penalty for sin: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek 18:4, 20). So human beings, as sinners, are alienated from God (Eph 4:18) and destined for hell. But God, in his kindness and mercy, has chosen a great multitude of them to be adopted as his children and heirs together with Christ; Jesus died for them and thus paid the penalty for their sin; and the Holy Spirit draws them through the preaching of the gospel. Does this sound like a cruel God? What ancient god of mythology or any other divine being or even human ever died for his/her enemies, or adopted them as children, or tolerated their defiance while still pleading with them to be reconciled? “Say unto them, As I live, saith the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11).
In the end, it all comes down to faith. We don’t understand everything because we’re not God; we’re finite creatures. We only have what God has revealed to us in the bible. He has told us he chooses some to eternal life and others to damnation; he’s told us he is a God of love, indeed he is love; he has told us he is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance; he has told us he delights in mercy and requires his people to demonstrate this characteristic; he has told us he is just and righteous and will by no means clear the guilty; he has told us there is eternal separation from him if we reject him; that rather than let all mankind suffer such utter catastrophe, he sent his only begotten Son to humble himself, become a true human being and die in our place so that we can live. In the scripture, we constantly see contrast and apparent contradictions, but the true believer is not fazed by this. He knows that God is good and while he may not necessarily be able to reconcile it all, he knows that God is good and he rests in that; and he understands that while in this life he only knows in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12), when he stands before God he will know even as he himself is known (1 Cor 13:12).
“But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psalm 115:3).
Friberg T, Friberg B, and Miller N F, 2000, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan
The Analytical Greek Lexicon 1967, 1971, p. 270, publ. Samuel Bagster and Sons, London