“And I am confident of this, that the one who began a work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 NRSV)
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 human beings are not able to choose their eternal destiny and therefore are no better than robots. But the discussion is not really about humans, 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 humanity is in relation to God: “But who are you, my friend, to answer God back? A clay pot does not ask the man who made it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Rom 9:20 GNB). If mortals have the ability to choose their eternal destiny, if they have free will, then God does not have full control over his creation.
To get around this and allow humans 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 lived or those still to be born.
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, for example, 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 humanity 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 humanity’s free will because salvation is by grace alone so that they will have nothing to boast about before God. “For it is by God’s by grace that you have been saved by faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s, so that no one can boast about it” (Eph 2:8-9 GNB).
But even more clearly, in Romans chapter 9, we see election spelled out. Speaking of Jacob and Esau, Paul explains:” For Rebecca’s two sons had the same father, our ancestor Isaac. But in order that the choice of one son might be completely the result of God’s own purpose, God said to her, ‘The elder will serve the younger’. He said this before they were born, before they had done anything either good or bad; so God’s choice was based on his call, and not on anything they had done” (Rom 9:11-13 GNB). Furthermore, “…it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16).
Can anything more clearly state God’s absolute sovereignty and that he determines the destinies of individuals and of nations?
Did God Really Hate Esau?
Does God actually hate people; doesn’t John 3:16 tell us that God loves the whole world? But God said he hated Esau before he was even born; before he had done either good or evil; before he even had a chance (Rom 9:11-13)! No wonder Paul imagined some people aghast and asking “Shall we say, then that God is unjust?” (Rom 9:14 GNB). He emphatically replies: “Not at all”. And the reason he gives is God’s sovereign will: “So then God has mercy on anyone he wishes, and he makes stubborn anyone he wishes” (Rom 9:18 GNB). He takes the initiative away from human beings completely and puts it squarely where it belongs – in God’s capable and loving hands.
So, did God hate Esau maliciously? Is he capricious? By no means! 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).
So when Paul tells us that God hated Esau, he explains that God Jacob, the younger brother, and passed over Esau, the firstborn and heir of the birthright. “God’s choice was based on his call, and not on anything they had done” (Rom 9:10-12 GNB).
Paul then gives another example of how God worked sovereignly, this time with Pharaoh, and said to him through Moses, “I made you king in order to use you and to show my power and to spread my fame over the whole world” (Rom 9:17 GNB). And again, Paul imagines someone asking, “If this is so, how can God find fault with anyone? Who can resist God’s will?” (Rom 9:19 GNB).
He answers first 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 (Rom 9:20-21). He makes no concession to our injured sense of justice and insists on his sovereign right as God.
It should be made clear here that when Paul imagines the questioner asking “who can resist God’s 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
Friberg, Friberg and Miller (2000, p. 351) define the Greek meaning of this word “hardens” 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: “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in 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 commands Moses “…be sure to perform before the king all the miracles which I have given you the power to do. But I will make the king stubborn [harden his heart], and he will not let the people go” (GNB-CE); God again said to Moses, “I will make the king stubborn, and he will not listen to you, no matter how many terrifying things I do in Egypt” (Ex 7:3, 4 GNB).
In fulfilment of this, Moses was told, “the king is very stubborn and refuses to let the people go” (Exod 7:14 GNB). 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. “The Egyptians will then know that I am the Lord” (Exod 7:5 GNB). See also Rom 9:17.
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. “When the king saw that the frogs were dead, he became stubborn again and, just as the LORD had said, the king would not listen to Moses and Aaron” (Exod 8:15 GNB). He did what he wanted to do; the choice genuinely was his.
Prepared for destruction
This tells us that those whom God rejects for salvation are chosen and prepared for destruction (because they are born as lost sinners, hostile to God [Eph 2:1-3]) 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 took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death….For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts, so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just 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 “whys “and implications of all that scripture teaches – 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 would we go? You have the words that give eternal life” (John 6:67-68 GNB). 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 what is just?” (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: “When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What are you doing’?” (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 “All things are done according to God’s plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning….And you also became God’s people when you heard the true message, the Good News that brought you salvation. You believed in Christ, and God put his stamp of ownership on you by giving you the Holy Spirit he had promised” (GNB). 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: “Our brothers and sisters, we know that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own. For we brought the Good News to you, not with words only, but also with power, and the Holy Spirit, and with complete conviction of its truth” (GNB).
Again, it is clearly stated that sinners are precluded from life and heaven by unbelief: “When God made his solemn promise, ‘They will never enter the land where I would have given them rest’ – of whom was he speaking? Of those who rebelled. We see, then, that they were not able to enter the land, because they did not believe” (Heb 3:18-19 GNB).
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. Paul says: “For even if you have 10,000 guardians in your Christian life, you have only one father. For in your life in union with Christ Jesus I have become your father by bringing the Good News to you” (1 Cor 4:15 GNB-CE). 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 opens their heart, they will never come to him. “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). And Jesus said, when speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, “This is how the judgement works; the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. All those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up” (John 3:19-20GNB). 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 one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him to me….And he added, ‘This is the very reason I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father makes it possible for him to do so’” (Jn 6:44, 65 GNB); yet he still calls, still invites sinners to come. He says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35); then he rebukes those who don’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 refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess 2:10). But the elect respond positively to the gospel.
Whosoever will may come
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 to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe 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 “Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble” (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 Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal 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 “….sin came into the world through one man, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12; see also 1 Cor 15:22; Ps 51:5). Death is the penalty for sin: “The person who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek 18:4, 20 GNB-CE). 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 to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you 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, that 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 love 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).
“Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3 NRSV).
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
Unless otherwise stated, “The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
Good News Translation with Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha (Today’s English Version, Second Edition) copyright 1992 American Bible Society. All rights reserved. Anglicisation copyright The British and Foreign Bible Society by Hardlines copyright 1997. Revised by The British and Foreign Bible Society 2017.