FAQ: Predestination and Election

Warning: This is a lengthy blog that will read to some as nerdy about an important issue—namely, how God saves sinners. It's based on chapter 7, “Predestination,” from my book Religion Saves. So, prepare for a mental marathon more than a sprint.

Why are some people saved by God and not others? Is it because they don’t choose God, or because God didn’t choose them?

This leads to the topic of predestination. By predestination I’m asking, is a person’s eternal destiny chosen by God before their birth? Does God predestine people to heaven? Does God predestine people to hell? Theologian Millard Erickson clarifies the applicable theological terms: “‘Predestination’ refers to God’s choice of individuals for eternal life or eternal death. ‘Election’ is the selection of some for eternal life, the positive side of predestination.”[1]

Predestination & Election In Church History  

In studying church history we see that there are, generally speaking, two broad categories into which various answers to these questions fall. Synergism is the belief that, in varying degrees depending upon who is advocating this position, God and man work together in the process of justification. Conversely, monergism is the belief that God alone works for our justification, and we play no part whatsoever in our salvation.

Origen (AD 185–254) and John Chrysostom (AD 347–407) said that God does not predestine us, but rather God foreknows who will choose him of their own free will, so in essence God chooses those who choose him.

Pelagius (AD 354–420/440) said that God does not predestine us, but we simply choose God. In other words, people basically save themselves. He was condemned as a heretic for also saying that people are born sinless and pure like Adam and can simply choose God and a life of holiness.

Augustine (AD 354–430) was the leading opponent of Pelagius and was originally a synergist until later recanting his position and becoming a monergist. He then went on to teach, with great influence that continues to this day, the doctrine of single predestination. This means that everyone is a sinner by nature and choice and therefore fully deserves nothing more than conscious eternal torment in hell; nevertheless, in pure grace, some wholly undeserving sinners are predestined for heaven and saved by Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, those who are not predestined to salvation experience the natural course of sin, which leads to death and hell. Augustine taught that everyone is going to hell except for the predestined elect and that God does not predestine people to hell, but, rather, only predestines some people to heaven. Augustine’s position was in effect a very positive celebration of the saving work of a gracious God who worked through Jesus Christ for the good of the elect as it focused on those who are saved, while not seeking to provide any definitive reason apart from sin for those who are eternally damned.

Gottschalk (also known as Godescalc) of Orbais (AD 804–869) was a Benedictine monk and one of the most influential proponents of double predestination in the history of Christian theology. Gottschalk was a student of Augustine’s writings and went beyond his master’s teaching to promote not only the singular predestination of the elect to heaven, but also the double predestination of the non-elect to hell. Practically, his position was that God creates some people for hell and some for heaven. He was condemned as a heretic at the council of Quierzy in 853 on charges that he declared God was the author of human sin; he died without recanting while imprisoned in a monastery.

John Calvin (AD 1509–1564) was influenced by the writings of both Augustine and Gottschalk and did teach the concept of double predestination. It deserves mentioning, however, that Calvin did not stress the doctrine of predestination in such writings as The Institutes as much as Luther and later Calvinists did. Furthermore, for him the doctrine of predestination was used primarily as a pastoral answer to the question of why some people trust in Jesus for salvation while others do not. Admittedly, his teaching was quite controversial; some of his opponents even named their dogs “Calvin” in mockery. Nonetheless, Calvin wrote of the doctrine in his will: “I have no other hope or refuge than His predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded.”[2]

James Arminius (AD 1560–1609) commended the writings of John Calvin but deviated greatly in his understanding of election and predestination. He taught that election was a corporate, not individual, concept in Scripture, according to the Old Testament precedent that Israel was the elect people of God. Furthermore, he taught that God has not predestined people to salvation, but, rather, predestined the conditions of repentance of sin and faith in Jesus as the grounds for joining the elect.

John Wesley (AD 1703–1791), the founder of Methodism, popularized the teachings of James Arminius. He echoed much of Arminius’ teaching, especially the concept of prevenient grace, or first grace. According to Wesley, prevenient grace is a grace that God gives to open up the will of a sinner so that everyone has the opportunity to freely choose or not choose to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.[3] This concept was an attempt to defend human freedom of the will without denying the pervasive effects of sin on the human condition.

Theologian Henry Thiessen defined prevenient grace thus: “Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores to all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him. This is the salvation-bringing grace of God that has appeared to all men.”[4] Theologian Sam Storms qualifies the concept of prevenient grace: “This grace, however, is not irresistible. Whereas all are recipients of prevenient grace, many resist it, to their eternal demise. Those who utilize this grace to respond in faith to the gospel are saved.”[5] Theologian Bruce Demarest summarizes: “Arminians maintain that ‘prevenient grace,’ a benefit that flows from Christ’s death on the cross, neutralizes human depravity and restores to pre-Christians everywhere the ability to heed God’s general call to salvation.”[6]

The doctrine of prevenient grace has been very controversial because it has little, and arguably no, biblical basis. Furthermore, it assumes that a person can simply exercise faith, when the Bible says not only is salvation a gift from God, but also even the faith to believe in Jesus is a gift of God’s grace (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Eph. 2:8–10; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:24–26; 2 Pet. 1:1). Likewise, repentance is spoken of as a gift of God’s grace and not the means by which we access it (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:24–26). For these and other reasons, theologian Millard Erickson has rightly said regarding prevenient grace, “The theory, appealing though it is in many ways, simply is not taught explicitly in the Bible.”[7]

Calvinism & Arminianism 

There are now, broadly speaking, two general Christian schools of thought regarding salvation in general and predestination in particular. These schools follow the teachings of John Calvin and James Arminius. They are called Reformed—or Calvinist—and Arminian, respectively. Arminians can trace their modern history to a theological council that met in 1610. It was called the Remonstrance, which means “protest.” They were protesting the Calvinistic position on such doctrines as predestination with what is known as the Five Points of Arminianism, which stressed the freedom of the human will in salvation. 

In response, the Calvinist theologians met some 154 times at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) to consider the Five Points of Arminianism. They responded with the Five Points of Calvinism, which stressed the sovereign choice of God in human salvation. As an aside, regarding the timing of predestination, the Calvinists differed in that some considered God’s election to have occurred after the fall in response to human sin (called infralapsarianism), while others saw God’s election to have occurred before creation and the fall (called supralapsarianism). Nonetheless, all Reformed confessions of faith include election (and the Canons of Dort do so in the greatest detail).

Five Points of Arminianism

1.    Free Will

2.    Conditional Election

3.    Universal Atonement

4.    Resistible Grace

5.    Perseverance of Some Saints

Five Points of Calvinism

1.    Total Depravity

2.    Unconditional Election

3.    Limited Atonement

4.    Irresistible Grace

5.    Perseverance of All Saints

What does the Old Testament say about predestination?

One clue to predestination and election in Scripture is the frequent use of words that, in their Old Testament context, indicate God chooses some people to be saved, such as plan (Jer. 49:20; 50:45; Mic. 4:12), purpose (Isa. 14:24, 26–27; 19:12; 23:9), and choose (Num. 16:5, 7; Deut. 4:37, 10:15; Isa. 41:8; Ezek. 20:5). Likewise, the New Testament uses a constellation of words, such as predestine (Rom. 8:29–30; Eph. 1:5, 11), elect (Matt. 24:22; Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12), choose (1 Cor. 1:27; Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13) and appointed (Acts 13:48) to speak of God choosing to save some people but not all people.

Answers To Common Questions About Predestination & Election 

What did Jesus say about predestination and election?

  • For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt. 22:14)

  • For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matt. 24:24)

  • And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matt. 24:31)

  • And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? (Luke 18:7)

  • For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. (John 5:21)

  • All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:37–39)

  • I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18)

  • You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16)

  • If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19)

What does the New Testament say about predestination and election?

For starters, Romans 9–11 may be the most comprehensive passage in the Bible to read about this issue. Also consider:

  • . . . do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:28)

  • The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. (Acts 13:17)

  • And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)

  • For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

  • For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29–30)

  • Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. (Rom. 8:33)

  • . . . though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Rom. 9:11–18)

  • So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. (Rom. 11:5)

  • What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. (Rom. 11:7)

  • God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. (1 Cor. 1:27–28)

  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:3–12)

  • For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Phil. 1:29)

  • Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Col. 3:12)

  • For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thess. 1:4–5)

  • But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits o be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thess. 2:13)

  • Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Tim. 2:10)

  • Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness . . . (Titus 1:1)

  • Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion . . . (1 Pet. 1:1)

  • As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious . . . (1 Pet. 2:4)

  • But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet. 2:9)

  • Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Pet. 1:10)

When did God predestine us for salvation?

  • He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. (Eph. 1:4–5)

  • Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord . . . but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. (2 Tim. 1:8–9)

  • All who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. (Rev. 13:8)

  • The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. (Rev. 17:8)

Why does God choose some people and not others?

The Bible says that we know and see in part (1 Cor. 13:9, 12) and that God has secrets (Deut. 29:29). Specifically regarding predestination, the Bible speaks of the mystery of his will (Eph. 1:9). Thus, there are some questions, such as this one, that we simply will not know the answers to in this life. Furthermore, Paul asks, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). What we do know is that his choice is based on his will for his glory, as Ephesians 1:11–12 says: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestinedaccording to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.”

Does predestination make God unloving?

Everyone deserves hell; no one deserves heaven. When people go to hell, that is justice. When people go to heaven, that is loving grace. Therefore, predestination shows the love of God as God chooses to make his enemies his friends by grace.

An analogy might be helpful. In John 5, Jesus healed a man at a pool. He could have healed everyone but chose to heal only that man. He passed over the others who were present and wanted healing. Likewise, in the doctrine of predestination God heals some people spiritually while not doing the same for others. The truth is that God could save everyone, just as he could have healed everyone when he was on the earth. Yet, because God is obligated to no one, the fact that he heals or saves anyone is a gracious, loving gift.

  • “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” (Rom. 10:20)

  • But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:27–29)

  • In love he predestined us. (Eph. 1:4–5)

Does predestination make Christians unloving toward non-Christians?

Problems occur when people hold to Paul’s teaching without following his lifestyle. Paul was the hardest working evangelist in the early church. No one traveled and suffered more to preach the gospel and see people saved. Sadly, some who hold Paul’s theology do not also follow his example of truly living an evangelistic lifestyle. Paul’s own words on election also reveal his heart for lost people:

  • I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9:1–5)

  • Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. (Rom. 10:1)

Does God love the non-elect?

Yes, he does, and does so with common grace (Matt. 5:45). Yet he also has a special affection for the elect. So, God loves everyone in a general way, and also loves the elect in a saving way.

What is the position of the elders at Mars Hill Church?

We welcome into church membership people who are both Arminian and Reformed.Our now more than fifty pastors (some paid and some unpaid) hold one of two positions:

  • Augustinian – single destination, meaning that all people choose sin and death but that God chooses to save some people by grace. This is also the more common position among historic Lutherans.

  • Calvinist – double destination, meaning that God determines who is condemned and who is saved.

For the record, I prefer the single destination position of Augustine. Some of our elders, though, prefer the double destination position of Calvin.

Lastly, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians in more Arminian and Reformed tribes disagree on this issue. Neither position is heretical, and both positions have various nuances and degrees of belief. I am glad to speak and work with those who are more Arminian in belief. Practically, I find that they seem to do more evangelism than my Reformed friends, which grieves me because I care deeply not only about theology but also the conversion of lost people. 

Thankfully, my theological convictions are a home, not a prison. I mean that my beliefs may be firm on issues such as this, but even firmer is my commitment to the Bible’s clear teaching on loving one another and seeking the good of the whole Church in all its local expressions. This allows me to work outside of our church and theological tribe with brothers and sisters to see people meet the same Jesus both Arminian and Reformed Christians love. It also allows me to speak with Arminian theologians and influential pastors about these issues in the context of friendship rather than speaking about them in a way that is public and divisive. I guess you could say God predestined me before the foundations of the world to love Arminians and work with them as able to the glory of God.

In closing, perhaps the easiest way to explain all of this is how I have articulated it to my children when they have asked. I tell them that Adam as our first father voted on everyone’s behalf that we would all go to hell when he committed the original human sin (Romans 5:12-21). And we have each likewise voted for hell by also choosing to sin (Romans 3:23). So, God does not have to save anyone from hell, as he is under no obligation. But if there is to be salvation, someone has to choose it, and there are only three options:

1). Satan and demons could choose who goes to heaven and hell, but if they did, we would all go to hell and no one would go to heaven. 

2). Each individual person could choose whether or not they would go to heaven or hell. If this were the case, everyone would be going to hell because the Bible is clear in Romans 3:11 that “no one understands; no one seeks for God.” The Bible also teaches that those who are saved were not saved because they were seeking God. Quoting Isaiah 65:1 in Romans 10:20, God says, “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’”

3). God chooses whom he will save in his loving grace. Since we are not just undeserving but actually ill-deserving enemies of God, it’s amazing that God would save anyone. And if God is the one who chooses who will be saved, we can trust that even when it comes to difficult cases such as children who died in their mother’s womb before they could hear the gospel, babies who died before they could understand the gospel, those with limited mental ability to fully comprehend the gospel, and people who have never heard the gospel, God does is right and best. Because heaven is God’s home, he has the right to decide who lives there forever with him. Since we are saved by grace, which is a gift that God gives, he has the right to give it as he determines is best. And, we need to trust him to do what is right and best. 

Resources For Further Study  

For those who want to study the subject further, the most helpful book would be Perspectives on Election: Five Views. It has chapters from noted Arminian Jack W. Cottrell and Open Theist Clark H. Pinnock, as well as chapters on supralapsarianism by Robert L. Reymond, universal reconciliation by Thomas B. Talbott, and the Reformed perspective by Bruce A. Ware, whom I deeply appreciate. The benefit of the book is that it provides five views as opposed to the typical three (Calvinist, Arminian, and Calminian). Furthermore, each position is then critiqued and reviewed by the other contributors, which helps give a great deal of insight into the issue.

 For those wanting to read a helpful introductory but thorough book on the issue of predestination from a Reformed perspective, Chosen for Life, by Acts 29 pastor Sam Storms, is a great and gracious book. 

I would also recommend the following free online resources:

  • You can find audio, video, and notes from Dr. Bruce Ware’s sessions at the 2007 Resurgence Conference, “Where the Hand of God and Hands of Men Meet.” (There is one session on Open Theism, one session on Classic Arminianism, and one session on God’s Providence/Reformed Tradition.)

  • I also addressed this issue in my series “Religion Saves”. This includes chapter 7 of the book Religion Saves and the sermon in audio, video, and transcript formats free of charge.

Endnotes

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985), 908.

[2] Emanuel Stickelberger, Calvin, trans. David Georg Gelzer (London: James Clarke, 1959), 148.

[3] See John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1979).

[4] Henry C. Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 344–45.

[5] Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 29.

[6] Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 208.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985), 925.