June 19, 2021 - Predestination

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Today we want to talk about: How much does God control out of what happens in this world? Does God pre-program everything that happens? Does God write the script? Or do WE write the script? Can we veto or mess up or keep God’s plans from happening?

I’m not talking about whether everything that happens in the world is pleasing in the eyes of God; obviously not! I’m talking about God’s absolute will: when God makes a firm decision, “This is what must happen.” How much that happens in life is God’s will that will happen no matter what, and do we (or can we) overrule God’s will by exercising our own will?

Predestination is part of the bigger idea that God is a sovereign God, a God who is in complete, undisputed control of all that happens around us. We don’t mean that God locks in or forces everything that happens. We mean that God is in the driver’s seat. Look at it this way: nothing happens that is beyond God’s power to control. That would be scary if it were not true.

101 times the New Testament uses a little three-letter Greek word (dei) that means “It was/is necessary.” In the plan of God, certain events absolutely had to happen. That includes what happened on July 31, 1977, when my wife and I met and spent our first day together at Silver Falls State Park, Oregon. She was from Oregon; I was from St Louis. God was determined to make this happen, although both of us almost didn’t show up on the day we met.

The risen Jesus asks the men on the Emmaus Road, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things, and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26) Later Jesus appears to his followers and says, “Thus it is written, that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Luke 24:46) It was necessary. God says the cross and resurrection absolutely had to happen.

We find this term “it was/is necessary” all over the writings of Luke, both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts. When Jesus is 12 years old in the Temple, Jesus says, “It is necessary that I be about my Father’s business.” (Luke 2:49) Twice, Jesus warns his followers, “It is necessary that the Son of Man suffer many things.” (Luke 9:22, 17:45) Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “It is necessary that I stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5) God’s got it planned, and nothing’s going to stop it.

In the Upper Room, Peter tells the church “it was necessary” that Judas should do what he did, as God’s word had foretold. (Acts 1:16) When God tells Ananias to baptize Saul, God says, “I will show him how much it is necessary that he suffer for my sake.” (Acts 9:16) After Paul survives being stoned with rocks, he tells his friends, “It is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God through many sufferings.” (Acts 14:22)

As Paul looks ahead in his ministry, he declares that “it is necessary that I also see Rome.” (Acts 19:21) When times get tough, and it is doubtful whether that will happen, twice an angel appears to Paul and assures him that “it is necessary” for him to stand before Caesar in Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24), although during a storm, he predicts it will also be “necessary” for his boat to be shipwrecked on some island. (Acts 27:26)

John also talks about divine necessity. John says in 4:4 that at one point, “it was necessary” for Jesus to pass through Samaria. There were plenty of other ways he could have gone (most Jews took the bypass around it), but Jesus had to go through Samaria. Jesus had to talk to the woman at the well. It was a divine necessity. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “it is necessary” for him to be lifted up on a cross (John 3:14). In John 3:30, John the Baptist says “it is necessary” for Jesus to increase, but “I must decrease.” And in 20:9, John says they did not know the scripture, that “it was necessary” that Jesus rise from the dead.

In 1 Corinthians 15:53, Paul states that “it is necessary that our perishable nature put on the imperishable, and our mortal nature put on immortality.” In 2 Corinthians 5:10, he states that “it is necessary for all of us to appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Likewise, the book of Revelation talks about future events that are “necessary”, events that must soon come to pass (Revelation 1:1, 4:1).

One tiny three-letter word: “It was /is necessary.” Some events absolutely had to happen according to the plan of God. Presbyterians believe that God is pulling the strings. We may not jump to the conclusion that God’s got every last detail programmed. There are many parts of life where any number of possible scenarios could take place. But we can also say that there are certain benchmarks along the way where God’s plan is absolutely going to have its way.

It was necessary for Jesus to pass through Samaria, to speak to the woman at the well. It was necessary for him to be betrayed. It was necessary for him to be nailed to a cross. It was necessary for him to rise from the dead. These were not chance occurrences or meaningless accidents of fate. Peter says they happened “according to the deliberate plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23)

A lot of folks in Utah and surrounding states reject the idea that God controls our lives so decisively that no one can tie God’s hands, back God into a corner, or veto or frustrate God’s plans. To put it in fancy language, their God is not a sovereign God, but must always yield to human free will, or what they call “agency.” To these folks, this life is a proving ground, where people are tested to see what choices they will make, to see if they are worthy to become gods. Their placement here is determined by choices they made before they were born on earth. It’s all about worthiness and performance. It’s all about exercising your agency.

Logically, any religion where salvation must be earned by good works will oppose the idea that God chooses anyone irrespective of merit. And yet, that is exactly what the true Biblical God does. In Romans 9:11-24, Paul speaks of God choosing between Jacob and Esau when they were “not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, so that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him who calls.”

Paul then goes on to quote what God says 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,” Paul argues, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” Paul then argues that God made Pharaoh stubborn, “that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” (Don’t worry, God hardens no one’s heart against their will. God only hardens the hearts of those who are more than willing to be hardened.)

Paul then raises the question many of you are asking: “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, from the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Precisely the point of Jeremiah 18! Like Jeremiah, Paul teaches that God is the Potter who has the right to do what he wishes with the clay.)

The Greek terms for “destine” and “predestine” (orizō and pro-orizō) are words that do more than just signal intention. They refer to determining or locking-in what will happen. The Bible refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as such a “locked-in” event: Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (pro-orizō – Acts 2:23). “The Son of Man goeth, as it was determined” (pro-orizō – Luke 22:22). Peter preaches that Jesus’ enemies joined together “to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (pro-orizō – Acts 4:28). Peter says Jesus is the one “ordained of God to be the judge the quick and dead” (orizō – Acts 10:42).

Ephesians 1:5 says that God has “predestinated (pro-orizō) us unto adoption as children.” The “us” to whom Paul refers is the Ephesian Christians, not the whole human race. Paul goes on in verse 11 to state that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated (pro-orizō) according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Paul writes to the Romans, “For whom he (God) did foreknow, he also did predestinate (pro-orizō) to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

Alas, a lot of folks claim that God makes these advance decisions based on our performance in a previous world, like being destined to go to Harvard versus Podunk Community College, based on how well we did in high school. Biblical Christians reject the idea of such a previous world, which shoots down this explanation.

Some folks will quote 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "wants/wishes/wills [the verb theleō can mean any of these] all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth." Yes, but we see from the scriptures that I just cited that God does not choose or predestine all to be saved. You ask, “How do I know if I’ve been chosen or not?” A famous preacher once said, “What do you care what God has predestined, if it never kept you from doing what you choose to do, anyway?”

You ask, If God has so much planned out in advance, what’s left for us to do? For me, this means that life becomes an adventure, a treasure hunt to see what God has planned next, and what the puzzle is going to look like when it’s finished. Life is a constant stream of decisions that are not always clear. I don’t always make the best ones, but there are numerous times where I am convinced that God has put me exactly where I am, for a reason. For me, that’s exciting!

Predestination versus free will is not a Biblical contradiction, but a place where we need to use all the puzzle parts to get the picture right. The same John who writes “whosoever will” in John 3:16 also reports that Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). I’ve explored this in a blog post entitled “Drag Versus Draw.”

“Drag” versus “draw” – which way would be the best word to translate what Jesus says when he says in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”? How does God operate? Does God sweet-talk us or persuade us into faith? Or does God drag us into belief, kicking and screaming, against our will?

The word Jesus uses in John 6:44 is the word helkō, which can mean either “draw / attract” (like a magnet) or “drag.” The word is used 8 times in the New Testament. The best example where the word arguably means “draw” rather than “drag” is John 12:32, where Jesus says that when he is crucified, “I will draw all people to myself.”

Otherwise, the New Testament meanings of this word all lean toward “drag.” In John 21:6, the disciples are barely able to “drag” in the net because of the huge catch of fish (see also 21:11). In Acts 16:19, the owners of the fortune-telling slave girl “dragged” Paul and Silas into court. In Acts 21:30, the mob “dragged” Paul out of the Temple, intending to lynch him. And in James 2:6, James argues that it is the rich who “drag” his readers into court. None of these examples sounds like persuasion or attraction. They all sound like pulling by force; indeed, the dragging is done against people’s will, wherever people are involved.

As we look at the evidence from Biblical Greek, including the Greek OT, out of the 42 times that the word helkō is used, 22 of them undoubtedly mean “drag,” and only ten have any chance of being taken to mean “draw.” So Jesus’ words can best be translated, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me drags him.”

Much as we like to think of God sweet-talking us or gently attracting us into faith, the truth is that God has to drag us there. We have an approach / avoidance problem with God. We are like the man possessed by the legion of demons, who comes running to Jesus, but who then screams for Jesus to leave him alone. Part of him yearns to be set free from bondage, but part of him is terrified. Indeed, even the bystanders in this account are terrified with this Jesus – instead of asking him to stay and set them free, they ask him to leave their neighborhood.

We are like Lot, who cannot bear to leave Sodom, despite the fact that he knows it is about to be destroyed. The angel grabs him by the arm and drags him out of town – and don’t miss the words, “The Lord was being merciful to him.” When God overpowers our free will and drags us into faith, like God does to Saul on the Damascus Road, God does so in mercy.

I find the doctrine of irresistible grace (which is what we’re talking about) to be positive and reassuring to me. God drags us into faith, and we can’t throw it away. People like me are totally pessimistic about our ability to choose God or do the right thing, unless God drags us into doing so. I have no faith in my own human ability. Ask anyone who’s been through a Twelve-Step program, and they’ll tell you: freedom from bondage comes only when we surrender to a Power higher than ourselves. Human ability will never choose God on its own.

My tradition has its own nagging, unresolved questions. What part does free will play? Are we just robots? How can we be held responsible, if God is pulling virtually all of the strings? What about those who fall away from faith? Whether one sides with the Reformed approach (which says that God calls the shots) or with free will, both models require us to stretch one or more of the puzzle parts to make the rest of them fit. To me, the idea that God calls the shots gives me the most comfort. I just don’t have that much faith in my own goodness or capacity to choose God. I’m glad that God made the inexplicable choice to drag me into faith.

Some folks will argue that “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) They argue that God is picking favorites if God chooses us without regard to worthiness. But Romans 9 teaches that God plays no favorites precisely by choosing us without regard to any externals, including merit. And while some argue that God chose people like Abraham or David because of their merit, Biblical Christians focus on why Abraham and David did not merit being chosen, but God chose them anyway. People like me are profoundly grateful that God overrules our free agency, like God did with Saul of Tarsus, or like Lot (dragging him out of Sodom against his will), with no reason why God should do this for us and not for others.

Those of us who believe that God can, does, and must overrule our agency when necessary, believe this because we are totally pessimistic about our human ability to do what is right when necessary. To me, it is a comfort that God does what I never could have made myself do: open my eyes to God’s truth, and empower me to obey.

Life is full of cases of divine necessity, cases where it had to happen that way, places where God’s absolute will takes over, places where we can say that God had it planned all along. We won’t always recognize those moments at the time they happen, but someday, we’ll be able to look back at it all in perspective and say, “It was necessary.”

Predestination is not an essential of faith; it is a logical conclusion that you may or may not be persuaded to draw. More important is for you to believe that God is a sovereign God who exercises indisputable rule over all, a God whom we cannot arm-twist or checkmate. Any other God is unworthy to be called God. But what is all-important is for us to stop believing that we can earn our way to heaven. Grace – salvation that can never be earned – is the heart of the Gospel. We are lost without it.

Or are we? Some would question whether Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Isn’t that a narrow-minded belief? How could a loving God allow anyone to be lost? Isn’t there a second chance for those who leave this life without Christ? And how is that fair, if there isn’t? We’ll be talking about these, and other questions like these, next time on Biblical Words and World.

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