On Predestination

Romans 8:28-30, 10:5-13, Philippians 2:12-15, June 7, 2015

I had such a good time hashing out the doctrine of the Trinity in my sermon last week I decided to give you another dose of a very difficult topic this morning as well: predestination.

Of all the Protestants, Presbyterians are most associated with predestination. Our founder, John Calvin, was a strong advocate of predestination. Let me very clear, it is an optional belief; one can be a member in good standing in a Presbyterian church and not believe in it. Still, I want to examine it a little this morning, because over the years it has come up regularly and Presbyterians are often asked about it.

I’m going to tell two jokes that do not reflect a proper understanding of predestination, these are rooted in how predestination is commonly misunderstood.

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?

None. Lights go on and off at predestined times.

A Scottish lady, a strict predestinationist, who believed that everything that happened had been fore-ordained by God, falls down her basement stairs and knocks herself out. When she comes to she says, “Thank heaven that’s over with!”

Many people, if they know anything about predestination, believe it’s the idea that all things, even the tiniest thing one can think, feel, say or do, has been pre-determined by God. Taken to its extreme, this understanding means that people have no freedom at all. We are just puppets, acting out scripts that we have not written. That is not what belief in predestination is. God created us as free creatures, not puppets.

Preaching on doctrine is risky. It is very easy for a sermon on a specific theological point to become a lecture. That is, a speech that seeks to explain or teach something, but does not offer insight into how to live as a Christian in today’s world. It’s easy and some people find it fun to play with ideas, but if they do not deepen our faith, strengthen our relationship with God and help us proclaim Christ in our lives, they are a waste of time. Doctrines of the church must give us practical guidance in how to live. And if we find a certain concept does not deepen our faith, if it hinders us as we seek to exalt Christ, we should give it up for one that does.

Presbyterians have spent a lot of time and effort working out theological concepts. We like to make logical systems that explain things. The problem is that any system that seeks to describe God fully is going to fall short, or it will become so abstract that it offers no insight. Another danger is that we may shrink God to fit our theological system, thus distorting God and leading ourselves astray. The fact is that even the best, most thorough and comprehensive theological system still leaves questions unanswered. There will always be mystery.

For example, over the years a number of people have asked me where Adam and Eve’s sons found wives. Genesis doesn’t mention that the first couple had any daughters, and even if they had, it would have been bad for their sons to have married their sisters knowing what we know now about genetics. The only answer is that the Bible does not give an answer to that question. The text is silent, as I am fond of saying.

Sometimes people ask why God would cause, or permit, the tragic death of a young child. In his letter to the Romans Paul described God’s wisdom as “inscrutable and unsearchable.” We simply can never know why God wills one thing and not another. But we also know that God is passionately concerned about all people. I find comfort in a line from the final hymn today, “there is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven.” While it does not answer the why question, it does point us to God’s mercy and grace and our relationship with God even as we grieve.

So far I’ve talked about what predestination is not and what doctrine cannot do, now, I hope, I’ll explain what predestination is and why some people find it a helpful concept.

Put simply, predestination says that God has already chosen, or elected, who will be saved. In the Old Testament this idea is expressed in God’s having chosen Israel. And this choosing created a special relationship [remember that word “relationship.”] between God and Israel. God is free to choose, or not choose, any thing. God, for whatever unsearchable, unknowable reason, chose Israel. Psalm 115 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” [v. 3, NRSV] And God is sovereign, that is God has power to do anything. Scripture is clear: God did not choose Israel because the Israelites were good, strong, wise, powerful, faithful, obedient or good-looking. God chose Israel, period. That’s really all we know.

In the New Testament, Paul explains that through the cross of Christ, people of every nation are chosen by God. It’s not merely the children of Israel anymore—in fact, one’s nationality has no bearing on whether one is chosen. And the really important point Paul makes is that God freely chooses whomever God wants. There is not a thing that people can do to earn God’s gracious acceptance, Paul wrote to the Romans. God does not choose the righteous—for no one is righteous by his or her own works. John Calvin put it this way: We are all destroyed by sin, “we can only be odious to God” by fairest reckoning and justice. [Institutes 3.22.3] Calvin believed that God’s choosing anyone was a sign of God’s enormous mercy. Calvin held humanity in much lower esteem than most of us do today. But it’s helpful to understand where he started from.

There are two dangers with the idea that we are predestined to be saved by grace, and cannot be saved by our own accomplishments.

On the one hand, we might be tempted to give up. To live in despair, because nothing we do can make us acceptable to God. We might be tempted to just curl ourselves into a little ball and wait to die because we can’t do anything to improve our chances of being saved by God. “What’s the point of being kind or praising God, if there’s nothing to be gained by it?” we might ask. This temptation is one of the seven Deadly Sins: sloth. See, sloth isn’t merely idleness. It is idleness rooted in the despair that what we do makes no difference.

On the other hand, the possibility of salvation by grace might tempt us to absolute lawlessness. If God may choose to save us regardless of how we’ve lived, there’s no incentive to behave. Run that stop sign; cheat on your taxes; be cruel to your brothers and sisters—it doesn’t matter. Maybe God has already decided you’re saved.

Both of these responses to the doctrine of predestination are distortions. Remember, doctrine exists to help us proclaim Christ. It is not the intent of the doctrine of predestination to turn us away from living as followers of Jesus Christ. Calvin wrote on predestination because he believed it inspires gratitude, humility and hope. Gratitude because it forces us to recognize that by God’s mercy we are saved, something we cannot accomplish ourselves. Humility because we are dependent on God for salvation. And hope because we couldn’t possibly save ourselves. It takes One who is stronger and kinder than any One we know. One who loves and accepts us in spite of who we are and what we’ve done. It takes God who invited us into a holy relationship, with one another and with God.

I could stop here, but I need to add that things are more complicated than that God saves us regardless of what we’ve done. That little passage from Philippians say just the opposite, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” it says. Well, which is it? Are we saved independent of our work? […yes] or do we have to work like crazy to make ourselves acceptable? […also yes] Both are ways we should live in relationship with our Living God. We should work as if everything depends on us…but believe as though everything depends on God. In that way we show in our lives that we are related to, that we belong to God. A modern theologian [Mary Potter Engell] puts it this way:

Belonging is that complex entangling and freeing experience of simultaneous choosing and being chosen that lovers and members of religious communities know.” Belonging is the way that human beings find a home for themselves in a universe not centered in or on them.

That’s exactly what predestination should help us to feel. Thanks be to God for loving and accepting us. As people who have been made entirely new by the cross of Christ, let us live as examples of God’s love that shine like the stars in our hurting and broken world. And humbly, let us praise God and exalt Christ, who made God’s mercy known to us. Amen.