Baseball. Hot dogs. Apple pie. Chevrolet. These are all things
American. To complete the mix we must add the great American
motto: "We will not discuss religion or politics."
Mottoes are made to be broken. Perhaps no American rule is
broken more frequently than the one about not discussing religion
or politics. We embark on such discussions repeatedly. And when
the topic turns to religion it sometimes gravitates to the issue of
predestination. Sadly, that often means the end of discussion and
the beginning of argument, yielding more heat than light.
Arguing about predestination is virtually irresistible. (Pardon
the pun.) The topic is so juicy. It provides an opportunity to spar
about all things philosophical. When the issue flares up we suddenly
become super-patriotic, guarding the tree of human liberty
with more zeal and tenacity than Patrick Henry ever dreamed of.
The specter of an all-powerful God making choices for us, and
perhaps even against us, makes us scream, "Give me free will or
give me death!"
The very word predestination has an ominous ring to it. It is
linked to the despairing notion of fatalism and somehow suggests
that within its pale we are reduced to meaningless puppets. The
word conjures up visions of a diabolical deity who plays capricious
games with our lives. We seem to be subjected to the whims
of horrible decrees that were fixed in concrete long before we were
born. Better that our lives were fixed by the stars, for then at least
we could find clues to our destiny in the daily horoscopes.
Add to the horror of the word predestination the public image
of its most famous teacher, John Calvin, and we shudder all the
more. We see Calvin portrayed as a stern and grim-faced tyrant,
a sixteenth-century Ichabod Crane who found fiendish delight
in the burning of recalcitrant heretics. It is enough to cause us to
retreat from the discussion altogether and reaffirm our commitment
never to discuss religion and politics.
With a topic people find so unpleasant, it is a wonder that we
ever discuss it at all. Why do we speak of it? Because we enjoy
unpleasantness? Not at all. We discuss it because we cannot avoid
it. It is a doctrine plainly set forth in the Bible. We talk about
predestination because the Bible talks about predestination. If we
desire to build our theology on the Bible, we run head on into this
concept. We soon discover that John Calvin did not invent it.
Virtually all Christian churches have some formal doctrine of
predestination. To be sure, the doctrine of predestination found
in the Roman Catholic Church is different from that in the Presbyterian
Church. The Lutherans have a different view of the matter
from the Methodists.
The fact that such variant views of predestination abound only
underscores the fact that if we are biblical in our thinking we
must have some doctrine of predestination. We cannot ignore
such well-known passages as:
Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the
world, that we should be holy and without blame before
Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by
Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of
His will ... (Ephesians 1:4-5)
In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being
predestined according to the purpose of Him who
works all things according to the counsel of His will ...
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be
conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the
firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
If we are to be biblical, then, the issue is not whether we should
have a doctrine of predestination or not, but what kind we should
embrace. If the Bible is the Word of God, not mere human speculation,
and if God himself declares that there is such a thing as
predestination, then it follows irresistibly that we must embrace
some doctrine of predestination.
If we are to follow this line of thinking, then, of course, we
must go one step further. It is not enough to have just any view
of predestination. It is our duty to seek the correct view of predestination,
lest we be guilty of distorting or ignoring the Word
of God. Here is where the real struggle begins, the struggle to sort
out accurately all that the Bible teaches about this matter.
My struggle with predestination began early in my Christian
life. I knew a professor of philosophy in college who was a convinced
Calvinist. He set forth the so-called "Reformed" view of
predestination. I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought
against it tooth and nail all the way through college.
I graduated from college unconvinced of the Reformed or
Calvinistic view of predestination only to go to a seminary that
included on its staff the king of the Calvinists, John H. Gerstner.
Gerstner is to predestination what Einstein is to physics or what
Tiger Woods is to golf. I would rather have challenged Einstein
on relativity or entered into match play with Woods than to take
on Gerstner. But ... fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
I challenged Gerstner in the classroom time after time, making
a total pest of myself. I resisted for well over a year. My final
surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began
work as a student pastor in a church. I wrote a note to myself that
I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it.
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO BELIEVE, TO PREACH, AND TO
TEACH WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS IS TRUE, NOT WHAT YO U
WANT THE BIBLE TO SAY IS TRUE.
The note haunted me. My final crisis came in my senior year.
I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We
spent the semester studying Edwards's most famous book, The
Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner's tutelage. At the same time
I had a Greek exegesis course in the book of Romans. I was the
only student in that course, one on one with the New Testament
professor. There was nowhere I could hide.
The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards,
the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were
too formidable a team for me to withstand. The ninth chapter
of Romans was the clincher. I simply could find no way to avoid
the apostle's teaching in that chapter. Reluctantly, I sighed and
surrendered, but with my head, not my heart. "OK, I believe this
stuff, but I don't have to like it!"
I soon discovered that God has created us so that the heart is
supposed to follow the head. I could not, with impunity, love
something with my head that I hated in my heart. Once I began
to see the cogency of the doctrine and its broader implications,
my eyes were opened to the graciousness of grace and to the grand
comfort of God's sovereignty. I began to like the doctrine little by
little, until it burst upon my soul that the doctrine revealed the
depth and the riches of the mercy of God.
I no longer feared the demons of fatalism or the ugly thought
that I was being reduced to a puppet. Now I rejoiced in a gracious
Savior who alone was immortal, invisible, the only wise God.
They say there is nothing more obnoxious than a converted
drunk. Try a converted Arminian. Converted Arminians tend to
become flaming Calvinists, zealots for the cause of predestination.
You are reading the work of such a convert.
My struggle has taught me a few things along the way. I have
learned, for example, that not all Christians are as zealous about
predestination as I am. There are better men than I who do not
share my conclusions. I have learned that many misunderstand
predestination. I have also learned the pain of being wrong.
When I teach the doctrine of predestination I am often frustrated
by those who obstinately refuse to submit to it. I want to
scream, "Don't you realize you are resisting the Word of God?"
In these cases I am guilty of at least one of two possible sins. If
my understanding of predestination is correct, then at best I am
being impatient with people who are merely struggling as I once
did, and at worst I am being arrogant and patronizing toward
those who disagree with me.
If my understanding of predestination is not correct, then my
sin is compounded, since I would be slandering the saints who
by opposing my view are fighting for the angels. So the stakes are
high for me in this matter.
The struggle about predestination is all the more confusing
because the greatest minds in the history of the church have
disagreed about it. Scholars and Christian leaders, past and present,
have taken different stands. A brief glance at church history
reveals that the debate over predestination is not between liberals
and conservatives or between believers and unbelievers. It is a
debate among believers, among godly and earnest Christians.
It may be helpful to see how the great teachers of the past line
up on the question.
"Reformed" view Opposing views
Thomas Aquinas Jacob Arminius
Martin Luther Philip Melanchthon
John Calvin John Wesley
Jonathan Edwards Charles Finney
It must look like I am trying to stack the deck. Those thinkers
who are most widely regarded as the titans of classical Christian
scholarship fall heavily on the Reformed side. I am persuaded,
however, that this is a fact of history that dare not be ignored. To
be sure, it is possible that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin,
and Edwards could all be wrong on this matter. These men certainly
disagree with each other on other points of doctrine. They
are neither individually nor collectively infallible.
We cannot determine truth by counting noses. The great
thinkers of the past can be wrong. But it is important for us to see
that the Reformed doctrine of predestination was not invented
by John Calvin. There is nothing in Calvin's view of predestination
that was not earlier propounded by Luther and Augustine
before him. Later, Lutheranism did not follow Luther on this
matter but Melanchthon, who altered his views after Luther's
death. It is also noteworthy that in his famous treatise on theology,
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote sparingly
on the subject. Luther wrote more about predestination
than did Calvin.
The history lesson aside, we must take seriously the fact that
such learned men agreed on this difficult subject. Again, that they
agreed does not prove the case for predestination. They could
have been wrong. But it gets our attention. We cannot dismiss
the Reformed view as a peculiarly Presbyterian notion. I know
that during my great struggle with predestination I was deeply
troubled by the unified voices of the titans of classical Christian
scholarship on this point. Again, they are not infallible, but they
deserve our respect and an honest hearing.
Among contemporary Christian leaders we find a more balanced
list of agreement and disagreement. (Keep in mind that we
are speaking here in general terms and that there are significant
points of difference among those on each side.)
"Reformed" view Opposing views
Sinclair Ferguson C. S. Lewis
Michael Horton Roger Olson
John MacArthur Grant Osborne
John Piper Clark Pinnock
Francis Schaeffer Billy Graham
I don't know where Chuck Swindoll, Pat Robertson, and a lot
of other leaders stand on this point. Jimmy Swaggart has made
it clear that he considers the Reformed view a demonic heresy.
His attacks on the doctrine have been less than sober. They do
not reflect the care and earnestness of the men listed above in the
"opposing" column. They are all great leaders whose views are
worthy of our close attention.
My hope is that we will all continue to struggle with the truth.
We must never assume that we have arrived. Yet there is no virtue
in sheer skepticism. We look with a jaundiced eye at those
who are always learning but never coming to a knowledge of
the truth. God is delighted with men and women of conviction.
Of course he is concerned that our convictions be according
to truth. Struggle with me, then, as we embark upon the difficult
but, I hope, profitable journey examining the doctrine of
For Further Study
The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of
water; He turns it wherever He wishes. (PROVERBS 21:1)
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed,
both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the
people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your
hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.
And we know that all things work together for good to those
who love God, to those who are the called according to His
purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to
be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be
the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He
predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these
He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also
glorified. (ROMANS 8:28-30)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has
blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places
in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of
the world, that we should be holy and without blame before
Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by
Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His
will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made
us accepted in the Beloved. (EPHESIANS 1:3-6)
Excerpted from "Chosen by God" by R. C. Sproul. Copyright © 1994 by R. C. Sproul. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.