Yesterday, I preached on the conviction, calling and conversion of the Holy Spirit [3rd Person sermon series]. The moment I highlighted Romans 8:30 -- "And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified" --I could feel the emotion in the room grow tense. It was like someone had pulled the drawstring of a bag very tight.
Predestination is a difficult theological pill for many to swallow. Though the idea is unapologetically mentioned in God's Word [Mark 13:20; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 2 Timothy 2:10; 1 Peter 1:1], the prospect that God chooses anyone seems to offend our expectation that all people are equal and God is neutral when it comes to matters of eternal life. We would think it unkind for a parent to play favorites. How much more unloving it would be if God were not an equal opportunity Father. The result is that many throw predestination out the window in order to rescue God from any appearance of being uncharitable.
But, I believe in predestination. And, I arrive at this conclusion, not because it's easy, but because it fits the biblical data best. Let me explain in four comments:
SIN RENDERS US HELPLESS. Most Christians understand the universal problem of sin. All people are sinners, separated from God [Romans 3:23]. But, fewer understand the effects of sin. Sin makes us reject God, not seek Him [Romans 3:10-12]. Sin makes us spiritually ignorant, unable to understand spiritual truth [1 Corinthians 2:14]. Sin enslaves us [Romans 6:17], so that any notion that human beings have a free will --able to make any decision they want-- is thrown out the door. And, sin makes us spiritually dead [Ephesians 2:1-3]. We are unable to do anything for ourselves.
So, sin isn't just a moral problem that needs to be forgiven. The effects of sin are debilitating. No one seeks God, understands his truth or has the ability to make good decisions. We may not reach this conclusion about our neighbor who brings us fresh made pie and picks up our mail while we are on vacation. But, this is the conclusion of God's Word.
The next truth is the logical outcome of the first:
ALL PEOPLE NEED HELP COMING TO GOD. The philosopher Seneca once commented, "I have fallen into the pit of my besetting sins and I cannot get out and will not get out unless a hand is reached down to draw me out." Because of our ignorance, slavery, disinterest and death, none of us can reach God on his or her own. God must reach down to us.
GOD MOVES FIRST. If people are stuck in sin, unable to do anything for themselves, then God must be the initiator of grace. He must extend His hand toward helpless obstinate people. Jesus said "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" [John 6:44]. It's not that God moved second, responding to people who broke the chains of their own slavery, suddenly decided to pursue God, overcame their spiritual dullness and raised themselves from spiritual graves. Rather, God moved first. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" [Ephesians 2:4-5]. One commentator writes, "The Holy Spirit takes the initiative in the drama of rescue." Salvation isn't God responding to us; it's us responding to God. Otherwise, salvation is not by grace.
On these first three points, Christians on both sides of the predestination table can find some agreement. But, the jury still remains out for the election of God. For some non-predestinationists might argue, "I concur that all people are helpless and need God's intervention and that God graciously intervenes. But, God does this for everyone." This is the argument of neutrality. God gives everyone equal opportunity.
Theologians have referred to this as "prevenient grace"--a salvation footstool given to every person so that they can reach the upper shelves of God's blessing. Of course, the problem with this idea [other than the fact that it isn't mentioned in Scripture] is that people either understand spiritual truth or they don't. They are either free or not. They are either dead or alive. No one comes into the Kingdom because they have a shadow of truth, only have one spiritual shackle loosened and are spiritually comatose, wavering between life and death. Whatever grace God gives wakes the dead, sets captives free and opens minds to believe and hearts to desire.
This leads to a final comment:
GOD'S POWER IS POWERFUL. This is where the conversation about predestination hinges, in my opinion. Advocates of universal neutrality might suggest that God offers salvation to all and provides an infusion of grace to all to make His offer possible, but some simply reject the offer. This view makes God's calling impotent. Either God doesn't gives enough resources for a person to believe. Or, God gives all of His resources, but they are unable to accomplish their purpose.
Yet, Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" [John 6:37]. Paul writes that those were called, get justified [Romans 8:30]. So, the calling of God isn't a "first-come-first-served invitation." Rather, it is an effectual call, with the power to accomplish its goal.
To conclude, I back into my theology of predestination:
If people are spiritually dead and cannot do anything for themselves,
and if those people need help coming to God,
and if God moves first,
and God's help is always powerful, never failing,
then no one comes to God unless God works in them,
and everyone God works within does believe.
In my next post, I'll consider the reason why God might predestine some, but not all, to salvation.