There are many human explanations for the good, the bad and the ugly threading their way through life. None comes close to the doctrine of predestination, and its twin, providence, interwoven throughout the Scriptures. But do these doctrines make any difference to our lives?
Does it really matter?
Last week on The God Walk, we left off in Romans 8:28-30. Let’s re-read it carefully:
“28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
“We know” is a strong assurance of truth. It is not about how we feel or what we think on a particular day. The Bible says that Christians can know certain things for sure. Our text roots our confidence in five actions that God has performed for us, events that link together like the rungs of a ladder. It reminded me of Jacob’s ladder to heaven.
- God foreknew us
- God predestined us
- God called us
- God justified us
- God glorified us.
Last week we looked at God’s sovereignty and what it means to be chosen, called and foreknown, the first 3 rungs of the ladder. In the next few weeks we will look at what it means to be justified and glorified. But at this stage you may be thinking, “If God has done everything for me in salvation, then surely there is nothing left for me to do? I may as well fall asleep under the ladder until the angels carry me up to heaven!” This leads to three important questions:
- If God’s purposes are supreme, why pray or evangelise? God will do it anyway.
- If God’s purposes are supreme, how can I have free will?
- Is God unfair in choosing some and not others?
#1 Why evangelise or pray if only God can save?
If it is up to God to change a stony heart to flesh, does that mean we should passively let go and let God?
Church history answers this question. The New Testament leaders and authors firmly believed and wrote about predestination, yet they set the world alight with their evangelistic efforts and fervent prayers. They were martyred for their activities, not their passivity. They understood that God uses human agents to take the gospel invitation to the whole world and that God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30); to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and to love others (1 John 3:23). They did not wonder who was chosen and who wasn’t when they took their message to the world! Peter in his sermon at Pentecost begged everyone who was listening to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). John wrote, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). No invitation could be more certain, inclusive and comprehensive than that. We are not God and cannot presume on the state of another person’s heart. But God’s purposes for salvation are made known to us:
God has ordained that His name will be great among the nations (Rev 7:9; Mal 1:11; Isa 62:6-7). This is what God has purposed and predestined from all eternity! Every believer is called by God to play a role in this great redemptive plan for men, women and children from every nation under the sun. There is a confluence between our call as chosen people of God, and Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20).
Those who are called by Jesus are sent out by Jesus.
Acts 18:9-10 gives me courage when I’m timid to share Jesus with others. Paul is facing opposition to the gospel in Corinth and the Lord himself addresses him in a vision:
“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking and do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
This verse should pierce our hearts! The Sovereign God has chosen many people in our city too. In Africa and in all the nations of the world. That is his sovereign purpose which cannot be thwarted. The Holy Spirit will prepare hearts to receive Jesus. It’s not up to our persuasive powers. At the same time, God calls us to action, not complacency. We must actively reach out, speak up, implore, persuade, appeal (2 Cor 5:20) and invite the lost to come to Jesus, just as the Lord himself does (Isa 55:3). We must support missions. The Great Banquet of heaven is big enough for everyone, and ordinary Christians like you and me are sent to invite people on the highways and byways of life. Jesus, the Son of God himself, stands at the door of hearts and knocks, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
You may be as timid as me. But if we are comfortably sleeping at the bottom of the proverbial ladder, God calls us to wake up from our slumber! (Eph 5:14; Rom 13:11-14) We are called to stand strong, watchful and firm in the faith (1 Cor 16:13); to pray fervently (Col 4:2) to actively wrestle against evil (Eph 6:12); to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13-14); to be doers, not just hearers of God’s word (James 1:22-25); to do the work of an evangelist and fulfill our ministry (2 Tim 4:5). God’s sovereign call and our efforts work hand in hand.
#2 Does God’s sovereignty negate free will?
It seems logical to a western 21st century mindset, that if God ordains everything, humans cannot have free choice. Thus, no one is guilty for their actions. But this reasoning is based on disjunctive (either-or), thinking. The Bible affirms conjunctive (both-and), thinking. Like a railway track with two parallel lines, the Bible sees both God’s sovereignty, and human responsibility, as true at the same time. We cannot grasp the gospel fully until we recognise the tension between these apparent contradictions—known as an antimony. Three Biblical instances illustrate this antimony effectively:
- Genesis 50:19-20: 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Joseph’s story is the classic illustration of providence in the life of a believer. God used the brothers’ evil deeds and worked them for His good purposes. But Joseph’s brothers were not God’s robots and God did not make them commit evil. They were responsible for their lies and betrayal, and Joseph affirms God’s sovereignty in judgment (v19). What they did was evil, not good. If the brothers were not responsible, they would not have needed to repent.
- Acts 4:27-28: 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
If we only read verse 27, it would seem that Jesus died because of a conspiracy between the Jewish and Roman leaders. They bear the guilt for Jesus’ death. But in verse 28, Luke makes the stunning statement that Jesus died as a result of God’s decision taken in advance. This is an example of how human will and God’s predestined purposes are mutually compatible. God’s sovereignty does not override free will or exonerate evildoers. That would make nonsense of the concept of sin—the very reason why Jesus needed to die on the cross in the first place. We would not need the gospel if God’s sovereignty negated our free choices.
- Mark 3:1313 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.
You may have noticed it, but this is an extraordinary statement made by Mark. Jesus is the sovereign God-man calling those he desires. It is as though he has an invite list. Yet, the invitees are still responsible to come to Jesus. Jesus does not force them to come against their will, but He makes them willing to come! In this verse, we see a convergence of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, just as two streams would converge into one river. It is not a contradiction to say that we come to Christ because He calls us. God’s sovereignty makes our choice possible.
Spurgeon gives a helpful comment:
“I see in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free will…That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory, but they are not. The fault is in our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.”
Timothy Keller’s article is useful if you would like to explore this question further.
#3 Is God unfair in choosing some and not others?
In my experience, this is a major stumbling block to receiving Christ, and it has been a hard question for me too. I cannot do justice to this question in a devotional like this. If you are grappling with your own faith in the fairness and goodness of God, or know someone who is, read these John Piper articles and teaching labs on Desiring God as a starting point.
I would also encourage you to prayerfully read chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Romans, where Paul deals with this specific question, especially as it relates to ethnic Israel and the true children of Abraham. Then read Job 38-42, an extraordinary interaction between Job and God. Job is seeking to explain his horrific, unjust suffering. At the heart of all our struggles with God are two basic questions: Can I trust God? Is God good? They were Job’s questions too.
God is no pocket pet–Job’s story.
I must warn you that the answers God gives in Romans and through Job’s virtual tour of the universe, do not sit comfortably with our culturally moulded views! Essentially, they are blunt reminders that God is the Creator of the universe and we are his creatures. He is the Potter and we are the clay. The Bible is unapologetic about this. We are not in a position to question God’s judgments, mercy and compassion. We cannot understand his purposes and do not deserve his mercy (Rom 9:15-21; Rom 11:33-34). Like Job, our accusations against God are words without knowledge (Job 38:2). Like Job, we have no idea of the complexities of our own planet, let alone what is going on in the spiritual realm. Job never did see the front of the tapestry in his lifetime, but perhaps now, from the vantage point of heaven, he has eyes to see the thousands of men and women who have read his testimony of unwavering faithfulness in the face of unjust suffering. Even today, Job stands as a lighthouse to us. Perhaps this is a small glimpse into the ‘good’ that God works from evil. God’s greatly beloved servant Job, had no idea of his divine calling. And nor do we.
To a sceptic, it may seem like a cop out to mention the inscrutable wisdom of God. But if there is one thing I am learning from the God walk, it is that the triune God will not be domesticated by human beings. When my children were small, they used to collect toys called “Puppy in my Pocket.” The Lord Jehovah is not our pocket pet! He is wild and untameable (Job 41). As the beavers told the Pevensey children,
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Not safe, but good.
God is not safe, but He is good. I can tell you that, without a shadow of doubt.
His immense love and graciousness is beyond question. The greatest chapter on election also reminds us that the message of salvation is for all who believe (Rom 10:11), for all who call on the name of Jesus (Rom 10:13). It is not just for a select few insiders.
Yes, we need Gods’ Spirit to breathe life into our dead hearts, but we also need to open our hearts to him.
Sincerity and heredity are simply not enough.
We are responsible for our own choices. God respects our choices and never forces his way into self-hardened hearts. “We are responsible for our rejection of the Gospel, but we are not responsible for our acceptance of it.” (Martin Lloyd Jones)
Live it out!
- If it is God’s heart for everyone to come to repentance and be at peace with him (2 Peter 3:8-10), do you have the patient, compassionate heart of God? Do you love the lost as Jesus did?
- Are you trusting God today with your life, whether you are rich or in debt, healthy or sick, happy or grieving, loved or rejected? Do you know for sure you are in God’s good hands, or are you still in the grip of blind fate or destiny?
- Can you patiently wait on the Lord? Or do you prefer to take things into your own hands?
Lord, give me faith to pray “Thy will be done”, while also walking through the doors you call me to enter. Give me the courage to trust and obey even when I don’t know what lies on the other side of the door. I am often blinded by the fog of being human. Father, keep me pressing forward in faith, confident of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see. Through door after door, into unknown vistas, keep my eyes fixed on Jesus.
Your will be done…not my own. Melt my will and plans into yours, like sugar in a steamy cup of tea. May the result be a life that is always hot, and always sweet.
In Jesus’ name,
Join me in the last devotion in this series Chosen by God, based on Isaiah 40. I will tell my personal story of redemption to illustrate the confluence of God’s sovereignty and free choice.
Meditate on the goodness of God with this amazing music video by Andrew Patterson.