Part 1: How do we approach difficult teachings in the Bible?
“Predestination” speaks of a plan that has been set beforehand. In the context of the Bible, it refers to the sovereign will of God regarding man’s salvation. It means that God has sovereignly planned for all people to be saved or not to be saved. Another way to say this is that God has predestined all people either to election or to reprobation. This teaching is spelled out in many Bible passages (2 Timothy 1:8–10; Ephesians 1:3–6; 1 Peter 1:2; Romans 8:29–30; Romans 9:6–25; Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:16–18; Romans 9:21–24; 2 Timothy 2:19–20; 1 Pet 2:8; Jude v. 4). All the relevant passages will be discussed in a future article, but here we just want to think through how we approach a difficult Bible teaching in the first place.
This doctrine can often be shocking to people. But if a teaching is in the Bible, should we shrink from it, or should we investigate it? Let’s consider why predestination is worth looking into.
1. All of God’s Word is good for us
First, predestination is spoken of often in the Bible, so it would be wrong for the Christian to ignore it. Because this teaching comes from the Word of God, it is good for us. We might have a wrong understanding of the doctrine, and that would be bad for us. Or a doctrine might initially appear to be somehow bad for us, but we need to press on to understand what God has to say, believing always that all He says is good for us.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
In Matthew 4:4, Jesus answers Satan by quoting Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”
Jeremiah 32:39 says, “…then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them.”
On the basis of those texts, we can say that since predestination is in the Bible, it must be profitable, life-giving, and good for us.
2. All of God’s Word is Non-Contradictory and Harmonious
Secondly, the doctrine of predestination needs to be considered in light of all the rest of Scripture. No teaching in Scripture contradicts another teaching, because God’s Word is perfect, non-contradictory, and harmonious.
It would be wrong to approach the doctrine of predestination in a vacuum. For example, if we say, “God predestines? Then my actions must not matter.” That clearly goes against other teachings in the Bible, like when Jesus tells us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44) or to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15). So if we take all of God’s Word seriously, there must be some way that God’s predestining people and our human responsibility go together.
For another example, we might say, “God predestines people to heaven and hell? Then God must be evil. This teaching is not fair, so I don’t believe it.” But elsewhere in the Bible, it says that God is perfectly just and righteous, and that He can do no evil (James 1:13; Gen 18:25). So when we call this an unfair doctrine, we are failing to balance Scripture with Scripture. There must be some way that God’s predestination and God’s perfect justice work together.
3. Christ and the Comforts of His Gospel Are Central
Thirdly, we want to approach all difficult teachings in light of more clear teachings. We also want to approach difficult teachings in the Bible with reference to the central teachings of the Christian faith. All things we do should center on Christ, and all things we do should promote the glory of Christ, the spread of His kingdom, and the good news of salvation in His name.
Consider for a momenthow the doctrine of predestination relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ. All Christians believe that Jesus is the “author and finisher of their faith,” as it says in Hebrews 12:2. That knowledge helps the believer press on with assurance of faith and dependence on Jesus. The doctrine of predestination helps us go even deeper in that understanding. The Christian will ultimately be strengthened and comforted when he comes to realize that God is the author and finisher of his faith, through and through – from election in eternity past, all the way to glory in eternity future. God doesn’t just start and stop our faith while we are on this earth. Nor does He leave our eternal salvation in the hands of our free will and our often flimsy faith (2 Timothy 2:13). In fact, His salvation goes much deeper: He links us up with His eternal will – His sovereign decrees of salvation that have been made before the world was made, and will last after the world perishes.
The person who affirms that he is saved by his free will or his decision making, and then scorns talk of God’s sovereignty, does not truly believe that God is the “author and finisher” of His faith. One could continue in this way of thinking and still be a Christian, but true Christians must be exhorted to press in deeper, and to consider these beautiful mysteries of God’s salvation – because predestination highlights the beauty of Christ’s gospel, the freedom of God’s will, and the power of God’s unconditional love.
Coming to believe God’s sovereignty in predestination as the Bible teaches it will ultimately provide the following incredible gospel benefits:
1) It will provide comfort when we realize that we are totally dependent on God for salvation, and God is totally powerful to save (Psalm 27:1; Jonah 2:9; Zeph 3:17).
2) It will break our pride in a healthy way when we realize that we can contribute nothing to our salvation. Belief in the true gospel means belief in the message of the unconditional love of God. God’s love for us is not based on human response, repentance, faith, or anything. God loves us while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8), and He reconciles us to Himself while we are His enemies (Romans 5:10). He loves and chooses His own peculiar people before He even creates the world (2 Timothy 1:9). That ought to shatter our pride and melt our hearts with His love!
3) It will produce a sense of awe at God’s majesty. God’s sovereign decree of predestination is mysterious and beyond our human comprehension. It is truly an awesome doctrine, and if we contemplate it rightly, it will force us to look up, to think less of ourselves, and to marvel more at God’s total control over all things.
4. Predestination is part of God’s secret sovereign will
Fourth, when we think of doctrines like predestination, we need to continually assert that we are talking about matters of God’s will. And then we ought to remember: the will of an infinite God is often mysterious to finite humans! And isn’t that the way it should be? We ought to consider that mysteries surrounding God’s will are totally healthy for us. If we knew all of God’s will, we would probably think of ourselves as gods. It would make us very prideful. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us general things about His will, but He doesn’t reveal specifics. This is for our good.
Deuteronomy 29:29 is one of the most helpful texts in all the Bible when it comes to thinking about God’s will. It says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Here Moses speaks of “secret things” that belong to God, and also “revealed things” that belong to humans, so that we would act on them. This text suggests that there are things in the Bible, and in the world, that are secret – only God truly knows about them. And then there are things that God has made crystal clear to us – He gives us precise instructions on certain matters, so that we can do something about it.
Drawing from Deuteronomy 29:29, it is helpful to think of God’s “secret will” and God’s “revealed will.” So, when we meditate on different Bible teachings, we can ask: “Is this talking about some part of God’s secret will? Or is this talking about something revealed to me, something that I need to act on now?”
For example, when Jesus says, “Repent and believe the gospel,” is that a part of God’s secret will, or is it something revealed to humans, so that we act on it? Clearly, it is the second option – something revealed, for us to act upon.
When God talks about having “chosen” some people “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4–5), is that a “secret thing” or a “revealed thing for us to act upon”? It is one of the “secret things that belong to God.” It is not a commandment. It is not something we can act on. We can’t go back in time and “get ourselves chosen” or “make God predestine us.” That would be absurd. But in Ephesians 1, God is letting us in on one of His secrets. Psalm 25:14 says that “the secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him” (see Proverbs 3:32 as well). He tells us about this beautiful, mysterious part of His will, but it still remains one of the “secret things” that belong to God alone. We can’t alter it.
We can learn about this doctrine, and we can gain comfort from it. Moreover, we can look into it, because God has “shared a secret” with us. But still, we can’t act on it in the same way that we can act on God’s “revealed will,” like His commandment to “repent and believe.”
Going a bit deeper
Deuteronomy 29:29 is an astounding text, and it helps us to think about God’s will as it relates to man’s responsibility. As we have said, God’s will can be seen from many angles, and His will is very complex because He is God.
Using Deuteronomy 29:29 and other Bible texts, we can say that God has a “benevolent revealed will” and a “sovereign secret will.” Let’s think this through.
In what He reveals, God shows His benevolence for all people, and He is very clear about what He wants and expects from humans. In His “sovereign secret will,” there is much God is doing behind the scenes that we simply don’t have access to. These things are secret, and we can be assured that they are always in the hands of our all-powerful, all-good God.
Here are some more examples. When God says, “Repent and believe,” we know something about His benevolent revealed will. We know that He desires people to repent and believe. We even find in Acts 17:30 that He “commands all men everywhere to repent.”
But then the question comes: Does everyone repent? Now we are in the realm of God’s “sovereign secret will.” The answer is, No! Not everyone repents. In fact, God even tells us so in Matt 7:14: “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” In terms of God’s “benevolent revealed will,” He desires everyone to repent, and even commands everyone to do so. But in His secret sovereign will, He determines that not everyone will repent. This is a bit complex, but it is not a contradiction.
There is some parallel in the example of a good father disciplining his child. The father may very well say to the child, “I don’t want to discipline you,” and at the same time the father might say, “But I have to discipline you, because you need to learn that what you did is wrong.” In terms of the father’s “benevolent revealed will,” it is completely true that he doesn’t want to discipline the child. The father is not lying to say that. But in terms of his just will, or his deeper desire as a parent, he realizes that he must discipline the child. The father is not being double-minded in this example. His “will of desire” and his “will of action” go together to make him a caring and a just father.
When it comes to the doctrine of predestination, if we are honest with the Scriptures, we will come to see that God sovereignly predestines people to heaven or hell. And yet, at the same time, He reveals His benevolent will to people – and they must disobey or obey it in their human responsibility. Predestination falls within the realm of the “secret things that belong to the Lord our God,” while the command for all men to repent and believe falls within the realm of the “things revealed to us, so that we may do them.”
Doesn’t God desire all people to be saved?
Likewise, the fact that God “does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11 and 18:23) and that He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) falls within the realm of God’s “revealed benevolent will,” while the fact that God has predestined some to glory and some to condemnation falls within the realm of God’s “secret sovereign will.” Just like the father in the example above, here there is no contradiction. God is just in His sovereign will, and He is just in His revealed will. His secret sovereign will and His revealed benevolent together reveal Him to be a righteously caring and a righteously sovereign Father.
We need to always assert that we do not know whom God has predestined to be saved or not to be saved, because predestination is part of God’s “secret sovereign will.” We know the fact of God’s predestination, but we don’t know the content of it. On the other hand, we do know that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, and that He calls all people to repent and believe in His gospel. Again, these two aspects of God’s will are not contradictory. They go together to show us the majesty of God’s power and love.
May this cause us to worship Christ for the perfect harmony of His sovereign secret will and His revealed benevolent will. He is so high and incomprehensible in His sovereignty, and yet He is so near and generous in His benevolence. Praise God from whom all blessingsflow.
– Sam Caldwell