by W. S. Reid

The doctrine of predestination as formulated in the history of the Christian church by such theologians as Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin has been a constant cause of discussion and controversy, for many Christians have been unwilling to accept it in any form. Pelagius in the early church and John Wesley in the eighteenth century provide two examples of those who had no use for such teaching. This division concerning the doctrine has continued down to the present.

The doctrine of predestination has both a wider and a narrower aspect. In its wider reference it refers to the fact that the Triune God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11,22; cf. Psalm 2). From all eternity God has sovereignly determined whatsoever shall happen in history. The narrower aspect or use of the term is that God from all eternity has chosen a body of people for himself, that they should be brought into eternal fellowship with him, while at the same time he has ordained that the rest of humanity should be allowed to go their own way, which is the way of sin, to ultimate eternal punishment. These are known as the doctrines of election and reprobation. While some may accept the idea of God choosing some to eternal life, they reject completely any idea of a decree of reprobation (Romans 9:16-19).

In the Scriptures there is not one term in either the Hebrew or the Greek which encompasses the term "predestination." In the OT a number of words indicate the divine plan and purpose: עֵצָה ‘etsah (counsel, Jeremiah 49:20; 50:45; Micah 4:12); יָעַץ ya‘ats (to purpose, Isaiah 14:24,26-27; 19:12; 23:9); and בָּחַר bachar (to choose, Numbers 16:5,7; Deuteronomy 4:37; 10:15; Isaiah 41:8; Ezekiel 20:5). In the NT there are even more words which have the meaning of predestine (προοριζω proorizo, Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5,11), elect (εκλεκτος eklektos, Matthew 24:22 ff.; Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12), and to choose (αἱρεομαι haireomai, 2 Thessalonians 2:13; εκλεγομαι eklegomai, 1 Corinthians 1:27 ff.; Ephesians 1:4). But the doctrine does not depend upon the use of a few words, for as one studies the Bible as a whole this doctrine is seen to be central to much of the teaching of both testaments.

The foundation of the doctrine of predestination is the biblical doctrine of God. He is the Eternal One, above and beyond time and space, for there never was a time when he did not exist, so he is not subject to changes of time and place (Malachi 3:6; Romans 1:20-21; Deuteronomy 33:27; Isaiah 57:15). Furthermore, God is sovereign over all things as the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. He is Lord over all (Daniel 4:34-35; Isaiah 45:1 ff.; Romans 9:17 ff.; Ephesians 1:11). God is also sovereignly righteous, so that all that he does is according to the perfection of his nature (Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16; Romans 1:17; 10:3; 2 Peter 1:1). In eternity he sovereignly established his own plan and purpose, which is far above anything that man can think of, conceive, or understand. Man, therefore, may know God's plan only as he reveals it (Jeremiah 23:18; Deuteronomy 29:29; Psalm 33:11; Isaiah 46:10; 55:7 ff.; Hebrews 6:17).

God has revealed his counsel to men, insofar as it was necessary for them to know it, through the prophets of the OT, through the apostolic writers of the NT, but preeminently through his Son Jesus Christ, to whom both prophets and apostles have borne witness. It was by divine revelation that the prophets could point forward to the coming of the Redeemer (Genesis 3:15; Deuteronomy 18:15; Isaiah 53:1; Malachi 4:2; Hebrews 1:1 ff.), and it was the apostles who could bear witness to him who had come and explain the meaning of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 2:22 ff.; John 20:30 ff.) Therefore, human beings are limited in their understanding of God's purpose to what he has revealed to them, and the ultimate meanings, purposes, and plans must remain a mystery. Furthermore, because of God's infinitude, eternality, unchanging being, wisdom, power, justice, righteousness, and truth, man simply could not understand him, even should he reveal himself fully and completely to them. This means that God's relationship to time and space cannot be comprehended by spacial-temporal beings, for they do not even know the meaning of eternity (cf. Isaiah 26:12 ff.; Daniel 4:24 ff.; Acts 2:22 ff.). This ultimate mystery of the being of God must be kept in mind when studying biblical doctrine.

At this point the question arises of the possibility of individual freedom and responsibility if God is absolutely sovereign. How can these things be? Yet the Scriptures repeatedly assert both. Joseph's remarks to his brothers and Peter's statement concerning Christ's crucifixion highlight this fact (Genesis 45:4 ff.; Acts 2:23). Man, in carrying out God's plan, even unintentionally, does so responsibly and freely.

Those who refuse to accept the biblical teaching are faced with the necessity of providing some other explanation. Some Christians attempt to combine God's sovereignty with human independence, but have the difficulty of explaining both the statements in the Bible and also their belief in God's saving work in Jesus Christ. Non-Christians have two choices. They can posit an ultimate chance, which destroys any possibility of human responsibility (for there is no one to whom to be responsible), of logical thought, and thus of scientific knowledge. The other alternative is that of a complete determinism which results in much the same outcome, for it is but solidified chance. Although the biblical point of view cannot be fully rationalized according to our temporal-spacial laws, it is the only one which makes any responsibility or freedom possible.

To understand the biblical teaching concerning predestination, we must commence with the account of man's fall, which was part of God's eternal plan. At the same time, as Paul points out in Romans 1:18 ff., man's refusal to acknowledge God as sovereign and his willful blindness to God's commands brought upon him God's wrath and condemnation. Basically, therefore, all human beings are corrupt because they refuse to acknowledge that God is Lord and that they themselves are only creatures. Yet despite human disobedience and rebellion, God has not let his creatures go. On the one hand he has restrained their sinfulness by his grace, so that even the sinners of this world have accomplished much that is good and true. On the other hand, as soon as man sinned, God promised a redeemer who would crush the tempter and bring restoration (Genesis 3:15). Thus the purpose of redemption was woven inextricably into the fabric of human history from the beginning.

Because of the sinfulness of the creature, however, the creature would not freely seek peace or reconciliation with him who is the Creator. This is shown in the story of Cain, the song of Lamech, and in the sinfulness of antediluvian society. Yet at the same time there was a faithful minority descending from Seth to Noah, who was called to survive the flood and carry on the line of those who were obedient and trusted in God's promise of redemption. One of this line was Abraham, whom God called out of Ur of the Chaldees, and through the descendants of his grandson Jacob established Israel as his people in the pre-Christian world. All this was the result of divine grace which was summed up in Jehovah's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 12). Although up to this time little is said in Genesis about God's election and reprobation, when it came to the differentiation between Jacob and Esau it was made quite clear that even before their birth Jacob was chosen and Esau rejected, even though they were twins (Genesis 25:19 ff.; Malachi 1:3; Romans 9:10 ff.). Here we find the first clear statement of the doctrine of double predestination.

Throughout the OT the doctrine of election is set forth with increasing clarity. On the one hand it is stated that Israel was chosen, not because of anything it had to offer, but solely because of the grace of God and by his sovereign choice (Deuteronomy 7:7 ff.; Isaiah 41:8-9; Ezekiel 20:5). Furthermore, from both Israel and other nations God freely chose individuals who would do his will in history for the blessing of Israel (1 Sam 16:1 ff.; Isaiah 45:1 ff.; 1 Chronicles 28:1 ff.). On the other hand, not all Israel was of the elect, but only a faithful remnant whom God had chosen (Isaiah 1:9; 10:20 ff.; 11:11 ff.; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:7). These Paul calls "a remnant according to the election of grace" (Romans 11:5). Those not of the elect remnant were rejected because of their sin to suffer ultimate punishment.

Throughout the OT there is also a constant reference to One who would come to redeem God's people, not only Israel but his elect from every race and tribe. While there are foreshadowings of this universal election and redemption in the histories of such individuals as Ruth and Naaman, the prophets set forth the universality of God's electing grace very clearly (Isaiah 11:10; 56; Micah 5:8; Romans 9:24,30; 11:12-13; Acts 15:1). All those elected and predestined to become God's people, both Jew and Gentile, would indeed enter the covenant relationship. But they would do so only through the One who would be the elect Mediator (Isaiah 42:1 ff.; 53:1 ff.; cf. Matthew 12:18).

In the NT the OT doctrines of election and predestination are expanded and clarified. There was no attempt to reject or alter them, but they are given a more clearly universal scope. Christ claimed that he was the mediator spoken of in the OT, and that to him the Father had given his elect people (Mark 1:15; Luke 4:21; John 5:39; 10:14 ff.). Furthermore, he stated very clearly that he had come to lay down his life as redeemer for his people. This is the theme of both his sermon in John 10 and his prayer for his own in John 17. He promised that his people would all come to him and would persevere in their faith unto eternal life (John 6:39,65; 10:28 ff.). True, as the incarnate Son of God his righteousness was such that his life, death, and resurrection were sufficient in their merits for all men, but as he himself pointed out, his mediatorial work was directed to the salvation of his people only (John 17). In this he was fulfilling the teaching of the OT.

Such was also the position of the apostles. The book of Acts gives a number of examples of apostolic teaching on this matter. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter gives a clear indication of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man (Acts 2:14 ff.). The speech of Stephen in chapter 7, Peter's call to witness to Cornelius (10:24 ff.), and various other passages present the same doctrines. In Peter's and John's letters and in the Apocalypse these themes of God's sovereignty, man's responsibility, and God's election and predestination of people reappear constantly.

The apostolic writer who gives the clearest exposition of the doctrine, however, is Paul. While he refers to the doctrine of predestination in passing in a number of places, he expounds the doctrine in detail in Romans 8:29-11:36 and throws further light on it in Ephesians 1. In these passages he stresses the hopeless condition of man in his sinfulness and the fact that because of man's disobedience and rebellion God not only turns from him but hardens him in his sinfulness (Romans 9:14 ff.). At the same time, however, he reaches out and draws to himself those whom he has chosen form all eternity, redeeming and justifying them in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:11 ff.; Ephesians 1:4 ff.). Yet in all of this is the mystery of God's sovereign action and man's responsibility (Romans 9:19; 11:33). And in all things the glory of God's righteousness is made manifest (Romans 9:16 ff.).

These doctrines have continued to raise questions ever since the days of the apostles, but especially since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, when they were formulated most precisely. Despite their biblical basis both Christians and non-Christians have rejected them on various grounds. If all human beings are sinners and God is sovereign, then he must be the author of sin and is unjust in punishing anyone. Furthermore, what is the basis upon which God makes his choice? Is he not arbitrary; and if not, is he not then a respecter of persons? If these doctrines are true, do they not destroy any desire, even any necessity, for a human being to seek to live a moral life, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God? All these questions are put forward, and many of those who do so feel that they have now answered and condemned the doctrines effectively. They forget, however, that these question were all raised in the time of Christ and the apostles (John 10:19 ff.; Romans 9:19 ff.).

That these doctrines are set forth in both testaments would seem to be clear, along with great stress upon God's sovereign righteousness and holiness. But no further explanation is offered, and beyond what the Scriptures have to say finite man cannot go and, if he accepts the authority of the Bible as God's Word, will not wish to go. All one can say is what Job said when rebuked by God (Job 42:1-6) or what Paul said when closing his exposition of these doctrines (Romans 11:33-36). God's wisdom and grace are beyond every creature's comprehension or understanding. One can but bow in worship and praise. Those who do so have within them a sense of comfort and strength which is not their own, but which is a gift of God to enable them to face the world with confidence and peace of mind.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3:21-24 and The Eternal Predestination of God; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, ch. 1; J. Murray, Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty, ch. 3, B. B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines.

William Stanford ReidDr. William Stanford Reid (1913-1996) was a pastor and a prominent evangelical voice in the Presbyterian Church of Canada during the second half of the twentieth century. He received his theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied under under the famous Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and became a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal. Later he taught history at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He is the author of many articles and books on Presbyterian history and the Reformation. This article was first published in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).