In the history of the Christian church, few doctrines have been so hotly debated as the doctrine of predestination. Throughout the centuries theologians and laypeople have argued over whether this doctrine could possibly be true:

It has been called the damnable doctrine of predestination.
Others have called it the sweetest truth in all of God’s Word.
Whole books have been written to prove that it is not true.
Other books say that if God is God, predestination must be true.

Leaving the rarified air of theological debate, the rest of us face some difficult questions:

If predestination is true, what happens to free will?
Are we just puppets on a string, doing what God ordained in eternity past?
Does God predestine some people to go to heaven?
If so, does he also predestine others to go to hell?
Why bother with evangelism since whoever is going to be saved will be saved eventually?
For that matter, if God predestines some people to hell, how can they be guilty of sin since they are only doing what God predestined them to do?

Admittedly, these are difficult questions. I don’t expect to answer all them in the course of just one message. However, I do want to assert one fact at the very beginning: The Bible does teach predestination. It’s a biblical word, used several times in the New Testament. No one can get around that fact.

Romans 8:29 says that those God foreknew, he “also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”

Ephesians 1:5 says that God “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.”Let me begin with a simple definition.

Ephesians 1:11 adds that “in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”

Since predestination is a biblical concept, we must face this doctrine squarely whether we like it or not. It’s in the Bible, therefore we must first seek to understand it and then to ask what difference it makes.

Let me begin with a simple definition. Predestination means that God freely chooses some people to be the special objects of his grace and thus to receive eternal salvation. But I think we can make it even simpler than that: The word predestination is composed to two parts: “Pre” meaning “before” and “destination” meaning “point of final arrival.” To predestine something is to determine beforehand where it will end up. If I take a package to the post office, I don’t tell the people, “Send this wherever you like.” They wouldn’t know what to do with it. I write on the front, “San Francisco.” I have predestined my package to travel from Tupelo to San Francisco. By writing the address, I have predetermined its final arrival point and I have thereby excluded all other possible destinations.

Seen in that light, we can say that predestination means that God chooses those will be saved and determines in advance that their final destination will be heaven.

Predestination and Freewill

Now as soon I write those words someone is sure to ask about predestination and freewill. Like most Christians, I have wrestled greatly with this issue over the years. There is no single statement that can fully bring together the different strands regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. But let me give you something I jotted down a few years ago:

God is in charge of
    what happens
    when it happens
    how it happens
    why it happens
And even what happens after it happens
This is true of
         all events
         in every place
         from the beginning of time.
He does this for
        our good
                and his glory.
He is not the author of sin, yet evil serves his purposes.
He does not violate our free will, yet free will serves his purposes.
We’re not supposed to understand all this.
We’re simply supposed to believe it.

I hope that clears up any misunderstanding! (Actually this statement—brief though it is—does summarize the Christian position on divine sovereignty and human responsibility as it has been developed over the centuries.) 

How, then, should we approach a passage such as Romans 9:18-29 with its heavy emphasis on God’s sovereignty in our salvation? In his commentary on Romans, John Stott offers this quote from Charles Simeon, the great British preacher from the early 1800s. Simeon lived at a time when the Calvinist-Arminian controversy was particularly bitter, and he warned his congregation of the dangers of forsaking Scripture in favor of a theological system:

When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question (Stott, p. 278).

It is possible that some people may simply not like what Paul says in Romans 9. If so, there isn’t much I can do about it. You’ll have to take it up with the great apostle himself. As I thought about it, I recalled a scene from the movie “Analyze This,” where Billy Crystal plays a psychiatrist who against his better judgment takes on a Mafia crime boss (Robert De Niro) who can’t control his emotions and starts crying at odd moments. There is a scene when De Niro’s top henchman (a character named Jelly) comes to fetch Billy Crystal at a very inconvenient moment because the boss is having another breakdown. When Billy Crystal says, “What is this? You think you can call me any time day or night?” Jelly replies, “You’re part of the family now. When the boss needs you, you come.” Billy Crystal starts to protest but Jelly cuts him off with, “It is what it is.” That simple truth applies perfectly to our text. 

It really doesn’t matter if we like it or not. It is what it is.

Having said all that, we are still left with many questions. Does the Bible really teach predestination? Does it destroy free will? Does it turn us into robots or puppets on a string? How can we reconcile God’s sovereignty with the dignity of human choice?

There are at least three answers to these questions, which we'll get to next week.

This article published on May 18, 2011. Content provided by Keep Believing Ministries.