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Predestination: A Pentecostal problem

God, grace and sovereignty

Christians are ‘blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3). They have adoption, grace, redemption, revelation and the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:4-14). But why has God blessed Christians? Why us and not others? Why some and not all? This is an important question, which the Bible itself insists on answering.

Is it because of something to do with us? Is it our faith that causes God to bless us? Is there some innate goodness in Christians that responds to the Word of God that is not present in other people? Or is it chance? Did we simply happen to hear at the right time from the right person?

Pentecostalism is part of a growing movement that has for centuries now maintained that although God would bless all with salvation, the presence of faith in Christians (which is not present in others) ‘allows’ God to bless them so. But the Bible’s answer to this question is very different, and for good reason.

The Bible’s answer

The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:3-14 answers: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves... 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, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12).

The reason why God has blessed us spiritually in Christ is because “he chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). And he did this, not because of some goodness in us, but “in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Someone will exclaim, ‘Did not God choose us because we have believed in Him?’ But “he chose us before the creation of the world,” (Ephesians 1:4) before we believed. Again, someone will ask, ‘But did he not choose us because he knew we would believe?’ But we were chosen in him, “having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). God does not work out everything in conformity with what we will or will not do, in conformity with the purpose of our will. But he works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, and he chooses accordingly, based on his sovereign grace and for his own praise.

Paul later explains the role of faith: we are saved not by faith, but by the grace of God. Faith actually is a “gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9), given to those whom he saves. In other words, it is not something innate that some possess that enables God to save them. But instead, it is something that God himself chooses to give those whom he has chosen to save – they do not merit salvation (they are saved purely ‘by his grace’), but they are saved through the faith he graciously provides.

Ephesians 1:3-14 makes very clear that we are Christians for no other reason than that God decided to make us so. The reason is found in God himself, and not in ourselves. We are not more deserving than others. Nothing has moved God to save us except God’s own will: He wanted to do it. The source of God’s election is to be found in his loving kindness and nothing else.

Jesus, speaking to his disciples, said: ‘You didn’t choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15). He taught this teaching openly to non-believers too: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44). To them he said, ‘You do not believe because you are not my sheep’ (John 10:26). He did not say, “You are not my sheep because you do not believe.” The Apostle John makes it very plain when he says, ‘We love him, because he first loved us’. The Apostle Peter also makes this clear. He begins his first letter addressing Christians: ‘To God’s elect... who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father’ (1 Peter 1:1-2). And later in the same letter, speaking about unbelievers, he says: ‘They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for’ (1 Peter 2:8).

Problems with Predestination

Pentecostals struggle with this teaching. Many Christians get so frustrated, trying to wrap their heads around this: How can the God who said: ‘Choose this day whom you will serve,’ turn around and say, ‘You didn’t choose me, but I chose you’? People struggle, trying to reconcile in the Bible human responsibility and divine sovereignty. But both the responsibility of people and the sovereignty of God over them are taught side by side in the Bible. In fact, in Scripture the two are married together such that it is impossible to separate them—why then should we struggle to reconcile them?

Clearly, our problem with the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereign grace for salvation is not a problem of truth, but one of belief. It is not a pastoral problem, but an intellectual one. It is not a problem with the Bible; it is problem with our own lack of willingness to accept it.

John Stott has called ‘election,’ “a divine revelation, not a human speculation.” Martin Lloyde Jones has referred to this teaching as “a statement, not an argument.” Jim Paker has argued that all Christians do believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation, even though many deny it, for at least two reasons: One, we give God thanks for our conversion (Why do you do that? Because we know in our heart that God was entirely responsible for it. We did not save ourselves. He saved us). Two, we pray for the conversion of others (We pray that God would work in them everything necessary for their salvation because we know that that is the only hope of them being saved). “On our feet we might have arguments about it, but on our knees we all agree”.

Questioning God

We must never play down or ignore anything that the Bible teaches, certainly not what the Bible teaches about the sovereign grace of God. We must never blur the edges of Scripture; we must never blunt the sharpness of anything God has revealed to us; we must never alter what God has said in the hope that it will make it easier to understand. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).” Who are we to doubt or question God’s sovereignty in salvation because we do not like it? Are we wiser than God? Are we greater than God?

This is precisely how the Apostle Paul speaks: ‘One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use (Romans 9:19-21)? And in what he says next he sums up in a few sentences God’s entire plan from all eternity past: ‘What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:22-23)?’ God, before time began, chose to make himself known, both in justice and in mercy.

The source of our problem

Our problem is not that we do not understand the justice of God, or even that we do not understand the (so-called) free will of mankind, but our real problem is that we do not understand the fall. Though we may think the problem lies with this teaching on election itself, actually, our problem is with what the Bible teaches about sin – the human sin that makes it necessary for God to choose us in the first place.

How far did mankind fall when he fell? Were we lucky in our fall so as to land upwards, still standing upright? Or did we fall so as to end up better off than we ever were in the first place? This is the view of secular evolutionists, humanism and much of the new age: We’re getting better and better and one day we’ll catch up to become God himself. No Christian though would agree that we are better people because of sin or advancing because of sin.

Did mankind only fall part of the way, so that we were damaged by sin, but not ruined? According to this view every person has been ‘affected’ by sin, but nevertheless we are still able to choose to turn away from sin and capable of loving God. In other words, people would be capable of ‘freely’ choosing to accept Jesus as their Lord. It is not so much that God comes looking for us, but we go looking for God. Revelation 3:20 is often quoted: “Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone opens the door, I will come in…” (The Lord Jesus was actually speaking to a Church in this Scripture).

The extent of our problem

Was there some good left in mankind after the fall of Adam and Eve, so that when the opportunity arises we may still choose to reach out to God in love? This is not what the Bible teaches. When Adam and Eve fell into sin they went all the way: it was total destruction, complete ruin and spiritual death.

Ephesians 2:1-2 puts it clearly: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” We all at one time followed the world and the devil. We were dead! Can the dead walk? Can the dead love? Can they exercise freedom of choice? Romans 3:10-12 puts it another way: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Genesis 6:5 is very severe about the detrimental effect of the fall: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Jeremiah 17:9 is similar: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”

This being the case, what good could God possibly foresee in hearts that are dead in sin, and inclined to evil all of the time? Since the fall, people are simply not capable of even the slightest movement back towards God. God himself only can first reach down and performs a miracle of rebirth through the Holy Spirit to cause our hearts to respond to him in faith and repentance.

The only way that people can be saved is by the sovereign activity of God. He reaches out and chooses to save people through faith in the finished work of His Son. He brings people to faith. This faith is not of ourselves; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). To be sure, God does not refuse anybody who comes to him. However, unless God moves first and gives people the inclination to come to Him—nobody will! The Bible makes it clear that people are willing sinners, responsible sinners, who everyday choose the path they tread. In justice God chooses to leave some where they want to be: in their Godlessness. It is when God takes the initiative and has mercy on someone out of his own will and for his own pleasure and changes someone’s heart that they respond with the obedience of faith.

The blessing of predestination

Election is a blessing, not a curse! If you have been brought by God to faith in Christ then God has chosen you to be saved. This is something to rejoice about, not grumble. The just thing for God to do would have been to condemn us for our rebellion against Him. But in mercy ‘he chose us in him’ (Ephesians 1:4) to be saved through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. How should this teaching affect us?

Does this teaching encourage ‘arrogance’, since the ‘chosen’ ones will boast about their special position with God? Not at all! This teaching should humble us! Far from causing boasting, it excludes it. In fact, this teaching is the only way to eliminate arrogance. It is only when salvation is wholly attributed to God that there is nothing to boast about. Our very faith is an undeserved gift from God. When we really understand this teaching we will be forever astonished and humbled that God has had mercy on detestable sinners like us.

Does this teaching encourage ‘uncertainty’, since believers will become unsure as to whether they are ‘chosen’ ones or not. Not at all! This teaching gives us great assurance! We are going to get there not because we will do it ourselves, but because God will do it, and he will never let us go. We are not one day ‘falling away’ from God and another coming back to him; we are not one day with him and the next day ‘away from God’; we are not one day on an ‘up’ and the next day on the ‘down.’ No, if God has brought us to faith in Christ, he has put His Spirit in us as a guarantee and he will work in us to complete his work of salvation in us. Even when we pass through periods of doubt, we can have the security that in the end, our salvation is based purely in the predestined will of God.

Does this teaching encourage ‘apathy’, since if salvation is entirely God’s work, our responsibility before him is eliminated? Not at all! This teaching under girds Christian responsibility. It is when we are taking responsibility for our sin that it is evident to us that our faith is real and God is at working in us by His Spirit. This is our evidence that we are chosen by him, because we live according to the Spirit, and not according to the sinful nature. Also, God’s election is the true motivation for holiness. We were chosen in him in order to ‘be holy and blameless in his sight’ (Ephesians 1:4). We have been predestined to be conformed into the likeness of Jesus. There is not room for complacency.

Does this teaching encourage narrow-mindedness, since God’s ‘chosen’ may become totally absorbed in themselves: ‘no one can be saved unless God chooses, and therefore there is no point in our efforts to win the lost.’ Not at all! God’s predestination shows us that salvation is so much bigger that we could have ever imagined on our own. It is bigger than us. God’s election is our motivated to share the gospel. The reason God chose Abraham and Israel and especially Christ and His people is to bring salvation to the ends of the earth! Far from stifling evangelism, God’s sovereign grace is the real fuel for evangelism and missions. It is only when we understand this teaching that there is any point in evangelism: God is working with us and therefore our work will be effective, since God has ordained that through the preaching of the gospel he will call people to salvation. We know that our labour is not in vain because Christ will build his church. As will always be the case, we can praise God, saying ‘all those who were appointed for eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48).

Conclusion

I want to plead with Pentecostals, don’t get angry or frustrated with Christians who believe in God’s predestination, his election of believers and his sovereign grace. Prayerfully read Ephesians 1 and Romans 9. It is God’s Word to us. We must not separate Biblical truth from Biblical truth; that is, we cannot accept some parts of the Bible without accept all it’s doctrine. The Bible is one book, one message from one God. If it is from God, we must accept the lot.

Please understand that the Bible’s truth about God’s sovereign grace is a blessing for all Christians! It is the very reason why we are blessed in Christ. It will humble us. It will give us assurance. It will make us aware of our responsibility before God. It will challenge us with our purpose: to live a holy life. And it will motivate us to get moving in line with God’s plan of bringing others to salvation.

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Adaptated from a sermon given by Rob White, St John’s Presbyterian Church, Hobart.