The doctrine of predestination is the teaching that before the creation of the world God decided the everlasting destiny of each individual person that he would make. God’s choice to save certain sinners by grace is called election, and his choice to damn certain sinners as they deserve is reprobation. Predestination is part of God’s decree, his eternal purpose in which he decided all that will take place, ordaining everything for the manifestation of his glory.
If you have ever struggled with this doctrine, then you are not alone. A brilliant young man named Jonathan Edwards once wrestled with what he then viewed as “a horrible doctrine,” though he later became fully satisfied with it and found himself overwhelmed with the sweet beauty of “the King eternal” (1 Tim. 1:17). There are a variety of reasons why people have found it difficult to accept the idea that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell. As we will see, each of these reasons starts with a biblical truth about predestination and draws from it a false inference that leads to experiential struggles of faith.
Divisive, Unbiblical Speculation?
The doctrine of predestination is not the central theme of the Bible; the center is Christ and salvation through repentance and faith in him (Luke 24:44–47; 2 Tim. 3:15). Furthermore, debates about predestination have sometimes divided Christians and even split churches. Therefore, people might conclude that it is a doctrine best avoided.
Christians might reason, “It’s best to avoid talking about predestination. We can’t understand such deep theological questions. Let’s just stick to what the Bible says. Christians need to stop arguing about theology and tell the world about Jesus.” Such reasoning leads people to fear predestination and to avoid studying what God’s Word says about it.
The King Who Does Not Care?
The doctrine of predestination portrays God as an absolute monarch who does his will in all creation (Ps. 135:6) and determines the eternal destiny of each person (Rom. 9:22–23), not because of anything good or bad they have done (v. 11). Some people may think that this doctrine implies that God does not care about people or justice. God, it is said, damns to hell countless people regardless of whether they choose to live righteous or wicked lives.
Consequently, it is possible to wrestle with doubts that the God of predestination is a good and loving Lord. Why wouldn’t he choose to save everyone, if he has the power to do so? Such doubts could cause a person to have difficulty praying to God or rejoicing in his love. Worse yet, someone might consider the God of predestination to be more of a demon than a divine Savior, and thus might reject him.
Fatalism with No Place for Human Choice and Effort?
According to the doctrine of predestination, it is God’s will, not man’s will, that controls all things in history (Deut. 4:35; Eph. 1:11), including the individual history of each person (Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:30). People sometimes infer that absolute predestination implies fatalism: our choices are an illusion and our efforts to change ourselves and our world are futile.
Fatalism destroys motivation. Someone might say, “I have no need to repent of my sins and trust in Christ. If God has predestined me to salvation, then I will be saved regardless of what I do.” Similarly, why should believers strive against sin and labor to grow in holiness, when all is predestined? Someone else might argue, “We should not exert ourselves with calling sinners to Christ. God will surely save his elect.” The poisonous fruit of fatalism is spiritual deadness and backsliding into sin, much to the dishonor of the gospel.
Uncertainty That Undermines Assurance of Salvation?
The doctrine of predestination teaches that everyone who is saved was chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13). People might conclude that no one can know for sure whether he is saved and will go to heaven. They might reason as follows: Only God’s chosen ones will be saved. God’s decree of election is hidden in his eternal plan. Therefore, it is impossible to know if you are saved, unless you receive a special sign from God.
Consequently, some Christians who believe in predestination may suffer greatly from anxiety over their eternal destiny. They might seek assurance in mystical experiences or a legalistic pursuit of perfection. Or they might despair.
What horrible struggles people can experience over the doctrine of predestination! However, each one of these struggles is based on a wrong understanding of what the Bible teaches about God’s predestination of his saints. The biblical doctrine nurtures humility, peace, and hope in Christ. Let us return to each of these points and see how this is so.
Predestination a Major Biblical Teaching about Salvation by Grace Alone
While it is true that predestination is not the central theme of the Holy Scriptures, it is a major biblical doctrine, not a human speculation. We find references to predestination and election unto salvation throughout the New Testament (Matt. 22:14; 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 4:11–12; Luke 10:21–22; 18:7; John 15:16, 19; Acts 4:28; 13:48; Rom. 8:29–30, 33; 9:6–23; 11:5, 7, 28; 16:13; 1 Cor. 1:27–28; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:4–5; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; James 2:5; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:10; 2 John 1, 13; Rev. 17:14). The Holy Spirit was not ashamed of this doctrine when he inspired God’s Word; neither should we be ashamed of it.
Predestination is an important feature of the larger doctrine of salvation by grace alone (Rom. 11:5–6). It makes clear that God saves by his power, wisdom, and righteousness, not man’s. If a loving and gentle teaching of grace alone results in offending people—and we must be gracious in how we present the doctrines of grace—then we may not retreat from this doctrine to please men, because it is essential to show salvation is for the glory of God alone.
Predestination by the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ
The God of predestination is truly the sovereign King, but he is also the loving and righteous Father, who “predestinated us unto the adoption of children” (Eph. 1:5). Predestination is an act of infinite fatherly love to freely take outsiders into his family forever. God’s election of people apart from any merit of their own directs salvation “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (v. 6). However, it does not mean that God is indifferent to justice. Far from it! For he predestined his chosen ones to salvation “by Jesus Christ” (v. 5), requiring that Christ satisfy his justice by “redemption through his blood” (v. 7).
It is true that we do not understand why God has chosen some and not others. However, “Why didn’t God choose to save everyone?” is the wrong question to ask. In light of man’s heinous rebellion against his Maker, it is better to ask, “Why didn’t God damn everyone to hell?” The amazing truth is not that God damns sinners to hell, but that he saves sinners to himself. Election is the friend—not the enemy—of sinners, for without it no one would be saved.
In the end, however, we must bow before God’s sovereignty. When people accuse God of injustice because of his predestination, Paul replies, “Hath not the potter power over the clay?” (Rom. 9:21). The Creator has the right to do what he pleases with his creatures.
Predestination Executed through Human Choices and Efforts
For those who struggle with predestination because they think that it implies fatalism, we acknowledge that God’s will controls all of history, but we also assert that God executes his decree through means, including real human decisions and works. Paul says, “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel” (2 Thess. 2:13). The means by which God brings about the salvation of his elect include preaching the gospel, faith, and holiness by the Holy Spirit.
Predestination does not drain human choices of meaning; rather, predestination infuses human choices with eternal meaning. Paul is able to suffer persecution and imprisonment with confidence in God’s predestination, saying, “I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). We can rejoice when people turn to the Lord, for the power of the gospel to produce enduring faith, love, and hope demonstrates their “election of God” (1 Thess. 1:3). Every step of Christian obedience is undergirded by God’s sovereign purpose, for “he hath chosen us . . . that we should be holy” (Eph. 1:4). The armies of the Lamb overcome this world, for they are “called, and chosen, and faithful” (Rev. 17:14).
Predestination Securing Assurance Now and Forever
The doctrine of predestination does teach that only God’s elect will be saved. However, it does not teach that it is impossible to know for certain whether we are saved. Rather, God’s execution of predestination in history permits the believer to “to make your calling and election sure” by walking in growing faith and godliness (2 Pet. 1:10).
Paul explains that predestination initiates a golden chain of events that are bound together in the purpose of God: “whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). If God has effectually “called” a person through the gospel and “justified” him through faith, then he can know that God predestined him to be “glorified” with Christ. He can see the practical effect of this calling in his love for God (v. 28), confirming his election by the fruit of the Spirit.
Therefore, while we understand why people would struggle with the doctrine of predestination and sympathize with them, a Spirit-illuminated faith in this doctrine leads God’s children to embrace God’s Word, obey God’s will, and rejoice in the hope of God’s glory through Jesus Christ our Lord. For this reason, we should strive to know with accuracy and clarity all that God has revealed about this precious truth and teach it to others.
Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids, MI.
Mr. Paul M. Smalley is faculty teaching assistant to Dr. Beeke at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
For further study on God’s decree and predestination, see Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, volume 1, chapters 48–51, pages 957–1057.