Perhaps one of the greatest theological divides between believers is that which has developed over the doctrine of predestination. Those who adhere to a Reformed theology (often generalized as “Calvinism”) hold that God has predestined his elect to salvation and those who are not His elect are predestined for eternal punishment. In opposition to this are those who believe man is essentially free to make his own choice as to whether he will repent and be saved or reject Christ’s sacrifice and so suffer the punishment of their own sins – these, in Protestantism, are generally known as “Arminians,” as prior to the teachings of 16th century theologian Jacob Arminius, the Protestant reformers were virtually all united in a general acceptance of predestination as an integral part of salvation. But since long before the Protestant Reformation – in fact since only shortly after the days of Augustine – there have been those who propose a middle option which can be called “Single Predestination.”
What is Single Predestination?
There are some who find it difficult to read the scriptures consistently and deny the doctrine of predestination, while at the same time they are unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God predestining a person to eternal punishment. In an attempt to settle the matter, some have declared that they reject “double predestination,” and hold that, although God has predestined his elect to salvation, he has not predestined the rest of humanity to damnation. To the Reformed mind, this stance seems to struggle with a rather large logical difficulty – namely that if God has chosen those who will be saved, it must be equally true that He has chosen the rest not to be saved, as those are the only two alternatives.
At its heart, the notion of single predestination seeks to satisfy two points. First it seeks to “acquit” God of any complicity in the sins of man – the logic, since the days of Rabanus’ disputes with Gottschalk (9th century A.D.)– is that if God “reprobates” (that is, predetermines the sinfulness and unrepentance of men) then He is the author of sin. The second aim is to more or less soften the blow of God’s sovereign election over the fate of men. The more man’s own free will is involved in his own salvation or destruction, the less one has to reckon with the question “why would God create something He has destined to destruction.
But single predestination seems to be based in a fundamental misunderstanding of the doctrine of predestination. If we better understand the Reformed stance – called “double predestination” primarily by its opponents – perhaps we will see that fundamentally many who hold to a notion of single predestination do not actually disagree with Reformed theology, they merely misunderstand it.
What "Double Predestination" Is Not
Before discussing the Reformed perspective on predestination, it is perhaps best if we remove the first stumbling block – misconceptions concerning free will. Predestination is not the doctrine that God has “forced” those who He is not saving to turn away. Nor is it the notion that God has “programmed” us to act a certain way like a computer programmer would script software so that we simply react to the Gospel favorably or unfavorably because that is what God has scripted us to do. In addition, Reformed theology does not teach that God “makes us sin,” however neither is He uninvolved in determining our decisions and ultimately our actions – herein lies the first aspect of God’s sovereignty over and against our free will.
The Bible does teach that God at times intervenes to change our actions and even our intentions. He does this in several ways.
When Abimelech took Abraham’s wife as his own, God prevented him from consummating a wrongful “marriage,” until he learned Sarai was already married to Abraham and so returned her to him1. This was not some physical force that prevented the sinful union, but rather God ordained that his priorities or intentions would not lead to such a union. In a similar fashion, God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” so that he would not allow the Israelites to leave Egypt2. In this second instance God’s purpose was in order that He might demonstrate His power to His own glory3. And for those who He has chosen to judge, God even sent lying messengers to lead them to their undoing4! This is God’s sovereignty taking precedence over our own free will. Though it was in Abimelech’s heart to lie with Sarai, God ordained that he would not, so we see a balance between sovereignty and free will.
Another way in which God intervenes to change our actions is by means of physical intervention. God is sovereign over all the earth, He decrees where the rains will fall, the lightning strike, and the wind blow5. He ordained drought to bring Joseph’s family to Egypt and establish Joseph as an official in Pharaoh’s court6. He sent an angel to block Balam’s way7 and whole nations to judge Israel. Indeed, His sovereignty over even those who do not worship Him is such that He can call a pagan king – Nebuchadnezzar – His “servant.8” In these ways we see God using the angels, wars, kings, and even the weather to enact His will. Indeed, even the animals of the earth are not beyond God’s sovereign action, as He both provides food for them in need and ordains their death for the sake of lions and crows9.
Perhaps the most important way in which God enacts His will over our own is by His Holy Spirit – but this we will revisit in due time.
Man's "Free" Will
But how does God’s sovereignty, particularly in regards to “double predestination,” not negate man’s free will? As we see, there are times when God’s actions and degrees take precedent over man’s will, and so in those instances man’s will is subordinated (sometimes entirely), but in many of these instances man’s will is still “free” – he chooses how to act and react. In this way we see that God’s sovereignty works to guide and direct us; some of us to deliverance (e.g. Abimelech), and some to our destruction (e.g. King Ahab, 1 Kings 22). And here is where proponents of “single predestination” are troubled – the idea that God leads some to destruction.
But there is another dimension to this issue; in these instances in which God lead men to their destruction it was in judgment of their hearts and actions. God did not lead innocent men to their demise, he judged unrighteous men. In these cases, “single predestination” proponents might feel comfortable, but, inversely, God also ordains others who are equally guilty of sinning against God should be lead to their own deliverance – as was the case of Joseph’s brothers6 and even Balam. Balam had not sinned against the Lord in action prior to the Angel of the Lord blocking his way; rather it seems that it was his intent that was impure. Rather than allowing him to continue along the path that would ultimately be his undoing, God stopped him and corrected him*.
The question then becomes this; if God were to completely withdraw His hand from our lives and so did not act to direct us either toward salvation or destruction, which path would we choose? To the reformed mind, the answer to this lies in the nature of man.
Man's Fallen Nature
“As it is written; none is righteous, no, not one. No one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one...there is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:10-18**
This is the picture of man prior to his deliverance – before God stops him along his way to destruction. Indeed, before a man is born again to a new life in Christ he is by nature a child of wrath and spiritually dead10. The concept of man being “by nature” a child of wrath is crucial, because it deals with his “will.” A man who is spiritually dead is incapable of repentance, not because God is stopping him, but because it is not in his nature to repent. In this sense, he has no free will, because his will is held captive by a corrupt and sinful nature; he is a slave to his sin11.
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does no submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” – Romans 8:5-8
For this reason, if man – who is by nature hostile to God and a slave to his sins – is allowed to choose his own path completely without divine interference, he will choose the path of destruction.
The Sovereign Grace of God
Now, at last, we come to the heart of the matter; God’s election. Before man is saved, he is an enemy of God and utterly bent on his own destruction. But God, in His mercy, chooses to intervene – stopping sinful men along their road to destruction and correcting them. Who He chose is His decision, a decision He established before the foundation of the world12.
“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will to the praise of His glorious grace…” Ephesians 1:5-6
But how does God enact the repentance of His elect? We can see from the scriptures that He uses a combination of both physical and spiritual means. This is why he commissioned his followers to go and preach the word and to be ready to give a defense of the faith13, the work of a missionary is reflected in the story of Jonah in which the entire city of Nineveh was delivered because God sent a messenger to them (who He forced to go against the messenger’s will!). Miracles that Jesus performed led some to believe and repent, as did his very life and death on the cross18, and many others would have repented had it been in God’s will to perform them in their presence14.
And yet ultimately something more must take place. God must spiritually change the man who is enslaved to his sins for that man to repent. If man by nature is hostile to God and cannot please God, then he cannot repent and cannot have faith. This is the point where God truly and spiritually changes the individual – one could call it “forcing” them to believe – but ultimately it is simply changing their very nature and allowing the new nature to act as it will – this time to seek God, not to resist him. The ultimate fulfilment of this change is found in the Holy Spirit.
Just as the man of the flesh is a slave to his sins, so also the man who is in the Spirit is a slave to the Spirit11. Those who have the Spirit are changed; though they still struggle with a sinful nature, they now are held, restrained, and carried by a new, alien nature. This is the reason that Paul calls the Holy Spirit a “Guarantee of (our) inheritance,” by which we are “sealed.15” Because although we still have a sinful nature that struggles to return to the ways of destruction, the Holy Spirit stops us like the angel stopped Balam. The Spirit works in us and produces good works as a sign of our salvation and His presence16. These works, which the bible terms “the fruit of the spirit” are directly inverse to the works which our sinful natures produce without the Holy Spirit’s presence17.
This is perhaps the most dramatic, and little contested, aspect of God’s sovereignty over our salvation. Again we see that God’s intervention – now in the form of the Holy Spirit – works in conjunction with our will, but ultimately subordinates our will to affect His sovereign decree and the salvation of the elect.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:10
Ultimately the difference between “single” and “double” predestination is artificial. The reformed stance is not that God has forced men to reject him but that men by nature are hostile to God. It is true, that God has withheld those things which would otherwise have led them to repentance+, but this is again a mechanism by which God decides to restrain or release men to go along their way. The rejection of “double predestination” therefore must stem from one of two perspectives; either a misunderstanding of Reformed theology, or a simple rejection of God’s sovereignty over man’s will.
Those who misunderstand Reformed theology perceive predestination in terms of “scripts” and “programs” which leave no room for human will and do not take into account human nature – both as a fallen creature and one that has been spiritually reborn. Those who understand the Reformed perspective but still reject that God has chosen those who are destined for destruction must either also reject His sovereignty over His elect, thereby rejecting the doctrine of predestination outright. The only alternative is to create an illogical distinction between God choosing those who will be saved and not choosing the rest.
“What shall we say then? Is their injustice on God’s part? By no means; for He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” – Romans 9:14-16
* cf. Numbers 22
** All quotations taken from the English Standard Version.
+ cf. Matthew 11:21, Mark 4:10-12
- Genesis 20:6-7
- Exodus 4:21, 9:12
- Exodus 9:12-16
- 1 Kings 22:19-23, 1 Samuel 16:14, 19:9-10
- Psalm 135
- Genesis 41:25, 28
- Numbers 22:22-35
- Jeremiah 27:6
- Job 38:39-41
- Ephesians 2:1-3
- Romans 6:16-23
- Ephesians 1:3-10
- 2 Timothy 4:2
- Matthew 11:21
- Ephesians 1: 13-14
- CF. Galatians 5:22-24
- CF. Galatians 5:16-21
- Matthew 27:54, Luke 23:39-43
- Genesis 8:21