Predestination and the Love of God

(Matt Perman)



Predestination should be studied by every Christian. It is a vitally important doctrine because it has to do with who God is and how He saves us. Martin Luther said that it was at the heart of the gospel. To think that what we believe about predestination is not important is like saying "God, I'm glad that you saved me. But I don't care how you did it." How could a child of God not take delight in understanding the plan that God put in action to save him or her?

As we will see, having a right belief about predestination is a matter of giving God the glory that He deserves. And it can open up the wonderful experience of knowing what it truly means to be eternally loved by God. But before probing the glory and love of God highlighted in predestination, it is important to define what predestination is and where the Bible teaches it.

What is predestination?
In its most basic form, predestination (sometimes called election) simply means that God decides whom He will save. That aspect of the doctrine is not controversial. The controversial aspect comes when we ask the question: "On what basis does God decide whom to save?" There are two basic positions on this. One is called the Arminian view, which holds that God chooses to save those whom He foreknows will first choose Him. On this view, it is ultimately up to the individual to be saved or not, and then God chooses in response to the individual's choice. This is not what I mean by predestination.

I believe that the Bible teaches what is commonly called "Calvinism." God unconditionally decides whom to save apart from any condition found in the person. This means that it is God who ultimately decides who will believe in Christ and be saved. God bases His decision on Himself and His holy purposes only, not on any foreknown faith that a sinner will exercise of his own "free-will." In fact, humanity is so sinful that if God left the ultimate choice for salvation up to us, we would all reject Him.

Where is it taught?
This teaching, called "unconditional election," is abundantly taught in the Bible. Jesus said to His disciples "you did not choose Me, but I chose you..." (John 15:16). In John 10:26 Jesus tells the unbelieving Jews "you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep." He did not say "you are not of my sheep, because you do not believe." He said the reverse. Clearly, you do not become a sheep by believing. God must chose to make you a sheep before you will believe. And those whom God makes to be Christ's sheep will always come to Him. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:27-28). "And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice" (John 10:16).

Acts 13:48 gives us the reason that many who listened to Paul's preaching believed: "And as many as had been ordained to eternal life believed." In Romans 9:16 Paul tells us that election "does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." Arminianism says that election is of him who wills. Calvinism says that it is not of him who wills. Doesn't the apostle Paul settle the issue once and for all in this verse?

In Romans 9:10-13 Paul gives Jacob and Esau as examples of two types of people, the elect and the non-elect, and then says "for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, the older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" Paul is clear that God's choice is not based on anything in the individual. If that is not clear to you, I encourage you to read the verse again.

Romans 9:18 is also very clear that salvation is ultimately God's choice, not man's. "So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires." Romans 11:6 says that the believing Jews in Paul's day were "a remnant according to God's gracious choice." In 2 Timothy 2:25 we learn that repentance is caused by God and that He ultimately decides whether a person will repent or not: "...with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth."

In Ephesians 1:4-6 Paul tells us that "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Christ Jesus to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will." Notice that predestination is based upon the good pleasure of God's will, not our will.

God is able to save whomever He pleases, which makes Him the one who ultimately determines the recipients of salvation. "The Son also gives life to whom He wishes" (John 5:21). If God purposes to save a person, He will accomplish His purpose every time: "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). According to this verse, who comes to Jesus? Answer: the ones that the Father has given Him! The reason a person comes to Jesus is because the Father has first chosen to give him to Jesus, and none of those chosen for salvation will fail to come. Clearly, human beings do not have ultimate veto power to overthrow the saving will of God. Job said to God "You can do all things and none of your purposes can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).

Predestination is God-centered
Because God is the most valuable and worthy being in the universe, the goal of God in everything He does is to glorify Himself. If He did not ultimately act for His glory in all things, He would not be righteous. This is because He would be placing the value of something else above the infinite worth of His glory. Predestination is no different. His ultimate goal in it is to glorify Himself "He predestined us...to the praise of the glory of His grace" (Ephesians 1:5, 6).

But God seeking His own glory in all things is not unloving. Instead, "When you stop to think about it, this is the most loving thing that God could ever do; because the greatest benefit that human beings could ever receive is to know and share in the glory of God."[1] God's purpose to glorify Himself is not at odds with His love for us! For God is acting in superior love precisely when He acts for the sake of His glory! The God-centeredness of God's love is a wonderful thing! Even in loving us, the superior value of God's worth is magnified.

The greatness of God's electing love
Thus, election is both glorifying to God and it is also the ultimate expression of God's love. Therefore, if we do not have a proper understanding of election, we will not have a proper understanding of the way God loves us. But if we understand and believe that God unconditionally chose to save us it will open us up "to the overwhelming experience of being loved personally with the unbreakable electing love of God."[2]

In the New Testament, God's individual, unconditional election of His saints is again and again connected to His love for each of them individually.[3] "For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you" (1 Thessalonians 1:4). "Put on then as God's chosen ones, holy and loved, compassion, kindness..." (Colossians 3:12). "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5). The Greek construction in John 13:1 indicates that God loves His children to the fullness of His capacity to love creatures. "...having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end."[4] Further, God's love for His children has had no beginning and will have no end. He did not start loving you when you were born, but if you are one of His sheep, He has loved you eternally. "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you" (Jeremiah 31:2-3). "But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:17). Now consider this great truth: if you are a believer in Christ, this is because God has personally, individually, unconditionally, and lovingly chosen you for salvation from before the beginning of the world.

The special electing love of God is great comfort and strength to the heart. "Many people have no personal experience of knowing that they were loved by God eternally and will be cared for by Him with omnipotent, all-supplying love forever and ever. Many people think of God's love only in terms of a love that offers and waits, but does not take us for Himself and work with infinite enthusiasm to keep us and glorify us forever. Yet this is the experience available for any who will come and drink the water of life freely (Revelation 22:17)."[5]

While it is true that God loves all people (not just His elect), He does not love all people in the same way. He loves His elect with a special, unbreakable, intense, affectionate, electing love that cannot fail. Have you been accustomed to believing that God loves those who are condemned eternally in hell in the same way that He loves you, one of His sheep? If so, erase that view from your mind so that it will no longer cloud your experience of your Father's love. Rejoice in the greatness of His special love for you. For God to love His saints in the same way that He loves those whom He condemns eternally in hell would be like a husband saying "Sure, I love my wife. But I love her in the same way that I love every other woman."

God's unconditional election of you is an expression of His deep love for you. Being chosen unconditionally simply means being loved unconditionally. Many American evangelicals love to talk about God's unconditional love, but then rob themselves of the comfort and delight of the full implications it has--that unconditional love is manifest in unconditional election. J.I. Packer describes how the denial of God's unconditional and invincible electing love has resulted in a reduction of the greatness of the gospel in the minds of many Americans: "We speak of [Christ's] redeeming work as if he had done no more by dying than make it possible for us to save ourselves by believing; we speak of God's love as if it were no more than a general willingness to receive any who will turn and trust; and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence at the door of our hearts' for us to let them in."[6]

We too often end up toning down God's love into powerless wish to save a person that cannot act decisively to actually bring the person to Christ. That is not the kind of love the New Testament teaches. God's love saves. "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me" (John 6:37). "My sheep shall never perish" (John 10:28)."I am convinced that neither death, nor life ... nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39). "For those whom He foreknew (i.e., fore-loved and chose), He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son...and whom He predestined, these He also called, and whom He called, these he also He justified, and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). God's "foreknowledge" spoken of in this verse does not mean that He looked down the corridors of history and predestined those whom He foreknew would choose Him. This verse speaks of God knowing persons, not facts. In the Bible, God's knowing of someone is a personal, intimate knowledge that involves personal commitment and selection on His part. This is made clear from the use of the word many places, including Jeremiah 1:5 and Amos 3:2. In Jeremiah 1:5 God says, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," and in Amos 3:2 He says "You only [Israel] have I known [i.e., chose] from all the families of the earth"). Jesus said "I know my own, and my own know me" (John 10:14). What Romans 8:29-30 is saying, then, is that "`All those whom God chose to set His love upon and personally commit Himself to before He even created the world,' ...He also glorified."

The popular statement "God will love you straight to hell (in order to preserve your free-will)" insults the greatness of God's electing love and makes it man-centered. Believing such a statement can rob you of fully appreciating and delighting in the truth of God's deep, unbreakable love for you.

J.I. Packer does a masterful job of showing the radically different conceptions of God's love between Calvinism and any view that makes salvation ultimately depend upon a person's own decision to believe instead of God's sovereign choice. "Whereas to Calvinism election is God's resolve to save, for Arminianism salvation rests neither on God's election nor on Christ's cross, but on each person's own cooperation with grace, which is something that God does not himself guarantee."[7] As a result of the Arminian view, "Our minds have been conditioned to think of the cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Savior who does less than save, and of God's love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose..."[8] In contrast, the biblical view seems to be that "Calvary...not merely made possible the salvation of those for whom Christ died; it ensured that they would be brought to faith and their salvation made actual. The cross saves. Where the Arminian will only say; `I could not have gained my salvation without Calvary,' the Calvinist will say, `Christ gained my salvation for me at Calvary."[9]

Which conception of God's love is greater (not to mention, biblical)--the one which says that in His love, the most that God can do is make salvation possible, or the one which says that God's love is so wonderful and great that it can always work effectively to make a person's salvation actual? How can God's love ever be a rock of security if its effectiveness ultimately depends upon our sinful wavering will? If God loves me and desires with all His heart to bring me to heaven to be with Him and experience His love eternally, what good is that if He is powerless to guarantee that it will happen? "Arminians praise God for his love in providing a Savior to whom all may come to find life; Calvinists do that too, and then go on to praise God for actually bringing them to the Savior's feet."[10]

Clearly, predestination gives us a proper understanding of God's amazing grace and love. His love does not merely make our salvation possible, but makes it actual. God doesn't barter with people; He doesn't just offer salvation to those He deeply loves and stop there; He makes the offer effectual--He saves them. We can take comfort in this strong and powerful and intense and affectionate love of God that will stop at nothing to keep the one who is loved from perishing. If we do not understand God's election of us, we will not fully bask in and delight in His great love for us. Furthermore, we cannot give God all of the glory for His grace that saved us if we think that all God could do was make salvation possible for us but could not take the necessary measures to make our salvation certain. If we think that our choice was the decisive element in our salvation, we are not giving all of the glory to God.

There is perhaps one problem in your mind about this portrait of God's love. "In Reformation days, as since, treatments of God's love in election were often given shape, overshadowed, and indeed preempted by wrangles of an abstract sort about God's sovereignty in reprobation [choosing not to save everyone]. But in the New Testament, most notably Romans 8:28-11:36 and Ephesians 1:3-14, election is a pastoral theme, spelled out for the believers' encouragement, reassurance, support, and worship."[11] I implore you to let the Scriptures stand. Let them tell you about God's love instead of shaping your understanding of it around presuppositions of how you think God should and should not love. Don't let the fact that God has not chosen to love everyone in the same way keep you from rejoicing in the special, perfect, unbreakable love God has for you.

In conclusion, a proper understanding of God's love, especially as manifest in unconditional election, will "provide for a strong, faithful, confident, and joy-filled church. ...Strength of character, faithfulness in conduct, courage of conviction, humility of spirit, and hope for the future all stem from these glorious doctrines of grace. With these, the church is strengthened; without them, the church is hindered."[12]

Notes
1. John Piper, The Pleasure of God in Election, a sermon given February 22, 1987.
2. John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1991), p. 148.
3. Earlier we have saw the biblical basis for election being God's unconditional choice of which individuals He would save. Thus, we are on solid biblical ground for understanding these verses, which mention God's "choice" and Christ's "own," in the same light.
4. John MacArthur, The Love of God, p. 130.
5. Piper, The Pleasures of God, p. 148.
6. J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), pp. 126-127. This chapter is a reprint of Packer's "Saved by His Precious Blood": An Introduction to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
7. J.I. Packer, "The Love of God: Universal and Particular," in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. II, Thomas Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), p. 421.
8. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, p. 137.
9. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, p. 131
10. Packer, The Grace of God, p. 421.
11. Packer, The Grace of God, p. 417.
12. The Grace of God, vol. I, introduction.

All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.

MP


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