(Slightly updated August 2020)
I looked at Romans in the last post. This time, I want to specifically consider Ephesians, the other book that is most used to support predestination. Once again, while there is a lot in this book that can sound like predestination, I do not think it actually teaches that God decides who to send to heaven and who to send to hell.
The first chapter of Ephesians gives us what seems like the strongest support for predestination.
Ephesians 1:4,5, 11: “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 ... 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 ...”
This is one of the key passages that makes it sound like we are predestined to choose Him or not, like He hand-picks who becomes His sons and who doesn’t, according to His pleasure and will. (Some of this is review of what I wrote in the post, “Predestination does not mean ‘No Choice.”)
However, I see it this way:
God has chosen and predestined mankind in general to be His people. From the very beginning, His plan was that we would know Him and choose Him. This was His over-arching Will for mankind, the reason He made humans in the first place. And it’s how He created it to be in the Garden of Eden.
However, He doesn’t force us to follow Him in this plan. It’s up to us which side we choose to be on. (Actually, separation from God – “Satan’s side” – is the side we are all born on. And that is where we will stay if we do not choose to cross over to “God’s side.” Hell is our default destination, not heaven.) Adam and Eve were created for a deep, perfect relationship with God. It was available to them. But they had to choose: obey God and do things His way or rebel from Him and reject the destiny they were created for, the plan God laid out for them in the beginning.
It was His Will to choose mankind before the world was created to have a relationship with Him. He laid out that destiny for all of us. But He doesn’t force us to follow Him in it. While He is sovereign and can do whatever He wants, I believe that part of His plan is to allow us to choose to follow Him or reject Him. He makes the offer of a relationship, the invitation to salvation, but we have to choose to accept it or reject it.
[Update: This could be like 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14: “But we always ought to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In “Controversial Predestination Verse,” I shared something new that I learned about 2 Thess. 2:13. In various translations of the Bible, it doesn’t just say “from the beginning God chose you to be saved.” When we read this, it makes it sound like God has chosen who will be saved from the beginning of time.
But other translations say something like, “God chose you as His first-fruits.” Basically it’s saying that “God chose you to be among the first of those who believe in Jesus and who receive the Holy Spirit.” That generation was chosen to be the first converts to Jesus Christ, simply because their lifetime coincided with His.
Maybe the Ephesians passage is saying the same thing, that God chose that generation to be the first to be adopted through Jesus Christ. Earlier generations didn’t have Jesus and didn’t experience the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But the generation that Paul is writing to did.
Maybe so many of these verses that sound like “predestined to be saved” really just mean “predestined by God to be the first generation that would be saved through Jesus Christ’s death and the Holy Spirit’s regeneration.” (And there are some that are about "God has predestined believers to grow to be more like Jesus and to bring God glory," not that He predestines our eternal destiny.) Something to really think about! And for me, it cracks this mysterious issue wide open.
Try reading it that way and see if it fits with the rest of the passage.
And I think it does. Look at Ephesians 1:9. It talks about God making known to that generation His mysterious plan (to bring Jews and Gentiles into one family – one saving faith - under Jesus). God chose that generation to be the one to see the fulfillment, the unveiling, of this “new” plan.
And Ephesians 1:12 refers to “we, who were the first to hope in Christ.” Paul is making a point of emphasizing that this generation occupies a special point in history. They are the first to be able to obtain a saving faith through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And I think this is what the greeting in Ephesians 1:4-5,11 is referring to. They were not chosen to be saved, but they were chosen to be part of this special, “new” plan of obtaining salvation through faith in Jesus.
In this case, it's that believers are predestined to live for Jesus's glory, not that the certain people are prechosen for salvation. This goes right along with what I've been saying. We are not destined - specifically pre-chosen - to be saved. But we who are believers are destined to live for His glory, starting specifically with those who were the first to hope in Christ, the generation Paul is writing to, the first generation to have Jesus and the Holy Spirit.]
[Update: Here's an interesting thing I just found out. The word "saved" in the 2 Thess passage doesn't even refer to "eternal salvation." According to Strong's concordance, it's referring to being saved from the wrath of God when He pours it out on unrepentant mankind at Jesus's coming, the end times. So it has nothing to do with God predestining who will inherit eternal salvation and who won't. It's more about God choosing to spare the Church from His end-times wrath, starting with that generation, the first "Jesus believers."]
However, there are some verses that do talk about "elected" or "chosen" people. However, I do not think this means God chooses who gets salvation, but that it refers to God choosing those who put their faith in Jesus. And according to the concordance, "elect" has to do with being chosen out, selected, with the implication being "favorite." And it comes from a word that, according to the concordance, doesn't necessarily imply a rejection of those not chosen, but it involves the idea of kindness, favor, or love towards those who are chosen. I wonder if "elect" is simply referring to those whom God favors - those who hold a special place in His heart and in eternity - simply because they chose to love Him. Not too different from your spouse being your "elected" one. They chose to marry you, and therefore they hold a favored spot in your life and heart, compared to others.
Or, if it is referring to certain "preselected" people, maybe it's referring to people whom God has chosen to pursue especially strongly, for certain reasons, wooing them and revealing Himself to them more than to others - such as the apostle Paul when He confronted him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and struck him with blindness in order to help him know God more clearly. God put more “pressure” on Paul to believe, yet Paul still had to make the final decision to believe. "Elect" could simply be "those God pursued more strongly for a certain reason." (Update: Upon further research, it seems that "election" often refers to God choosing someone to fulfill a certain role/responsibility - like God electing Jacob/Israel to be the bloodline that brought Jesus into the world - not about God choosing who goes to heaven, as Calvinists believe.)
I do not believe that "elect" means that God predetermines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I believe that the offer of salvation is open to all, yet only those who accept it can be part of the "elected" or "chosen" group. And if we do not choose to accept His offer of salvation, we end up in hell by our own unwillingness to turn to Him. Not because He predestines or causes people to go there.
[Added August 2020 (I'm learning as I go, and the more I learn, the more wrong Calvinism gets):
Also, of note, is the use of the word "adoption" in Ephesians 1:5: "he predestined us to be adopted as his son through Jesus Christ." Calvinists use this to say that God predestined who would be "adopted," who would be saved and become God's children.
But the concordance says "adoption" is NOT about being brought into God's family by spiritual birth (not about who gains eternal life), but it's about God promising to "adopt" anyone who believes into His family. It's about believers being put into the position of sons, about the kind of relationship believers will have with God as His children. Anyone who believes in Jesus, who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior (and this offer is open to all) is predestined to experience the "dignity" of being a child of God, the full benefits that come with having a relationship with Him.
And this "adoption" will be fully realized at the redemption of our bodies: "Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:23). (Notice that Paul defines "adoption as sons" as being "the redemption of our bodies," not something like "the salvation of our souls" which Calvinists would claim. Therefore, it's the redemption of our bodies that's been predestined for the believer, not whether or not you get eternal life.)
If adoption meant "chosen for eternal life," then Romans 8:23 would mean that Paul is saying we are still waiting for it, that we won't be chosen for eternal life until the redemption of our bodies. But that's not what adoption means. It basically means to experience the full benefits of being in a relationship with God, of being His child. God has predestined the kind of relationship believers will have with Him, as His children, not whether we go to heaven or hell. And we will experience the fullness of that adoption at the redemption of our bodies.]
Ephesians 1:4: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world ...”
Does this mean that if we are not preselected as one of the “chosen ones” then we do not have a chance of being saved?
Looking it up in Strong’s concordance (which is copyrighted so I can’t quote from it directly, so look it up for yourself), I gather that this word “chose” basically means that God deliberately selects someone for something or He chooses to favor them based on His loving kindness. But, according to the concordance, it does not necessarily mean that He has rejected the un-chosen ones. This is also what the word “elect” is based on, as in the times Paul refers to “God’s elect” or His “chosen ones.”
To me, this seems to say that it’s not that if you are not chosen then you are rejected, destined for hell. The way I see it, anyone can become one of the “chosen ones” because God hasn’t rejected them. The offer of salvation is still open to them. But He has chosen to favor and love those who choose to love Him. And anyone can choose Him if they are willing.
Ephesians 1:13 says "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, ..."
To become part of the “chosen group,” we have to hear and believe. “Hear and believe” refers to a responsibility on our parts to accept and embrace the Truth that we hear.
“Believe” in this verse does not just mean “to believe, as though God has caused you to believe and you did nothing to become a believer.” Based on what I see in the concordance, it includes the idea of allowing yourself to be persuaded of something. And as a result, you place your confidence and your faith in it. The word "believe" is used in a way that means that we allow ourselves to be convinced of the truth, to be convinced that Jesus is the truth.
And the opposite of this would be to refuse to believe the truth that we have heard and that we know deep down in our hearts. (Which is why no one will have an excuse – Romans 1:20 – because God has made Himself clear to all, in His creation, and we all know deep down that there is a God.)
When we turn to God, He turns to us. When we seek Him with all our heart, we will find Him. When we call out to Him, He hears us and responds. Over and over again in the Bible, we see how God turns to us when we reach out to Him.
But He lets us decide to reach or not reach.
And if we choose to reach for Him – to turn to Him, believe in Him, choose to put our faith in Him, and let His saving love into our hearts – we are “included in Christ,” becoming one of the chosen ones. And if we do not turn to Him, it is our own fault. We have chosen separation from Him, and we will get what we wanted eternally.
The thing is, His Will will still be done. His ultimate Will is to be surrounded by those who love and choose Him for all of eternity. And He will have a group of people with Him in heaven. But it’s up to us if we are part of that group or not.
In fact, if you look at Ephesians 2:1-2 and 5:6, we see what causes us to be condemned: disobedience. (Also known as “unbelief,” which we looked at in the “Does Romans Teach Predestination?” post.)
“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.” (Ephesians 2:1-2)
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 5:6)
In the concordance, this “disobedience” implies the idea of not allowing yourself to believe something or to be persuaded by it. Instead of being persuaded by it, you deliberately and stubbornly refuse it or reject it, such as refusing God and His Truth. You choose to not believe. It is not that God made them to be disobedient and to not believe, but that they chose it by refusing to be persuaded by the truth. This also places the responsibility on man to choose to believe or to choose to resist.
And for those who do resist, they lose sensitivity to God and may end up with a permanent hardness of heart.
“They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)
The people hardened themselves, lost sensitivity to God and became ignorant, and gave themselves over to sensuality. And actually, the word in the concordance is not “hardening” of heart but “blindness” of heart. And blindness in this passage involves the idea of being callous toward something. And it comes from a word which is used of the Israelites who deliberately refused God’s ways and His Will. And “ignorance” is not just “not knowing” or “being unaware.” It is a deliberate, willful decision to be blind. Refusing God’s way. Willful ignorance.
This is basically saying, "They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because they have willingly chosen to be blind, due to their callous refusal of God's Will and way."
Once again, the decision to believe or not believe lies with mankind. We choose to either submit to the truth or to be blind to it!
And that’s why we can justly be held accountable for our unbelief. Because if we are resistant, it's because we chose to be, chose to harden our hearts to God’s message.
In the post “Does Romans Teach Predestination?”, we learned how when God hardens hearts – such as Pharaoh’s – it is (generally) retribution. It is a punishment which is the result of first hardening our own hearts and refusing to be persuaded of God’s truth, as Pharaoh did for the first several plagues. God gave Pharaoh the choice (in the first several plagues) to harden his own heart or to yield to God. And Pharaoh chose to be hardened, to resist God. And then eventually, God made it permanent. It’s the same thing here.
But make no mistake, God set Pharaoh up
However (not to confuse you), I do think it was part of God’s plan for Pharaoh’s heart to be hard because it was how the Israelites were going to be released and how God would gain glory for Himself through the magnificent wonders that He performed in Egypt.
However (and this is critical), He did not override Pharaoh’s free-will to do this - not until the later plagues when God gave him over to his hardness, strengthening the choice that Pharaoh had already made.
God didn’t create Pharaoh’s hard heart, but He did give him the opportunity to harden it himself. Basically, God set it up.
First, He made sure to give the role of Pharaoh to a person who He knew would harden his heart.
“But I [God] have raised you [Pharaoh] up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)
God gave Pharaoh’s throne to a person who He knew would choose to reject His instructions, giving Him the chance to display His miracles and to show His power and gain glory.
And then He set before Pharaoh the choice: to listen to Him or to rebel against Him. And Pharaoh chose. But he chose what God knew all along he was going to choose.
While God did not cause Pharaoh to rebel against Him and to harden his heart, He set it up by putting that particular man on the throne and giving him the opportunity to harden his heart by his own choice. And then God incorporated it into His plans.
If you notice the first several plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the wonders that Moses and Aaron performed.
Now, God could have started with huge plagues that could not be duplicated, but He started instead with ones that could be.
I think it’s because God knew that seeing that the magicians could duplicate the miracles would cause Pharaoh to deny that God’s hand was in it. God set Pharaoh up to make a choice, to believe or not believe. And in a way, God made it easy for Pharaoh to not believe – to harden his heart – by performing easily-duplicated miracles at first. But God did not force Pharaoh to not believe, to harden his own heart. God just gave him the chance to do it, to be the man that Pharaoh willingly decided to be. And then God used it to fulfill His purposes.
It’s somewhat like a parent leaving a doughnut out on the counter to see if their child would steal it. And then, when they see the child later with powdered sugar all over their face, they ask him, “Did you eat the doughnut without asking?” The parent gave the child the chance to steal or to not steal, but they did not make the child steal. And then the parent gave the child the chance to lie or to tell the truth. And although they might know full-well that the child will lie, the parents did not force the child to lie. The child chose to be deceiving; the parents just gave him the opportunity to do what he was going to do. And then the parents can fairly punish the child for choosing to lie, even though the parent basically created the opportunity for him to lie.
God presented Pharaoh with a choice. And He knew what Pharaoh would choose to do. And He weaved it into His plans. So while God did force Pharaoh to make a decision by presenting him with two options – “believe in Me or harden your heart” - He did not force him to choose one or the other. Pharaoh willingly chose to harden his heart. And God used it.
God has His ways of working either with mankind’s cooperation or without it, of incorporating both into His plan and His purposes. Yet He does not cause us to be who we are. He just gives us the room and the opportunity to be who we are and to make our decisions. So if we are wicked, rebellious, and disobedient, it’s because that is what we wanted to be. And we can be justly held accountable for it.
God does not cause us to sin
James 1:13-15: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
God does not tempt us or encourage us to sin, but He does bring us opportunities to decide if we will choose to sin or not. And if we do, it’s because it is what we were willing to do.
Here is one more example illustrating what I am talking about (from my “Controversial Predestination Verse” post). In Ezekiel 13 and 14, God is condemning false prophets. And He is talking about the idolatrous people who visit them. And God says this to Ezekiel: “For any one of the house of Israel . . . who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to inquire for himself of me, I the Lord will answer him myself . . . And if the prophet be deceived and speak a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people, Israel. And they shall bear their punishment – the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike-” (Ezekiel 14:7,9-10, RSV)
This might sound like God causes an innocent prophet to lie and causes an innocent person to believe that lie, and then He punishes them for it. But it’s not what it sounds like.
In this case, these are false prophets (Ezekiel 13) who have not been sent by the Lord. And the people who are inquiring of them have set up idols in their heart and their sins are blocking them from seeing clearly. These prophets and people have been unfaithful to the Lord and do not really want to hear what He has to say. They want to hear, believe, and spread lies. So basically, God gives them what they want. He gives the prophets opportunities to lie and spread lies, but He does not force them to lie or to be liars.
These prophets, by their own desires, are willing to believe lies and share lies. And the idolatrous people don’t want to hear the truth. They want to hear lies. God doesn’t make them believe a lie, He just hands them the lie through the willfully-lying prophets and then lets them believe it. Because that is what they want. And since they had already turned from God and were willing to believe lies, God could punish them. He follows our lead, what we are willing to do and believe.
Likewise, Pharaoh chose to be a hard-hearted person, resistant to God. God just gave him the opportunity to do it because He knew that He could use that hard-heartedness to perform wonders, bring glory to Himself, and get the people released. And since God did not cause Pharaoh to be the hard-hearted person he chose to be, God could punish him for it in the end, after He used it to accomplish His purposes.
Adam and Eve and the Fall
It’s like the Fall itself. God put the tree within reach of Adam and Eve, knowing that they would choose to eat from it eventually (as any of us would have done, given enough time in the garden of Eden).
Did He want them to sin? No!
Did He force them to sin? No!
But He did give them an opportunity to choose to sin. He did make it possible.
And He did this because His overall plan was to have people with Him in heaven, people who willingly chose to love Him. But in order to allow people to choose Him, He had to allow people to rebel against Him. In order to have the opportunity to be obedient, we have to have the opportunity to be disobedient.
And since He knew from the very beginning that we would disobey, He had a plan from the very beginning to redeem it all in the end, by sending Jesus to die for our sins and make amends, giving us the chance to again have the relationship with God that we were created for, that we ruined when we chose to rebel.
And what a great way to gain glory for Himself! To show Satan how people would still choose to love God, even though they don’t get to experience Him the way that Satan did.
Satan had it all. He was the most glorious creation, and yet he still rebelled against God. And now, God gets to say to him, “See, I will make people – who are made lower than the angels, who haven’t stood in My throne room, who haven’t talked with Me face-to-face, who weren’t created as perfect beings, who have ailing and dying bodies, and who have heartache and lots of trouble in their lives – and there will be those who will still willingly choose to love Me, believe in Me, and have faith in Me.”
I mean, look at what the whole “Job competition” was about: Would Job still choose God, even with all the tragedies? If God makes the decision for us, Satan could have simply said, “Well, God, this isn’t really a contest because Job had no real choice! You made him choose You!”
I think God is more glorified when we choose Him out of our own free-will than He would be by deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
How this affects us now
And I think this is how God generally works with us, too. He gives us opportunities to decide, to be who we are going to be, to rebel or to choose Him. And then He lets us choose, and He works it into His plan, for His purposes and His glory. And then since we have decided to be who we are, He can rightly punish us or reward us based on who we chose to be.
Does this make sense? It does to me.
And I think it cleanly ties together God’s pre-ordained plans for mankind and eternity, His sovereignty over all (how He can and does use our obedience or disobedience for His purposes), His love (how He says He loves us all, how Jesus died for us all, and how He wants all of us to come to salvation in Him), and His justness (how He fairly determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – by letting us choose and by letting us face the consequences of our choice). We go to hell if we chose to reject Him or to heaven if we choose to accept Him. And since He’s made salvation available to all and possible for all - putting the choice in our hands - no one will be able to say “God is not fair! He did not give me a chance!”
Ephesians 1:18: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”
According to the concordance, this word “called” is along the lines of being invited, especially when it is talking about the invitation that God gives us to accept His offer of salvation. Look even at what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 22 - the guests were invited to the banquet but refused to come.
The more I read and the more deeply I dig, the more I believe that it is God’s desire and plan to offer and to invite, but that He leaves the choice up to us. And while He does force us to make a decision to sin or to not sin, to accept Him or reject Him, He does not force which decision we make. It is ours! And we will fairly reap the consequences of it!
I like the way that Tony Evans describes salvation in his book Totally Saved, which I will paraphrase here. He likens it to someone paying for a refreshing drink for everyone in a hot, stuffy room. The price has been paid and the drinks have been set out. They are available for all to accept. And if someone doesn’t get a drink, it’s because they chose to not accept the free drink that was made available to them.
Yet God, wanting to make sure that at least some would take the drink, specifically picks out some people to pursue more passionately and to reveal Himself to in a more dynamic way. He strongly appeals to them and encourages them to take the drink that He paid for, thus making them more aware of their thirst for Him and more willing to accept it. And these people are the “elect,” according to Evans. Yet God did not override their free-will. He just appealed to them more strongly than to others. But, most importantly, the drink is still bought for all and available to all. And God has made this known to all so that everyone has a chance to accept it.
This is the best way to view it, I think. While some might have been pursued more strongly, they still had to choose to turn to God. Yet even if that’s the case, salvation is still available to all. The price has been paid for all sins.
And if we do not accept God’s payment on our behalf, it’s because we did not want it and were unwilling to accept it. But it all comes back to our willingness to accept the gifts that God alone made possible and available and that He planned from the very beginning. This is God’s predetermined plan working hand-in-hand with free-will, man’s responsibility to respond to the Gospel call.
The Holy Spirit
But, you might wonder, isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people and draw them to God? Isn’t there a verse about Him opening people’s minds so that they can understand God’s truth? So if He doesn’t draw someone and doesn’t open their minds, then they cannot become saved? Isn’t it His job to save people?
Yes and no.
I used to think this was the case. That the Holy Spirit was the reason any of us could be saved. And that if He didn’t open your eyes, you would not be able to come to God. So basically, the Holy Spirit decided who to “enlighten” and who to leave ignorant of God. And if we wanted someone to become a Christian, we would have to pray, “Lord, make so-and-so become a Christian.” Because it’s all up to Him, right?
But as I have learned more over the years, I now see it just a touch differently.
Yes, the Holy Sprit’s job is to convict the world of sin.
“When he [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:” (John 16:8)
But I do not think this means that He only convicts some people. I think when it says “the world,” it means that He convicts everyone of their sin. I believe that we all understand deep down that we are sinful and that there is a God and that we need Him. And I believe the Holy Spirit is the one that makes this knowledge clear and obvious. He convicts the world of its sin. But it is our job to respond to that conviction. And many do not. Many ignore His conviction.
“ ... They were broken off because of unbelief ... And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in ... ” (Romans 11:20,23)
“... They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10)
His job is to convict the world and to make the knowledge of God and salvation possible for all. But He does not force people to be saved. That is not His role. The Holy Spirit’s job is to call people, not to force them to pick up the phone and respond.
[That is His job when it comes to unbelievers, to the world: to convict them and make them aware of their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. But then the rest of His role has to do specifically with believers, with those who have chosen to respond to the call placed on their hearts.]
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38)
Those who believe in predestination (Calvinists) say that we cannot come to God on our own because we are “dead people.” We cannot come to Him until and unless the Holy Spirit first comes to us and illuminates our heart, wakes us from the dead, and causes us to have the faith to believe. (And of course, they say that this promise is only for those God has pre-chosen for salvation. But I believe that, yes, faith is a gift, but it's not "forced" on us. It is up to us to accept it or reject it.) But this verse above shows us that repentance comes first. It's not that we get the Holy Spirit in order to repent. It's that we repent in order to get the Holy Spirit.
“This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live ...’” (Amos 5:4)
What God is saying is “Seek Me and you will find life.”
And who is God talking to here? Well, obviously if they haven’t yet found life in Him then He is talking to “dead people.” He is telling “dead people” to seek Him. People who say it’s predestination usually claim that “dead people can’t seek, which is why God has to be the one to cause us to desire Him, seek Him, and believe in Him.” But I think this verse shows us that God does indeed expect “dead people” to seek Him.
The thing is, the Bible says that we are dead in our sins. We are spiritually dead, which means separated from Christ, on our way to hell, and unable to save ourselves. But our brains are not dead. We can still think and reason and notice that God is missing in our lives and feel the call of God. In response to the conviction of sin that the Holy Spirit gives the world, we can choose to see our broken condition and to turn to Jesus for the forgiveness that He offers . . . and then the Holy Spirit comes to us. After we have chosen to repent and be baptized in Jesus.
Likewise, as we already saw, Ephesians 1:13 says “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, ...”
They heard the Word and believed it ... and then they were given the Holy Spirit.
Hear, believe, repent (respond to the conviction of sin that the Holy Spirit gives “the world”), and be baptized. He does not force us to be saved, but He does convict us of our sin and then enter our hearts when we choose to respond to His call by repenting of our sins and turning to God. And then the Holy Spirit comes to live inside us and guide us as believers.
But doesn’t the next verse (Acts 2:39) after the "repent and be baptized" verse say that the promise of the Holy Spirit is “for all whom the Lord our God will call”? Doesn’t that mean that God calls only some, pre-chosen people and gives only them the Holy Spirit?
I can see how it can be read that way. But I do not think it means that He will only call to some, but that the Holy Spirit has been promised to any and all who will respond to the call and "repent and be baptized." The promise is for everyone, but we have to accept it.
I think other verses make it clear that the call is available for all, that Jesus’ death paid the price for all sins but that only those who want to accept that sacrificial payment will be saved.
“and I [Jesus], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32)
“Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, emphasis added)
“[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
“ ... so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ death] was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) [Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:6, “who gave himself as a ransom for all men...”]
“... that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (1 Timothy 4:10 - Jesus's death bought salvation for all men, but only those who believe, who accept it, will acquire it.)
" ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . ." (Acts 16:30-31)
“if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.... ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-10, 13)
God calls us all and offers salvation to all. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of its sinfulness. But only those who respond - who recognize that they are sinners in need of a Savior and who call on Him in repentance - will be saved. But the call is available for all. Jesus’s death was a ransom for all men. He draws all people to Him (not forcing them to come to Him, but bidding them to come to Him, inviting them), but we have to respond to Him in order to be saved. He does not make that decision for us. We are responsible for our decision to turn to Him or away from Him!
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-” (John 1:12)
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,” (Eph. 1:13)
When we repent and turn to God, the Holy Spirit is given to us. And His job is to guide us, comfort us, lead us in wisdom, give us spiritual gifts, intercede in prayer for us, enlighten our minds, open our eyes to God’s truth more and more, give us strength and help and boldness when we need it, etc. Basically, His job is to help believers grow in Christ and live the Christian life, not to make people become Christians. (1 Cor. 12:7-11, John 14, Matt 10:19-20, Romans 8:26-27, Gal. 5:22-23)
And yes, there is a verse about “opening people’s minds.” But it’s not about the Holy Spirit opening an unbeliever’s mind to make him become a Christian. It’s about Jesus opening the minds of believers – the disciples - to help them understand Scripture and what His death really meant.
“Then he opened their minds so that they [the disciples] could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45)
Considering that God doesn’t make people become believers, I do not think it’s entirely effective to pray, “Lord, make so-and-so become a believer.” People have the responsibility to respond to His call for themselves. And if they do not, it’s not God’s fault. He called to all and made salvation available to all.
But we can pray for the best conditions possible for someone to realize their need for Jesus.
So instead of praying, “Lord, I pray that it’s Your Will to save so-and-so” (after all, I think it is His Will to save everyone, but He lets us decide), I have started to pray this way: “Lord, I pray that You would continue to pour out Your love, grace, and mercy upon so-and-so. Do not hand them over to the hardness of their heart. Continue to pursue them and put Your message of salvation directly in their paths. Help them see and hear Your truth. Open their eyes to their need for You and their need to make a decision about You. And surround them with Your heavenly angels to protect them from evil, to keep evil from interfering with their ability to see Your truth and to hear Your call on their hearts.”
I did this once for a friend. I prayed over and over that God would put the Truth clearly in her path and protect her from the diversions of Satan. And one day, she called to tell me that while she was in the stall in a public restroom, she looked down on the floor and there was a pamphlet explaining the way to salvation. She came to Christ not long after. God works in mysterious – and amusing – ways!
People who say that it’s “predestination” usually do so to defend God’s sovereignty, the fact that He has supreme power. They believe that if we had a choice then He would not really be sovereign and in-control of everything. And they think it means that He gets less glory somehow.
But if God is really all-powerful and able to do anything He wants to do, wouldn't that include being able to make people with free-will if that's the way He wants it to be, for His purposes and His glory? I believe that allowing us to have the ability to choose does not make Him any less sovereign or less in-control. It’s just that this is the way He wanted it, the way He set it up. And since He is in control, He can decide to do it this way. And I think it is more glorifying to God to have someone willingly choose to love Him than to be forced to. That is incredibly glorifying!
And personally, I think the Calvinist teaching that God chooses to put people in hell with no decision from them and with no chance for them to be saved seriously calls into question God’s love and justness. It sheds doubt on if God is really a God of love, wanting all people to come to Him and wanting none to perish. It sheds doubt on if He is really a God of forgiveness, if He really is willing to forgive anyone and if Jesus’ death really did pay for all sins. It sheds doubt on if He is a just God, because a just God wouldn’t make people sin and rebel and then punish them for something they had no control over, would He? (What's the Calvinist's brilliant response to this? "Who are you to question God? God can do whatever He wants, can't He? We don't have to understand it; we just have to accept it!") And it might ruin any assurance of salvation that we have, because we might feel like maybe we just convinced ourselves all along that we were saved. But what if we aren’t one of the “pre-chosen ones”? What if we just think we are saved but God didn’t really pick us? In this case, being saved is not much more than random luck, something we have no influence over.
But to believe that it is mankind’s responsibility to accept or reject God’s gracious, free gifts of forgiveness, love, faith, grace, and salvation makes it all much clearer. God is a God of love, wanting all people to come to Him and offering salvation for all. He has made it possible. He has made the way and He has shown us what it is: faith in Jesus, acceptance of His sacrificial death to pay the price for our sins, thereby bridging the gap between us and God. And if we have chosen to repent and to believe in Him then we can be assured that we are saved. Because that is how God has designed it. It is not random luck or just something that happens to us. We decide to repent and believe!
“ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved ...” (Acts 16:30-31)
“if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.... ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-10, 13, emphasis added)
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-” (John 1:12)
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,” (Eph. 1:13)
And if we resist His calls, His invitation to believe in Him and accept salvation, then we have chosen to remain separated from Him. And eternally, this is called ‘hell.’ So if we end up there, it is our choice. And it is fair. And God is a just God, not giving out punishments that are not deserved. He is simply giving us what we want – life with Him or without Him.
The older I have gotten and the more I have read, the more convinced of this I have become! And the more it makes sense!
And the more I learn about how God offers His wonderful free gifts for us to reach out and grab ... about how He has paid the price for all sins and has made salvation possible for all people ... about how, in His wisdom, He can incorporate obedience and willful disobedience into His plan ... about how He patiently and lovingly calls to all of us and wants a relationship with each and every one of us ... and about how He leaves it up to us, letting us reject Him and His gracious love and forgiveness, the more humbled and in awe of Him I am! And the more I want to know Him and be near to Him. He is a good, loving, just, and sovereign Father!
For more on this:
I broke the above four large posts up into smaller posts and put them in a series, starting with "Is Our Eternity Decided For Us?" (follow the links at the end to the next post in the series).