“. . . God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30)
Of all the verses that are part of the “predestination debate,” this has got to be one of the most confusing, controversial ones. At first reading, it seems like it could be saying that God “calls certain people to heaven according to His purpose,” that He predestines people to go to heaven or hell and we don’t really have a choice in the matter because it has been decided for us from the very beginning.
But after reading through it over and over again and cross-referencing it with other verses, I have come to read it differently. Of course, I don’t claim to have this all figured out. This issue has been debated for many years by great theologians, and I do not think I am the one to have sorted it all out. These are just my thoughts on the matter. And I really do think there is a lot of biblical support that salvation is a choice – a matter of free-will - as opposed to the idea that God pre-decides everyone’s eternal home or that He only offers some people salvation and not others.
[The pre-destination/free-will/election question that I am trying to answer in this post is “Does God pre-decide eternal destinies (heaven or hell) for all of us, or does He allow all of us to make our own decision, or does He pre-choose some people to go to heaven but allow the rest to come to Him if they want to?” I do not have a problem with the last two ideas. I think that there is biblical support for both - whether it’s that we all have to decide for ourselves if we will respond to God’s call or not, or whether it’s that God pre-determines that some specific people will be saved but lets everyone else decide for themselves. God has a right to ensure the salvation of any specific person He wants to, for His purposes. So if He pre-chose, say, the apostle Paul or my neighbor for salvation but I was not pre-chosen and just simply had the opportunity for salvation, that is fine with me. What is important to me (and what I think is most biblical) is that salvation is at least made available to all.
What I have a problem with – and what I don’t think the Bible supports overall - is the idea that God pre-decides that some people will go to hell or that salvation is not made available for all. Of course, all people won’t choose God’s salvation, but I do think that it is clear that God calls to all people and that salvation is possible for all, even if it is that some are pre-chosen for heaven (which I don’t know if I believe and am not necessarily making a case for).
Even if there are a few specific people throughout history that have been pre-chosen for salvation, I believe that all the rest of us have the opportunity to make Jesus our Lord and Savior. (And this is what I talk about in this post.) And if we end up in hell, it is not because God assigned us a place there from the beginning, but because we chose to resist His call, His offer of salvation.]
Anyway, back to the Romans passage. The way I see it, “being called according to his purpose” doesn’t have to do with if He chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell. This passage isn’t about heaven or hell. It is about the path a believer takes after salvation. God’s plan and purpose was to call people to Him (to offer salvation, to have us love Him). And I believe He puts the call out there for everyone, but not everyone responds to Him. (In this passage, “call” is an invitation, not a compelling force.) So He is talking here about those who hear His call and respond. Of course, we couldn’t come to Him unless He called to us first. But for those who do respond and choose Him, He promises to work for their good.
The thing is, I don’t think that “those God foreknew he also predestined” means that we were predestined to be believers or not, but that those who He knew would believe in Him were predestined to become more and more like Jesus. This passage isn’t about calling only some people to believe or forcing them to believe or creating them to believe, predestining them for heaven. It’s about what happens to those who He “knows.” It’s about how they are predestined to reflect Jesus more and more.
And who are those He “knows”?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, italics are mine)
Ultimately, there are two groups of people: those Jesus knows and those He does not know. The ones He knows are the ones who have chosen Him as Lord and Savior, who have chosen to do the will of the Father. All the rest, He does not know, even if they claim to know Him and do His work on earth.
From the beginning of time, God knows who was going to choose Jesus as Lord and Savior. From the beginning, He “knows” those believers but doesn’t “know” unbelievers. So when the Romans 8 passage talks about those “God foreknew,” it’s talking specifically about those who will eventually become genuine believers, those who do His Will. And true believers are destined to become more and more like Christ. He knows them from the beginning. He calls them to be more like Jesus. He justifies them through Jesus. He will show His glory through them. And they will reach glory in the end. This whole chapter (Romans 8) is not about defining who goes to heaven and who goes to hell or about saying that some people have no chance of salvation, but it is about the life of a believer, to encourage them during trials and to instruct them about living in the Spirit.
I think this “foreknowing” is the key to understanding this whole predestination issue. And I think it explains verses like Acts 13:48: “. . . and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”
At first glance, it sounds like we are randomly appointed by God to have eternal life or to not. But the question is, How are we appointed to eternal life? Is it completely by God’s choice or is there some human responsibility/response involved?
The Acts verse does not explain how God decides who to appoint to eternal life and who to not. But I think the “those God foreknew” verse does. He foreknows those who will believe. And those who He foreknows as true believers are appointed to eternal life and predestined to become more and more like Jesus.
We humans even “appoint” people to an office and “ordain” ministers (“ordained” is the word used in place of “appointed” in some Bible translations of Acts 13:48). Yet we don’t randomly pick these people. They have most likely shown an interest in that position first and made their interest known. Our “appointing them” or “ordaining them” is a response to their willingness to be in that office or position. This is how I believe God works, too. It all comes back to His foreknowledge of if we will respond to His call and believe in Him, if we will do “the will of the Father.” And since He sees the end from the very beginning, He already knows us. We are already His people in His eyes.
Are we forced to be obedient?
Who are those who “do the will of the Father”? Are we created to either be obedient to His Will or to be disobedient to His Will? Or do we have the free-will to decide if we will obey or not?
I think we do. I think the whole Bible attests to this, from the Fall . . . to the fact that God lays out “the blessings path" and "the curses path” for the Israelites to choose between . . . to the many calls to “obey” and “choose whom we will serve.” I strongly believe that God allows people to choose to do things His way or to disobey and rebel. He does not cause us to be one way or the other, but He can and does use us as we are to accomplish His overall purposes. He can use someone who willingly listens to Him and obeys. And He can use someone who is unwilling to listen and obey.
Consider for a moment Isaiah 10 as an example. In verse 5, God calls Assyria the “rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!” And God uses Assyria to punish His people who have turned to idols. And then in verse 12, He says that when it is finished, He will punish Assyria for their haughtiness and pride.
I used to struggle with this idea, thinking that God caused a nation to attack another, and then He turned around and punished them for attacking His people. But as I have studied this issue more and God’s character more, I have come to see it as more about “using them as they are” than about “causing them to be who they are.” I think it’s not that He caused Assyria to be a certain way and forced them to do what they did. It’s that He used them as they were for His purposes.
He looked ahead and knew what that country was going to be like, and so He saw how they could be used to accomplish His purposes. And so He took them as they were (not forcing them to be the way they were) and worked it into His plan to discipline Jerusalem. And then, since the Assyrians were responsible for the way they were, for the kind of people and nation they had become, God could rightly punish them after He had used them to accomplish His purposes.
Imagine, as an imperfect illustration, an undercover sting by police. Let’s say that they need to get Big Man X. And they know the best way to get Big Man X is to use Little Man Y, his crummy toady. And so they work out a plan that uses Little Man Y to lead them to Big Man X, though Little Man Y is unaware that he is being used to mete out justice. And when the plan works, they arrest Big Man X and Little Man Y.
Now, they didn’t cause Little Man Y to be the way he was, they didn’t force him to be a criminal and do illegal things, they just used what he was to their advantage and to administer justice. And so he could be fairly punished after being used to catch Big Man X. This, to me, seems to be the best way to view it because it factors in God’s justness and sovereignty and our free-will.
The point is, God doesn’t create us to be obedient or disobedient, but He can and does use us as we are to accomplish His purposes. Yet, as the verses says, only those who “do the will of the Father” – who willingly do it – will get into heaven.
And so the question remains, “Who are those who ‘do the will of the Father’?”
I think it all comes back to a single choice: the decision to love God or not. Our decision to obey – to willingly do His Will - is tied to our decision to love Him.
Love and Obedience
“This is love for God: to obey his commands. . . .” (1 John 5:3)
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. . . . He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.” (John 14:15,24)
Those who obey God are not forced to; they obey because they love Him. And they love Him because they choose to love Him. They are responding out of their free-will to His love and to the truth that He impresses on their hearts. It is an act of the will, a choice: love God or love the world, worship God or worship Self/Satan. Love is not love if it’s not the voluntary choice of a willing heart.
God calls us to love Him, but does not force us to love Him. God loves us first so that we can respond to Him in love, but He does not force us to love Him or prevent us from doing so. He leaves that choice up to us. And He foreknows those of us who will choose to love Him and who will be obedient to Him, and He predestines us for eternal life and to become more and more like Jesus.
“But the man who loves God is known by God.” (1 Cor. 8:3)
It all comes back to if we will love Him or not. That determines if He foreknows us or does not know us, if we are destined for heaven or for hell. I believe He does not appoint us to heaven or hell based on nothing in particular but on what He knows our response to Him will be.
Even Acts 13:46 - before the verse about being “appointed for eternal life” - talks about our responsibility in accepting or rejecting the word of God. Paul and Barnabas tell the Jews that because they rejected God’s word, it was given to the Gentiles. The Jews were responsible for rejecting or accepting God’s word, as are we. And it determines our eternal destinies.
As Jesus says, in John 7:17, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will. . .” Once again, there is a human choice and responsibility about whether or not we do God’s will, whether or not He knows us or doesn’t.
“ ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this . . . ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’’ ” (Mark 12:28-30)
A command is meant to be obeyed. And obedience is an act of the will. We can choose to obey or disobey. We can choose to love God or not.
“ ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ ” (Matthew 23:37, italics are mine)
Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem. He longs for them to respond to His love, to His desire to gather them unto Himself. Yet, they were not willing! They were resistant. They had the chance, the offer, the ability to respond to His love and call, but they refused to. Responding to Him is a choice. Loving Him is a choice.
Even though the Romans passage has been used to say that God predestines some of us for heaven and some for hell, I really don’t think it says that at all. Tying all these verses together shows me that we do have a choice about heaven or hell, in choosing or not choosing God. It all comes back to the opportunity and the responsibility we have to respond to His love. It all comes back to our free-will right to decide if we will call Him Lord and Savior or not. If we will love Him or not. If we are willing to be gathered to Him or if we are not willing.
Love is a choice. And if we choose to love Him, He foreknows us and calls to us. (The call is available to all, but I believe it’s talking here about those who respond to the call). And we will “do the will of the Father,” and we are pre-destined to become more and more like Christ, and He will justify and glorify us. But it all comes back to our willingness to love Him. And we all have the opportunity to choose to love Him.
Drawn to God
Of course, as John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the Father who sent me draws him. . .” And according to Ephesians 2:8-9, faith is not something we create in ourselves, but it is a “gift of God.”
I do not think this is saying that God only draws certain people to Him or that He only gives the gift of faith to certain, pre-determined people. I think it is saying that the only reason any of us can come to Him is because He makes it possible. He draws us to Him. If He had wanted to stay hidden, He could have. And we would have never been able to find Him on our own. But He wants us to know Him, so He draws mankind to Him. Yet we can resist His call, if we choose to.
I know there is debate about this word: draw. Because in other verses, it is used to mean “forcibly dragged,” like Paul and Silas were being forcibly dragged before the rulers (Acts 16:19). But does this use of “draw” in John 6:44 mean we are forcibly pulled to God, unable to resist, as Paul and Silas could not resist being dragged by the people? Or is it simply referring to the fact that we are drawn to God because He places within mankind a desire to come to Him? That the force which pulls mankind to Him originates from outside of us, just as the force which dragged Paul and Silas to the rulers originated from outside of them? We didn't create the desire to find God, but we respond to the desire that He created in mankind, to the call that He gives us. A call that is available to all.
The same Greek word for “draw” in John 6:44 is also used in John 12:32, “and I [Jesus], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” Either this verse means that we will all be forced to stand before Him one day, like at the judgment seat, or it is talking about salvation.
If it is the first one then it could definitely mean that we are “forcibly drawn to Him” because we will not be able to escape the judgment seat. We will all have to face Him one day, whether we want to or not.
But if it is about salvation (which I think it is, because this passage is about His imminent death and what will happen after it, the salvation it makes possible) then it cannot mean “forcibly pulled to Him, dragged to Him, unable to resist.” Because He says He will draw all men to Himself. So if “draw” means that we are under an irresistible force to come to God then this verse would mean that all men would be drawn to God, unable to resist Him. All men would become believers. Yet all men obviously are not believers. Once again, I do not think it means we can’t resist His call, just that we cannot come to Him without it, without Him first basically planting the desire in our hearts, calling to our hearts.
I think this word “draw” in John 6:44 ultimately refers to the fact that the desire to know God comes from outside of us, from God. It does not originate from within us. We are not forced to choose Him or prevented from doing so, but we could not come to Him unless He made it possible, unless He drew us. And we could never create faith in ourselves. It does not mean we are forced to have faith or prevented from doing so, just that faith is only possible because God made it possible. Faith is a gift that can be accepted or rejected. But we would never have been able to accept the gift of faith unless God offered it. And it is offered to all. It is just up to us if we will accept it or not.
Left to ourselves - without God initiating a desire in our hearts and calling to us and making Himself known and making it possible to find Him - we would never have known to desire Him or desired to know Him. Left to ourselves, we would be completely ignorant that there even was a God. But God wants to be found and makes it possible for us to find Him. We have an ache in our hearts, a desire to find Him, because He wants us to find Him. He wants us to seek!
Can dead people seek?
“But wait,” you might ask, “doesn’t Romans 3:11 say that ‘There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God’? If we are ‘dead people’ before being saved, how can we seek Him, because dead people can’t seek?”
I do not think this passage is saying that we cannot seek, as though it were impossible. It is a passage lamenting the general condition of people, that we do not naturally seek God and righteousness. We turn away from God so that we can do wrong and please ourselves. It is the condition that a world without God is in. A sinful, self-serving condition.
But God expects us to realize that something is missing. He expects us to notice that “God-shaped hole” in our heart, to see Him in His creation, to hear His call, and to seek after Him. And He can expect this of us because we are not physically dead, just spiritually dead. Separated from Him. Our brain still functions and we can sense that something is missing in our selfish, self-serving, me-centered lives. And He reveals enough of Himself in this world that we can sense that He is real and that He is the only thing that will fill that hole, that ache for something more. (This is why He can hold us accountable for not seeking Him, because He reveals enough of Himself in His creation that we all know He is real.)
“This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live . . .’” (Amos 5:4)
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
“Those who know Your name will trust in You, for You, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek You.” (Psalm 9:10)
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
God calls to us and places within mankind the desire to find Him, the empty hole that only He can fill. But as we saw above, I do not think this means it is an irresistible force, that God forcibly drags us to Him. But He woos us, invites us. He makes Himself known to us and then expects us to seek and find Him.
But what about verses like John 12:39-40 that make it sound like God hardens the hearts of whomever He desires, for His purposes?
“For this reason, they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them.’”
I used to wonder about this one too, thinking it meant that God hardened hearts based on His own whims, that maybe He did indeed give some people no chance to believe in Him. But then it helped me to look back a couple verses.
“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. . . . For this reason, they could not believe.” (John 12:37, 39)
As I now see it, God did not just decide to harden their hearts for no reason. They had a chance – the best chance – to believe in Him, and they did not. "Would not" led to "could not." It’s not that they didn’t believe because God hardened their hearts; it’s that God hardened their hearts because they did not believe.
This also happens with Pharaoh during the plagues. Pharaoh hardened his own heart and wouldn’t listen during the first several plagues in Exodus. But it wasn’t until the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that God hardened his heart. Basically, God handed him over to the hardness of his heart. So maybe it’s not that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Pharaoh’s will in order to accomplish His purposes. Maybe it’s that God knew who would harden his own heart and He made him Pharaoh in order to accomplish His purposes.
While I think that God has every right to assign people a place in heaven or hell based on His preference (and maybe there have been select individuals throughout history that God has done this with), I do not think that is the way He generally works. I think it comes down not to God’s choice to make us unbelievers or believers, but it comes down to whether or not we are willing to believe.
Besides, 1 Corinthians 4:4 tells us who blinds the hearts of people so that they cannot believe. And in general, it’s not God.
“The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Satan blinds. But Jesus opens the eyes of anyone who turns to Him.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:16)
What about verses that talk about God “opening minds and hearts”? Doesn’t that sound like He causes them to believe in Him, which also means that if He doesn’t open their hearts and minds then they cannot believe in Him?
Acts 16:14: “. . . The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
Luke 24:45: “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”
As I was contemplating the whole “pre-destination vs. free-will” thing, I would run across verses like these. And it would make me really pause and contemplate, wondering if I really am understanding all of this wrong. Maybe God really does decide who believes and who won’t believe, because if He doesn’t open your mind and heart then you have no chance of believing. Do you?
So how does He decide whose mind/heart to open and whose to not? Is it really His own preference, with no responsibility or influence on our part? Are we completely at the mercy of His decision of who to enlighten and who to not?
But as I read these verses again and prayed for eyes to see, I began to see something else. God doesn’t arbitrarily decide whose minds and hearts to open, with no influence from us. He opens the hearts and minds of those who already believe or who show a willingness to believe.
Go back a few words in Acts 16:14: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia . . . who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” (Emphasis is mine.) The Lord didn’t open her heart to believe, for she already chose to believe in and worship God. He just opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message, whatever that means in this case (possibly about being baptized).
And in Luke 24:45, He wasn’t opening the minds of unbelievers so that they could believe in Him. He was opening the minds of the disciples, of those who already believed in Him, so that they could understand the Scriptures and what His death meant. Big difference.
I think, in general, this is like the “God hardens the hearts of those who refuse to believe” principle above. But in this case, He opens the hearts and minds of those who are already willing to believe. Basically, He follows their lead. If they harden their hearts and refuse to believe, He solidifies their decision. And if they are willing to believe and are seeking Him, He opens hearts and minds so that they can understand more about Him and faith and Scripture.
Let’s look at two more verses. “On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” (Acts 18:27, emphasis is mine.) This could sound like God, in His grace, caused specific people to believe. But instead, couldn’t it be saying that, in general, we can believe in Him only because of His grace, because He chose to create us, to make Himself known, to allow us to find Him, to die for our sins, to offer us the gift of salvation/faith, and to make it possible for us to accept that gift? For anyone who chooses to believe in Him and to accept the gift of faith and salvation, we can say that “by grace they believed.” And this grace is available to all.
“ . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” (Romans 3:23-25) This doesn’t mean that all humans are automatically justified by His grace and declared righteous and, therefore, headed to heaven. Nor does it mean that only some are justified and offered salvation.
But it does mean God already paid the penalty for all of our sins, through Jesus' sacrifical death. Everyone's "ticket to heaven" is paid for. His saving grace is for all people, to wipe our sins away - if we choose to accept this saving grace and acknowledge Him our Lord and Savior.
All have sinned and all who believe in Jesus will be justified. Salvation comes when God’s grace, mercy, revealing of Himself, and allowing Himself to be found by us works hand-in-hand with our willingness to seek and to find and to believe.
Chosen for salvation?
How about verses that talk about God choosing people to be saved?
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.”
This could definitely sound like God hand-picked who would believe and who wouldn’t. And it would sound especially so if the verse simply said, “God chose you to be saved!” But I wonder if this verse is not saying that God chose specifically who to save . . . but that God chose to save people (mankind) through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through our belief in Jesus. That God invites (“calls”) the people to believe the Gospel and, thereby, to be sanctified by the Spirit. This seems to make more sense to me because there is such an emphasis in Scripture on our responsibility to believe, even in this verse. An emphasis on our responsibility to believe and to respond to God’s call would not make sense if our salvation was based solely on whether or not God pre-picked us to become believers.
There is also a verse in 1 Thess. 1:4 which says, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you . . .” The thing here is that it doesn’t say what they are chosen for. It doesn’t say they were chosen for salvation, just that they were chosen and that it was obvious they were chosen because “our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5) and that they were great examples to all around them because of their passionate commitment, in spite of “severe sufferings.”
So what were they chosen for? Salvation? I don’t think so. I think they were chosen to be godly examples to those around them, in spite of their difficult circumstances. Why else highlight their exceptional faithfulness and witness? I think it’s because Paul was referring to the shining example they were of what a believer should be in hard times.
. But if these verses are talking about being “chosen for salvation,” it could be that His foreknowledge about who would believe and respond is what He bases His “choosing” on. Imagine that you were going to assemble a team to build a house. And you thought about everyone you knew, about who would be willing to help and who wouldn’t. The people you chose to ask to be on your team would be based on your foreknowledge about their willingness to help.
Maybe this is how God chooses us, based on His foreknowledge of our willingness to believe in Him or not. This would not be a random choosing based on His preference or whims alone but based on our willingness to believe. And it is possible for all of us to believe because the knowledge of Him is given to all and Jesus’ death paid the price for all. And if we don’t believe, it is because we didn’t want to.
This is how I think it is, because it gracefully melds God’s sovereignty with mankind’s free-will and responsibility. And it best explains why God can rightly allow people to spend eternity in hell. He doesn’t unfairly send people there, giving them no chance at heaven. They had a choice in ending up there and are responsible for rejecting His call and for not being known by Him.
“He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess. 1:8) He does not “know” those who do not choose to know Him, who do not choose to love and obey Him. And to those He does not know, He will someday say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”
“. . . They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10) Those who perish do not do so because it was God’s Will for them to perish. They perish because they refused to love the truth. They chose falsehood instead. But they could have been saved had they chosen truth.
[Update: As I studied 2 Thess. 2:13 more (since it was still a little unsettling and unclear to me), I ran across something new which makes it clearer. At least for me. 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 that “God chose you to be among the first of those who believe in Jesus and who receive the Holy Spirit.”
Maybe all along, it’s not saying that God chose who to save from the beginning of time, but that He chose them to be the generation that would be the first of the believers, the first believers of the church’s history, after Jesus died and rose again and the Holy Spirit was sent to live in believers.
This makes it so much clearer to me. It’s not a verse on being pre-destined to be saved, but a verse on that generation being chosen to be the first to believe in Jesus, simply because their lifetime coincided with His coming. So much clearer! I tell ya, you can find the answers if you dig deep enough.]
But, you might be wondering, doesn’t the very next verse after 2 Thess. 2:10 say that God sends the people a delusion so that they will believe a lie? Doesn’t that mean that He causes them to not believe the truth?
Not exactly. To really understand this, you need to note the order that things happen. God doesn’t send the people a lie to make them not believe the truth. They don’t believe the truth and so He sends them a lie to confirm it, “so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth.” He confirms what they have already chosen to believe.
It’s like what I said earlier about God following our lead. If we have a heart to believe, He opens our eyes. If we choose to not believe, He hands us over to our unbelief. In this case (2 Thess. 2), it is talking about the Tribulation. And I think that will be a time when God draws a line in the sand and forces everyone to make their decision and to make it final. And sending a delusion is His way of finalizing the people’s decision to believe a lie. It's His way of separating those who want to believe the lie from those who want to believe the truth.
Here is one more example like that. 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 entices the prophets to share lies, but He does not force them to lie. They, 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 and 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.
We get what we want.
All-powerful and sovereign?
But if God is all-powerful and He wants people to be saved, surely He would force everyone to be saved, right? So if He hasn’t done this, it must mean that He is not all-powerful or that He is not very loving, right? And since He is in control of everything, doesn’t that mean that He does everything He wants and that everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen?
I think that this is where a lot of people go wrong. (And I used to think this, too, and it caused me a lot of confusion.) They assume that since God is all-powerful, He forces whatever is most important to Him, that He always forces His Will and His plans on people. And there can be no free-will if God is always exercising His all-powerfulness. And if God is all-powerful, He could surely force everyone to become believers. And then they think that since He hasn’t done that, it must mean He either is not all-powerful or He is not very loving.
But I think we are wrong to assume that He always forces whatever He wants.
Imagine a king. He is sovereign over his kingdom, can do whatever he wants, and is in control. But this doesn’t mean that he always does whatever he wants or that he controls every detail of everyone’s life. He has the power but doesn’t always exercise it. He has the control but doesn’t control every detail.
Just because God has the power doesn’t mean He always exercises it. Just because He is in control over everything doesn’t mean that He actively controls everything. Being “in control” does not mean that He always forces whatever He wants or that we are His puppets. It means that He could force whatever He wants and that He is sovereign over everything that happens. Everything that happens – whatever we do, whatever happens as a result of our decisions, whatever happens to us – is because He allows it to happen, not necessarily because He forces it to happen.
To be clear, I do believe that God has some over-arching plans for history and mankind that will happen and go according to His plan, such as creating a new heaven and earth, separating the sheep from the goats, having everyone eventually bend a knee and confess that Jesus is Lord, etc. These plans will happen regardless of us. But He doesn’t control the path everyone takes to get there, their every move and action. We are definitely on a pre-determined path for mankind, but how we walk that path is up to us. And it will greatly affect our eternity.
I think God invites us to follow Him on the path He wants us to take in life. He calls to us and asks us to obey and do things His way because He loves us. And He wants (and knows) what's best for us. But He doesn’t control our behavior and choices. He gives us the option of disobeying, of doing things our way. Yet His way is always the best and the one that He intends for us. (For more on this, go to the “Understanding God’s Will” series on this blog.)
Let’s look at a passage that illustrates this:
In Acts, Paul is headed to Rome as a prisoner on a ship when they come against a hurricane-like storm. And after many days at sea, Paul tells the discouraged, scared men, “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete, then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. . . . God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ . . .” (Acts 27:21-24)
And then a little later, when the sailors were trying to escape from the ship in the lifeboats, Paul tells them, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 27:31)
Obviously, God wanted to spare the men from having to go through this storm and the damage it would do, so He gave Paul the insight and wisdom to warn them. But they didn’t listen. And then, when they decided to sail from Crete anyway, God graciously decided that none of their lives would be lost in the storm. It was His Will that they all lived . . . but only if they stayed with the ship. Their actions and choices had an effect on whether or not they stayed safely inside God’s Will. He invited them to obey and to follow His plan. And if they didn’t, it was on their own heads. They had the ability and choice to obey or disobey; God did not force His Will and plans on them.
I think that God voluntarily holds back His power and control. He doesn’t force people to do whatever He wants them to do. He doesn’t force us to obey or disobey, to believe or not believe. He allows us a certain amount of freedom, the ability to make decisions for ourselves and to choose to disobey or obey, even if He has the power to force whatever He wants.
We have great power over worms that we see on the sidewalk. We could squash them in a moment or move them out of the sun and onto the grass. Yet just because we can doesn’t mean we always do. And just because we don’t doesn’t mean that we didn’t have the power or that we don’t care about their plight. (A small, pathetic illustration to show my point.) We hold back our power over the worms. We give them room to do their thing, even though we could do whatever we wanted with them. And I think God does this with us. The big difference, though, is that Jesus was willing to die so that we worms could be saved. That’s how important we are to Him.
Would a loving God condemn people to hell?
So if God is all-loving, why does He then condemn people to hell?
The problem with this question is the question itself. “Why does God condemn people to hell?” When we ask it this way, it sounds like God deliberately removes some people from the bus to heaven and puts them on the bus to hell (or He predestines them for hell), for one reason or other, such as for punishment or to show off His sense of justice or to highlight His grace and love to those being saved.
Of course, eternal judgment does has something to do with His justice, and salvation does have to do with His love. But I do not think He “sends people to hell” to punish them or to show off His justness or to show those who are saved how loved and blessed they are by comparison.
I think we end up in hell not because He sends us there but because He allows us to make our own decision about if we want a relationship with Him or not. He allows us to choose heaven (life/eternity with Him) or hell (life/eternity without Him). He doesn’t exactly “send people to hell.” He reluctantly allows us to go there ourselves.
The thing is, we are all born on the path to hell, already separated from God. So He does not put any of us on the bus to hell. We are already on it. But He has been desperately calling to all of us – to any who will listen and believe - trying to get as many of us off of that path as He can. So He does not condemn people to hell in order to punish or to celebrate His love or justness; He simply allows us to stay on the path to hell if we choose to, if we do not accept His help off of that path. But His desire is to have all people come to Him, yet He does not force it. He knocks on the doors of hearts, but we have to open the door and let Him in.
[And actually, God did do something to demonstrate His justness, but it isn’t “sending people to hell.” And He did something to demonstrate His love, but it isn't "condemning some people to hell so that He can show those He saves how loved and blessed they are, by comparison."
No! To demonstrate His justness and His love, He sent Jesus to the cross to pay the penalty that mankind owes for our sins.
“God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished- he did it [sent Jesus to the cross for our sins] to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26)
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
By this demonstration of His justice and love – by having Jesus pay the penalty that we owed – we are now free to be justified, to have our sins wiped away in God’s eyes. If we let Jesus’ sacrificial death cover the penalty we owe. If we place our faith in Him.
And if not, then we choose to put our faith in ourselves and we will pay the penalty we owe, a penalty that is spiritual death. An eternity separated from God. Hell!
But always remember that it is because of our own resistant, unbelieving hearts that we end up in hell, not because of God’s justice. It is because of His justice and His love that we actually have the chance to be saved from hell. The penalty has already been paid. Will we accept it on our behalf?
And if I may point something else out, too. Sometimes, people who believe in predestination say that God loves everyone but that He shows His love differently to different people. He shows His love for the “elect” by pre-destining them for heaven. And He shows His love for those pre-destined for hell by caring for them while they are on earth.
But what did we just read in Romans 5:8?
That God demonstrates His love for us by sending Christ to die for us.
And according to John 3:16, who does He love?
That’s right . . . the people of the world. Everyone. That must mean that if God loves everyone then Jesus died for everyone because that’s how God demonstrates His love.
I simply don’t see how you can change God’s love from one kind to another when it comes to different people. God Himself told us what it means when He says He “loves” people. It means that Jesus died for them. For everyone!
“God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)]
Summing it all up
While there are some verses that – at first reading - do make it seem like our destinies are pre-determined for us, there are far more that make it sound like we have a choice and like it is our responsibility to decide if we will make Jesus our Lord and Savior or not. And I think these verses cannot be adequately explained if you hold to the view that we ultimately have no real choice. How can God keep telling us to “choose” if we have no ability to choose? How can He tell us to “obey” and “love Him” if it’s not really about choosing obedience and love, if it’s that we are just following a pre-written script? How can He instruct us to seek Him if seeking Him is impossible?
I think the idea of God’s foreknowledge of who will believe and who won’t cleanly explains any verse that talks about God choosing us, predestining us for heaven, or allowing us to spend eternity in hell. His choice is based on His foreknowledge of us, of our willingness to believe in Him or not. I firmly fall on the side that believes that we have a choice and that we will live with the consequences of that choice for eternity.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13) He makes salvation available to all, but it is our responsibility to call on His name. And we are responsible for if we don’t.
“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20) He knocks on all hearts, but we have to hear it and respond and open the door. The responsibility for the decision is ours. Saying “If anyone . . .” implies that it is possible to not hear and not open the door, to not respond to Jesus’ knocking. If we were pre-determined by God to end up in heaven - if we had no free-will, no options, no choices, no right-to-decide - then it would be impossible to resist the knocking and there would be no need to highlight our responsibility to “hear and open.” There would be no “if” about it.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) Everyone has the same chance to come to Him and no one has an excuse for why they don’t. But you sure would have an excuse if God created you for hell, if He created you to not hear His call and to not be able to respond. You simply cannot adequately explain this verse – in my mind – if you say that God has pre-decided that some people will go to hell.
“God did this [created the nations of the earth] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27) God intends for us to seek and reach, and this affects whether or not we find Him. The responsibility and possibility lies with us. It is His plan that we pursue Him. And He reveals enough of Himself in His creation to arouse our interest and to be found. And if we don’t find Him through it, it is because we refused to notice Him and to seek Him.
But how can He expect us to “seek and find” if He deliberately creates only some people to be saved and others to not? If this were the case, our seeking and reaching wouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not we found Him, because it would be wholly up to His pre-determined plan for us whether or not we became believers. There would be no “perhaps” about it. But God says “seek and reach” because it is then that we find Him. And if we do not find Him, it is because we did not do this. And I think the fact that He is close to all of us means that He is able to be found by all of us, if we so desire to seek and reach.
“This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3-4) Why would God say He wanted something that He made impossible? If He predestined only some for heaven and the rest for hell, how could He really claim that He wants all people to be saved? And likewise, 2 Peter 3:9 says “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Why would He create specific people to go to hell without a choice, and then claim that He didn’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance? It doesn’t make sense. But it does make sense to say that He wants all people to come to Him and doesn’t want anyone to perish if He created man with free-will, with the chance to accept His offer of salvation or not. Then, even though He knows many will not choose Him, He can claim that He genuinely desires that all men find Him.
In Titus 2:11, we read how “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” I think it means that it is available for all men to see and accept. It is possible for all of mankind to see and accept it, even though most won’t. What would it matter if it appeared to all people if all people were not able to accept it?
1 Timothy 2:6 and Romans 5:18 say that Jesus died for all. That must mean that His death made salvation available and possible for all. Yet, of course, only those who accept that sacrifice will be in heaven.
John 1:11-12 echoes this. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-” Receive and believe. It contains an element of personal responsibility. And it implies that it is possible to refuse and not believe. The responsibility – the choice to believe or not believe – is ours.
Likewise, 1 Corinthians 14:21 says, “ ‘. . . I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,’ says the Lord.” I don’t think He’s saying “I made them to not listen to Me,” but that they chose not to listen. (If He created them to not listen, why bother going through the motions of calling to them and pretending that they could respond?) No, I think it’s that He speaks to us and we choose to listen or not. And to say that the people resisted God’s call points to free-will, the ability to refuse what God wants for us. Obviously, He called to them and wanted them to respond to Him, but they had to decide if they would or not. It’s “hear Him and respond” or “refuse to hear Him and refuse to respond.” Once again, it is speaking to our wills, our responsibility to choose.
And John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The responsibility to believe is on us. And our belief or disbelief determines where we spend eternity. Acts 16:30-31: “ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . .” It does not sound like that decision is decided for us by God. Whoever believes will be saved and have eternal life.
It all comes back to our heart’s response to Him. He does not assign us a place in heaven or hell. He offers salvation to all. But not all will accept that gift. Not all will choose to love and serve and worship Him. But make no mistake, it is a choice. (At least, I believe it is.) And you will live with the consequences of your choice for all of eternity.
Ultimately, I think that it is not “pre-destination or free-will.” I think it is “pre-destination and free-will.” God has pre-destined mankind in general to find Him, love Him, and spend eternity with Him, which is only possible through Jesus’ death on the cross. This was His plan from the beginning, before even making mankind. Yet He does not force this destiny on everyone. He allows us to reject Him. But we can only find Him and love Him because, as I already pointed out, He made it possible. He loved us first and made it possible for us to respond to His love and to love Him in return.
And He has pre-determined mankind’s eternal options: heaven or hell. These are the only two destinies possible. And we have to face them. So we do not have total free-will to determine what will happen to us. We cannot refuse eternity. We cannot refuse to meet our Maker in the end or to give an account for our lives and our choices. We cannot refuse to bend a knee and claim that Jesus is Lord. (We will either do it voluntarily on earth when we still have the chance to find salvation, or we will do it after that chance has passed, when we come face-to-face with Him in the end. “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Romans 14:10-12)
God’s choice would be for all of us to find Him and spend eternity with Him in heaven. But we do not have to accept His love, forgiveness, and salvation. We have the free-will to decide which one of the two eternal destinies we will follow. The path to heaven or the path to hell. Actually, we are already on the path to hell. And that’s where we will stay if we don’t accept His help to get off of it. And He clearly spells out in His Word the only path to heaven: to believe in Jesus Christ and make Him your Lord and Savior, letting His death pay the penalty that we owe.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already . . .” (John 3:16-18)
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)
“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)
While many good, godly, intelligent people have disagreed for centuries about whether it’s “pre-destination or free-will” (and each side has biblical support for their view), this should not be a divisive issue among believers. We will not know for sure which one is the right view until eternity. So until then, we need to “agree to disagree” in graciousness, to live in harmony, and to continue to focus on drawing people to Christ, whether it’s that they come of their own free-will or whether it’s that God has pre-decided that they will come to Him.
The thing is, even if I am wrong and theologically we have no true free-will to decide to come to God or not, we should still live practically like we do. Because it sure feels like we do. Even if it’s that God has created us for one destiny or the other and we have no choice, we still feel like we have a choice, like we can choose to respond to and accept God’s love, salvation, and forgiveness. And so we should live like we have the choice and the responsibility to respond to God, without getting hung up on if it’s really God forcing us to choose Him or if it is our choice.
I fear that adopting the view that God has pre-determined our eternal resting places and that there is nothing we can do about it will lead to apathy, a feeling of “Why bother thinking about this issue and about God if my destiny has already been decided and there is nothing I can do to change it? It’s not up to me anyway, so it doesn’t matter what I do or what I think about it all. Whatever is going to be will be!”
Even if we find out later that we didn’t really have free-will, it would be erring on the side of caution to live like we do, like we have the responsibility to respond to His call. Eternity is a big price to pay for being apathetic because we weren’t sure if we really had a choice or not.
And now let me end this post with one of my favorite verses, one that highlights the biggest choice we have to make, which will impact our lives for eternity.
“But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Choose for yourself! Choose!