28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. – Romans 8:28-30
4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both[a] which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. – Ephesians 1:4-11
This topic is one that always tends to bring a lot of controversy and confusion. There aren’t many passages that talk about predestination in the Bible, so in order to determine what it does or doesn’t mean, it’s helpful to look at some other more basic principles first.
Most of the time, when people talk about predestination, they refer to the idea that God has already hand-picked those who will be saved and those who won’t and there’s nothing we can do about it. There are some varying opinions about how that works, but that’s still what most people think of when they hear about this topic or read the above passages.
Typically, you get two main reactions to this doctrine. You get those who feel relieved by it (assuming that they are among the saved), and you get those who are terrified by it (fearing that they might be irrevocably lost). Sometimes individuals decide that there’s no point in trying to live godly or in studying the Bible if everyone’s eternity is already decided. Because how you live on this earth wouldn’t affect it at all. You could live it up in this life with no thought to right or wrong and still wind up in heaven. Or you could live as pious a life as anyone and still land in hell.
To help combat this tendency, churches began teaching that those who were predestined to salvation would act like it. Therefore, they were able to keep people interested in going to church because that would show that they must be saved. If you ask me, that kind of has the cause and effect reversed. But I won’t deny that it was a clever and successful ploy.
But when you get down to it and really study it, you have to take these passages in conjunction with all the others that the Bible offers. Does the Bible teach that God picks and chooses who will be saved and who will not, regardless of their belief and actions? And if part of our salvation does hinge on our behavior, then what is meant by “predestination” in the above passages?
God’s Choice, or Our Own?
As I stated, most people who espouse the doctrine of predestination believe that God has already decided the eternal fate of every individual and nothing we do can change that. But is that what God really teaches?
When you study the subject of salvation, there are several passages that tell us the things that are required in order to obtain it. Grace is the main ingredient, as we see in Ephesians 2:8-9, since without God’s willingness to save us, we would have no hope at all. And the primary illustration of that grace is in Christ’s sacrifice for us, as the following passage explains:
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. – Romans 5:8-9
But the Bible also teaches us that in order to receive the grace that God offers through the blood of his son, Jesus Christ, we must do several things. First of all, we must believe that Jesus is the son of God and that he gave himself for us (John 3:16). We are told that we must repent, or turn away, from our life of sin (Acts 2:38) and confess Jesus as the Christ (Romans 10:9-10). We must also be baptized to wash away our sins (Romans 6:3-4, Acts 22:16, and 1 Pet 3:21). Finally, according to the scriptures, we must also strive to live our lives in a way that would be pleasing to God (1 Cor 9:27, Heb 10:26-31, and Rev 2:10b).
It’s quite obvious from the passages listed above that our salvation depends upon the things we do or don’t do in this life. We even have the very plain admonition found in Phil 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” If God had decided everyone’s fate long ago, and we couldn’t affect it at all, then none of those passages could be correct.
Also, when studying the concept of predestination, it’s important to ask yourself what is the purpose of the Bible if we can’t change our eternal destiny. Why would God go to such lengths to provide us with his written word if we were incapable of following it? How could Jesus really be the “bread of life” (John 6:33-35) if we can’t choose to follow him? It would be pretty sick and twisted for an all-powerful being to tell us to do certain things in order to be pleasing to him, yet not allow us the freedom of choice to do them.
And in fact, God doesn’t operate that way at all. He has told us many times that he longs for us to serve him:
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” – Matthew 23:37
9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us,[a] not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. – 2 Pet 3:9
God absolutely wants us to do what’s right, and he’s insured that we have a way of knowing what his will is. Ezekiel 18 teaches us that people are judged based on what they do. The wicked are judged according to their wickedness, and the righteous are judged according the their righteousness. It is evident from all the passages we’ve looked at that God has not consigned some of us to heaven and some to hell regardless of our actions. He has offered us a way to escape damnation; all we have to do is accept.
So then what does predestination really mean? It’s hard to claim that it doesn’t exist at all since we’ve already looked at two passages that talk about it. Therefore, what we must do is come to an understanding of these passages that doesn’t contradict what we’ve already established: that God desires all people to be saved, and has given all people an opportunity for salvation as long as they obey him.
Let’s look at these passages in detail and see if we can discover exactly what is being predestined, beginning with Romans 8:28-30.
Vs 28 basically just tells us that God watches out for his people (Christians). That regardless of what might be going on around us, everything works to his purpose of furthering the gospel and his kingdom. Vs 29 begins to talk about those he “foreknew” and “predestined.” But we don’t have to be afraid of those words! We don’t have to wonder what was being predestined; this verse tells us!
He also predestined [us – or those who are Christians] to be conformed to the image of His Son
See? What’s being predestined is not that Joe is going to heaven and Bob is going to hell. Instead, Paul states that Christians in general were predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, Christians should follow after Christ – they should be Christ-like! And that shouldn’t be a shocking concept to us, since that’s essentially what a Christians is: one who models himself after Christ and his teachings.
Reread the whole passage and you’ll see how much sense that makes (especially in conjunction with the other passages we’ve read). It fits really nicely with the next phrase, “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” It’s only fitting that we resemble Christ if we’re going to be his brethren. And this passage tells us that that was God’s intent from the very beginning. That those who became Christians would have to model themselves after Christ.
Hopefully that helped clarify the passage in Romans. Now, let’s look at Ephesians 1:4-11.
The passage starts off saying that God chose us before the foundation of the world. We might jump to the conclusion that this is speaking about specific individuals, but remember: that contradicts plainer passages that we’ve alread looked at. Look at the whole verse:
just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself
Again, what this seems to be saying is not that God hand-picked individual people and decided where they would go; intead, he predestined that we should appear blameless and holy before him. How can we do that if we are all sinners? By predestining us “to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ.” Because of our sins, we can’t count ourselves as “God’s children” the way that Jesus can. He can have that direct relationship with God because he is deity and he lived a perfect life. However, we can enjoy that same relationship through our “adoption,” since Christ offered himself as the payment for our sins.
The whole passage makes so much more sense when we understand that our relationship with Christ and the plan God put in place is what Paul says has been predestined. When you read verses 11 and 12 together, it helps make it even clearer:
11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. – Eph 1:11-12
Verse 12 shows us that one of the reasons God set it up this way was to bring praise to Christ’s glory – that when people see Christ in us, in the way we act, it brings praise to him and helps draw the lost toward their only hope of salvation. But not only that, it reiterates some of what we stated earlier in the phrase “we who first trusted in Christ.” Again, if God arbitrarily decided who to save and who to condemn with no consideration for their actions, why would it matter if these Christians had “trusted in Christ”?
I think we’ve established pretty clearly the fact that our salvation does in fact rely on what we do in this life. God wants to save us, but he’ll only save those who obey him. That is certainly a better arrangement that the idea of God locking us in to an eternal destination regardless of our actions. The Bible is very plain in telling us that we must do certain things to be pleasing to God, and if we do them, we’ll be rewarded.
Therefore, the passages that deal with predestination must not contradict those plainer Bible passages. And when we read Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 carefully, we see that these passages fit in quite well. God has not predestined where each of us will go for eternity; what he has predestined is how we will get there. Only those who follow Christ and conform themselves to his image will actually attain salvation. There is no other way than the plan God established before the foundation of the world.
Your salvation depends upon you. God has done his part; will you do yours?