Predestination in the Bible
Many Christians stay away from the subject of predestination because they see it as controversial and think that discussing it only leads to disagreement and conflict. Others put it into the “things I will not understand until heaven” category. But predestination is an important Christian doctrine and a great consolation to believers if understood correctly. So, what is predestination in the Bible?
Popular understanding of predestination
Most dictionary definitions of predestination follow the definition associated with Augustine, John Calvin, and Reformed theology. Typical is the one found in britannica.com: “In Christianity, the doctrine that God has eternally chosen those whom he intends to save.” Most Christians assume this definition, that God preselects individuals for salvation. But not all Christian theologians agree with this as it was developed by those that held to Augustine’s view.
Many (not all) who subscribe to a Reformed theology believe that God not only preselects believers, but also preselects all others for unbelief and eternal condemnation. This is repulsive to most people and gives a very negative picture of God to those who may be seeking him. It’s no wonder that people are afraid to discuss this topic.
Predestine vs destine
Actually, the word predestine does not differ significantly in meaning from the word destine. Although predestine is used more in theological contexts, both words have the meaning of something having a sure and guaranteed future state or condition. Destined is defined as:
Having a future that has been decided or planned at an earlier time. (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries)
If something is predestined, it is also destined. And if something is destined, then it has a destination, an end point. Some Bible translations actually use the term destine in place of predestine in certain verses.
So, predestination is related more to a destiny or plan and not to someone’s choice of one thing over another. In the Bible, the term election is related to God’s choice, while predestination relates to the believer’s destiny. Unfortunately, many Bible teachers conflate the two, causing much confusion. I will discuss election in a future article.
Predestination in Romans
Predestination is much easier to understand if we just read the Bible passages in which the word is used and observe the context of these passages. The concept is found only in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1, so we will focus on these passages. For a clear understanding of any passage, we need to consider the immediate context (in the adjacent passages) and the larger overall context (of the chapter or book).
The word predestine is used several times in Romans chapter 8. In this chapter, Paul describes how God makes us his children and brings us to the status of “sons of God” with full rights and privileges. Of course, “sons” in this context refers to both male and female children of God. So, this is the larger context: a discussion of our future as God’s children.
The golden chain of Romans 8
The word predestine is first found in a familiar passage known as the “golden chain” of Romans 8:
And we know that in all things 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 image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, NIV)
The immediate context of this passage is the assurance of a secure and glorious future for God’s children, those who believe in Christ. So, what are the important ideas?
First, God causes all things and events to work ultimately for the good of those who love him. Because God is sovereign, we know his good intentions for every believer will succeed—their glorious future is guaranteed.
Second, God’s plans are for his people to be conformed to Christ’s image. They are destined to share his attributes: holy, glorious, eternal, loving, and just. This is the final destination of those who believe in Christ: to be like him and share in his glory. This is the meaning of predestination.
The third is how God will accomplish those plans. He will call them to faith in Christ and obedience to his Word. Through their faith he will justify them. Finally, he will glorify them when Christ returns. They will be made like Christ and will reign with Christ forever. This is their final destiny.
In the golden chain, Paul is not describing how people become Christians in a time sequence. If so, it would look like God preselects individuals for salvation (which is the Calvinist belief). No, Paul is giving a large-picture view of our salvation from God’s viewpoint, outside of time, who sees all events at once.
Themes in the book of Romans
We can greatly improve our understanding of predestination if we look at the larger context of the whole book of Romans and the themes Paul develops in each chapter.
Romans chapters 3 and 4 describe the believer’s response to God’s promise of salvation (faith) and its result (justification). But Romans 8 describes God’s assurances that his promises for the believer will be fulfilled.
Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” frequently in Romans. Believers are “in Christ” because their faith is in him, and he lives in them by his Spirit. And all of God’s spiritual blessings belong to those who are “in Christ.”
Jesus Christ is God’s beloved Son and has all the attributes of God because he is God in human form. So, Christ is eternal: his being, his Word, and his life are eternal and those who are “in Christ” partake of his eternal existence. His death and resurrection were also eternal events and those who believe in him experience these events “in Christ.”
God also “foreknew us” in Christ. He can say that he foreknew us before we were born, not just because he’s omniscient, but because he knows Christ and saw us in Christ. And he saw us completed in Christ, transformed to his perfect image, as this was his vision for us. We who are in Christ share in his death, resurrection, and future—because he was raised and lives forever, we will also live with him forever in glory.
Becoming like Christ
Christ is also the “firstborn of the sons of God.” He is the first son among many. Believers are one family under God because we have Christ in us, and we are in Christ. And we all bear the image of Christ now through the indwelling Holy Spirit. But as Paul explains in Romans 7, we bear it imperfectly in our behavior, since our bodies are still unredeemed and have the inclination to sin. Metaphorically, we are still immature children.
In addition to being called, forgiven, and justified by God, believers will also be glorified with Christ. This means that when Christ returns, he will transform them completely into his image. It’s then that believers will have all the rights and privileges of mature sons of God. And nothing will thwart that purpose—that is their destiny.
Nothing will thwart God’s plans
In the latter part of Romans 8 Paul gives especially encouraging news. He declares that God’s future plans for his people cannot be thwarted. These plans are set and will be accomplished in spite of our trials, tribulations, and even disasters (Romans 8:31-39). And no one can nullify God’s declaration when he pronounced us innocent and justified through Christ:
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. (Romans 8:33, 34, NIV)
God will work all things—even persecution—for our ultimate good. Paul then asks rhetorically:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Romans 8:35)
Paul finally gives the obvious answer: nothing and no one.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Predestination in Ephesians
Paul develops these same themes in chapter one of his letter to the Ephesians, where he uses the term predestine twice.
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 for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)
The overall context of the first part of Ephesians is an affirmation of all the blessings that God has promised to those who believe in Christ. The immediate context of the passage above is the same as in Romans 8: God’s plan to bring his children to maturity.
And Paul uses the term predestination here in the same way as in Romans, that God has predestined an end goal for the people of God, a destination. They will attain mature sonship through Christ. Christ has led the way as God’s firstborn and will lead God’s people into a glorious future. That future includes living in God’s presence and belonging to his family as his beloved sons and daughters with full rights and privileges.
Chosen in Christ
Paul says God “chose us in him…to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Since Christ was chosen as God’s Messiah “before the creation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20), those who believe in him are also “chosen in Christ” and destined to be holy and blameless like Christ. It was God’s predetermined plan for them to be like him, to bear his image.
In verses 11 and 12, Paul reaffirms these truths, that God chose us “in Christ” to bear his image and bring him glory:
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, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12, NIV)
The reference to God’s choice here concerns our destiny, our eternal state. It does not mean he chose us to believe in him—that would be a significant diversion from both the immediate and overall contexts. As explained in Paul’s other teachings, faith is our response to God’s gift of forgiveness and promise of eternal life (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The language “We … also” in verse 11 indicates that Paul is now talking about himself and the other apostles, those who were “first to put our hope in Christ.” God chose the apostles to be the first to bear fruit for Christ’s kingdom. This “choosing” was not for belief, but for service and bearing fruit for God.
The Holy Spirit’s guarantee
Paul then mentions the Ephesian believers, how they received salvation through their faith in Christ:
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:14, NIV)
Here he further affirms the believer’s status as God’s child. He is not saying the Ephesian believers were “preselected” by some mysterious process known only to God. He very clearly says that they received salvation when they heard the gospel and believed it. And they received the same salvation as Paul and the apostles did. The indwelling Holy Spirit of the Ephesian believers was proof of that.
An inheritance is what children receive when they come of age. In the same way, when the children of God “come of age” they become like Christ and rule with him in his eternal kingdom. This is the “adoption to sonship” referred to earlier. The Holy Spirit’s indwelling is also a guarantee this will actually happen. It’s a seal indicating that the believer belongs to God.
Predestination and human will
From the passages we have read, the word predestination refers to the believer’s surety of a glorious future as determined by God’s plan.
Nowhere do these references say that certain people are “predestined to believe” while others are not. The faith responses of individual people are not predestined. That would deny that humans have any capacity to respond to God’s offer of salvation. It would also mean that some are destined to believe and be saved, while all others are predestined to be condemned and suffer eternal punishment. Although some Bible teachers teach this doctrine, it is not supported in Scripture.
Properly understood, the doctrine of predestination does not negate that humans have a choice in accepting or rejecting God’s offer of salvation and forgiveness. God desires a free-will response to his love, not a forced response. God has sovereignly declared that humans have free will so that they can respond to his love and follow Christ as disciples. And this does not threaten his sovereignty in the slightest.
A great consolation
Predestination gives great consolation to those of us who are believers in Christ. It means that God’s purposes and plans that we become like Christ and share in his glory are guaranteed. And he has given us the Holy Spirit as assurance that these plans will be fulfilled. And when they are fulfilled, we will bear his glorious image and have all the rights and privileges of sons and daughters of God. This is the future—the eternal destiny—of all who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
I hope this clears up questions you may have had about this topic. And I sincerely hope that as believers in Christ this knowledge gives you hope and assurance of your eternal salvation. And if you have yet to believe this good news and accept God’s gift, there’s no better time than now.
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