A Free-Will Theist's Take on Predestination

What is Predestination?

Predestination is the idea that God chooses who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell regardless of any human merit, effort or virtue. Calvinism teaches that God must regenerate an individual before she is converted. In other words, before a person can desire to come to Christ and thus truly be saved, her desires must be changed first. And desiring God itself is a gift from God. For a person to really want Christ in their heart, their heart must first be changed to want Christ. (Confused yet?) In other words, to borrow from Desiring God author and pastor John Piper, you must be struck first with Cupid's arrow (Divine Selection) before you can fall in love with Jesus. Otherwise, any prayer of repentance or confession is just lip service. According to this doctrine, if God doesn’t choose you, you have no hope of being saved. 

The concept of predestination is more thoroughly expressed as the five points of Calvinism. They are as follows,

• Total Depravity

• Unconditional Election

• Limited Atonement

• Irresistible Grace

• Perseverance of the Saints

These five points make the acrostic, TULIP. It was not actually invented by John Calvin, but by some of his followers who created it to sum up the essential tenets of Calvinism. For many the Christian message is indistinguishable from these five points.

The most often used metaphor to describe Total Depravity is “a dead person can’t save themselves.” In other words, sin isn’t just a sickness; it is literal, spiritual death. And the only way to be resurrected into spiritual life is for someone to do it to you—like Lazarus who was totally dead (Total Depravity) and wrapped in cloths and sealed in a tomb. It takes Jesus calling out your name specifically (Unconditional Election) for you to be empowered with an external energy, effective only for you individually (Limited Atonement), which you cannot argue with or resist (Irresistible Grace), to be raised to life in Christ. Your life and enduring belief become the proof of the pudding (Perseverance of the Saints). Until you die…again, but for real. 

Consistent metaphor, right? Especially, when a biblical story is applied to the theory. And especially because it resonates with our sense that we can’t do this on our own. These things (salvation, clarity, peace, unity, forgiveness, healing, etc.) feel impossible. But what if the Lazarus story was meant to be a story about a dude Jesus literally raised from the dead? And not a metaphor for something we can’t do? Let’s look at each of these points a bit more closely.

Total Depravity is Augustine’s Original Sin concept with an ascetic edge. It is a self-flagellating diagnosis of the human heart. Original Sin is the idea that all of humanity comes under the curse of fallen Adam as an inherited identity from our parents. It guarantees a level playing field of spiritual need—need for the redemptive work of Jesus, crucified as an atonement for sin. 

Augustine felt convinced of this inherited state because of his own sexual misdeeds. In his book Confessions he divulges his own battle with sexual sin. At the core of the idea of Original Sin (as Augustine confers it) is the implicit sinfulness of sex, in general. Even in marriage. He believed that the passion and pleasure, being so intense during the act of intercourse, must be evil. Augustine was wrong. God created sexual intimacy to be enjoyed in marriage. And though Augustine obviously felt shame and disgrace over his own sexual weaknesses, it should never have become a doctrinal standard for the true nature of humanity. For more on this subject, read Harold Eberle’s Precious in His Sight; A Fresh Look at the Nature of Humanity.

Unconditional Election is the concept that God chooses, regardless of qualification, status, age, race, etc., who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. Remember, the predominant metaphor is spiritual death—a spiritual corpse cannot choose life—and a literal interpretation of rebirth—a spiritual egg cannot fertilize itself. Therefore, God must actively choose and save the recipient of his grace. Which leads us to…

Irresistible Grace is the other side of the Unconditional Election coin—A spiritual corpse cannot argue with the resurrection power in the voice of God. It will be reborn, whether it likes it or not.

Perseverance of the Saints is the “get TULIP out of jail free” card (or “in jail” depending on which way you look at it) for those believers that showed every sign of belief and discipleship, but eventually left the faith (or the neighborhood church) before the end of their lives. I know I’m out of order here, but I wanted to save “L” for last…

Limited Atonement is the trickiest of the bunch. Many Calvinists claim to be “four-pointers,” meaning they affirm T,U,I and P, but not L. They claim that the blood of Christ is powerful enough to save anyone but is only applied to those who believe. They want to highlight the extensiveness and inherent ability (both unlimited) of Christ’s atonement, but somehow forget it’s a moot point if the only ones the atonement covers are the ones who are unconditionally elected. This hybrid branch was developed by Moses Amyraut in the mid-1600s. The underlying distinction is that God decreed Christ’s atonement (to be limitless in extent) before he chose (by predestinating) who would be included in that atonement. (Funny that they split before-and-after hairs about a timeless God.) 

But when the rubber meets the road, Limited Atonement is the natural, logical conclusion of the other four. And as you can already see, the squabbles over efficacy versus extent quickly become tiresome and leave only the extremely patient or vainly peculiar theologians to care anything about. The rest of us either quit reading and turn on the TV (justifiably) or remember that after swallowing the camel of the monstrous God who actively chooses most people to go to eternal torment in hell, choking on all of these gnats feels ridiculous. Rightly so. Or should I say, righteously-indignantly so. 

And what about all the others? The ones God doesn’t choose? Well, they’ll suffer in hell for all of eternity because it was God’s good pleasure to not choose them. Indignant, yet? Some Calvinists try to soften predestination by saying those who aren’t chosen were already damned to begin with…that God isn’t at fault for their condemned state; he is only to thank for saving the special few.

Thanks. That makes God sound way better…Not. 

Hard-core Calvinists are more consistent. They believe that not choosing people for Heaven is still equivalent to choosing them for hell. This is referred to as double predestination.

The fact is, the doctrine of predestination, which is central to the message of Calvinism, is not in the Bible. What we have, however, is a handful of cryptic passages that need to be weighed in context. We’ll look at some of those passages in later posts.

[excerpt from my book Catharsis]