How would you like to discover that God didn’t choose you to be saved, will not help you as He helps the chosen, and will consign you to eternal damnation? In other words, you never had a choice. God chose to reject you. You were born to live forever in anguish and pain. This is the God of millions of Christians who believe in predestination. Thinking of this decree, Martin Luther wished he hadn’t been born;1 and John Calvin said the decree was “dreadful.”2
The foundational passage for predestinarians is Romans 9. It says, “Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she [Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ ” (Rom. 9:11-13). God did the choosing. Humans had no input. The predestinarian God doesn’t respect human freedom to choose.
However, the biblical God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:2, 3; 18:18; Gal. 3:8), Isaac (Gen. 22:18), and Jacob (Gen. 26:4, 5) promised that all nations would be blessed through their descendants, including the nation of Edom, the descendants of Esau (Gen. 36:43). So God didn’t only bless Israel (Jacob’s new name, Gen. 32:28; 35:10), but wanted to bless all nations through Israel. This suggests that Israel’s election was a corporate election to mission.
There’s no biblical reason the blessings to one nation were any different from the blessings offered to all. This makes sense when we consider God’s universal plan of salvation. God chose one woman, Mary, so Christ could become the Savior of the world
. For “He [Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The reason God hated Esau was not that He willed to reprobate him, but because He foreknew Esau would despise his birthright (Gen. 25:31-34), marry nonbelieving Hittite and Hivite women of Canaan, and hold a grudge against Jacob and plan to kill him (Gen. 27:41; also 32:6, 7); and knew Esau’s descendants would be called “the Wicked Land” (Mal. 1:4). God hated his sin but loved the sinner.
Esau hated Jacob and God by his own choice and not because of God’s prior choosing. Jacob chose to follow God; Esau chose to rebel against Him. God permitted Esau to reject Him, and allowed him to reap the results of his choice; for humans reap what they sow (Gal. 6:7). That’s how sin entered the universe—the free choice of Satan and his angels in heaven (Isa. 14:12-14; Eze. 28:14-16; Rev. 12:7, 8) and Adam and Eve in Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). God shows no partiality (Rom. 2:11; 1 Peter 1:17), for partiality is a sin (James 2:9). God grants all intelligent created beings the freedom of choice. If God is partial and arbitrary, wouldn’t the great controversy, that questions His love and justice, be legitimate?
A doctrine must never be based on one text or one passage. The potter of Romans 9 is the primary focus for predestinarians, apparently overlooking the potters of Isaiah 45 and Jeremiah 18, who deserve equal consideration because they are the root passages for the potter passage of Romans 9. In other words, they are the intertextual inspired background for that aspect of Romans 9. Hence they give divine guidance to interpret the potter illustration of Romans 9.
Isaiah 45 speaks of the Creator-God as a potter with clay, and asks, “Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ ” (verse 9). This statement is not intended to convey an arbitrary Sovereign, for God invites, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (verse 22). Rather, these words teach conditional election in history.
In Jeremiah 18:2-10 the prophet watches a potter who is not creating a pot (for election or reprobation). Rather the potter is working with a damaged pot, attempting to remold it. God wanted wayward Israel to know that He can remold them in history (not predestinating them before history). Note the conditions: If an evil nation turns from evil, God will not bring the evil on it that He planned (verse 8). If a nation does evil, then God plans punishment (verse 10). God was saying to Judah, “Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds” (verse 11, NASB).3 But they didn’t turn back. God says, “My people have forgotten Me, they burn incense to worthless gods” (verse 15, NASB). Israel and Judah went into captivity. They lost their election to mission (Acts 13:46).
There’s a distinction between election to mission and election to salvation. Romans 9 describes Israel’s corporate election to mission, not Jacob’s personal election to salvation and Esau’s personal reprobation. That’s why Romans 9:21 asks, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” Jacob (or Israel) had a noble purpose, a mission for the world.
Predestinarians and Conflict
Predestinarians claim that Christ didn’t die for all humans. They argue, “If Christ has reconciled all people with God but the Holy Spirit does not grant faith to all, the work of the Spirit is placed over against that of Christ. Would this not imply a tension or conflict within God?”4 The answer is no, because Christ died for all (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), and the Holy Spirit was poured out “on all people” (Acts 2:17; cf. “all people,” Joel 2:28-32) and comes to “convict the world” of sin (John 16:8), so there’s a consistency in the global mission of Christ and the Spirit.
Predestinarians are in conflict with Scripture. They claim that God’s decree (election/reprobation) is unconditional, secret, and off-limits to humans.5 But God is revealed in history as love (1 John 4:8-16), and His covenant is conditional (Deut. 28).
The Biblical Worldview
We must penetrate deeper into this matter of God’s alleged secrecy. If God rejects most humans and sends them to unending hell, this is patently unfair. Even fallen humans can see that. It’s no use responding, “It must be fair, for God is fair.” That doesn’t cut it—it merely assumes what needs to be demonstrated. Nor is it any good to insist, “Humans shouldn’t question God, because He is God.” This ignores the cosmic controversy that questions God (Gen. 3:1-6) and fights against Him (Rev. 12:3-5, 9-13, 17), lying (John 8:44) and charging Him contrary to His nature as love (1 John 4:8-16), and hence as unloving and unjust. The sad fact is the predestinarian God validates this charge. Now, that’s serious. Because if the charge cannot be answered, there never will be resolution to the controversy.
The God of predestinarians is an absolute sovereign, not giving credit to His love. This is another predestinarian “conflict within God.” Because of the great controversy, it is the prerogative of humans at least to understand that God is not what Satan has made Him out to be, unloving and unjust. Christ said that He came to reveal the Father (John 14:9), and there’s no example in which He treated humans unfairly or without love. Furthermore, He came to do His Father’s will (Heb. 10:7), seeking to save a fallen world (John 3:16). Clearly God’s will and His love are one. To save the world, He exercised His loving will. There’s congruency between His nature and His acts, because His acts in human history are a revelation of His nature.
Most Christians believe in a final judgment at the end of human history. But why does God need a final judgment if His eternal decree already judged who will be saved and who not saved? If the decree guarantees irresistible grace to the chosen, what’s the point of a final judgment? Here’s another predestinarian “conflict within God.” The fact that Scripture speaks of a pre-Advent judgment (Dan. 7:9, 10), millennial judgment (Rev. 20:4, 5), and postmillennial judgment (verses 11-14) counters the arbitrary nature of the divine-decree judgment.
Contrary to being arbitrary, God has nothing to hide. In fact, He wants all intelligent created beings to see clearly why some are saved and others not from the evidence given in these three judgments. This counters the alleged secrecy, and openly displays to all intelligent created beings the truth about God—He is loving and just in these three judgments. By contrast, the secret predestination judgment isn’t fair, and aids the controversy against God.
Calvary is when the ultimate battle of the controversy took place. This was preeminently judgment day (John 12:31, 32). As a “guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10) Christ endured separation from God in our place (Matt. 27:46), and in the final judgment, those who hate God and want to be separated from Him are granted their choice (Rev. 20:14; cf. Matt. 23:37). C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ ” 6
Calvary defines God’s will. “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40). The price of salvation was paid for all humans and is offered to all humans, and the eternal decree needs to be interpreted in the light of Christ’s death, not the other way round.
As I gaze at Christ on the cross, I see the incomparable and ultimate sacrifice, a God who is infinitely loving and just. As God He could have avoided it, but love drove Him to accept all the shame and heart-rending pain. Jesus cried out to God in an utter sense of God-forsakenness. All human sin, yours and mine, plunged Him into that awful agony. In the depths of death the traditional divine decree is shattered, and replaced. It is not God who does the choosing—electing some, rejecting the rest; He chose to die for all. So all humans can elect or reject His gift. This stands predestination on its head and refutes the challenge of the great controversy. God respects human freedom to choose. What awesome love!
1 Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, trans. Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 243, sec. 94.
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (London: James Clarke, 1962), vol. 2, p. 212 (book 3, chap. 23, sec. 7).
3 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
4 J. van Genderen and W. H. Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1992), p. 528.
5 Calvin, vol. 2, p. 204 (book 3, chap. 21, sec. 1); vol. 2, p. 235 (book 3, chap. 23, sec. 12); vol. 2, p. 229 (book 3, chap. 23, sec. 5).
6 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1945), p. 69.
Norman R. Gulley is a research professor of systematic theology at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee. This article was published April 28, 2011.