A common critique or concern when discussing the idea of election or predestination is that it is at odds with the concept of “free will.” That is, if God has “before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin” (Canons of Dort 1.7), then we are essentially robots and do not make free choices. Therefore, we should not be held accountable or responsible for our choices since we never had a chance or choice to do differently. However, those who have studied this concept of election in the Scripture have said that it does not contradict the concept of free. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (a document written in England in the 1600’s that is similar to our church’s confessions of faith) says after discussing God’s eternal decree by which He “by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” that this truth does not result in “violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Chapter 3.1). We have seen in previous posts how the concept of election is found woven throughout the Scriptures, and now we will see how that concept of being responsible is also found in the Scriptures at the same time that it affirms God’s control.
The Call to Choose Wisely
The Bible does not teach a world view of determinism in that we should simply resign ourselves to say what will be will be. Rather, we are commanded and challenged to make correct choices. For example, we read in Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” echoing Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Peter proclaims at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul tells the Philppian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31) and later tells the Philppians to obey God’s word and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13). Jesus himself tells us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) and “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). There are many commands in the Bible for us to do (or not do) something; this implies that we do have a choice.
The Proclamation that Events Were Foreordained
At the same time the Bible speaks about the free choices we make, it also affirms that the events of history unfold according to God’s design. For example, we see in Acts 2:23 that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” and in Acts 4:27-28 that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” [did] whatever your [God’s] hand and your plan had predestined to take place” to Jesus. In speaking about Judas, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).
It is not just in the events of Jesus’s death that we see this. In discussing the exodus, we read that God says, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17). God placed Pharoah in leadership at this time to achieve His purposes, but Pharaoh is held responsible for his choices.
Seeing Both Truths Together
There seems to be concurrence in that the free actions of humans also correspond in the sovereignty planned actions of God, and in such a way that people are held responsible and accountable for their actions and choices. The example of Pharaoh is actually an interesting situation. We read in Exodus 7:13-14 that Pharaoh’s heart became hard; it does not give more of an explanation about how this occurs (through the choice of Pharaoh or God). As the story unfolds, we see that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (8:13; 9:7) but then Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:32; 9:34). After reading about Pharaoh’s hardened heart, we see that God hardened his heart (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10). Could this be reminiscent of what we see in Romans 1 in which God gives people over to their desires (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) after they have rejected God?
Pharoah is not a helpless pawn in this story but rather one who pushes away from God — but even this is not outside of God’s plan and control. Thus, it does not seem that Pharaoh would be able to bring up the objections that Paul notes in Romans 9:19 about God finding fault because we are not able to resist His will. There is a sense in which the clay cannot speak back to the potter (see Romans 9:20-24) and thus it is an invalid question, but there are also indications that human choices work in conjunction with the sovereign plan and purposes. We also read in many places that people do not come to know God because they refuse to do so (Matthew 23:37; John 5:40). We are “without excuse” when it comes to our sin; it is not God or the devil who made me do it, but rather, we choose to rebel, which is in accordance with God’s plans and purposes, not taking Him by surprise but working according to His purposes.
Perhaps the issue is that we try to pit God and humans against each other — as if God and humans are equal, and thus the choice of one rules out the choice of the other. When we remember the words of Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”, we can see how God and humans are not on the same plane, but rather different, and thus the interchange between human choice and divine choice (and thus freedom and responsibility) may be more than we can handle.
Keep the Tension – and Praise God
We live in a world in which we like to go to extremes – either this or that – but the Bible speaks about God’s sovereign working and also of the real choices that we make — choices that we seem to make freely (nothing forces us to do things, but we choose in accordance with our own desires), and we are called to keep these seemingly conflicting points together. There is mystery in the doctrine of election, just as in other Christian doctrines. The Trinity says that there is one God in three persons; not that there are three parts of God or that there are three different gods. Because this is so mysterious, we often speak in terms of what it is not rather than what it is.. Similarly, the doctrine of the person of Christ also has mystery – he is fully God and fully man, one person in two natures. Those are the boundaries for this teaching, but the precise way it works seems beyond our understanding. Similarly, election states that God saves particular people from their sin and that their salvation is wholly from God, but that God is not the author or cause of evil and people are responsible for their actions.
When we get to these places of mystery, we are wise to remember these words of Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
While we might not understand it all, we are called to choose to follow God and choose to praise Him. Let us do so today!
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.