POSTED - 9/4/2003
Motherhood, Apple Pie, and Predestination
- Mateen A, Elass
Motherhood, Apple Pie, and Predestination
by Mateen A. Elass
Immersed in a culture of freedom, how do we view God’s sovereignty?
It is said that fish don’t know what it means to be wet, for they have never experienced anything but wetness and so are ignorant of other states of existence. In the same way, we are all to some extent creatures of our environment. The more thoroughly we swim in any culture or world- view, the less we are likely to be aware of the most basic assumptions that make up our existence.
One of the fundamental axioms of American culture is the assumption that to be human is to be free. We are known for the Declaration of Independence, for the Bill of Rights, for the free-trade markets of capitalism, for the exaltation of the individual over community, for the right to self-determination.
Now, freedom is a good thing, especially when teamed with other equally important principles of life. Our American drive for freedom was once tempered by a sense of manifest destiny — that we were a people on whom God’s hand of blessing rested, who were sovereignly guided into greatness as a nation, called to exercise our freedom for the cause of God in the world.
Nowadays, the view of manifest destiny has faded from the American consciousness, and with it the sense that we do not belong to ourselves but to a larger cause guided by a Sovereign Lord. What remains is a belief in ultimate, individual freedom — that human beings (particularly Americans) have what it takes to shape our own destinies, whether through democratic principles, enlightened ingenuity, massive wealth and material resources, or self-willed industriousness. No one else has the right to tell us what to do, to plan our lives for us, to demand we submit our dreams to their larger goals. We are the captains of our own ships, after all.
It is not hard to see how this attitude of independence on the horizontal level of relationships can easily bleed over to our vertical relationship with God, even for the biblically-minded American Christian. Like the fish in water, we do not recognize how immersed we are in the seas of independence and freedom. They are second nature to us. It is not surprising, then, that the doctrine of predestination, which hooks and pulls us unceremoniously out of the waters of self-determination, finds little appeal among people who swim daily in a culture that deifies human choice.
In American churches, even those branches historically noted for Reformed thought (which emphasizes the predestining and electing grace of God), stress on the freedom of the human will is so strong as to eviscerate doctrines that place higher priority on the eternal choices of God. The teachings of predestination, of divine election and reprobation, of divine foreknowledge, are not touted widely in American churches today, in part because they chafe against the swollen shoulders of human pride. They remind us that our lives are not our own, that Someone else can and does determine our destiny, that the universe does not revolve around our decisions.
In other parts of the world, where cultural histories are vastly different from the USA regarding freedom and individuality, Christians (as well as people of other monotheistic faiths, notably Islam) feel little or no hesitation at embracing the notion that our lives are lived out under divine sovereign decrees and directions. Of course, the number of people who believe something is no proof of its rightness or wrongness in itself. But the fact that the doctrine of divine predestination finds a more welcome home in the non-Western church than in ours ought at least to make us pause.
WHOSE WILL BE DONE?
It is worth mulling over the biblical evidence consciously, given our natural predilections as sinners to make the self central and our heightened tendency as Americans to embrace an unfettered “freedom of the will.”
I am not quite so arrogant as to believe that in one short article a systematic, biblically-informed view of predestination and its central corollaries could be fully articulated so as to turn the tide in American Christianity away from a culturally-conditioned emphasis on human will. At the very least, we can be exposed afresh to some of the biblical texts which overturn such shallow thinking, and which can plow new ground for the seeds of God’s sovereign work of election.
The biblical doctrine of predestination as taught by the Reformers says essentially that the divine will, not the human will, stands at the center of the universe, accomplishing whatever it purposes. Certainly this is true of the world of nature, as most all Christians will agree. But it is also true of the realm of human destiny. God is sovereign over the will of man, and thus able and determined to accomplish His plans for the human race generally, and every human being specifically.
Certain key passages of the Bible are often cited to support these claims, though there are many more sprinkled amply throughout Scripture. Not only do they declare that God chooses of His own free, unfettered will those He will rescue from sin and bring to heaven, and, by implication at least, those He will leave in their rebellion and so pronounce judgment against and finally sentence to hell. But they affirm as well that these divine decisions have been made before the dawn of time.
Romans 8 and 9, though not written as part of a systematic theology, nevertheless undergird the apostle Paul’s main arguments by appealing to God’s predestining and electing work.
In chapter 8, Paul seeks to encourage Christians to bear patiently the suffering that is a necessary part of being a child of God in this fallen world (see 8:17). In vv. 18-25, he argues that the future glory of sonship makes present suffering insignificant by comparison. In vv. 26-27, he points to the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, who “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” and prays on our behalf according to the will of God. And in vv. 28-30, Paul underscores that even the pain and suffering which we must endure now will not be wasted, but through God’s sovereign grace will play a redemptive role in our lives: “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” (v. 28).
This promise in particular is undergirded by what pulpiteers have called the “golden chain of salvation”: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son … And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (vv. 29-30).
The English pronoun “those” translates a Greek pronoun which points to a definite group of individuals on whose behalf God is acting, from beginning to end. Who is it who ends up being glorified (i.e., fully and finally made perfect in the image of Christ)? It is those whom God has chosen to justify. And who are they? The same individuals whom God has chosen to call. And who are they? The same individuals God has predestined to salvation. And who are they? The same individuals whom God has chosen to foreknow.
Some scholars have argued that to foreknow means to select on the basis of something which God sees (knows) in advance about the person who will ultimately be saved. But the Hebrew understanding of foreknowledge is much more relational. To know someone is to become intimately acquainted with him or her. To foreknow (as in God’s case) means to decide in advance to enter into relationship later in time.
Thus before the foundation of the world, God decides from among His creatures those with whom He will enter into a saving relationship. Those whom He foreknows He then predestines to an eternity of glory. Those so predestined He calls to Himself at some point in their earthly life, and in drawing them to a response of trust in Him grants them justification (i.e., forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation to Him). And finally those whom He declares righteous (because of the work of His Son), He unfailingly brings to eternal joy in heaven.
This promise of salvation is exceedingly valuable. Each sequence is guaranteed and accomplished by God. Nothing can prevent God from achieving His predestined purpose for the elect. Paul is so sure of this that even though the work of glorification is still future (from our vantage point), Paul speaks of it in the completed (past) tense: “those he justified, he also glorified.” Such grammar would be impossible unless God’s freedom to do as He pleases trumps every other event or choice, including ultimately the human will. Paul’s conviction leads him to close Romans 8 on a note of unparalleled triumph: “For I am convinced that … [nothing] else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The most powerful biblical text teaching predestination, however, is found in Romans 9:1-23. Here Paul faces the seeming obstacle to his assurance that God’s electing plans are unassailable. If nothing can separate the elect from God’s love and care, what happened to Israel, the people of God? If the Messiah came to save them, why have they been rejecting Him in such large numbers? Are God’s promises somehow not reliable?
Paul takes up this question in 9:6-13. Here he argues that indeed God’s promises to Israel have not failed, for the promises were made to “true” or “spiritual” Israel, not simply all the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The true children of Abraham are those born through the promise of God; that is, not those created through human effort (as Ishmael was conceived through Abraham’s machinations to produce an heir through Hagar), but those brought into existence by the promise of God (as Isaac was the fruit of Sarah’s barren womb according to God’s decree).
In case anyone might argue that of course God would prefer Isaac over Ishmael, because the former was the offspring of Abraham and his wife, while the latter was the fruit of union with a slave girl, Paul goes on to say that God’s election has nothing to do with inherent qualities in individuals, but depends solely on His inscrutable decisions. Look at the twins conceived by Rebecca through Isaac, Paul argues. “Yet, 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 was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (9:11-13). In contravention of the ancient right of primogeniture (where the eldest is granted favored status in the family by being firstborn), God chooses Jacob, the second-born twin, as a child of promise, and sets aside Esau.
BUT WHAT ABOUT MERCY?
This cannot be fair, we naturally think. Isn’t God then playing favorites? Paul takes up this objection in vv. 14-19. To the question, “Is there injustice on God’s part in acting this way?” Paul replies with a resounding no. Instead, he says, God’s righteousness consists in being true to His glorious nature, by acting in ways, which demonstrate the full range of His glory. Central to His glory is the decision where and when to grant mercy. But the granting of mercy to some necessitates the backdrop of justice against which mercy can be seen for what it is. As C. S. Lewis notes in his article “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” “Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice.”
Paul illustrates this through the Exodus story: God shows mercy to the captive people of Israel in Egypt, but He acts in judgment against Pharaoh. Why? So as to make clear to the world that the electing (saving) work of God depends not “on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (9:16). God’s glory is seen not only in the rescue of those He has chosen (Moses and Israel), but in the overthrow of those who oppose His purposes (Pharaoh). Paul then concludes this section with the most forceful predestinarian statement found anywhere in Scripture: “Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (9:18).
Naturally, this declaration does not sit well with those for whom the human will is inviolable. How can we be free agents if God saves apart from human efforts and hardens hearts so as to create enemies He can then judge? How can God find fault with us if He molds us as He chooses and we have no say in the matter? Paul raises this objection in verse 19, and seeks to provide two answers in verses 20-23.
First, he says, as the Creator of all that is, God has the right to do with the parts of His creation whatever He chooses. The potter takes a batch of clay, and from that same batch forms vessels for different purposes, some destined to end up in museums or on pedestals, others to become spittoons or ashtrays. The clay, as it is being molded according to the will of the potter, has no right to say, “Hey, why are you making me into a cooking pot? I want to be a flower vase.” So human beings do not have final say over their purpose in creation.
But second, and more important than this naked statement of God’s sovereignty, is Paul’s understanding of God’s ultimate purpose. God acts as He does, not capriciously, but in such a way as to showcase His glory to the creation. According to verse 22, God desires to show His wrath — not because He enjoys judgment as a final goal, but because it serves as a necessary backdrop against which His mercy will be all the more richly appreciated. As a jeweler always lays out his diamonds against the backdrop of black velvet so as to emphasize their beauty, so God “bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction” so that when they are finally judged, the universe will see all the more clearly the “riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory [i.e., the elect — see v. 24]” (9:23). Judgment indeed is a necessary element of God’s glory, but He finds His delight in the free gift of mercy, and as such mercy forms the crowning attribute of God’s nature and of His predestining purpose.
NOT OUR FREEDOM — BUT HIS
Of course, Romans 9:1-23 is a controversial passage, because its contents are so weighty that they must be considered for any systematic theology. Competent theologians come to rather different conclusions when looking at elements of this text. Perhaps that is as it should be. But one thing cannot be denied: Romans 8 and 9 shake the shallow foundations of contemporary American Christian assumptions concerning the centrality of human freedom in the work of salvation.
A deeper look into the Scriptures should lead us to a deeper appreciation for what Augustine called the “prevenient work of God” — the fact that God in His grace does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, predestining us for salvation and then waking us to new life when we are completely dead in our sins and trespasses.
There are many good emphases in American culture which the church has helped fashion or has adopted for its own life. However, the emphasis on unbridled, autonomous human freedom is not one of them.
Perhaps it’s time for the church to reassert a biblical emphasis on the primary freedom of God. Let us continue to affirm motherhood and apple pie, and all the other “good elements” of our culture. But let us jettison the deification of freedom of the will, and put in its place the sovereignty of God, with its fundamental and glorious corollaries of predestination and election.
Dr. Elass is a New Testament scholar and Evangelical Presbyterian pastor. His book, Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book, will be published by Zondervan in 2004.
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