Why Bother With Predestination?

Sarah Frewen-Lord

4 October 2013

Last Sunday, we were taken to one of the pinnacles of theological thought as we considered the doctrine of predestination. Throughout history theologians have apprehended this biblical concept in divergent ways, fostering two main streams of thought known today as Calvinism and Arminianism. To gain a better understanding of these ideas, we need to look back to a theological dispute that emerged in the 5th Century and crystallised in the 1600s.

The Early Church: A Synergist View of Predestination

The doctrine of predestination took shape in the early years of church history. It was understood as God’s electing of some sinners for salvation before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4).

Yet, amongst a culture that featured notions of fatalism and absolute determinism, it was important for the early church fathers to emphasise the role of human free will in choosing salvation. Collating passages that spoke of God’s sovereignty in effecting salvation and man’s responsibility to choose God, they were led to conclude that salvation was the result of a cooperative effort between God and man. This is otherwise known as a synergist view: In predestination, God both foreknew those who would choose Him, and willed them to be saved. Clement of Alexandria sums it up, saying, ‘God conspires with willing people.’

Pelagius and Augustine

In the 5th Century, a monk by the name of Pelagius (390-418) departed from synergism by affirming that man is born sinless and has the ability to choose and attain salvation without God’s help. Pelagius thus reduced the idea of predestination to foreknowledge, and evacuated God’s active will from the act of salvation.

Theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430) soon challenged Pelagius’ view. He understood Adam’s sin as having corrupted human nature: Man was born a sinner, incapable of choosing God, therefore needing God’s saving grace to bring him out of total depravity. Augustine believed that God did not will all people to be saved; rather, in His sovereign will, He chose the elect and them only for salvation. Consequently, salvation was from beginning (predestination) to end (glorification) a work of God alone. This view is known as monergism.

In 529 the church convened a Synod at Orange to resolve the conflicting views of Pelagianism and Augustinianism. On most items the Synod sided with the Augustinian view but remained undecided on the doctrine of predestination.

The Rudiments of Calvinism

The discussion thus carried on into the 16th Century, as the Protestant Reformation spread throughout Europe. Martin Luther clearly stated his view; ‘Our will is unimportant, God’s will and choosing are decisive.’ But, perhaps more than any other Reformer, French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) was most captivated by the doctrine of predestination. He taught that predestination is ‘God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each person […] Eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.’ This election is not based on human worth or effort, but on God’s pleasing will. In the exposition of this doctrine, he highlighted the grace of God towards undeserving sinners, and encouraged believers to persevere in humility and hope.

The Five Points of Arminianism

It was some fifty years later that Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) refuted Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. He preached that salvation is a product of the human will rather than divine appointing, and understood the doctrine of predestination to refer to God’s choosing of those whom He knows will choose him.

Arminius’ followers compiled his teachings in five articles of faith, known as The Five Points of Arminianism. These are:

  1. Free Will: each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation;
  2. Conditional Election: God elects or reproves on the basis of man’s foreseen choice;
  3. General Atonement: Christ died for all men, although only believers are saved;
  4. Resistible Grace: God’s grace in calling us to himself for salvation may be resisted;
  5. Perseverance of Some Saints: those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith.

The Five Points of Calvinism

When these articles were published at the turn of the 17th Century, the Dutch Reformed Church called a national Synod to meet in Dort in order to examine the views of Arminius in light of Scripture. 84 members gathered over a seven-month period of time, and rejected the five doctrines advanced by the Arminians as heretical. In response, the Synod compiled John Calvin’s teachings into The Five Points of Calvinism. These are:

  1. Total Depravity: because of the fall, man is sinful and depraved in every facet, unable of himself to believe the gospel, it is God’s work from beginning to end;
  2. Unconditional Election: God chooses individuals for salvation before the foundation of the world, not based on their works, or will or reason but out of His sovereign and secret will;
  3. Limited Atonement: Christ’s death purchased common grace for all, but His redeeming work was intended to save and secure salvation only for the elect;
  4. Irresistible Grace: those God has called cannot resist His call;
  5. Perseverance of All Saints: all of the elect will be effectively saved and kept until the end.

Why all the fuss?

For many believers today, discussing the doctrine of predestination seems either pompous or irrelevant. Yet there are many reasons why it is wise for us to follow our Christian brothers and sisters before us who have wrestled with this issue. First, God is glorified when we use the minds he has given us to think deeply about the truth He has revealed to us. Indeed, while the ‘secret things belong to the Lord our God’, ‘the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever’ (Deuteronomy 29:29). God has revealed much in His word about the plan, purpose and process of salvation. Given that all Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), we do well to wrestle through this revelation. Second, we will know our Saviour more intimately if we have a clearer idea of the way He saved us. This should lead us to worship Him. Finally, if we are truly awed by God’s work in salvation, we should be humbled by His sovereignty, and encouraged to seek Him further.

For an unpacking of both views, and clarity on City on a Hill’s position, please listen to Guy Mason’s sermon 'If God Predestined People To Salvation, Why Bother With Evangelism?'.

Further reading

Chosen by God – by R.C. Sproul
For Calvinism – by Michael Horton
Against Calvinism – by Roger Olson

Sarah Frewen-Lord