Every so often I get asked questions about how to understand Christianity and read the Bible that I think lots of people are asking. I want to provide a space where some of those questions can be answered. If you have a question you would like me to think about and help with then feel free to email me or send me a message on Facebook. I will always keep the identity of the questioner anonymous.

 I received this question from a friend of mine, Jean-Paul:[1]

Dear Phil,

I am reading the Bible in One Year app and have a question. I don’t really understand the idea of free-will and predestination. I struggle with where one ends and the other begins. Also, how does the idea of God electing people fit in?

Best wishes,

J-P

Dear J-P,

First of all, well done on reading the Bible! Ultimately that will provide you with far greater peace and clarity than I will be able to.

First I will try and help you with some theory. In the second part of my reply I will focus on how we can read the Bible well when these issues come up.

The question of free-will and predestination is a massive one and I’m not sure I will be able to answer it satisfactorily. In some ways, that is part of the key to coming to peace with it. We have minds designed to operate within time and to perceive it as acting in a linear way. Then when we try to work out how God (who exists above and beyond time) acts in relation to us we become confused. That confusion is inevitable – it flows from the natural limitations of our present existence; we can’t expect to understand it because it is a question that is by its nature not one that can be grasped by us. I don’t think that this is a cop-out but rather recognises that there is a fundamental difference between ourselves and God that prevents us from even imagining the answers to certain questions (another, related, example is what was there before the beginning / big bang etc? We can’t even properly conceive of an answer because in our experience everything has a prior cause and everything exists within creation – beyond that we can’t speak).

With that said, there are certain propositions that orthodox Christians have generally held to be true whatever background they come from (ie Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant etc).

  1. God is free to do whatever he wants.
  2. God knows the future.
  3. As we perceive it, we are free to act in the present.
  4. Without God’s prior grace that freedom does not extend to choosing him (ie he has to act first).
  5. There is (at least as we perceive it) the possibility of anyone coming to Christ.
  6. Our grace-enabled freedom (as we perceive it) continues after we come to Christ into the choices we make to become like him.
  7. While we have faith in Jesus God will keep us to the end.

Different groups have explained how we can hold all of these ideas together in different ways. On a fundamental level, as long as one is able to affirm all of them the explanatory net underneath doesn’t matter as much as we sometimes imply.

With that said, my own preference is for Wesley’s framework which fuses (in my view) the best of Eastern and Western Christianity. In this model, all humanity is fallen and therefore tends by nature to do wrong, all are experiencing the grace of God in some way, and this grace is intended to enable them to respond to Christ in a way that is appropriate for them (commonly called prevenient grace). We come to Christ when God’s Spirit opens our hearts (providing us with the freedom to respond to him) and we then choose to respond. At that point God freely and totally forgives us in a way we could never contribute to or merit (justifying grace). Thereafter we have freedom to become like Christ insofar as we remain in relationship with God’s Spirit (sanctifying grace). God then leads us to glory (glorifying grace).

Throughout all of this I want to affirm that God is sovereignly in control of the future but makes space within his plans for us to have true, grace-empowered freedom. In the past I have used the (very limited) analogy of a sat-nav in which the destination is programmed but the driver has freedom to keep turning off the route, although I wouldn’t want to push this too far.

I hope this helps. Next week I will send you some thoughts about how we can read the Bible well when it talks about these issues.

With love in Christ,

Phil

[1] Not my friend’s real name but the identity of Charlie’s rival for Zoe’s affections in season 4 of the West Wing.

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