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] You can read the first part of my reply here.

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,

Press on with your reading. To paraphrase Psalm 19, getting into the Bible and finding Christ there will refresh your soul, make you wise, bring you joy, and give you light.

In my last reply I gave you some theory that might help you to as you think about these issues. In this reply I am going to address how we can read Scripture specifically.

Predestination

We have to be aware when we read Scripture that we often unconsciously read it with a particular set of prior ideas in mind. In my experience this is nowhere better illustrated than in relation to predestination.

Throughout the Scriptures the writers are trying to balance these truths:

  • God is free;
  • God is all-powerful;
  • God knows all things;
  • God loves humanity; and
  • human beings are (as we perceive it) free;

In any given chapter one or other of these themes may be more prominent than the others but this will nearly always be balanced out somewhere else. This is why it is important to (as you very commendably have) get familiar with the whole of Scripture.

With that caveat, in the New Testament references to predestination are nearly always to the end state of believers i.e. what is the final fate of those who are in Christ? The answer is their final salvation and transformation. Thus in Romans 8:29-30, God foreknew those who would respond to Christ and the destination he chose for them was justification and glorification. Predestination refers to where believers are going (ie if we hold to Christ God has chosen a wonderful destination for us; he isn’t leading us nowhere).

Election

When we’re reading references in Scripture to ‘election’ or something similar, it is important to remember some distinctions that help make sense of what is going on:

  • There is a difference between corporate and individual election.
    In corporate election a group can be chosen because they all fulfil some other criteria. An example would be choosing to support for a particular football team. My (undoubtedly wise) choice to cheer for Spurs means that I will also cheer for each of their players, whoever those players happen to be at the moment.
    In individual election a particular person is chosen without reference to their membership of a group or their relationship to an individual.
  • The distinction is complicated in Scripture when one person can be chosen (like Jesus or Abraham), which is individual election, and then others are chosen because of how they relate to that individual (like Israel or the church).
    We always need to ask what type of election is being referred to and in reference to whom.
  • People can be chosen for a particular purpose or task without that referring to their eternal salvation. For this reason we always need to ask what the person or people are chosen for.[2]

In the New Testament, passages about election to salvation usually include a mixture of these elements. There are key representative individuals who are elect (most often in the New Testament this refers to Jesus), then we (most often the church) are elect as a group based on our relationship to that individual (most often those who have faith in Jesus), while God’s right to do this is illustrated by how he has taken and used people for particular purposes throughout history.

For example, Romans 9 is part of the overall argument from 8-11 about the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles (non-Jews) in the church. Paul wants to answer the questions:

  • Are the Gentiles part of the elect group?
  • If so, how?
  • What about the Jews?

His answers are ‘yes’, ‘by faith’, and ‘also by faith.’

The argument proceeds through chapter 9 by pointing out that God determined the criteria by which the Jews were elect (they were children of the promise given to Abraham). Note this refers to Israel as a group rather than the salvation of any particular Jew. When the Israelites as a group were chosen it wasn’t because Abraham was good or his descendants were good but because God gets to set the entry criterion: 9:14.

This point is illustrated by Paul drawing from different examples of how God sovereignly used people throughout history, interspersed with reflections on the corporate election of Israel through the individual election of Abraham. In each of these examples, God’s choice was sovereign: he can do whatever he wants in history or in salvation including setting any criterion by which people are part of the elect group.

Paul imagines the Israelites then complaining that they haven’t done anything wrong; they kept the Law (the Torah given to Moses) so why should the Gentiles be included by faith? Paul’s answer is that membership of the elect group has always been by faith and now it includes the Gentiles: 9:30-33.

The overall point of the argument is that God determines the group that he justifies. Individual membership of that group is by faith (implying freedom and response, v.32) and not by works. Thus God determines that all who have faith will be part of the elect group whether they are Jew or Gentile. The argument then moves on to Israelites who don’t believe in Jesus and this is what Paul deals with in chapters 10 and 11, a flow that only makes sense if 9 is about the group rather than the individuals.[3]

I have given this example because we get so used to reading chapters out of the stream of the overall  argument of the letter that we assume they are talking about us, as individuals, rather  us, the church, as a group. God has chosen the church. We (together) are elect because we are in Jesus Christ through faith. On a deeper level this is because God has chosen Jesus and we are in him (this is the point of Ephesians 1). None of this necessitates that God is not sovereign or that human beings are not (as far as we perceive it) freed by his grace. In fact it implies exactly the opposite – that by God’s grace we are free to enter the elect group through Christ.

One solution to the problem of our bias towards one way of reading texts about election is wherever you come across a passage that seems odd in its emphasis upon either free will or predestinarian thinking, to try reading the chapters either side as one block and see if that gives a broader sense of it.

This may all seem a bit much. If so, don’t worry. The Bible is the most significant, complex and spiritually nourishing book ever written so there is no need to panic if you don’t understand it all immediately. Keep on reading and praying and over time God will help you to know him more through his Word however you come to put these pieces together.

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. The question is a composite of others I have been asked.

[2] For a deeper and balanced discussion of these issues in Ben Witherington III with Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p.236-259.

[3] As a side-note, this reading accords with that of both St John Chrysostom (in his Homilies on Romans) and St Augustine (in Augustine on Romans). I point this out because St John is often cited as somebody who emphasises the necessity of humanity responding to God’s grace in repentance while Augustine is often associated with a particular understanding of God’s sovereignty. In reality those differences are often a question of emphasis (which will usually reflect the particular challenges a preacher or reader is facing when they assess the text) and the extent to which one thinks we are able to extrapolate from the particular concern of the Biblical writer to a broader principle.

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