Three Tips for Understanding Predestination

“Do you believe in predestination or free-will?”

I’m not a famous Christian leader by any means, but I do get asked this question at least two or three times a week. Most often it’s from the mouth of a young person, newly familiar with their “label,” who wants a quick soundbite to confirm my orthodoxy. They’re rarely satisfied with my answer: “It’s not that simple.”

I’ve been in Christian leadership for about seven years now and over the course of that time I have changed my mind repeatedly about how to interpret biblical passages describing God’s action of election, or predestination. Thus, I am fairly humble in my approach to the doctrinal debate. I am confident, however, that my ability to parse the issue has grown as I’ve been exposed to more and more of the church’s best theologians.

These days, I generally give three “theological guidelines” as a general rule of thumb for how I approach the biblical notion of election/predestination:

1) Election is primarily Christological

“Jesus Christ is the basis of the doctrine of election. All its statements must be statements about Him.” – Robert Jenson

The heart of God’s eternal choice consisted in choosing to be radically for us in the person and work of his Son and through His Spirit. Christians are chosen “in him” (Eph. 1:4) and are predestined to be adopted as sons “through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). Before election/predestination has anything to do with specific human beings, it concerns God’s choice to love, pursue, and redeem his creatures through his love for his Son. God’s “choice” is not a mystery – but is revealed through the person and work of Christ. If you want to know God’s eternal decision about you, it is that he has chosen to relentlessly pursue your rescue no matter what it may cost him. Martin Luther says it beautifully: “When wondering where and how to find the Creator God of predestination and majestic holiness, remember there is no other God besides this man, Christ Jesus. See God revealed, hanging on a Roman cross, for your sins.”

2) Election is primarily Corporate

We often approach the Scriptures with an inherited worldview of hyper-individualism. However, election (in both the Old and New Testaments) is a corporate concept. God elected Israel to be his “chosen” people. But there were ways that individuals could get into the chosen community and ways that they could get out of it. Similarly, Paul uses inclusive pronouns to refer to election – “us” – and never tries to distinguish between individuals in a local church. He assures the baptized, believing, Spirit-filled community that they are the chosen ones. A corporate understanding of election doesn’t deny that humans have legitimate free will. The crisis that election creates is not contemplation over whether God chose you behind some secret curtain before history, but over whether you have joined the chosen community. God has not chosen between Sally vs. John – he has chosen to redeem all those who are in Christ. He desires that both Sally and John are united to Christ, though they have legitimate freedom to reject the offer. Even when I was a hyper-calvinist, I agreed that “no one who believes and follows Christ will come to find that they have not been chosen.” Thus, the world God has created is not one in which Sally or John might join the believing community only to have an angelic bouncer tell them that unfortunately they weren’t “on the list.”

3) Election is primarily Doxological

When the Scriptures speak of predestination, it is almost always in the context of overflowing praise. That is to say, the doctrine of election is intended to be unequivocally good news. The moment that it becomes bad news, or cause for worry and sleeplessness, it has been horrendously misunderstood. Israel is constantly reminded that they were not “chosen” because God loved them more than the other nations or because they were his favorite – their election was actually good news even for the nations around them (“I’ll bless you to be a blessing.”)  This doctrine is not meant to be a mystery that causes fear in the hearts of Christians, but a truth that is recognized by believers that causes unexplainable joy. Likewise, it is not meant to create an “us” versus “them” mentality or to divide the world neatly into two groups: the people God loves and the people God hates. Hans Urs von Balthasar summarizes this point nicely: “How can a person seriously believe that God is love and has given himself up for us on the cross, because he has loved and chosen us from all eternity and has predestined us for an eternity of bliss in his presence- how can anyone seriously believe this ‘to be true’ and at the same time refuse to love God in return or despair of God’s love?”

On Predestination

Two quotes worth pondering:

“How can a person seriously believe that God is love and has given himself up for us on the cross, because he has loved us and chosen us from all eternity and has predestined us for an eternity of bliss in his presence – how can anyone seriously believe this ‘to be true’ and at the same time refuse to love God in return or despair of God’s love?”
– Hans Urs von Balthasar

“When wondering where and how to find the Creator God of predestination and majestic holiness, remember there is no other God besides this man, Christ Jesus. See God revealed, hanging on a Roman cross, for your sins.”
– Martin Luther

Making the World Right

In light of the events of this week, a few quotes on God’s making the world right.* I hope this vision captures the church, myself included, and we become God’s people – a people working to make what is wrong right.

 

In Galatians, the cross is interpreted not primarily as an atoning sacrifice for forgiveness of sins, but as a cataclysmic event that has broken the power of forces that hold humanity captive, brought the old world to an end, and inaugurated a new creation.

Richard Hays

 

Paul takes his bearings from the good news that in Christ – and thus in the act of new creation – God has invaded the cosmos. Paul does not argue, then, on the basis of a cosmos that remains undisturbed but on the emergence of the new cosmos with its new elements.

J. Louis Martyn

 

In Christ’s death the whole world has been put to death and a new world of possibilities come to birth.

James D. G. Dunn

 

God’s gracious will is to create life, to call into existence things that do not exist…Far from repairing the old cosmos, God is in the process of replacing it. 

J. Louis Martyn (partial summary, partial quote)

 

The new creation is not, however, merely a dream or a vision it takes on empirical reality in the community of God’s people.

Richard Hays

 

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

 

_________

*All quotes from commentaries on Galatians.

 

Comedians and Curbside Prophets

It was in N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, where he observes that both laughter and tears clue us into the fact that something has gone wrong in the world.  This statement came alive to me while reading a recent blog post.  The author came up with 15 episode ideas for Seinfeld if it were still running today.  The beauty of Seinfeld was that it took scenarios that we would describe as common, mundane, and typical and would point out their insanity.  The show subverted our values/neurosis with brilliance and seemingly lack of effort.

In this way, comedy actually plays a prophetic role in our society.

Now by prophecy I am not talking about a power to predict the future, but prophecy in terms of the ancient prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  Prophets were given a special kind of authority by God, usually empowered by the Spirit, in order to urge their people to see the error of their ways and repent.  Prophecy is truth telling through powerful, symbolic acts with the goal of righteousness and justice.  Prophets had a heightened sensitivity to the injustices around them, which usually led to their own despair (i.e. Jeremiah).

Comedy is a gift because it is one of the few forms of truth telling that our society is willing to hear. And the truth it is trying to tell us is that something has gone drastically wrong.  Comedy depends on this for every punch line (okay, maybe not knock, knock jokes).  Think of the following as prime examples of this: Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Stuff Christians Like, Stuff White People Like, The Onion, and the list goes on.

Through the guise of shallow entertainment we have invited these comedians into our hearts.  They’re clever lines aim right for our subconscious and consciences.  Now sometimes they miss and go straight over our heads, but for those with eyes to see and ears to listen we start to hear the cries of the victims of our broken world.

I wish the American church had half of the prophetic power of these comedians.  Truth telling is a vital role of the church, but we have warped it in the same way we have a warped our understanding of prophecy (Left Behind…need I say more).  We are so obsessed with assigning blame for the evil around us (i.e. “Thanks, Obama”) that we miss the evil that resides within us.  Truth telling has become a power play– a way to fill up the seats.

So what has made these comedians so successful and what, if anything, can the church learn from them?

1. Comedians consider their audience.  A good comedian knows what kind of demographic they’re going to attract and tailors their material accordingly (Jeff Foxworthy comes to mind).  This is rhetoric 101.  If you want to move or stir your audience, you have to consider what they value and how they think.  This does not mean that we change what the gospel is, but that, as Paul says, we become “all things to all people.”

I was at an assembly where an elder stood in front of a largely teenage audience and said that America was going to fall into ruin because of its tolerance of homosexuality.  Here is a classic example of the church thinking they are taking on the role of a prophet when in truth they’re just being a jerk.  Truth telling is not bullying, and if you’re not sure of the difference I recommend befriending a homosexual or any other person who has been marginalized/victimized by the church.  The American church for far too long has played the victim, when they are more often than not the bully.

2. A Comedians’ worldview is shaped by their task.  I loved the show Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the writers came to work and shared that he had accidentally recorded over his wedding video.  On the night of their anniversary he popped in the video and to his and his wife’s horror, their wedding day was now a football game.  The writers knew that his unfortunate mistake was a goldmine for the show and immediately started writing the episode for it.  They confessed at the end of the series that many of their episodes were drawn from their own lives.

A comedian is never off the job.  Every experience could be a potential punch line or sketch.  They can’t afford to turn off this part of their brain because they might miss something.  Most comedians are saturated in their craft, which means that they can’t help but think a bit differently than the rest of us.

Christians need to adopt this kind of transformative thinking.  Our minds need to be saturated with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the cries of Lamentations, and the prayers of the saints.  Perhaps when we have become so saturated our truth telling will seem more authentic and feel less like a party line.

Unlike these comedians, the prophets of Israel were not very popular with their audience.  Speaking the truth confronts injustice and so it will always ruffle some feathers.  Nevertheless, the church has a vital role to play by simply speaking the truth.  This is why we must constantly examine our hearts to fight against any hidden agendas or desires for power.  Truth speaking is always cruciform (cross–shaped).  The church will never be the city on a hill by casting stones, but by taking sin’s weight (with all of its guilt, shame, and despair) off of the world and placing it on its shoulders.  For when we take on the wounds of the world we start to look a whole lot more like Jesus.

Spiritual And/Or Natural Gifts – Maximus the Confessor

Christians need to be careful that they don’t treat the Spiritual gifts as simply a Christianized Myers-Briggs test. The empowering charismata of the Spirit shouldn’t be reduced into a baptized version of a personality analysis. Can our Spiritual gifts line up with and build upon our natural giftings? Sure. But the Spirit empowers believers to act beyond their natural inclinations and capabilities.

Maximus the Confessor says it well:

“The grace of the Most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it; nor does he give the gift of knowledge where there is not a natural rational ability to receive it; nor does he give faith without total certainty of intellect and reason regarding future realities; nor does he give charisms and healings where there is no natural love for our neighbor, note any one of the other charisms where the conditions are not right and there is no matching ability to receive them. In any case, no one will ever come to possess any of the gifts we have mentioned through any natural ability whatever, but only through the divine power that confers them.

[Various Chapters, IV. 13 (PG 90.1308-9)]