What does election and predestination mean?
Both election and predestination refer to God’s choosing those who will be saved, but the latter term is used in a broader sense as well. This is a difficult biblical doctrine to understand so serious digging into Scripture is required. One could brashly say, “Well, for God to be God he must be sovereign over all things, including our salvation,” but that seldom satisfies, so let’s wade in more slowly.
A Matter of Perspective
When we look at the terms election and predestination, we are delving into the core of God’s Word by which God provides a glimpse of salvation from his perspective. Much of what we read in Scripture addresses us from our perspective, what we need to believe and do. Concerning salvation people come to Christ in many different ways with many different experiences, some quickly, others over a period of time. And regardless of the experience, people sense that they have chosen to follow Christ, and indeed they have, even as Joshua did (Joshua 24:15). But from God’s perspective, he chooses or elects, or predestines his people for his own glory so that his saving purpose will be manifest in them (Romans 8:29-30).
This presents a paradox, but we believe the lines of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility do actually meet somewhere beyond the scope of our understanding. The Great Reformation theologian John Calvin warned that those who “inquire into predestination…are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit” (Calvin, Instit. 3.21.1). So what are we to do?
Elect and Chosen
One must first understand and appreciate God’s sovereignty, his supreme authority and absolute power over all things, as well as God’s providence, his active control and care of all things. The term “elect” refers to those whom God has chosen throughout time (Matthew 24:22, 24, 31; Romans 8:33; 9:11; Colossians 3:12). Even as God “set his love on” and “chose” the Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:7; 10:15) not due to any good in them, so he has likewise chosen all of his people (1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). In the same way that Scripture says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV), this doctrine says that we choose God because he first chose us.
The word “predestined” has both a broad and narrow meaning. In the narrow sense it refers to the election of all who will be saved (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11). In the broader sense predestine refers to all things, including God’s plan (1 Corinthians 2:7) and the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23; 4:28). God’s sovereign oversight of all things, his providence, is found throughout Scripture most prominently in the story of Joseph (Genesis 45:5-8) and in clear passages such as Job 14:5 and Isaiah 14:24, 26-27. This broader sense is the most difficult and misunderstood, but be assured that people have a free will and therefore are responsible for their sins.
Perhaps the clearest passage that states the doctrine of election is in Acts 13 during Paul’s first missionary journey. When the gospel is rejected by the Jews, Paul and Barnabas announce that they are going to preach to the Gentiles who rejoice at the news. Luke then states in verse 48 that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Here we have in a nutshell both God’s perspective of appointing (election) and our perspective of believing (see also John 6:37).
So how does God bring this about that some believe while others do not? Turn again to Acts and chapter sixteen which tells of the beginning of Paul’s second journey when he was in Philippi While addressing a group of women gathered for prayer including one named Lydia, we read that “the Lord opened her heart” (v. 14). God uses many ways to open and regenerate hearts (Ephesians 2:1-9; Titus 3:5) and he entreats us to be a part of that through our witness and prayers.
Knowing that God chose us and then saved us by his grace means there is no room for boasting in heaven (1 Corinthians 1:29, 31; Ephesians 2:8-9). Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone! Instead we are filled with humility, gratitude, and love. Predestination is definitely one of “the secret things” of Deuteronomy 29:29 for in this life we see dimly and only in part, but one day we shall know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12).
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Calvin, J. (1960). Calvin: institutes of the Christian religion. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.