I had a couple of people ask me about it after services this week. Our Epistle reading from Romans 8:28-39 made reference to being “predestined” for salvation – and that always causes questions to bubble up along the way.
Most of the time, we associate this biblical teaching with the ideas that were formulated by John Calvin (1509-1564) and furthered within the Reformed theological tradition. Calvin, who was trained as a lawyer, tried to wrap his mind around the question about why some people appear ‘saved’ and others do not. Building on St. Augustine’s writings as well as medieval discussions at the university level, he developed the opinion that God somehow ‘chooses’ people – some time before the creation of the world – to go to heaven – and others, to go to hell. He himself referred to this as “that horrible doctrine” which he kept shifting around within his theological writings trying to figure out how this all fits with the image of a gracious God. In the end, however, he laid the foundation for the ‘usual’ understanding of this term that most people here in North America glom onto when we stumble across it in Scripture.
As Lutherans, we don’t try to side-step the word as St. Paul uses it. And rather than being a terrifying concept that suggests that we just don’t know whether we are among the saved or not (as Calvin formulates it), if we follow the biblical teaching, it becomes a radically comforting teaching.
Within Calvin’s theological vision, Church is simply there to preach God’s will (Law) so that the elect (chosen) can praise God for it. But because you can never know whether you are truly part of the elect, you do your best to praise God in hopes that Jesus death and resurrection applies for you.
Scripturally, however, God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and that Jesus’ death is indeed to cover the sins of all (the whole world – John 1:29). Calvin’s problem is that he tried to push this working of salvation away from the giving of the Gift in the Word and the Sacraments to some prior and hidden legislation (choice) of God beyond our reach of knowing on this side of eternity. That’s not how Paul writes about it though. We look to Ephesians chapter 1 to fill this out.
In Ephesians, Paul clearly states that we are chosen and predestined in and through Jesus Christ – as an action of grace (not Law) – which, as we round this out with the fullness of New Testament teaching, is presented and made available for you and me to grab a hold of in Holy Absolution, the waters of Baptism, and even in the Holy Supper of our Lord where Jesus comes to be present to us and for us to truly offer us Himself and the forgiveness of our sins. As a result, forgiveness and salvation are not a hidden reality – but rather – one that is manifest and revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Without Jesus, there is no salvation. Outside of Christ, we are left stuck and dead in our sins. There is no ‘middle ground’. But through Baptism, our lives are tucked away into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6; Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2) so that through these means – Word, Absolution, Baptism, Lord’s Supper) we learn of and receive that ‘calling to faith’ that He makes available to all people – so that we participate in that Gift and choosing. This Gift is available to all – sadly, not everyone partakes of it.
Rather than being a secret decision that God has made before the foundation of the world, Paul teaches predestination as a reality that He puts on offer for each and every one of us – in and through the Sacraments and the life of the Church – as a work of God’s grace – forgiveness – that we can all partake of freely. And the fact that Paul suggests that this was God’s plan from the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-10) is a Gospel statement that even before Creation, it was His plan to send Jesus in order to draw us into that deeper connection and fellowship with Him.
Rather than being a scary doctrine, as a result, predestination is a comforting word which reminds us that God is Love and has been since before the creation of the world. It was always His plan to draw us closer and closer to Himself – something we see on offer and given in Jesus Christ – not just for ‘some’ – but for all. This is why we rejoice in that calling – and this is why we continue to evangelize – so that more and more people might be drawn to Him through Baptism who is our Saviour – Jesus Christ our Lord.