Thursday, November 12, 2009

Double Predestination - Doctrine of No Consequence

Note: This is a paper I wrote April, 2002, for a course in Lutheran Confessions.  It was a fun paper to write and not too heavy on footnotes, etc.  Professor Mary Havens liked my use of alliteration.

Double Predestination: Doctrine of No Consequence


All Christians believe that it is God who has provided our salvation, but there are divisions along two lines. The first division occurs over whether the salvation provided by God is adequate and available for all or for only the elect. The second division occurs over whether the salvation must be earned by some work or is given freely. If one assumes salvation is available to all and is given on the basis of good works, the Pelagian position, one has an easily understandable and consistent theology. It’s similar to the American free enterprise system, a system that works great for providing the material needs of society but is probably not applicable to the spiritual domain. With Pelagianism, two problems arise: It is inconsistent with much of Scripture, and there is no way to know how much good work is enough. If, however, one assumes that salvation is adequate and available only for the elect and that it is freely given by God out of His grace, the predestinarian position, different problems, to be discussed later, arise. The resulting controversy, centering on how salvation is given and received, has been one of the most divisive and enduring in the history of the Church.

There are two major understandings of predestination. The extreme double predestinarian position is that God decided before all time who is to be eternally damned and who is to be saved, that he did so without any consideration of what persons would do or believe, and that his decision is irreversible. A less extreme view teaches that, after the fall of mankind from grace, God arbitrarily elected some to eternal life but simply left the others to their own devices rather than condemn them arbitrarily. In this less extreme view, individuals, rather than God, are responsible for their own condemnations. An even less extreme view, Arminianism, says that God predestined based on His foreknowledge of those who would have faith.

For the purpose of this short paper, I would like to focus on double predestination and argue that, even if it is true, it is a doctrine of no consequence and of no benefit to the church. There are three reasons for that argument. The first is that we have clear instructions for the Church, the body of Christ, and those instructions are not affected by whether double predestination is a true doctrine. It is our job as Christians simply to be the Church and to follow the commands of Christ as the Holy Spirit enables us to do so and in gratitude for what Jesus has done for us. The second reason is that, since we cannot see into the hearts and minds of persons and do not know and cannot predict the future, we have no basis for disruptive and sinful speculation on whether or not any individual is among the elect. The third reason is that our understanding of God is a tiny part of the whole truth of God and that God’s plan may well extend even beyond the limits of time and space that are so real to us.

Why Predestination?

Predestination is consistent with the doctrines of the total depravity of mankind, the sovereignty of God, and salvation by grace alone. If all persons are totally depraved, spiritually dead, separated from God, and unable to do anything at all in response to God, the only way a person can be restored to communion with God is through action on the part of God who, solely out of grace, gives the gift of faith. God could have chosen to give that gift in real time rather than having predestined it, but Scripture clearly teaches that, “…he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” Strong predestination theology can also be found in Romans 8:28-30.

28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
In addition, there are thirteen references in the NRSV New Testament to the “elect,” a term which seems to refer to those whom God has chosen or set apart in some way. The Ephesians passage above seems clear on God’s positive election of some, but Romans 9:18 is quoted in support of double predestination: “So then He has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever He chooses.” We also find in Scripture talk of sheep and goats , of wheat and weeds , of judgment and punishment , and of lumps of clay that can be made into either vessels of wrath or vessels of honor . The message of all these seems to be the sovereignty of God and powerlessness of mankind in salvation.

At the other extreme from predestination is the Pelagian belief that individuals do have the ability to respond to and obey God and must do so in order to restore communion with God. Their ability may be nothing more than the ability to decide whether to accept or reject the gift of eternal life which God is offering to all, but the responsibility and choice reside with the individual rather than with God. Pelagians quote John 3:16, Revelation 3:20, and many other passages, always sparking immediate rejoinders from Calvinists who explain how they are misinterpreting those passages. Two problems with the Pelagian position are that it seems to leave our sovereign God helplessly waiting to see who will listen and follow Jesus and that it seems to require a theology of works, meaning that those who do follow Jesus must be in some way better or at least smarter than those who don’t. In Arminianism, God knew who would believe but still was dependent on those individual decisions to believe. Early Arminians were accused of Pelagianism but denied it saying that even though God foreknew who would have faith, faith was still possible only by the grace of God.

Curiosity, Condemnation, and Complacency

There are three major problems associated with misuse or misunderstanding of the doctrines of both single and double predestination. The first, Curiosity, is the fact that humans cannot easily accept the concept of God choosing without wanting some information about the criteria He uses. If I am chosen, not because of my good works or because of my faith or because of my parents, or because I am American or Southern, then why am I chosen? It’s an extension of the sins of eating of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and construction of the Tower of Babel. We want to know the mind of God, and we have difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the mind of God is not understandable to humans. There is a divine mystery.

The second problem, Condemnation, arises from the human problems of hate, fear, and pride. If God has chosen some to be damned, it is the tendency of some of those who believe they have a brighter destiny to try to identify the condemned and begin their predestined mistreatment immediately. Why wait until they die? Let’s do the Lord’s work now. Let’s throw them out of the Church. Totally ignored is the fact that a person, whose life currently offers abundant evidence of being among the hopeless, may appear, in a few years, to be a saint, and vice versa. “…for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” There has been animosity not only by Calvinists toward those perceived to be condemned but by Calvinists and Arminians toward each other. Why would an Arminian want to condemn a believer for wanting to give all the credit to God, and why would a Calvinist want to condemn a believer and servant of God for having a different understanding of the process by which that wonderful thing happened? It is the sins of hate, fear, and pride that lead to such condemnations.

The third problem, Complacency, is the tendency of some who believe they are among the elect to withdraw in complacency, sit on their hands, and ignore the commands of Christ to the church. If all has been predetermined by God and is in His hands, why do more than just wait? Why do missionary work if it has already been determined who will be saved and who will be lost?

Acceptance, Assurance, and Accountability

There is an important positive aspect to the doctrine of predestination. As an explanation of the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone, the doctrine of single predestination gives us the assurance, confidence, and strength to listen to and try to follow the commands of Christ for the Church. As Luther put it, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Because we are chosen and justified we need not worry about our own status with God and are therefore free to serve unselfishly.

Labels for these benefits of predestination might be Acceptance, Assurance, and Accountability. If we feel a hunger for communion with God, we know that we are touched by His grace. We are assured that, if we are touched by His grace, we are chosen to serve. If we are chosen, we know we have a responsibility to follow His commands and are accountable for doing so. We know we are free to follow those commands, not in order to be His, but because we are His and because of the faith and love and gratitude He has given us.

It is interesting to think about St. Paul, who wrote early predestination theology in his epistle to the Romans. When St. Paul was still called Saul and was holding the cloaks of the men who stoned the young Christian Deacon, Stephen, to death, it would have seemed clear to any predestinarian observer that Saul was not among the elect of God. However, being struck blind for three days and being spoken to directly by Jesus made a dramatic change in the life of Paul. He became a great evangelist, theologian, apostle, and teacher. The Arminian might say that Paul decided to Follow Jesus. The Reformed “grace alone” theologian might say that God rendered Paul teachable. Paul certainly knew that he had not come voluntarily to Christ and that it was only an act of God that had brought him to that point. It was clear to Paul that he had been elected and changed by God, and that fact made it easy for Paul to teach the doctrines of election and salvation by grace alone.

The case of Paul illustrates the important point that we, who are constrained by time, do not know the future. Therefore it is doubly useless to speculate about who is elect and who is not. Not only would the information be useless if we had it, it is impossible to obtain. An additional complication is that God is not constrained by time, and what God may do completely outside our understanding of a person’s earthly existence for the average three score years and ten is a total mystery to us.

St. Augustine, another theologian who taught predestination, never persecuted the Church as Paul did but struggled unsuccessfully for years to achieve spiritual peace. Finally, it came to him as a free gift of God after he read Romans 13:13. As he wrote, “No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. Luther had his “tower experience” as a free gift from God which eliminated the anfechtung which had spiritually crippled him for years. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Wesley, and other great Christian leaders gave similar testimony of how they had received the free gifts of acceptance and assurance and had finally felt free to serve God with all their energies, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in thankfulness for what they had received.

Responsibilities of the Elect

Scripture is clear on the responsibilities of members of Christ’s church, the elect. We are to love and serve and worship God and to love and serve each other. Christians are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are to tell the Gospel story and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are to avoid judging each other. Based on the example of Christ, we should associate with and witness and minister to the un-popular and the sinful and the disreputable as He did with Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors. We are told to let the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. Focus on a doctrine of double predestination does nothing to help the Church accomplish these responsibilities.

Suppose for a moment that it is possible to know whether a person is among the elect or not. What would our Christian responsibility in such a case be? Would it not be more Christian to love and care for and support that person rather than judge them, persecute them, or cast them out of the fellowship? Certainly, if we believe that we are chosen by God, not because of any merit on our part, and that another is condemned by God, not because of any demerit on his or her part, our feeling toward the one condemned should be one of sympathy and support rather than of fear and loathing. If being the salt of the earth and the city on a hill means making life better for all and telling people the promises of the Gospel, what better opportunity would there be for that than with the apparently condemned. Scripture also makes it clear that, even if a person is predestined to eternal life, the means God uses to bring those persons into the Kingdom is the Gospel message and that it is the responsibility of the church to deliver that message to all. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”


We cannot use the doctrine of double predestination, which, incidentally, is clearly rejected in the Lutheran Confessions, to excuse our failures to love one another, to help those who need help, and to worship God. We are commanded to do those things in scripture and have no choice but to obey or to disobey. We cannot use the doctrine of double predestination to justify keeping our mouths shut about Jesus. We are clearly commanded to tell the story of Jesus. Predestination is good only for the Assurance, Acceptance, and Accountability it gives us, and it is good for that only if we avoid the sins of Curiosity, Condemnation, and Complacency that excessive focus on predestination can lead to. The best way for the Christian to view predestination is simply as the “flip side” of the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. God alone saves, and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.

Thanks be to God!


Augustine, Saint. Confessions. trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 345). Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Tappert, Theodore G. The Book of Concord, trans. By Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.

1 comment:

  1. some neat thots - thanks for sharing
    Kerry Doyal, pastor
    Grace Bible Ch - Kgpt, TN