What is your position on predestination? In particular, how should we understand predestination in Romans 8-11 with its many OT references?
Welcome back. Today’s question is, “What is your position on predestination. In particular, how should we understand predestination in Romans 8-11 with its many Old Testament references?”
That isn’t a bad place to start: with the many Old Testament references. Paul is not giving here an abstract doctrine of election and predestination. Rather, he is talking about a specific moment in history and the crisis that this occasions: the theological conundrum of Israel largely rejecting the gospel and of the Gentiles flocking in and receiving it.
This presents deep theological problems and deep questions about soteriology, about salvation. It is not abstract soteriology. It is not the general question of ‘How are individuals saved?’ That is not the question at all. Rather, it is about questions such as: How is God working things out in history? How is God forming a people in history? How does this comport with God’s character? How does this fit in with his covenant purpose? And all these sorts of questions. It is an extended theodicy and an extended justification of God’s character and justice in this moment in time in Israel’s history.
And it is told against the background of the Old Testament and its themes. So, as NT Wright has observed, if you look through chapters 5-8, you will see an Exodus motif playing out. It starts off with the theme of death and Adam and bondage to sin. And then you come to the waters of baptism, passing through the waters of baptism, crossing the sea. You then encounter the Law, as Israel received the Law at Sinai. And then the struggle within yourself over this Law that brings death when it was supposed to bring life. And the big question is, How is the law that was supposed to bring life going to bring life when all it seems to do is bring condemnation and death?
And then chapter 8 talks about the bringing of life by the Law and how the Law is by the Spirit of God made powerful and it is able to bring new life, the righteous requirement of the Law being fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. So the Law’s intent from the very beginning was to bring life, and it could not do that because it was weak through the flesh. But now, because of the work of the Spirit of God, we are brought into a new liberty, and we can fulfil the law from the heart as the Spirit circumcises the hearts of the people of God.
This involves a movement into new creation. We are led by the Spirit into new creation. It is a Promised Land theme. Being led by the Spirit, being led by the cloud and the pillar of fire, and going into the Promised Land. And this is what the creation groaning in its futility and birth pangs is waiting for, waiting to be delivered of the children of God—the sons of God waiting to be revealed.
And Christ, of course, is the first fruits. Christ is the older brother who has risen from the dead, who reveals the new creation life already at work. And as his people, we are bound together with him in his destiny and will be raised up with him and are already seated in heavenly places with him and in him.
Now when we read that, we will see that this is not just a story about how individual Christians get saved. And when we read it that way, we are bound to make all sorts of errors and find it very difficult to understand. But it is not about how individual Christians are saved, primarily, at all. That is very much something that is a secondary concern here. The real questions are: What is God doing at this moment in time? How is he fulfilling His purpose? How does this fit in with the covenant? What does it mean that Israel has largely rejected; how are we supposed to read this rejection? What is the place of the Gentiles? Can they be true members of the covenant? etc., etc., etc.
And then you have statements like the great predestination statements of Romans chapter 8:28-30:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these he also glorified.
It is what many people would think of as the ‘golden chain’—one thing to another, one after another. Predestination, calling, justification, glorification follow after each other like dominoes in a row. And there is no interruption to this chain. The confidence that this gives us assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus; Paul’s exclamation that follows is one that is grounded upon the confidence of God’s work in Jesus Christ and the surety of his actions towards us in Christ
Now, when we look back through this chapter, I think what we will see is that it is not primarily about a set of individuals. It is about a people that God is forming at this juncture in history, that God is forming a people formed by the Spirit to live out the life and the reality that the Law was always aimed towards but could never achieve. And this revelation of the sons of God is happening at this moment in time. We are already having this anticipation. We can feel, as if it were, this wriggling within the womb of creation, that there is something in there and something that is about to come out. And the first-fruits of the Spirit—this first down-payment, this guarantee of the life to come—is being worked out in us.
This is something that is seen in the body of people that is the Church. This new body of people is being formed in a new way. Now, I do not believe this is primarily about a set of individuals. It is not a set of individuals; it is a body formed around Jesus Christ. And those are different things.
Israel, for instance, is not a set of individuals. Israel is a polity, a people. It is a nation that is gathered around and within a certain set of realities: the reality of the covenant, around being the heirs of Abraham, around the reality of the tabernacle, around God’s presence within their midst, all these sorts of things.
That is what constitutes this as a people. And as a people, it has a certain character that is not necessarily one that can be spoken of as being possessed by each individual in their own right. Rather, individuals possess this as they are part of the nation, as they participate in the root and the reality of the nation. Later on, Paul will talk about the idea of Israel as an olive tree. To be part of that olive tree is to participate in all the blessings of that. Now, it is not that the branches have in themselves all these properties. The point is that they participate in the root and the fatness of that reality.
Now, getting into chapter 9, we see the Old Testament very much is at play again. What Paul is doing is retelling the story of Israel, so that we can understand what is happening at this juncture in history. In the juncture of history following the Christ event, how do we understand that Israel has largely rejected the gospel, whereas the Gentiles have accepted it in large numbers? The problem is, how do we account for this against the background of God’s covenant purpose for his people of Israel? This would seem to be incongruous with God’s intent to save his people. It would seem to go against the purpose of the covenant.
But yet what Paul does is to go back and retell the story of Israel. And he tells the story in a way that highlights, for instance, that the Gentiles who had not been seeking God are fitting recipients of his mercy. That this is in keeping with how Israel always was constituted—by an act of pure grace, not on the basis of anything that might mark them out as deserving recipients. Now, that is not just a matter of works. It could be a matter of ancestry; it could be a matter of some other sort of factor.
And so he retells the story. He is reading Genesis at this point—and it goes on into Exodus and elsewhere. But he retells the story in a way that shows that Israel was never established on the basis of its works, of its keeping of the Law, of its being marked out as the people of the Law. What he is talking about here is not primarily earning salvation through merit, although that is an implication of it: that it cannot be through earning through merit. Rather, it is anything that might mark you out as a fitting recipient of this. For instance, whether it is birth or being born to a particular father. Well, Isaac was the one through whom God would call Abraham’s seed, not Ishmael, so it is not about birth. What about the fact of works and the way that you are an observant keeper of the Law? Well, we see the story of Jacob and Esau. Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? We see that God says, “Jacob I have loved Esau I have hated.” Yet, even within the womb itself—before any actions had been performed—God chose Jacob over Esau and said the older shall serve the younger. And at each point in Israel’s history, Israel was constituted on the basis of grace and of divine election—of a divine election that was not conditioned upon anything that was done by the human actors.
Now, as we read through the story of Genesis, we should recognize this. That this is what we see in the story. Why did God choose Isaac rather than Ishmael? Not on the basis of anything that either of them did. Rather it was divine purpose; it was divine election. It was not the choice of the participants involved. It was God.
Likewise, when we read (as we are studying at the moment in my series on the family of Abraham) the story of Jacob and Esau we may feel sorry for Esau, to some extent. But why was Jacob chosen over Esau? Not because Jacob did anything that earned that, because the choice happened before either of them were born. Later on, we will see that choice reaffirmed, and it is something that is manifest also in Esau’s despising of the covenant and these sorts of things. But that is not the basis for it. It is not that God saw Esau’s wickedness and then decided to cut him off from the covenant. Rather, God’s purpose all the way along was that Jacob should be the one through whom the covenant line would be established. And so the very origins of Israel were established by an unconditioned series of actions of divine grace. God forms his people this way.
Notice the asymmetries as we go through this. That it is about God’s positive action of grace. It is not that there is a symmetrical action of grace and a sort of anti-grace of violent rejection and reprobation. There is not a double decree in a way that would make one decree symmetrical with the other. And the other thing to notice here is this is not about salvation. This is about God’s covenant purpose of forming his people.
In the New Covenant we see that it is far more about salvation because it is the means by which God is blessing and bringing in all peoples, whereas in the past this was restricted to Israel. You did not have to be a member of Israel to be saved. There is no reason to believe that Ishmael was not saved. Indeed, there are reasons why we might think he was indeed saved. The issue here is: who is going to bear the covenant destiny and promise? And God always formed his people through an act of unconditioned grace. As we read through this story it continues. So, it goes beyond Esau and Jacob and into the story of the Exodus:
For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. So then it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs but of God who so shows mercy.”
Notice again there is an asymmetry here. It talks about God’s choice of mercy, his exercising of mercy and compassion. It is not about God choosing to exercise a violent rejection of people. The word for ‘hated’ in the story of Esau need not bear the weight of violent rejection and animosity. Although, that element may perhaps appear later on as the story develops, it just means that God chose or preferred Jacob over Esau, in the sense that he chose him rather than Esau. We see a similar thing in the story of Rachel and Leah: that Leah is ‘hated’ and Rachel is loved. That does not mean that Leah is violently and viscerally disliked. It might involve a dislike, but that is not primarily what those words mean in that context.
The point here then is that God is acting through this unconditioned act of mercy upon people who are unworthy of it. And this need not involve a sort of infralapsarian assumption, although what many infralapsarians are getting at is right: there is nothing about the recipients that fits them for grace. That is, it is not that the choice precedes the sin and the sin is the means for justifying people not being chosen, or something like that. Rather, it is the fact that God’s action in grace is always to unworthy recipients. There is no need for God to justify himself in this way. God is not in the position of having to justify himself. Rather, he is exercising pure grace—unconditioned grace—undeserved favour towards people, none of whom are worthy recipients and all of whom are formed as a people.
And remember, this is the formation of a people and not just the choice of detached individuals. Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Isaac, Ishmael: these are not just odd individuals who happen to be believers or unbelievers. No, these are the people through whom God was shaping, at its very origins, his people. The choice of Isaac over Ishmael is not just the choice of an individual, it is the choice of a people. It is the choice of the descendants of Isaac, rather than those of Ishmael. In the same way with Esau and Jacob: it is not that God is choosing this one individual over another individual. It is God determining how he is going to form his people. What sort of people is he going to create? It is a moulding of a people.
Notice also that the choice of Jacob is declared while he is in the womb. This is not the same thing as an election in ‘eternity past’. People often think in terms of election in eternity past as if history were a grand printout of what existed upon God’s eternal screen. But that is not the way it is described. And thinking about things that way will tie our heads in knots, and it will tend to do violence to the biblical narrative. So it is not helpful to think that way.
We do have God’s determination before creation to form a people in his Son. But that is not the same thing as choosing each and every individual and determining that this set of detached individuals are all going to be elected in my Son. That is not what we see in Scripture. And even in places like Ephesians 1, that is not what we see. It is not what we see anywhere in Scripture. And yet this is a common position and is often seen as the Calvinist position. It is not helpful, and it leads to confusion about what the biblical text is meaning in such places.
Mine is not a reading of this text that is a sort of anti- Calvinist reading. I originally got this reading from Herman Ridderbos, a Reformed commentator, one of the most famous conservative Reformed commentators upon this passage. So, it is not that this is some strange teaching that is not Reformed in any respect at all. No, the point is not about some eternal election before time began.
And the point is not to deny a number of things that are key in Reformed theology. It is not to deny the unconditioned character of God’s grace. In fact, that is exactly what this is intended to affirm. Nor is this intended to deny God’s sovereignty. Again, we see God’s sovereignty throughout this passage. But this is not a sovereignty that is a matter of eternal determination. Rather, it is God’s sovereignty exercised in history, in the events of history. And that is why it is retelling the story of Genesis and Exodus.
In the story of Exodus it talks about Pharaoh: “For the Scripture says this to Pharaoh, ‘Even for the same purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’” Now, I mentioned earlier the significance of choosing people in the womb, rather than in eternity past. Why might that be significant? Because, the person in the womb is not just a blank slate, a non-entity, some sort of figment of God’s imagination (now, of course, thinking of God having ‘figments of his imagination’ is a gross anthropomorphism that will lead to all sorts of confusions, although this is seemingly how some people think, and it does lead to confusions). Rather, what we have is God choosing a particular person in a particular place—within the womb. They have not yet acted, but they are a particular person of a particular lineage, in a particular place and juncture in history. This is not the choice of some abstract individual, who is then plopped into history. That is not how it works. Rather, we have the choice of an individual at a juncture in history. And this particular individual is going to be the means through which God is going to achieve his purpose, through whom he is going to call his people.
And in the same way, within the story of Pharaoh, God raises Pharaoh up. This is not the same thing as God making Pharaoh sinful. For instance, in the story of Job, Job is attacked by these people around him, and all his people are killed, and we have other disasters that befall him. It is not as if the people around him were very favourably inclined to Job, and that Job was in this situation where all his neighbours were praying for him and wishing him well and seeking his good and then suddenly they just turn on him. No, it says God had created a hedge around him, protecting him, etc.
In the same way, when we think about someone being raised up or hardened, when we look in the story of Exodus we see that on the one hand God hardens and on the other hand Pharaoh hardens himself. And this is a fitting way to see things. This recognizes the integrity of secondary causation: that God’s causation is not in competition with human causation. And particularly when it comes to sin: God is not the author of sin. When we read the story of Pharaoh, Pharaoh is hardening himself. But as he hardens himself, God is hardening him as well. These are things that are not in competition with each other. Pharaoh is raised up in order to show God’s glory, that God, in the act of Exodus, might demonstrate his power over the false gods and rulers of the Egyptians and deliver his people from the house of bondage. And to do that he gives, as if it were, free rein to the sin in Pharaoh’s life. He allows him to rise to a fuller stature in order that he might be broken down.
Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’
Paul responds to this with the idea of the potter and the clay.
Now, the potter and the clay. Again, it is not that God creates a blank slate and then he writes on it whatever he wills. The potter/clay image is an image of movement between the Potter and the clay. That God is shaping real entities in history—real people and real people groups. So, whether he is shaping Pharaoh as part of the Exodus, whether he is shaping his people through the choice of Isaac and the choice of Jacob over Esau: this is God forming his pottery, as it were, forming his people over history. And as he forms that people, it is being made into a vessel for his glory.
And, on the other hand, we have vessels for honour and vessels for dishonour. The question is, the hypothetical question that Paul raises—he is not necessarily saying this is the case, but it is some more hypothetical situation that may be the case:
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”
What is he saying here? He is returning to the situation at this moment in time and raising a hypothetical question: What if God, as in the situation of the Exodus, with the design of saving and delivering his people, is allowing the vessels of wrath and he is enduring with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, that he might make known the riches of his glory to the vessels of mercy?
Now, recognize a number of things about this. First of all, the enduring the vessels of wrath is for the sake of the salvation of the vessels of mercy. It is for the sake of grace that God endures with the vessels of wrath. Likewise, God is not seen as preparing those to the same degree as the others. They are hardened. And they are hardened not necessarily through pure divine action upon them. But they can be hardened through their own work as well.
And as we read this I think what we should see is this is against the background of unbelieving Israel and unbelieving Israel is rejecting the gospel. What is the purpose of that? That unbelieving Israel is rejecting the gospel, perhaps in order that God might demonstrate his power. What are they fitted for? They are fitted for destruction. And ultimately that destruction comes in AD 70, as Israel is judged and Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed in God’s judgment, which I believe that the book of Revelation is overwhelmingly concerned with. That event is the means by which God makes his power known. And those vessels of wrath fitted for destruction are not about vessels of wrath from all eternity, fitted for wrath in Hell. Again, it is a historical account. This is not to deny that sense. It shades off into that and can involve that as well.
But the point is primarily one concerned with history: that these are prepared in the historical events. These people have rejected Christ. They rejected Christ in his initial mission. And now, they have not just rejected the Son of Man, they have rejected the Spirit given at Pentecost that bears witness to the risen Christ. And so they have sinned not just against the Son of Man but also against the Holy Spirit. And they will be destroyed.
God is bearing with them with long-suffering in order that he might save his people at this moment in time. And that bearing with them with long-suffering ultimately leads to bringing in many Jews and Gentiles. These are the people that God has called. This new people is led by the Spirit. They are the people he has spoken about in chapter 8.
And then again he looks back at the Old Testament the story of Hosea,
“I will call them My people, who were not My people,
And her beloved, who was not beloved.
And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,
‘You are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
The remnant will be saved.
For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness,
Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.”
And then the reference to the remnant and also calling a people from nothing. What he is talking about is that this is the way that God has always done things. The way that God called and established his people at the beginning is the way that he is doing things now. God called Abraham as if from nothing. God formed Isaac through bringing life to a dead womb and preparing Abraham to bear a seed.
Now, this is not established on the basis of merit, on the basis of worth, on the basis of being a fitting recipient of God’s mercy. Israel might protest at that time, Well, we have the temple! We practice circumcision and keep the law! We are people who are marked out by the covenant! We have all these covenant signs!
In themselves, those do not make them fitting recipients. What it means is that we need to look back at the history of Israel, see that in this present moment in time all are under sin, and that God has formed his people from the very beginning through unconditioned acts of grace. It is not based on the basis of birth and ancestry. Ishmael had Abraham as his father too, but he was not chosen. It is not on the basis of what you have done. In the case of Esau, Esau was not the chosen one from his very birth, from even within the womb. It is not on the basis of being greater or lesser. Esau was the older, but he still was not chosen over the younger.
And as we look through, again and again we are seeing this theme repeated that God chooses, establishes, and forms his people through this sovereign work of grace. It is not on the basis of anything that these people might do to merit their status or their standing. And at this moment in time, just as we see in the story of Hosea, God is calling a people who are not a people, who had been, as it were, not just cut off but never been part of the people at all. And as he is calling them they are, as it were, not just life from the dead but life out of nothing. It is something that is formed out of where there was nothing before. And God is bringing this people in. And on the other hand, as in the case of Isaiah’s reference, God is also preserving a remnant of Israel (the 144,000, the people of Israel that are marked out in Revelation). And this is the gathering together of Israel that is going to be saved.
Now, this is something that raises deep questions. What about God’s purposes expressed in grace and his choice of Abraham and his seed? This leads to questions not necessarily saying that Israel is deserving. What about God’s purpose and commitment expressed in that original act of choosing Abraham and his seed? Has God reneged on his purpose? Has he just abandoned his plan for Israel? Has he just thrown Israel to one side and decided to go with the Gentiles?
And Paul answers that question in chapter 11, particularly, and shows again that Israel’s history has always been formed upon the election of grace. That God chooses his people not on the basis of the mere fact of their ancestry, not on the basis of anything else like that, or the basis of their works. Rather, it is on the basis of pure grace.
He points out that, first of all, there remains a remnant. That God has always preserved a remnant of his people. He looks back at the story of Elijah—Elijah and the remnant of Israel. Elijah lamented the situation of Israel, saying that he alone was left. And God said, “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” And at that moment in time there is a remnant. So what we are seeing here is not some sort of novelty. God is not acting in a way that he has not always acted in from the beginning. God has always had a purpose for Israel. God has always intended to bring that purpose to completion. And in the story of Elijah we see that even when it seems that Israel’s history is at its lowest ebb, God still preserves a people for himself. And he will use that remnant to build up His people.
Now, that may mean large numbers being cut off, even the bulk of the people being cut off. But that is understood in light of what we see more generally. What we see more generally is that the whole history of Israel was founded not upon ancestry, not upon birth or status, or possession of the Law—not upon any of those sorts of things. It was ultimately founded upon God’s choice and election of them as his people.
And that choice and election was always one that involved issues of choosing one over another. It always involved issues of forming his people sovereignly through history, raising certain people up, allowing certain people to rise up in order that they might be cut down to show his glory. And also, on the other hand, showing mercy in an unconditioned way upon many in order that they might form his people. And this is what God is doing in a more radical way as he brings in the Gentiles and makes them part of this olive tree.
Now, the root and the fatness of the olive tree is not found in Abraham as an individual. It is not that you are connected to Abraham, primarily. Although, we are children of Abraham. But we are children of Abraham by grace because we are children of promise. That is what we have connecting us to Abraham—we are children formed by divine grace. And that is what connects us to Abraham. Not the fact that we are biological descendants or not of Abraham. That is not the point. The ‘root and fatness’ was always God’s election of Israel—God’s unconditioned election of his people. And that occurred through things like the choice of Isaac over Ishmael, through Jacob over Esau, and through his formation of people through history. And that is what Israel finds its root in most purely. That is what connects them to Abraham—an unconditioned action of divine favour towards them.
Now what does this mean for Israel at that moment in time? It means that Israel is most fully itself when it submits to this election of grace, and when it turns to Christ in whom this has been fulfilled. His point then here is not that Israel is somehow irrelevant. Israel was formed on the basis of this divine act of grace. And circumcision is indeed a sign of the righteousness of faith. But the meaning of that was always found primarily in an unconditioned act of grace, not on the basis of something that would make you a worthy recipient.
Which means that Israel needs to return to the root, to draw once again from the root. And to be grafted in again, they need to become more fully themselves—more fully Israel. And that is through turning to Christ. It is turning to the One in whom that unconditioned nature of God’s purpose, God’s forming of his people through this gracious call, occurs. It is that in which we see God’s ongoing purpose taking place. This is the way God has always worked, and it is the way God is working at this moment in time.
And indeed, the calling of the Gentiles and the bringing in of this wider people and just having the small remnant left to Israel is not the end of the story for Paul. It is something that is supposed to provoke Israel to jealousy. They are supposed to see this situation and say, We are being left out! We are on the outside. And there is this great feast, and this great enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant that were first given to us. We need to receive the blessings that truly belong to us! We are the natural branches!
As Paul says, the natural branches can readily be grafted in again, that they can receive what was always at the heart of Israel’s identity, if they turn to Christ. And then at the end he ends with this very positive note, that even the falling away of Israel is not for the sake of Israel’s finally perishing, but that the people might be saved.
We see that in the story of Christ. That Christ falls away, not in order that he might finally die and that be the end of the story, but in order that a multitude—a countless multitude—might be saved. Likewise, with Israel. Israel in the Messiah is supposed to die and rise again. And as it rises again this brings the full richness. The full blessing of the Covenant comes in as Israel is restored. This, I believe, then helps us to understand predestination and election in a far more biblical way, in a way that is rooted within the text.
Now, this does not mean that systematic theological understandings of predestination and election are wrong. It just means that they are not what the text is talking about. And we need to be careful that we are not deriving from the text things that are abstracted from the wider context within which those texts operate.
As I have highlighted in relation to Ephesians 1, for instance, the context of that is the church at that moment in history. And what tends to get lost in doctrines of election is, first of all, the juncture in which these events are taking place. That this is not just a timeless theory of salvation. Rather, it is the account of what God is doing at this moment in time. What is the meaning of the Church as a particular body of people? Israel was elected, but now the Church is the elect family of God. How do we relate those things: this election and how it relates to Christ’s election before time began?
These are the sorts of questions that need to be dealt with far more carefully by systematic theologians. We are often in danger of abstracting these things from history and abstracting these things from God’s formation of people grouped through history. Rather it becomes about individuals and a set of individuals that need to be saved as a set but then just as detached individuals who as a later point are situated within history, but that situation in history is fundamentally accidental. That is not what we see within Romans or within Pauline theology more generally. And his doctrine of predestination and election is a deeply redemptive historical doctrine. It is profoundly rooted in the events that are taking place through Christ and the work of the Spirit in forming the church.