If a potter made a piece of pottery for a museum and another one for use as a trash can, would the latter pottery have the right to accuse the potter, “Why did you make me like this?”
In our study of Romans 8:29-30, my emphasis was – obviously – predestination. I asked the congregation, “Did you know that all evangelicals believe in predestination?” So if everyone believes in predestination, why do we say Reformed Christians believe differently from others?
The answer is this: Reformed Christians believe that God predestines. The non-Reformed believe that man predestines himself. This is not a trick statement. It is reality. Before I get accused of being judgmental, let me explain.
Raised in an evangelical church, I was taught that before the creation of the world, God looked through the corridor of time and saw all those who would accept Christ by their own free will. With this “foreknowledge,” God predestined them for salvation. Without man’s “free will decision,” God would not choose him. So who predestines whom? According to this teaching, man predestines himself.
Later, I was in utter disbelief to learn that the Bible taught exactly the opposite: God predestines, not according to man’s will, but solely “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:5-6). In fact, in Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sounds like a broken record, repeating the same thought over and over again, seven times to be exact.
But isn’t it unfair for God to choose some and not others? Isn’t God a God of love? Surely he wouldn’t do such a horrible thing! So Paul responds to the same protest that we always hear today: “Is there injustice on God’s part” (Rom 9:14)? Ever since Paul wrote his epistles almost 2,000 years ago, no question has ever been asked concerning this doctrine that hasn’t been asked before.1 In Romans 9, Paul answers this most popular argument against God’s unconditional choice of many, then and now.
Paul answers, “No way!” He then asserts God’s absolute sovereignty in his saving work by using a couple of examples. First, why would God choose Jacob over Esau even before they were born and have done nothing good or bad? (Rom 9:11-13) Just like Moses, Elihu and the psalmist, Paul says there is no unrighteousness in God whatsoever (Deut 32:4; Job 34:10; Psa 92:15). He alone has prerogative on whom he will give mercy and compassion to, and whose heart he will harden and give over to sin (Rom 9:15-18). Notice that God chooses whom he will be merciful to, not who deserves his mercy. And he chooses whom he will give up to sin, not those who do not want to sin (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). No one deserves God’s mercy, because no one is willing and able to seek and understand God due to the total depravity of the human mind. But because of God’s mercy and gracious, he chose some to be saved from his wrath. The others receive God’s holy justice, because they deserve it.
Paul’s second example is more pointed, bringing down human pride even more. Just like today, people then were incredulous: How can God give up some people to their debased minds and then send them to hell? What kind of God is that? Paul says that God would laugh in derision at those who would think about breaking free from God’s sovereignty. If a potter made a piece of pottery for a museum and another one for use as a trash can, would the latter pottery have the right to accuse the potter, “Why did you make me like this?” God would probably be saying, “Now, wait a minute, who’s God here? Who created whom? Who do you think you are?” (Rom 9:19-21)
Now, what’s even more amazing is that all evangelicals have this verse memorized (at least the first part): “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). Paul was quoting what Jesus said when he stated, “[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4).
Did Jesus say, “I chose you because I knew that you will chose me”? At least, this is what most evangelicals were taught. Going back to Romans 8:29, does not Paul say, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…”? Did Paul say that God knew who will have faith in Christ? To be sure, God knew all those who will be saved, because he is omniscient. But Paul did not say God chose us based on our own choice; that would be stretching foreknowledge to its breaking point. It was all according to God’s gracious purpose. He chose us in Christ “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” and not because he saw that we would choose him.
So if God did not choose us based on his foreknowledge of our choice, but according to the purpose of his will, what does this foreknowledge consist of? It consists of his intimate, saving knowledge of his own chosen people. The word used here is the Greek word proginosko (pro, “before,” and ginosko, “to know”) which is found only in three places in the New Testament: Romans 8:29, 11:2 (God foreknew his people) and 1 Peter 1:20 (God foreknew his Son). God foreknew his people, not events or actions. Of course, he knew his people and his Son. But this knowledge is an intimate, personal knowledge. The same Greek word ginosko is used of Joseph and Mary’s physical relationship only after Jesus was born to prove that Jesus was not conceived by the sexual union between a man and a woman (Matt 1:25). Jesus himself said that on Judgment Day, all kinds of hypocrites will come to him, but he will say, “I never ginosko you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-23). Obviously, Jesus knows everyone, but he doesn’t have a saving knowledge of unrepentant sinners.
In fact, the Hebrew equivalent, yada, is exactly that. God knew Abraham so that he will be righteous and just (Gen 18:19). He knew Jeremiah even before he was conceived to appoint him as a prophet (Jer 1:5). God knew Israel out of all the families of the earth (Amos 3:2). The same word yada is used in Adam and Eve’s physical relationship that produced Cain (Gen 4:1).
All of these tell us that God’s foreknowledge of his people is not merely knowing the outcome of their actions before time, but knowing them intimately and lovingly. He foreloved his people. He knew them in a saving knowledge.
So if you believe in predestination, be forewarned of the kind that makes you your own elector. Because instead of being humbled and grateful to God for his unsearchable grace and mercy to you, a wretched, undeserving sinner, you might be thinking, “Ha! I’m better than my friends who have heard the gospel but were not good and smart enough to believe.”
You have nothing to do with any part of your salvation. Paul makes it clear in the next verse, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Who does the whole of this “chain of salvation”? It is God: he predestines, he calls, he justifies, he glorifies. Where are you in this whole process, o man?
1 From the early church to the 5th century, then from the 16th century Protestant Reformation through the early 19th century, a great majority of Christian pastors, theologians and missionaries believed and taught unconditional predestination: 1st century (Clement of Rome), 2nd century (Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria), 3rd century (Cyprian), 4th century (Ambrose of Milan, Augustine), early medieval age (Isidore of Seville, Gottschalk of Orbais, Thomas Aquinas), late medieval age (Thomas Bradwardine, John Wycliffe, Gregory of Rimini), 16th century (Luther, Calvin, Knox, Tyndale, Bucer, Zwingli, and all other Protestant Reformers, many of them martyred), 17th century Puritans, 18th century (Edwards, Whitefield), 19th century (pioneer missionaries William Carey, Hudson Taylor, John Patton, David Livingstone; Baptist Charles Spurgeon, Presbyterians Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Robert Lewis Dabney, James H. Thornwell), 20th-21st century (Abraham Kuyper, Cornelius Van Til, Gresham Machen, R. C. Sproul, Moises Silva, Michael Horton, W. Robert Godfrey, and Baptists Albert Mohler, John Piper and John MacArthur).
With the exception of the medieval age when the gospel was lost, the overwhelming view of the church through the first 1800 years was predestination based only on God’s purpose. Only Pelagius, a 4th century British monk, argued against the teaching of Paul, for which he was condemned by several early church councils. Augustine argued against the Pelagian heresy:
Here certainly, there is no place for the vain argument of those who defend the foreknowledge of God against the grace of God, and accordingly maintain that we were elected before the foundation of the world because God foreknew that we would be good, not that He Himself would make us good. This is not the language of Him who said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).
After the Protestant Reformation, only one teacher, Jacobus Arminius, taught against the Reformers’ doctrines and like Pelagius, glorified human will against God’s sovereignty. Again, all the Reformed churches in Europe condemned him in the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. However, Arminius’ teachings resurfaced in Charles Finney’s heresies in the early 19th century, popularizing Arminian doctrine, worship and practice in almost all evangelical churches today.