The Order of Salvation: Predestination and Election
In our theological lexicon, two words in particular stand out as notoriously confusing, potentially offensive, critically important, and profoundly comforting all at the same time. The terms ‘election’ and ‘predestination’ – which have nothing to do with political decision-making and very little to do with popular cultural notions of destiny – refer to God’s eternal decree to claim and to save a people for His own glory.
Any controversy surrounding these terms concerns the specificity and particularity of God’s decree. As the Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this feature of the doctrine, “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death” (WCF 3.3; emphasis added). It is precisely this some/others feature of election and predestination that provoked one dear Christian lady to say to me, “I don’t believe in predestination!”
But this protest against the doctrine of predestination directly contradicts plain statements such as those found in Ephesians 1:4-5, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself” (emphasis added). If we limited our understanding of God’s electing and predestinating decree to His purposing to save people in general, there would be considerable less potential for confusion or offense. But as Scripture makes clear, God chooses particular people (e.g., Deut. 7:6; 14:2; Ps. 135:4; Is. 43:10), and even individuals (e.g., Mal. 1:2f; Rom. 9:13), by divine decree. In other words, the Bible reveals to us a God who wields the prerogative not only to save men, but to choose those particular men whom He saves.
This biblical doctrine is critically important for understanding the freedom of God’s will. Indeed, the third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with these words, “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1; emphasis added). The attribution of freedom to God does no violence to our freedom as created beings who make choices in a condition of contingency. Just as our dependence upon the conditions of life does nothing to nullify the fact that we are genuinely living creatures, so too the fact that our choices are contingent on the ultimate decree of God does nothing to nullify the fact that we are truly responsible for the decisions we make. In fact, the Westminster Confession describes the freedom and ultimacy of God’s decree as doing no “violence” to the “will of the creatures,” and as rather establishing and safeguarding “the liberty or contingency of second causes.” It is because God is free that we are free, for His freedom is the necessary condition for our freedom.
What’s more, our salvation is wholly contingent on our sovereign God. Everything that follows in this blog series on the Ordo Salutis (order of salvation) rests on this critically important doctrine of the divine decree, and specifically of God’s decree of election and predestination.
Far from being an obscure theological position, this doctrine will preach! The Apostle Peter preached the divine decree with great power (and effect), declaring, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:23-24). If God had not decreed Christ’s crucifixion, there would be neither reason to the horror nor guarantee of our Lord’s victory over death. Because God Himself decreed the suffering of His perfect Son and Servant, we can rejoice in His indestructible life!
Finally, the doctrine of election and predestination is profoundly comforting in the light of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. He did not die to make life possible for us. Christ died and rose again to secure for each of us whom His Spirit unites to Himself immortality and everlasting blessedness in the presence of His Father. His saving work is as effectual and unchangeable as the invincible decree upon which it rests. Thus, the soundly converted believer can testify with all confidence, “Christ died for sinners, and He died for me.”
Zachary Groff (MDiv, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC, and he serves as Managing Editor of The Confessional Journal and as Editor-in-Chief of the Presbyterian Polity website.