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How do we explain predestination?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Five Points of Calvinism are easily remembered by the acrostic TULIP (Credit: Reformation Church, a Non-Denominational Reformed Congregation in Boerne, Texas)

You may have heard of “five-point Calvinism.”  John Calvin (1509-64) wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion, which are still foundational to the movement known as “reformed theology.”  Well-known pastors such as John Piper, Matt Chandler, and Mark Driscoll have made this theology popular in recent years.  “Five points,” as later expounded by the Synod of Dort (1618-19), are seen to summarize his theological system:

  • Total depravity: the fall affected every part of mankind, mind as well as will
  • Unconditional divine election: we do nothing to earn salvation
  • Limited atonement: Christ died only for those elected by God for salvation
  • Irresistible grace: the elect will accept the grace of God
  • Perseverance of the saints: those “elected” by God will not lose their salvation.

“TULIP” (acrostic for the “five points”) Calvinists accept all of these assertions.  They argue that God’s will cannot be defeated if he is God—if he wants one of his creation to be in heaven, that person will be in heaven.  They add that if God is sovereign over the future, he must know what choice we are going to make regarding Christ.

When opponents protest that it’s not fair of God to choose some for heaven and others for hell, they reply (correctly) that if God were fair, none would be in heaven, for all salvation is by grace.  To which the opponent answers that while none deserve heaven, it is unfair for any to be chosen for heaven unless all are chosen.  And the debate continues.

If five-point Calvinism is one side of the issue of election, Arminianism is the other.  Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) believed that God gives his children freedom to choose for him.  Once we do, we retain that freedom and can later (tragically) choose against him.  John Wesley and his followers were greatly influenced by Arminius’s position, and helped popularize it through the Methodist movement.

A third position is located somewhere between the first two.  It accepts Calvin’s belief in total depravity, so that salvation must be God’s gift; unconditional divine election, so that all is grace; and perseverance of the saints, arguing that once we become the children of God it is impossible for us to go back to our status before our conversion (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).  But this position also claims that God wants each human being to be in heaven with him: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  Such a position could be called three-point Calvinism.  This is my position, one many evangelicals hold.

Those who argue for human freedom must face the question: how can I be free if God knows what I am going to choose?  Here’s my answer: God created time, and so transcends it.  God is not looking into tomorrow—he is already there today.  It’s not so much that God “knows” the future as that for him there is no “future.”  He is the eternal Now, the great I Am (Exodus 3:14).  But the fact that he happens to know what I am going to do tomorrow does not mean that he makes this choice for me.

Consider this fact: God knows exactly what you are doing in this moment as you read these words.  But the fact that he knows your thoughts, motives, and actions does not cause you to feel any less free in choosing them.  The fact that he knows your actions tomorrow makes them no less free when you choose them.

The issues involved in election and predestination are difficult.  Here we must especially seek unity in diversity and charity in all things.  C. S. Lewis was right: if time is a line on a page, God is the page.  So long as we’re on the page with him, all is well.