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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Predestination

Theologian tackles tough topic in response to reader requests

Predestination has been a subject of intense theological interest throughout the centuries. The concern, as it is often presented, begins with foundational claims about the nature and attributes of God.

God’s sovereignty is assumed, as well as God’s omniscience (infinite knowledge, including perfect foreknowledge) and omnipotence (all powerful). From this perspective “God’s will” directs everything that happens. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, God “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” 

More disconcerting than the belief that all things occur according to a prearranged script is that such assumptions about God’s unbending will are often joined with biblical passages that focus on God’s foreknowledge as well as God’s wrathful judgment upon disobedience or unbelief. What results is sometimes called “double predestination.”

As theologian John Calvin said of Romans 9:14: “Before men are born their lot is assigned to each of them by the secret will of God.”

One common expansion of this notion goes something like this: 1) because God is all powerful and has foreknowledge of all things, everything occurs according to God’s will; 2) some people are righteous in the ways of God while others are not; 3) therefore “some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Westminster Confession).

The characterization of God that results from this logic is akin to one whose unpredictable actions result in royal favor toward a few and suffering and death for most. To discern mercy in such a God is difficult at best.

One wonders also how the gospel of Jesus Christ — “the power for salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16) — might function within a cosmos driven by such a God, where fortune or the providence of God or fate has predetermined the lot of everyone before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). What indeed would be the point of preaching the gospel in such a house of horrors (Romans 10:14-17)?

For Lutherans, guidance can be found in Article 11 of the “Epitome” as well as the “Solid Declaration” of the Formula of Concord, a confessional document of the 16th-century Lutheran Reformation. In these two related texts, biblical passages that are seen to inform the topic are interpreted. But this is carried out within a very different theological ethos than that described above. For, as the introduction to the “Epitome” of the article “Concerning the Eternal Predestination and Election of God” states, this “is an article of comfort when properly treated.” 

Wise advice
The church is repeatedly cautioned not to seek “the secret counsel” of God in this matter. That is wise advice. One should not try to think the thoughts of the transcendent God regarding predestination simply because one cannot but get it wrong.

Rather, the Formula teaches, we should cling to the word of God that, in turn, leads us to Christ, who is the “book of life” (Epitome 11:7). It notes: “Whoever conveys this teaching concerning the gracious election of God in such a way that troubled Christians gain no comfort from it but are thrown into despair by it, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their impudence, then it is undoubtedly certain and true that this teaching is not being presented according to God’s Word and will but rather according to reason and at the instigation of the wicked devil.”

A biblical text that is referred to often in the Formula to refute the speculative construction of a God who wills damnation of some is 2 Peter 3:9, which declares unequivocally that God “does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Why is Lutheran thinking so different? An important distinction is made in theFormula of Concord. It’s a distinction between God’s foreknowledge and God’s eternal election. The confessors acknowledge that God knows all things “before they happen.” Yet this foreknowledge is not the cause of sinful activity, “for which people are responsible themselves.”


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