There seems to be a certain impertinence in considering this subject. Are we not ponder­ing the imponderable? Do we truly imagine we can comprehend the outworking of a Divine purpose expressed long ago and certain of fulfilment according to Divine foreknowledge. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” declared James in Acts 15:18 in terms remi­niscent of God’s declaration of Himself through the prophet Isaiah, “…there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure (Isa 46:9-10). God’s purpose is sure; its outcome undoubted. Yahweh further instructs us through the prophet: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isa 55:9). Our perspective then is small, but we shall attempt to understand somewhat the issues before us.

Freewill and our Response to Divine Admonition

Every Sunday we remember our Lord. We take the bread and wine and before that we listen to a brother exhort us to do better in our service before God. Why? What would be the point of that exhortation, if our place before God was predetermined or “predestinated” and we were not

able to respond to admonition and make changes in our lives? A better example might be to con­sider our Lord Jesus Christ as he led a multitude of disciples “up into a mountain”, there to deliver what is popularly known as ‘the sermon on the mount’. He pronounces blessing upon those who live godly lives. He seeks those who are poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers etc. He proceeds to admonish his hearers to remove sin from their lives in all its aspects and more positively to “lay up treasure in heaven” and to “seek first the kingdom of God”. All these actions involve free choice and the exercise of the will. We cannot doubt that our Lord believed we have free will and are well able to respond to his teaching, or more sadly to reject it and go our own way.

Joseph was told by “the angel of the Lord” that Mary would “bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). How are we to understand such certainty, expressed here and in many other like statements? Consider Peter’s expression: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God…” (Acts 2:23). Do these statements remove all volition from our Lord? By no means. It was God’s will and purpose; it involved the clear foreknowledge of the Father; but it was the Son’s willing submission and acceptance of his Father’s will that truly glorified the Father. The agony in the garden demonstrated Jesus’ free will and his triumph over flesh by voluntarily submitting his will to the Father’s: “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39; Lk 22:42).

Before the Judgement Seat

The Apostle Paul taught “For we must all be made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things [done] in the body, according to what he hath done, whether [it be] good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10 NASV). If words are to have any meaning at all, we cannot squeeze Calvinist Predetermination into this statement. It is the balance of our pattern of life (and certainly Divine mercy) that will determine the outcome of the judgment seat. This can only make sense if we freely choose our way of life. Esau sold his birthright, but that need not have been the end of the matter. The Apostle tells us that he chose a “profane” lifestyle, confirming the Divine wisdom in the preferment of his brother (Heb 12:16).

We too make our own choices. God knows the outcome but does not mandate it. He is “merciful and gracious”. He keeps “mercy for thousands, for­giving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6­-7). These terms exclude any cold predetermination of the outcome of life. For those going astray, God looks for change. He is the loving Father who stands without, looking toward the horizon for the return of the prodigal son. Why so, if the outcome for each life is predestined long ago?

What does Paul Mean by that Term, “Predestinate”?

In Romans 8:28-30 Paul outlines a five step process for our salvation, who are “the called according to his purpose”. Bro John Carter comments: “This lifts us to the highest altitude, and enables us to see the Divine view. There is, and always has been a plan…The arrangement of the plan was in the eternal counsel of God.” The five stages are:

  1. whom he did foreknow
  2. he also did predestinate
  3. them he also called
  4. them he also justified
  5. them he also glorified

It is only that second stage, “he also did pre­destinate” to which Paul adds further explanatory detail. Before we stay to consider that, we might first review one other of the six occurrences of that expression in the New Testament. It is in Acts 4 when the community of believers, perhaps led by Peter, “lifted up their voice to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24). In the course of that impassioned prayer we read: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (v 27-28). The crucifixion of Christ was in accordance with God’s will and purpose, “deter­mined before”. But by no means did this make Herod, Pilate or any of the players in this drama helpless puppets. The end result was determined, but individuals could choose to step aside. Others would doubtless take their place in that event, but free will was not overridden.

We have already learned that freewill applies to all, and did to Christ as well. This was the Apostle Paul’s teaching too. Even in his own case, subject to a merciful call and re-direction from a terrible course of life to a great cause, the Apostle realised and gave voice to the possibility of failure and even rejection. Note his words in 1 Cor 9:27: “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I my­self should be a castaway.” The Apostle understood the words of God through Ezekiel; “When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it” (Ezek 33:13).

So in using the expression “predestinate” the Apostle, in view of his clear acceptance of the principles of free will, could not have meant some irrevocable destiny set by God regardless of our choices in life. How then are we to understand these verse in Romans 8: “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren”? God determined before, that any who pass through this process of salvation to the glorification that is its end point, will be only those who are “conformed to the image of his son”. The Son will have many brethren, and he will be the firstborn among them. But they will only have that status if they conform to that godly image determined before by Almighty God.

John Carter puts it this way: “Those foreknown, upon the basis of that foreknowledge, are predes­tined or marked out before for the end in view … Paul stays to tell the object God has in this predes­tination, viz, for some ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren’. God has manifested Himself in Christ in order to bring into being a family of sons out of the Adamic stock. Jesus is the firstborn; and to his character the other sons are to be conformed now, that they may be like him, deathless and glori­ous at his coming.”

The record of Ephesians chapter one expresses similar thoughts. So in Eph 1:4 the Apostle tells us that “…he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” This is God’s will for us. Are we striving every day to bring our will into conformity with the Divine will? Are we really working hard to “be holy and without blame before him in love”?

The Apostle continues: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself”, or in the language of Rom 8:29 that we might be among the “many brethren” of our Lord. In Christ, the Apostle declares in Eph 1:11, “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” What power and hope lie in these words. We have received the gospel call, and according to the exercise of our free will have accepted it, and the outcome of faith­ful continuance is sure.

Conclusion

We have chosen to bow before the will of God and in so doing find ourselves part of a wonderful fam­ily with a glorious heritage. This is no feeble “pur­pose” or “counsel” or “will” of man, but almighty, inexorable Divine power and purpose that will not be stayed and how thankful we should be for that.

Bro Alfred Nicholls wrote upon this subject of Predestination and Freewill some forty years ago. We shall let him sum up for us. “God has not made men and women like machines, to work automati­cally, doing good or ill according to the way they are constructed. He does know the end from the beginning – but we all have the power to choose.”