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Predestination vs. free will

Updated: May 28, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Within Christianity is a subset known as the "Reformed" position, and they derive their teachings from the 16th century followers of Martin Luther like Bucer, Bullinger, and Calvin. They claim that man does not have free will, and instead teach that God chose certain people to go to Heaven and Hell. This is commonly called “double predestination.”

Both of these two sets of people cannot resist the choice that God had previously made from the beginning of time, so they therefore do not have free will. Is this truly the case, though? Scripture makes clear that God does in fact predestine us, but it also speaks about the existence of free will. This predestination by God mysteriously works in harmony with free will. This is based on God's "foreknowledge."

One Scripture scholar that believes in a union between predestination and free will is Dr. I. Howard Marshall. Marshall is an influential Methodist Scripture scholar who counter-acts the arguments used by the "Reformed" position in his book, New Testament Theology. He notes that there was a constant both/and theology in Paul’s letters, rather than an either/or dichotomy. Those who believe in a both/and approach, see predestination and free will working together, rather than an either/or predestination vs. free will approach.

One example of this "both/and" approach is when St. Paul says that God protects him, yet also says to pray for that protection. Paul's safety was at stake when he visited Thessalonica in Acts 17, for the people rioted against him and his teachings. Paul knows that God is faithful and will protect him from his enemies who try to kill him, yet he still asks the Thessalonians to pray for his protection. Marshall says,

“Again the paradox is present: he [Paul] is confident of the faithfulness and protecting power of God (2 Thess. 3:3), and yet he requests prayer for the progress of the mission and for his own safety (2 Thess. 3:1-2).”

Man and God are acting together. It is not trusting in God's protection vs. praying for safety, but rather an acknowledgement of both forces playing a role in Paul's protection. A multiplicity of examples like this could be seen, and is seen in regards to predestination and free will.

Consider how the Ephesians are told that they had been "chosen" by God from the beginning of time (Eph. 1:4), yet at the same time are encouraged to freely continue following Christ (Eph. 4:1), for otherwise they could lose their inheritance of the Kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5).

Salvation is not a set and done deal, already decided upon by God as to where man will spend eternity without any reference to man's free will. God does "choose" or predestine people to Heaven, but this is based on His foreknowledge of how they will freely act. Those chosen to go to Heaven are those who freely cooperate with God to stay faithful to Him. God can see from the beginning of time who will love and serve Him, and He chooses those people to enter Heaven. Romans 8:29 says, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined." The foreknowledge of God is how He predestines somebody, and this includes the notion of free will within it.

God would never predestine somebody to go to Hell. He "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). God is a God of love and mercy and only would send somebody to Hell if they freely rejected Him. For God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). If every person has an opportunity to reach repentance, then they are not predestined to Hell.

It is not predestination vs. free will, but rather predestination and free will. Scripture gives us a both/and approach, not an either/or approach. God chooses men and women to go to Heaven based on what He knows about them from the beginning of time. Predestination such be understood in terms of God's foreknowledge.

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