Predestination is the promise of the end at the beginning. When we preach this doctrine, we proclaim that God is not only eternally Savior, but He eternally had a people to save. We proclaim that He is not bound by linear time, and His foreknowledge is so perfect that for Him to know something will occur means that it will occur. We proclaim that God has loved His people from eternity past, and He will work His will in them so that they will most certainly persevere. Yes, predestination is the promise of the end at the beginning, and in that we can have confidence.
The doctrine of predestination could not exist if God was bound by linear time: that is, if His existence progressed eternally in a series of seconds, minutes, and hours. Human beings exist within linear time. We are presently something we were not in the past and will not be in the future. We cannot look ahead, nor can we turn back. We respond to events as they hit us one by one, and thus we are subject to change.
God is eternal. This means He is not bound by linear time like we are. As the Psalmist wrote, “Before the mountains were born / Or You gave birth to the earth and the world, / Even from everlasting to everlasting, / You are God.” (Psalm 90:2) The Lord is clearly aware of and works within linear time—after all, He created it. When He became incarnate as a man, Jesus Christ was most certainly bound by linear time. He was like us in every way…except without sin. However, the eternal Godhead is fully eternal. Scripture continually points to God’s ability to declare the future things as proof that He is truly God. This is meant to reveal to us that God is not bound by linear time, and He is therefore in a different category than us. The Creator is distinct from His creatures.
We see the predictive and declarative power of God particularly emphasized in the Book of Isaiah. The Lord said to Israel, “Behold, the former things have come to pass, / Now I declare new things; / Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you,” (Isaiah 42:9) while the prophet himself asked, “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27) The power of the God of Israel to proclaim future events and even dictate them was brought forth as evidence that He was the only true God, as in these words to His sinful people.
I declared the former things long ago
And they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them.
Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
And your neck is an iron sinew
And your forehead bronze,
Therefore I declared them to you long ago,
Before they took place I proclaimed them to you,
So that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them,
And my graven image and my molten image have commanded them.’
You have heard; look at all this.
And you, will you not declare it?
I proclaim to you new things from this time,
Even hidden things which you have not known.
Other passages in the Old Testament tells us that regardless of how it might seem from our perspective, God never changes His mind. His purposes are unfailing. The Prophet Samuel told the rebellious King Saul, “Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” (1 Samuel 15:29) Then there were the words that Balaam spoke to Balak. “God is not a man, that He should lie, / Nor a son of man, that He should repent; / Has He said, and will He not do it? / Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19) While there are certainly times in the Old Testament where God is said to change His mind or repent, we understand in the context of the rest of scripture that this does not represent an actual change in God’s character or purposes. He does not grow in knowledge or currently lack something that He must gain from His creatures. Whatever He knows is right and true, and whatever He purposes will come to pass. As the Lord said to Babylon,
Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;
Calling a bird of prey from the east,
The man of My purpose from a far country.
Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass.
I have planned it, surely I will do it.
God’s foreknowledge is closely linked with His sovereignty. He does not simply know that things will happen. If He knows them, they will happen. Note the difference between those two phrases. The former suggests merely the possession of information, while the latter implies that He has power over the events. The Bible certainly endorses the latter view, attributing everything to God’s sovereignty, even to a degree that can make us uncomfortable.
It was the Prophet Jeremiah who likely wrote, “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, / Unless the Lord has commanded it? / Is it not from the mouth of the Most High / That both good and ill go forth?” (Lamentations 3:37-38) The Prophet Amos went a bit farther when he rhetorically asked, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6b) Perhaps most severe of all is this statement in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, / Even the wicked for the day of evil.” (Proverbs 16:4)
Yes, scripture tells us that even those things that violate God’s holiness have occurred because He permitted them to occur. He is sovereign over every person and event, and He is working them all according to His larger purpose. We are not living in Plan B. God knew that humanity would fall into sin, and He allowed it to happen. Why? That is something we will never know entirely in this life, but we receive a bit of a hint from the Apostle Paul.
Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
Paul’s words redirect us from what we consider to be a negative aspect of God’s sovereignty (His allowance and condemnation of sin) to an undoubtedly positive aspect of that sovereignty: His infinite mercy. Without sin, there would be no salvation. If we were not sinners, we would never know what it is to receive grace, and we would never know God as Savior. For while some may be vessels of wrath, receiving the just penalty for their sins, the Lord has also prepared vessels of mercy.
These vessels of mercy are the elect of God: those who were chosen from eternity past for salvation. This choice of God is actually part of His knowledge and love, because scripture tells us it was on account of God’s knowledge of them and love for them that God predestined the elect to salvation. This doctrine of predestination is discussed in detail by the Apostle Paul.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,
‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;
We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Notice how the apostle describes salvation in this passage. It begins with the foreknowledge of God, by which He knows those who are His. Knowing someone in this biblical sense involves much more than just knowing about them. It involves a sense of intimacy, love, and identification, as when the Old Testament uses the phrase “he knew her” to describe a man engaging in physical intimacy with his wife. The purest human connection on planet earth cannot compare to the way God knows His children. The foreknowledge of God is such that it identifies us with Him and His love.
These people are predestined to be “conformed to the image of His Son”—that is, to receive mercy and salvation. The apostle makes a direct and unbreakable link between predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. Those who are predestined will most certainly progress from point to point along that path. Paul tells us that nothing can separate them from the love of God: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing…” The elect have Christ as their redeemer and intercessor, and thus they are not condemned.
Another important passage regarding predestination is in the Book of Ephesians, where Paul once again uses God’s sovereign love to link the beginning of redemptive history with the end.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as 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, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
Notice the language of inclusion in this passage that is used to describe the relationship between the elect and the Triune God. They are “in Christ”, “in Him”, “through Jesus Christ to Himself”, “in the Beloved”, and “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise”. This is the level of communion enjoyed by those who were chosen “before the foundation of the world”. They were predestined to “adoption as sons”, that they might be forgiven through the reception of His grace. This inheritance was ordained for us at the beginning that it might be fulfilled throughout redemptive history—“His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ”. God has promised that all of these things will be ours, and His word cannot fail. Moreover, He has sealed us with “the Holy Spirit of promise”, which serves as “a pledge of our inheritance”. All these things assure us that the salvation proclaimed at the beginning will be brought to completion at the end. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
Yes, the marvelous thing about predestination is that it does not merely result in an initial justification that we must then maintain by our own power. Paul tells us that the good work God began in us will be perfected, and he wrote to the Thessalonians, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14) Not only justification, but also sanctification and glorification are promised in our predestination, and the power of God works it all in us.
It might be easy to dismiss predestination as a Pauline doctrine if it were not so obviously present in the rest of scripture. The biblical authors speak as one when they say that God chose a people for Himself whom He loves and will redeem. The Apostle Peter wrote his first epistle to those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood…” (1 Peter 1:1c-2a)
Peter also told them, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10) Notice that it is God who takes the initiative. His children are not a “seeking race” or even an “obedient race”, but a “chosen race”. They did not seek the light by their own power, but were called out of darkness. The Lord calls to those who are His precisely because they are His.
Our Lord Jesus often explained this concept by comparing the chosen ones of God to sheep in His possession. On one occasion He said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) He told His disciples, “I know the ones I have chosen,” (John 13:18b) a point the Apostle Paul later reiterated when He wrote, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His’…” (2 Timothy 2:19a) However, Christ developed this point in greatest depth was when He called Himself the “good shepherd”.
‘I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.’…The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’
John 10:11-18, 24-30
Jesus explained that His relationship to His sheep involves the deepest possible commitment. He told the crowd, “I know My own and My own know Me,” and pledged that He would “lay down My life for the sheep”. Furthermore, He said that, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me”. It is clear that the people Jesus was talking about were the elect whom He knew before Creation: “…I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”
Jesus tells us that these people were given to Him by the Father. That is what predestination truly means: not that the Father simply made a decree from on high, but that He lovingly gave to the Son a people for whom the latter would give His life. By the power of the Spirit, the Son would be raised again to life, and the spirits of all the elect would be likewise resurrected.
Why then were we predestined to be saved? Not because of anything good in ourselves, but because of the mercies of God. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)
Perhaps we think God predestined us to salvation because we are better than others, but in truth, we are only better to the extent that God has shown us grace. Scripture tells us that Jesus is “the author and perfecter of faith” and that He acted to save us when we were still in rebellion. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8) Faith is the gift of God to His sheep—those who were chosen in Him from eternity past.
Time and again, we see how scripture uses metaphors of relational intimacy to describe God’s connection with those who are predestined to salvation: children and parents, animals and masters, siblings, wives and husbands, etc. All of this points to the fact that however arbitrary or academic it may seem to us, predestination speaks to something far deeper—the beginning of a relationship that continues into eternity future, in which all who are given to the Son will be saved. In this promise we have confidence: the Lord knows those who are His. Our end is certain, for He loved us from the beginning.
All scripture references are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.