A Letter to Eden

  Today’s sermon takes the form of a letter …

 Dear Eden,

  A few weeks ago, I received your note containing questions posed by your co-worker:

  •  If God is omniscient (knows everything about past, present, and future) then how do we have free will?
  •  How can God judge us for our actions if he knows that they will happen?
  •  How can we be judged for actions we are predestined to do?

  As I mentioned at the time, my first response might be to ask, “How come I never get easy questions like, ‘Why does the date of Easter fluctuate?’ or ‘Where in the Bible does it say, “God helps those who help themselves”’?” Sometimes, a pastor thinks about how much simpler life would be if he could answer questions like, “What are the flavors of your milkshakes?” or “Does your store stock dried figs?” It would take so little energy to reply “Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry,” or “The figs are at end of aisle eight, top shelf on the left.” But easy questions requiring easy answers aren’t very interesting, are they? Eden, I’m actually quite proud of you for thinking deeply, and pleased that you have posed the questions.

  Today’s Reformation Sunday provides an excellent opportunity to answer because our Presbyterian Reformed tradition reflects a long history of struggling with these questions.  These questions are rooted in an ancient mystery about the relationship of humans to the dimension of time, and the extent to which the steps of our life’s journey are chosen by us or for us. People who enjoy thinking about this mystery have expended enormous amounts of paper and ink describing the relationship between predestination and free will, the Protestant Reformers certainly not the least among them.

  One reason that such questions were important to the Reformers is that they are deeply rooted in scripture.

  • In the Pentateuch, we read about poor choices made by people like Adam, Eve, and Cain. Yet, when we get to the story of Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh, and read “… the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them,”[1]  we might wonder whether Pharaoh had a choice at all.
  • In the prophets, we hear God’s call to choose justice and righteousness. Then, we come to words like our Hebrew Testament reading, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations,”[2] and we might naturally ask whether Jeremiah could have freely selected a different path.
  • Jesus consistently calls people to choose new ways of believing and behaving.  But he speaks in parables, reserving their interpretation for private meetings with his closest disciples.  When he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given,”[3] we might question whether Jesus’ complicated teaching method intentionally limits the ability of some to choose the right path.
  • The apostle Paul spent years of his life on dangerous missionary journeys to present people a choice to trust Jesus as Savior. Yet, he wrote complex passages like our New Testament lesson[4] in which he described God’s predestination as one step in a process by which we are justified and made members of God’s family.

 John Calvin, the father of our Presbyterian Reformed theological tradition, was fond of Paul’s letters, and made reference to Romans in a passage that is one of his most direct about the meaning of predestination. Calvin writes, “We shall never be clearly persuaded … that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.”[5]  The thought that Calvin expresses here is known by the label “double predestination.” Calvin’s sympathetic interpreters may remind us that his struggle to interpret the Bible’s teaching on predestination was informed by previous theologians like Augustine, and by contemporaries like Luther. In contrast to some of his disciples, Calvin’s thoughts about predestination were deeply rooted in his understanding of God’s grace, and he intended his teaching to be hope-filled for his flock. Yet, in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that Calvin did believe God predestines some to damnation, and that this portion of his teaching has deeply troubled many people in Calvin’s time and on into ours.

 One of the wonderful gifts we’ve inherited from the reformers is the principle embodied in the old Latin phrase: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! “The Church reformed, always reforming” is the rough translation, and Presbyterians believe in it so strongly that it is embodied in our Constitution: … the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.[6] This teaching means that John Calvin’s ideas, important as they are to Presbyterians, still come under the judgment of Christ.  They are subject to correction and revision, because God in Christ has reformed the Church, and always is reforming it.

 One of our Reformed theologians who came along after Calvin, and challenged his understanding of election and predestination, was Karl Barth. Some of Barth’s work is vexingly complicated, and some of it is brilliantly insightful. One of his most discussed departures from Calvin is the way in which he reconceives the doctrine of predestination. In good Reformed fashion, he challenges Calvin’s understanding by appealing to scripture.

 Summarizing his work[7], I think what Barth tries to say is this: “predestined” is different from “predetermined.” Predetermination is an idea that limits human freedom. More importantly, it is an idea that limits God’s freedom, an idea that implies God is bound by a static human doctrine, not really sovereign or free to do a new thing.  It is, therefore, bad news inconsistent with the gospel.

 Here’s what I take away from Barth’s interpretation of scripture.  When the Bible talks about election and predestination, it’s not bad news that should cause us to speculate about who is predetermined  to exist outside of God’s circle of concern. Rather, it is good news about how God in Jesus Christ has freely chosen us, yet never in a way that overrides our free choice of God.

 Moving from scripture and theology to your questions, dear Eden, part of my answer is summed up in a reply I heard many years ago from a celebrity when an interviewer tried to push him into responding to a question with an “either-or” answer.  The celebrity said, “I disagree with the premise upon which your question is based.” In other words, the way a question is posed can make us think that there is only one right answer: It’s either THIS answer, or it’s THAT answer. Sometimes applying that logic not only is unnecessary, it’s dangerous. Sometimes, the best answers to questions are of the “both-and” variety; both-and answers are less polarizing, they allow for the expression of complex truth.

 Still, I know you’d like me to directly answer your questions, and I’ll try to do so, one at a time.

  • “If God is omniscient (knows everything about past, present, and future) then how do we have free will?” Personally, I don’t find a conflict between God’s omniscience and our free will. Almighty and eternal God, not limited by the dimension of time, working “outside” of time so to speak, certainly can know what we will do on any given day, while you and I, living within the dimension of time experience the ability to choose. In scripture, it takes time for Jeremiah to struggle to discern his call. But outside of time, God can proclaim that Jeremiah has been appointed a prophet to the nations, and celebrate in the sure knowledge that Jeremiah will discern and accept that call. Think of a friend who knows you very well. Just because the friend knows what you are going to do before you know it yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have a choice.
  • “How can God judge us for our actions if he knows that they will happen?” This is a relatively easy for me only because I’ve been privileged and blessed to be a father. There comes a time in any parent’s experience when he or she knows that consequences are on the horizon. Though boundaries have been set, and instructions given, it seems inevitable that poor behavior is coming, and that the need for correction will follow. If a child breaks the boundaries, and engages in poor behavior, is it a good excuse for the child to say, “You are the parent, and knew this was going to happen. How, then, can you punish me?” No. Perhaps God knew that Adam and Eve were going to disobey his command. If he did, then I’m sure it broke his heart. But it doesn’t make their expulsion from Eden any less just.
  • “How can we be judged for actions we are predestined to do?” This question is a little more difficult to answer. Perhaps you have in mind the rare but real passages of scripture like the ninth chapter of Exodus, which says not that Pharaoh was stubborn, but rather that God actually hardened his heart. Scripture says that God did it to show his power.[8] But I admit that isn’t a satisfying answer. Perhaps Pharaoh already had proved himself to be so corrupt and unrepentant, so willing to harden his own heart[9] that God decided to make an example of him. I can’t really say. What I can say is that scripture bears witness to God’s predestination of humans, AND the human experience of choice. When the language of predestination is used, it’s meant to describe a promise or blessing rather than a judgment or curse.

 Eden, I believe that where predestination has been understood most truly, it has comforted people with the promise of God’s love.  For John Calvin, exiled from France, living and pastoring in the foreign land of Switzerland, predestination reminded him that he was a citizen of God’s kingdom. Later, the Scottish Covenanters – basically Scottish Presbyterians who promised to remain true to their faith when faced with persecution – found comfort in the doctrine of predestination. In a country that had become nearly unrecognizable because of religious hostility, predestination reminded them that they were being called forward through time to a new home.

 The old preacher Franklin Boreham called my attention to accounts of the Covenanters facing martyrdom. Eyewitnesses recorded the courageous way many of our spiritual ancestors faced death rather than renounce their faith. For some, tied to stakes for drowning or burning, the true words of Romans 8 were the final ones uttered from their lips:

and those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified …. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, or height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 That, dear Eden, is the context in which to understand the Bible’s teaching on predestination. It’s not primarily an academic exercise or philosophical puzzle. It’s trust that in trying circumstances, God is with and for us. It’s the confession of faith that when we are in the deepest muck life has to offer, deeper still is the grace of God. 

 Thanks, Eden, for the opportunity to think about these things with you.  Remember that you are predestined to be loved not only by God, but also by your church family. We hope to see you during the holidays.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor John

[1] Exodus 9:12.

[2] Jeremiah 1:4-8.

[3] Matthew 13:11.

[4] Romans 8:28-39.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XXI, Section 1.

[6] Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II, Book of Order 2011-2013, F-2.02.

[7] I have in mind Barth’s writing on election and predestination in Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, Part 2.

[8] Exodus 9:16 and Romans 9:17.

[9]Exodus 8:15, 8:32.


~ by JohnH1962 on October 28, 2012.

6 Responses to “A Letter to Eden”

  1. Answer 1. God living “outside” of time = Free choice for man within “inside” time. So God’s being outside of time makes Him aware of the choices man will make and man still has free choice?
    Answer 2. Tough love. I get that.
    Answer 3. How is predestination meant as a promise or blessing? I don’t quite follow.

  2. William, re: #1, “outside” and “inside” are spatial terms, imperfect but helpful for discussions about predestination vs. free will, and how some differences have to do with whether we are talking about our perspective on choice, or trying to imagine what it looks like to God. C. S. Lewis, I believe, uses this image in one of his books, though I don’t have the reference handy. Re: #3: I have in mind the thrust of the entire passage Romans 8:18-39. Like the Scottish Covenanters, I think that when you’re in deep muck, it’s tremendously encouraging to know that anywhere we are or will be, God is there too.

  3. Let me try again to answer #3, now that I have a cup of coffee.
    Imagine what it felt like to be a member of the church at Rome to which Paul wrote, or a member of the Protestant community in John Calvin’s Switzerland, or a Scottish Covenanter. You’re part of a persecuted minority group, some of your friends have been imprisoned or murdered for their faith, and you may be next. In such a context, Paul’s proclamation in Romans 8 is an inspiring promise or comforting blessing: despite present circumstances, you’re predestined for glory.

  4. Coffee always helps me too. I was laying there this morning thinking that your answer to questian 1 could also answer question 3 or the whole matter of predestination. There dosen’t seem to be a simple answer for a compex God.

  5. John’s answer of “both and” is close to how I hope things are.

    My thoughts are that in MOST if not nearly all instances we are allowed free will. And like John said, God is beyond time and knows what we will choose, a time machine type scenario if you will.

    But I also think there are times when God steps in to change the course of human events for reasons of God being God. In those instances, God may cause an event OR a persons actions to fulfill God’s will. My intuition from reading the Bible is that such event(s) and forceful actions (predestination) are the exception and rare. I also suspect that in the instances when God forces the hand of man, God also allows or provides a path for redemption. In other words, God considers extenuating circumstances when it comes to judgement because love, justice and free will all seem to be equally important to God.

  6. Bob, thanks for taking time to read, and for your feedback.

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