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Jerry Walls ~ Divine Predestination and Human Freedom

Like divine sovereignty as we previously discussed here, predestination is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine.

And indeed, as a theologian steeped in Scripture, Wesley not only affirmed the doctrine, he affirmed a very strong version of it.  He chose for his sermon “On Predestination” a classic text dealing with this great biblical truth, Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

There Paul summarizes God’s action in saving us in terms of his foreknowing us, predestining us, calling us, justifying us, and glorifying us.  As Wesley notes, some have understood this text as a “chain of causes and effects,” but he argues that it simply states “the order in which the several branches of salvation constantly flow from each other.”

But again, it is important to stress that Wesley insists on a very strong doctrine of predestination.  Here are some lines from his sermon that capture the heart of his view:

God decrees from everlasting to everlasting that all who believe in the Son of his love shall be conformed to his image, shall be saved from all inward and outward sin into all inward and outward holiness….and this in virtue of the unchangeable, irreversible, irresistible decree of God: ‘He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.’

Notice, God has decreed from all eternity who will be saved: those who believe in Jesus, the Son of his love.  His eternal decree, moreover, is irreversible and irresistible.  God sets the terms of salvation and those terms are unalterable. There is no other way to be saved.  Furthermore, God has decreed that those who believe in Jesus are predestined to be conformed to his image, to become holy, through and through, just like Jesus is.

Think of it this way.  Predestination is like a train that has a pre-determined destination.  All who board the train and remain on it will inevitably arrive at that predetermined destination.  Moreover, there is no other way to reach that destination.  If we want to make it there, we have to get on that train, and remain on it through each of the stops along the way.  The train is firmly on the track, and the engineer is capable and determined to bring all passengers who are aboard to the pre-determined destination.

The predetermined destination is heaven.  It is holiness, it is being like Jesus.   And the only way we can get there is to believe in Jesus.  In fact, we might even say that Jesus is the train.  The call of God invites us to board the train.  If we exercise faith in Christ, we are “in Christ” as Paul puts it.  And all who are “in Christ” are on the way to the predestined end so long as they stay on the train.  Those who are called to believe, to “come aboard,” may choose not to do so, and if they decide they do not want to be made holy like Jesus, they may exit the train at one of its stops along the way.

Here we see a parting of the ways between the Wesleyan view of predestination and the Calvinist view.  We can put the question like this: who can get on the train?  The Wesleyan answer is that everyone is not only invited and called to get on, but that God gives everyone the grace that enables them to do so.  If they do not get on, or if they choose to get off before the train reaches its final destination, it is because of their own free choice to reject God’s love and grace.

By contrast, the Calvinist says only certain persons are chosen to be saved, and while all are called or invited onto the train, only the elect are given the grace to come.  Indeed, those who are elect are called in such a way that they cannot refuse the invitation.  Here is a description of the special call in the Westminster Confession, a classic Calvinist statement of faith.

All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (X.1, emphasis added).

Now, compare this statement from Wesley describing how God extends his grace to fallen sinners.

To reclaim these, God uses all manner of ways; he tries every avenue of their souls.  He applies sometimes to their understanding, showing them the folly of their sins; sometimes to their affections, tenderly expostulating with them for their ingratitude, and even condescending to ask, ‘What could I have done for’ you (consistent with my eternal purpose, not to force you) ‘which I have not done?’

Notice that both passages describe how God influences us by way of our minds, our emotions and our wills.  But here is the crucial difference: as the Calvinist sees it, God determines those he has chosen for salvation to come.  He acts upon them in such a way that he changes their thoughts, gives them a new heart, and renews their will.  As a result, they are determined to come to Christ, and yet they come “most freely”!

Now this might seem like blatant nonsense, but in fact it is not.  The claim here is that freedom and determinism are fully compatible if you define freedom the right way.  In essence, for the Calvinist freedom means that God causes you to have the thoughts, feelings, and desires you have. As a result, you act exactly as God has caused you to act, but you still do what you “want” to do, so you are free.  You cannot will to do otherwise, but you still do what you want to do because God has not determined you to act against your will.  Rather, he determines you to act in accord with the desires he has caused you to have.

Wesley insisted otherwise.  True freedom is not compatible with determinism.  On his view, God calls us, reasons with us, shows us the truth, and so on.  But he will not determine our choices, for what he wants from us is true love, worship and obedience.  And in Wesley’s view, this requires that God cannot determine our choices.

So in short, God predestines the means and the end of salvation.  And he truly wants all persons to get on board, and he has provided grace for all to do so.  But we have the freedom to reject his grace and refuse the ride of our lives.   But if so, it is not because God did not do everything he could, short of overriding our freedom, to get and keep us on the train.