The Choice is Yours . . . Or Is It?
Did you choose God or did He choose you?
Did God ordain your life so that you would end up in heaven, or did you willfully accept the salvation he offered?
This is a debate that has raged for centuries in churches and Christian circles. Some would argue that God arranged all the events of history, from start to finish, and you and I are merely actors on a stage, delivering our lines with no real choice to do so or not. They point to Scripture like Ephesians 1:5 or Romans 9:11-24 and ask how any person “dead in [their] transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) could ever quicken themselves to choose God.
Others counter that we are moral free agents, and that God doesn’t force anyone to accept Him or reject Him but leaves the choice up to each one of us. They quote I Timothy 2:4 and II Peter 3:9, saying that God “wants all men to be saved” and doesn’t want “anyone to perish” and thus wouldn’t choose hell for anyone, and cite repeated scriptural calls to believe or receive the gospel.
Who’s right? Is it that simple of a question? And does it really matter?
First, I think we need to clear up a common point of confusion. Romans 8:29-30 states, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Too often, I hear people conflating foreknowledge and predestination. But the two are shown here to be sequential—God’s predestination follows His foreknowledge.
Let me give you an example as means of illustration. It isn’t perfect, but it hopefully clears a somewhat muddy stream. I’m a huge college football fan, particularly of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I inherited my love for the Huskers from my grandpa. When we get together, we often watch old VHS “films” of past Nebraska games. I’ve watched some of the more legendary contests, such as the 1995 Orange Bowl, a dozen or more times. Now, imagine for a moment that you and I sat down to watch the tape of that game, and midway through the third quarter, I told you the following: Nebraska will switch quarterbacks, score two touchdowns on back-to-back drives, convert a two-point attempt, and intercept a pass to turn a 17-9 deficit into a 24-17 victory. Then I gave you the play-by-play breakdown that would ensue and quoted, word-for-word, some of the commentary by the broadcasters (Yes, I could actually do it). Then you sat beside me and watched it all play out exactly as I said it would, down to the specifics of each play and verbatim commentary. Having just witnessed me looking into the future and predicting what would happen with great specificity, would you conclude that I had in any way impacted the outcome of the game?
Now, I realize this is a flawed example in that the future I’m speaking of is actually an event from 20+ years ago being replayed, and thus not really the future. (Nor am I omnipotent.) But the analogy shows how God isn’t bound by linear time constraints. He exists outside of time and space, and thus is able to see the beginning from the end. Just as I know what is going to happen in the future (because I’ve seen the game previously), God knows what is going to happen in the future (because He’s seen “the game” in the future). And just as my knowledge in no way impacts the event, so God’s knowledge of what will happen doesn’t necessarily impact what does happen.
Let me offer another example. You walk into the kitchen to get something to drink. You open the refrigerator and are faced with a choice between water and milk. You choose milk. From before the creation of the world, God knew you would choose milk. Had you chosen water, He would have known that. Either way, He didn’t make the choice for you. He merely knew ahead of time what choice you would make because, again, He isn’t bound by linear time constraints as we are.
Apply that now to far more substantial topics than football games and refreshments. From the beginning of the world and even before, God knew which humans would choose to receive His gift of eternal life and which would reject it. Foreknowledge—that is, knowing ahead of time—and predestination—that is, determining what will happen—are two very different topics. Just because God has foreknowledge, doesn’t mean He predestined something to happen.
In light of this passage in Romans, other biblical texts referring to God’s predestining, ordaining, or choosing also fit, I believe, with man’s free will. Scripture is clear that God works in the hearts and lives of people (John 16:8-10; Philippians 2:13) and that He hardens hearts (Exodus 9:12; Joshua 11:20). It is also clear that no person can seek out God and His salvation on their own, that is, without Him first seeking them (John 6:44). But what Scripture doesn’t ever tell us is that God predestines some people to be saved and some people to go to hell without them having any choice or say in the matter. No one will on judgment day be able to cry foul. Paul tells us in Romans that “men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20) because God has revealed Himself to them. If they choose to pursue Him, He will reveal Himself further (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 7:7). If they choose to reject Him, they will get the result of their choosing (John 3:18, 36).
So does it matter? Many would say no, not really, especially if you’re “in.” If you’re a child of God, what difference does it make if you chose God or He chose you? Either way, the transaction is complete. In one sense, they’re right. And such a middle course is preferential to divisive arguments that drive a wedge between people and denominations. But I would argue that it does matter, for several reasons.
One, truth and accuracy always matter. Pick your topic. As Christians, we should strive to have a well-rounded, correct viewpoint—a viewpoint backed by Scripture. In many cases—such as this—discerning what constitutes a biblical viewpoint can be challenging. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Two, humans are settlers. At least, this human is. If God is going to save those He has predestined and not save those He hasn’t, my motivation to reach the lost takes quite a hit. After all, if I don’t take the gospel to them, they’ll get it some other way because God has predestined them to do so. And if He hasn’t, no amount of preaching will do any good anyhow, right? I admit this is a flawed perspective, because God has clearly instructed us to preach the gospel. But as rationalizing, justifying settlers, we’d have a practical basis to do nothing. Just think, what could be a greater testimony than a bunch of Christians doing absolutely nothing at all, and thousands of people still coming to faith in Christ? (I kid, of course, but only somewhat.)
Third, if God arbitrarily sends people to heaven or hell in duck-duck-goose fashion, that means He has brought some souls into existence for the express purpose of damning them for all eternity. They have no hope. No chance to repent. No opportunity whatsoever to experience God’s grace. If that’s the case, I think it seriously calls into question our definition of a loving, gracious, merciful God. In fact, such a belief impugns the very character of God as revealed to us in His Word.
So where does that leave us? What’s the answer? How do we blend these verses that seem to say, on one hand, that God picks out “elect” persons to have eternal life and, on the other, that individuals have accountability to accept or reject Him? The best explanation I ever heard was from a pastor at my grandparents’ church. He summed up predestination and free will thusly: God’s predestination and man’s free will intersect in a way that we cannot ever as humans fully understand. Attempts, then, to fully understand it, will come up empty. That’s not to say we shouldn’t study or contemplate the idea. But we must be careful not to stray too far to either extreme—that God picks out “winners” and “losers” and determines their eternal destination as might an author with characters in a novel, or that God is removed from the equation and people seek out God on their own, without being drawn, and make a choice totally independent of the working of His Holy Spirit.
- Nathan Birr is the author of The Douglas Files series and God, Girls, Golf & the Gridiron (Not Always in That Order) . . . A Love Story. (It’s as crazy as it sounds.) He likes to ponder and mull deep things. He just doesn’t like the headache it often gives him.
(Unless otherwise noted, Scripture taken from New International Version, © 2011.)