Friday, November 16, 2012

ISI 9: Predestination vs Free Will

Icebreaker Question:
What are three things most people don’t know about you?  And what are three “quirky” things about you?


Open With Prayer


Read Lesson:
             (Oh, this is gonna be fun!)  I know that this is a “hot button” topic, and it can get people really worked up.  So let’s not let this issue become divisive.  Scholars and theologians through the centuries have not come to an agreement on this topic, and I do not think that we will be able to figure it all out either.  But let’s at least explore it and try to figure out what we believe, why we believe it, and why it matters. 
            I am going to present to you my view on this issue, but it doesn’t mean that I am necessarily right.  I am giving it to you as a starting point and as food-for-thought, to give you things to consider and talk about and disagree with.  I am not a Bible teacher or scholar, so remember that this is just my opinion.  If you disagree, discuss with others why you disagree and what you think Scripture really says. 
            [And I will be honest, I am going to do my best to show why I really do believe that we have free-will.  Even the questions at the end are written from that bias.  So if you are a strong believer in predestination, challenge what I believe, bring up your own Bible verses, and ask your own questions.  We should all be able to present our view on this and still feel respected, because this is not an issue that’s super clear-cut in the Bible.  And so we need to approach it with humility.]    

            As I examined this issue, what I wanted to figure out is this: Does God pre-decide eternal destinies (heaven or hell) for all of us, or does He allow all of us to make our own decision, or does He pre-choose some people to go to heaven but allow the rest to come to Him if they want to? 
            I do not have a problem with the last two ideas.  I think we can find biblical support for both – for the idea that we all have to decide for ourselves if we will respond to God’s call or not (my view) and for the idea that God pre-determines that some specific people (someone like an apostle or a disciple) will definitely be saved but lets everyone else decide for themselves (which I don’t necessarily believe, but it is possible). 
            What is important to me and what I think is most biblical is that salvation is at least made available to all.  And if someone ends up in hell, it is because they refused God’s offer of salvation, not because God created them to go to hell and gave them no choice. 
            Okay, so now that we got that out of the way, onto the lesson . . . (And this comes from two posts – “Predestination does not mean ‘No choice’” and “Controversial ‘Predestination’ Verse” - that I posted in February 2016 at myimpressionisticlife.blogspot.com.  Check them out if you want to.  There is a lot more information there.)

            Imagine that I walk into your church and say, “I am taking a group of people on a mission trip with me.  We are leaving sometime soon, and you have to decide which group you’ll be part of: the one that goes or the rest that stay behind.  I have a destination picked out and a way to get there.  I’ve already paid the price to take everyone in this room with me, if you choose to go.  And I am now asking for those who want to go.  It’s up to you if you want to come or be left behind.  But if you do not deliberately choose to come with me, you will be left behind.”
            This, in essence, is the way I view the whole "predestination vs. free-will" debate.    
            The “predestination vs. free-will” debate has to do with whether we have the ability to choose salvation or if God has already made this decision for us in the very beginning.  Are we simply puppets acting out pre-determined roles?  Or do we have a real choice in the matter?
            I think it falls somewhere in the middle, that we have free-will and that God has a predetermined plan already set up.  Basically, I think that God already has it all laid out – a plan, a path, destinations, the pre-paid ticket to heaven, etc. – but He leaves it up to us to decide which path to follow, the one to heaven or the one to hell.  (And to be clear, we are born on the path to hell.  And that’s where we will stay if we don’t accept His help getting off of it.) 
 
            Twice in the past week, I heard the message that God has pre-chosen who will come to Him and who is destined for destruction.  It was said that this actually highlights God’s love more because He didn’t have to choose any of us.  But He did.  So it actually makes His love shine more to those who are saved because He chose to make us the saved ones even though we didn’t deserve it.  Totally unearned, undeserved mercy and grace.
            Okay, I can understand that.  But what about those “created for destruction” then?  Where is God’s love for them?  Did Jesus not die for them, too?  Do they have no chance of being saved?  Doesn’t this put them beyond God’s grace? 
            And it was said that the reason we evangelize and pray for the lost (even though, according to this view, none of us has any real free-will to accept or reject God) is because God told us to.  Plain and simple.  And because He knew that it’s how the lost would become saved. 
            Really?  So you’re saying that even though we have no real free-will and we are destined to become what God pre-determined us to become, God still needs us to spread the Good News because that’s how the soon-to-be-believers will become believers?  That God needs my cooperation to help them become the believers they are destined to become?  So I have to obey God’s command to pray and evangelize so that His Will gets done?  But don’t you agree that if I have to obey this command, it means that I have the option to disobey?  That I can either share the Good News with an unbeliever or I can chicken out and not talk about Jesus?  And so the responsibility lies with me to obey or disobey the nudges of the Holy Spirit?  Excuse me, I mean no offense, but doesn’t that bring us right back to free-will, the ability to choose to obey or not? 
            Either He doesn’t need our obedience because He has already planned whatever will happen and it doesn't really matter what we do (which means that evangelism and prayer are just meaningless formalities) . . . Or He does need us to be obedient and to evangelize and pray because it makes a difference and has a real effect (which confirms the idea of free-will and choice, of God working in and through mankind’s cooperation).  It can’t be both. 
 
            The messages I have heard recently do not sit well with me.  While I agree that God is able to do whatever He wants (even handpicking who gets saved and who gets damned), I just don’t think this is the way it is.  I don’t think it fits with His character, His Word, and the way He relates to people in the Bible. 
            And unless I find clear proof of it in the Word, I will not say or believe that most people were created beyond God’s grace, that grace and salvation isn’t available to them too, that a huge number of people are “unreachable” because God has made it that way.
            Thankfully, I have found enough in the Bible to be able to say that I don’t think the Bible supports that idea, the idea that God has predestined the majority of people for hell. 
            [I know this can be a fight-starter.  But let’s be gracious and humble here when sharing our thoughts on this.  And let’s be willing to have God challenge our beliefs, to correct us if we have been seeing it wrong all along. 
            I know.  I’ve been there before.  I used to be more “Calvinistic,” thinking that it was the more humble, God-glorifying, “Christian” position to take.  I would scoff at those who believed in free-will, thinking they were “less Christian” because I thought they were too prideful to be able to bow under God’s mighty, sovereign hand and authority.  I, on the other hand, was a humble, God-fearing Christian.  
            But believing in predestination left me with too many unanswerable questions or with answers that didn’t make sense.  And as I have studied this topic more thoroughly, I have come to believe that I was wrong all along and that God can indeed be sovereign and in-control and still make people with free-will.
            So to my friends out there who believe in predestination, go into this with an open mind, letting God know that you really do want to understand what the Word says and that you want Him to open your eyes to truth.  And if you still think I am wrong or am misunderstanding Scripture, leave a (polite) comment about it and let’s discuss our different opinions with maturity and grace.
            So buckle up, hang on tight, and get ready for wild ride!]       
 

Verses on Predestination?
            Let’s take a look at some of the verses that are used to support predestination and the idea that our decision is really made for us by God.  And I will share what I think the verse is really saying.  (There are a lot more verses in the February 2016 "predestination" posts on my other blog.)

            1. 
1 Peter 1:1-2:  “To God’s elect . . . who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood”  
            I don’t think this is talking about specific people being chosen to be saved, but about God planning to help those who believe in Him to grow in their obedience to Jesus with the Spirit’s help.  It’s like saying that God knew from the beginning that He was going to send Jesus to save us and be our example and that He would send the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Jesus.  It’s not that we were “chosen for salvation according to His preference,” but that those whom He foreknew would become believers are “chosen according to His foreknowledge to be sanctified, to become more obedient to Jesus, and to grow to be more like Him.” 
            [Update: In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 1 Peter 1:1-2 says this: “. . . To the exiles of the dispersion . . . chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for the sprinkling of his blood . . .”
            Maybe you won’t see it this way, but to me it sounds like Peter is not writing to the “elect,” as in “those predestined by God for salvation.”  It sounds like he is writing to those Christians of the day who have been scattered under the persecution they were experiencing, to “dispersed exiles.”  And remember that Peter is writing to the Jews, God’s chosen people.  This may be what he means when he says “chosen.”  Not that they were pre-chosen to be saved but that they are Jews, God’s chosen people.  And not only are they Jews but they are Jews who have put their faith in Jesus.  They are “sanctified Jews.”
            Neither this interpretation nor the first one points to “salvation by predetermination.”  The first points to the idea that those of us who God foreknows will become believers are destined to be obedient to Christ.  And the second points to the idea that Peter is simply writing to believing Jews who have been scattered under the persecution of the day.
            Another Update:  (I’m learning as I go here.  The deeper I dig, the clearer it gets.)  This 1 Peter greeting sounds a lot like Paul’s greeting in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14: “But we always ought to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
            This could definitely sound like God hand-picked who would believe and who wouldn’t.  And it would sound especially so if the verse simply said, “God chose you to be saved!”  But I wonder if this verse is not saying that God chose specifically who to save . . . but that God chose to save people (mankind) through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through our belief in Jesus.
            Furthermore, in various translations of the Bible, it doesn’t just say “from the beginning God chose you to be saved.”  When we read this, it makes it sound like God has chosen who will be saved from the beginning of time.
            But other translations say something like, “God chose you as His first-fruits.”  It’s basically saying that “God chose you to be among the first of those who believe in Jesus and who receive the Holy Spirit.”
            Maybe all along, it’s not saying that God chose who to save from the beginning of time, but that He chose them to be the generation that would be the first of the believers, the first believers of the church’s history, after Jesus died and rose again and the Holy Spirit was sent to live in believers.
            And maybe this is the same kind of greeting we see in 1 Peter.  Maybe Peter is saying not that they were chosen for salvation, but that they were chosen to be the generation that saw Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They would be the first believers of history to have Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
            This makes it so much clearer to me.  These are not verses on being pre-destined to be saved, but verses about that generation being chosen to be the first to believe in Jesus, simply because their lifetime coincided with His coming.  At least, that’s how I see it.]




            2.  Ephesians 1:4,5, 11:  “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will . . . In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will . . .”
            This is one of the key passages that makes it sound like we are predestined to choose Him or not, like He hand-picks who becomes His sons, according to His pleasure and will.  However, I have no problem looking at it this way:
            God has predestined mankind in general to be His people.  He made us all to know Him and choose Him.  This was His plan for mankind from the very beginning.  However, He doesn’t force us.  It’s up to us which side we choose to be on.  It was His will to choose mankind before the world was created to have a relationship with Him.  He laid out that destiny for all of us.  But He doesn’t force us to follow Him in it. 
            It’s like my earlier illustration about forming a group to go on a mission trip.  God walks into the world and says “I am taking a group of people with Me to heaven.  This is My plan and My Will, for My pleasure and glory.  I have the path all laid out.  The ticket is paid for.  Will you join this group or not?” 
            The thing is, His Will will still be done.  His ultimate Will is to be surrounded by those who love and choose Him for all of eternity.  And He will have a group of people with Him in heaven.  But it’s up to us if we are part of that group or not.
            (And the “predestined” part of this verse could also refer to the fact that they were chosen to be the first believers in Jesus Christ, as we saw earlier in Paul’s greeting about the “first-fruits.”  Just an idea.)   

            3.  
Romans 9:22-23:  “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction?  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory . . .” 

            Ah, the big chapter!  (Read it all if you want to.)  The one that really does make it sound like God decides who to make for heaven and who to make for hell.  But I don’t believe this passage is talking about individuals being specifically, deliberately created for destruction. 
            It is talking specifically about the difference between two bloodlines: the Israelites (descended from Jacob) and the Edomites (descended from Esau).  God chose Jacob to be the favored bloodline, the chosen people through whom He would glorify Himself and bring Jesus and salvation to the world.  These verses are saying that God has the right to decide which people to favor (to give a special role to and have mercy on) and which to not, who to use for great purposes and who to use for common, menial purposes. 
            And it’s talking about the eternal destinies of two different groups: Israel (representing those whom He foreknows will believe in Him, who are adopted as sons, and who will experience glory) and non-Israel (those who won’t believe and who will experience wrath).  
            And it's also saying that God has the right to “adopt” anyone He wants to be His sons, even those not from Israel, and that He has the right to condemn even Israelites if they did not come to faith in Him.  Being part of Israel does not guarantee salvation, nor does being a Gentile guarantee damnation.  God has the right to have mercy on whomever He wants, even a Gentile.
            While I think this passage is talking more about His plans for Israel/Jacob and “Non-Israel”/Esau, I would apply it to mankind in general like this: 
            From the very beginning, God determined that there would be a group that chooses Him, a group that was “prepared in advance” for eternal glory.  And He knew that there would be a group that would not choose Him.  And this group is destined for destruction, following Satan to hell.  He’s made a “going to heaven” team and a “going to hell” team.  The eternal destinies of these two teams have already been decided from the beginning: one to glory and one to destruction.  The path has been laid out.  The team captains have been set before us (Jesus and Satan) and they are saying, “Which side do you choose to be on?”  The different groups were created, the destinations were planned, but the individual people choose which team they want to join.  He does not force us on one group or the other.  We choose.
            Yet He still lovingly made and patiently deals with those who will end up rejecting Him and who are headed for destruction.  
            Actually, to be accurate, as fallen humans, we are all born on Satan’s team, born separated from God.  But Jesus offers the chance to get off that team and join His, to obtain salvation.  But if we do not make a choice to join His team, we automatically stay on Satan’s side and will remain separated from God for eternity.  So not making a choice to join God is making a choice to stay separated from Him. 
            John 3:18:  “Whoever believes in [Jesus Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  
            This warning is for all those who think, “I didn’t deliberately choose to be against God, so I guess I’m okay.”  Heaven is not our default destination.  Hell is.  Take this seriously.
            Update:  I’ll be honest, as I reread this Romans passage recently, I was still a little disturbed about the “prepared for destruction” phrase.  It really does sound like they were deliberately made to be destroyed. 
            And as I went to bed one night, I prayed that God would give me eyes to see.  I really do want to understand what He means here, even if I am wrong.  And the thought came to me (Thank you, Lord) that I need to look up this phrase in Strong’s concordance.  And now this phrase does not trip me up anymore. 
            Apparently, older Bible translations say “fitted” for destruction, not “prepared” for destruction.  And according to Strong’s, “fitted” in this verse indicates a strong correlation between someone’s character and their destiny.  It is written in such a way to imply that the objects of wrath prepared themselves for destruction.  Not that God fashioned them that way. 
            Thankfully, this confirms what I think the rest of the Bible teaches, that we determine our eternal destinies by our choice.  We cause ourselves to go to hell or heaven based on whether we choose to be adopted into Israel or not.  Mankind was “prepared in advance for glory,” but we destine ourselves for destruction when we reject God’s offer of salvation.  Honestly, I am so excited to have looked this up.  Thank you, Lord, for the guidance!   
 

            But what about Romans 9:16-18?  ”It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.  For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’  Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”  Doesn’t that mean that He decides who will become a believer and who won’t?  
            I don’t think so.  I think these verses are talking about God’s right to use certain people for His special purposes (not necessarily about salvation), such as using Pharaoh to display His power.  And, yes, part of that was hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  But did God override Pharaoh’s free-will to do this?  Did He create Pharaoh to have a hard heart? 
            No.  If you read about Pharaoh and the plagues, you’ll see that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and wouldn’t listen during the first several plagues in Exodus.  And it wasn’t until the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that God hardened his heart. 
            Basically, God handed him over to the hardness of his heart, gave him what he wanted.  It’s not that God gave Pharaoh no choice, but that He actually gave him over to the choice he made to harden his own heart.  God didn’t force him to be what he was.  God knew what he was and what he would decide, and He chose to use him because of it.  God doesn’t force us to be who we are; He simply confirms who we are and the choices we make and He uses it for His purposes. 
            [And according to the concordance, “hardens” in this verse is basically a punishment, a consequence of hardening your own heart first.  And as a result - and after much long-suffering and patience on His part - He hands you over to the choice you made to be hardened.  God bears with us for so long before He decides to hand us over to our hard hearts, a hardening that we first chose.]


            Let’s look for a moment at Romans 11:4-5 to see what other insights we might gain into how God works:
            “And what was God’s answer to him?  ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand [Israelites] . . .”  Does this mean He arbitrarily chose seven thousand people to become believers against their will, without any influence or choice from them? 
            No.  Look at the rest of the verse:
“ ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’  So, too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.”
            God did not choose to make some people bow a knee to Baal or to Himself.  He did not place them in one group or the other.  He let them choose which group to be part of: those who chose Baal or those who did not.  And then He chose the group that chose not to bend a knee to Baal. 
            By their beliefs, actions, and choices, they either ended up in the chosen group or in the condemned group.  And so, too, are we part of either the “remnant chosen by grace” or those headed for destruction, by our belief or unbelief, by our bending of the knee to God or to some other god.  


            4. 
Romans 8:28-30:  “. . . God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” 
            Of all the verses that are part of the “predestination debate,” this has got to be one of the most confusing, controversial ones.  At first reading, it seems like it could be saying that God “calls certain people to heaven according to His purpose,” that He predestines people to go to heaven or hell and we don’t really have a choice in the matter because it has been decided for us from the very beginning.   
            But after reading through it over and over again and cross-referencing it with other verses, I have come to read it differently.  It’s not saying anything about Him choosing who will believe and who won’t.  He’s just talking here about the plan He has for those who do choose Him, how He will work things out for their good and how He will help them grow to be more Christ-like.  This whole chapter is meant to encourage believers during trials and to instruct them about living in the Spirit.
            The way I see it, “being called according to his purpose” doesn’t have to do with if He chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell.  This passage isn’t about heaven or hell.  It is about the path a believer takes after salvation.  God’s plan and purpose was to call people to Him (to offer salvation, to have us love Him).  We were called because it was His plan to have people with Him in heaven for eternity. 
            And the concordance puts “called” in the same realm as “invited.”  A call is not an irresistible force, meaning that if we are called then we will have to become believers.  It means that we are invited to believe.  And an invitation can be refused.  But I believe He gives an invitation to everyone to believe, but not everyone responds to Him.  So He is talking here about those who hear His call and respond.  And for those who do respond and choose Him, He promises to work for their good.
            The thing is, I don’t think that “those God foreknew he also predestined” means that we were predestined to be believers or not, but that those who He knew would believe in Him were predestined to become more and more like Jesus.  This passage isn’t about calling only some people to believe or forcing them to believe or creating them to believe, predestining them for heaven.  It’s about what happens to those who He “knows.”  It’s about how they are predestined to reflect Jesus more and more.

            And who are those He “knows”?   
            “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”  (Matthew 7:21-23, italics are mine)
            Ultimately, there are two groups of people: those Jesus knows and those He does not know.  The ones He knows are the ones who have chosen Him as Lord and Savior, who have chosen to do the will of the Father.  All the rest, He does not know, even if they claim to know Him and do His work on earth. 
            From the beginning of time, God knows who was going to choose Jesus as Lord and Savior.  From the beginning, He “knows” those believers but doesn’t “know” unbelievers.  So when the Romans 8 passage talks about those “God foreknew,” it’s talking specifically about those who will eventually become genuine believers, those who do His Will.  I think this “foreknowing” is a key to understanding this whole predestination issue.

            And so who are those who “do the will of the Father”?  Are we created to either be obedient to His Will or to be disobedient to His Will?  Or do we have the free-will to decide if we will obey or not? 
            I think we do.  I think the whole Bible attests to this, from the Fall . . . to the fact that God lays out “the blessings path" and "the curses path” for the Israelites to choose between . . . to the many calls to “obey” and “choose whom we will serve.” 
            I strongly believe that God allows people to choose to do things His way or to choose to disobey and rebel.  He does not cause us to be one way or the other.  He calls to us and invites us, but then He lets us choose.  (And He lets us face the consequences of our choice.) 
            And He can and does use us as we are (as we have chosen to be) to accomplish His overall purposes.  He can use someone who willingly listens to Him and obeys.  And He can use someone who is unwilling to listen and obey, such as Pharaoh, as we already saw.
            Also consider Isaiah 10 as an example.  In verse 5, God calls Assyria the “rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!”  And God uses Assyria to punish His people who have turned to idols.  And then in verse 12, He says that when it is finished, He will punish Assyria for their haughtiness and pride.
            I used to struggle with this idea, thinking that God caused a nation to attack another, and then He turned around and punished them for attacking His people.  But as I have studied this issue more and God’s character more, I have come to see it more about “using them as they are” than about “causing them to be who they are.”  I think it’s not that He caused Assyria to be a certain way or forced them to do what they did.  It’s that He used them as they were for His purposes.
            He doesn’t cause people to be evil, but He does allow people to be evil.  And He can work it into His plans or turn it into something good. 
            He looked ahead and knew what that country was going to be like, and so He saw how they could be used to accomplish His purposes.  And so He took them as they were (not forcing them to be the way they were) and worked it into His plan to discipline Jerusalem.  And then, since the Assyrians were responsible for the way they were, for the kind of people and nation they had become, God could rightly punish them, after He had used them to accomplish His purposes.
            Imagine, as an imperfect illustration, an undercover sting by police.  Let’s say that they need to get Big Man X.  And they know the best way to get Big Man X is to use Little Man Y, his crummy toady.  And so they work out a plan that uses Little Man Y to lead them to Big Man X, though Little Man Y is unaware that he is being used to dish out justice.  And when the plan works, they arrest Big Man X and Little Man Y. 
            Now, they didn’t cause Little Man Y to be the way he was, they didn’t force him to be a criminal and do illegal things, they just used what he was to their advantage and to administer justice.  And so he could be fairly punished after being used to catch Big Man X.  This, to me, seems to be the best way to view it because it factors in God’s justness and sovereignty and our free-will.
            The point is, God doesn’t create us to be obedient or disobedient, but He can and does use us as we are to accomplish His purposes.  Nor does He force us to be a believer or an unbeliever.  He leaves that up to us. 

            And as Matthew 7:21-23 says, only those who “do the will of the Father” – who willingly do it – will get into heaven. 
            And so the question remains, “Who are those who ‘do the will of the Father’?”
            I think it all comes back to a single choice: the decision to love God or not.  Our decision to obey – to willingly do His Will - is tied to our decision to love Him.
            “This is love for God: to obey his commands. . . .”  (1 John 5:3) 
            “If you love me, you will obey what I command. . . . He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”  (John 14:15, 24)
            Those who obey God are not forced to; they obey because they love Him.  And they love Him because they choose to love Him.  They are responding out of their free-will to His love and to the truth that He impresses on their hearts.  It is an act of the will, a choice: love God or love the world, worship God or worship Self/Satan. 
            Love is not love if it’s not the voluntary choice of a willing heart. 
            God calls us to love Him.  And He loves us first so that we can respond to Him in love.  But He does not force us to love Him or prevent us from doing so.  He leaves that choice up to us.  And He foreknows those of us who will choose to love Him and who will be obedient to Him, and He predestines us for eternal life and to become more and more like Jesus.  
            “But the man who loves God is known by God.”  (1 Cor. 8:3)
            It all comes back to if we will love Him or not.  That determines if He foreknows us or does not know us, if we are destined for heaven or for hell.  

            “ ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ ”  (Matthew 23:37, italics are mine) 
            Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem.  He longs for them to respond to His love, to His desire to gather them unto Himself.  Yet, they were not willing!  They were resistant.  They had the chance, the offer, the ability to respond to His love and call, but they refused.

            Even though the Romans passage has been used to say that God predestines some of us for heaven and some for hell, I really don’t think it says that at all.  Tying all these verses together shows me that we do have a choice about heaven or hell, in choosing or not choosing God.  It all comes back to the opportunity and the responsibility we have to respond to His love.  It all comes back to our free-will choice to decide if we will call Him Lord and Savior or not.  If we will love Him or not.  If we are willing to be gathered to Him or if we are not willing.     
            Love is a choice.  And if we choose to love Him, He foreknows us and calls to us.  (The call is available to all, but I believe it’s talking here about those who respond to the call).  And those of us who choose to love Him will “do the will of the Father,” and we are pre-destined to become more and more like Christ, and He will justify us and glorify us.  But it all comes back to our willingness to love Him.  And we all have the opportunity to choose to love Him. 
 

            But what about verses like John 12:39-40 that make it sound like God hardens the hearts of whomever He desires?  
            “For this reason, they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them.’”  
            I used to wonder about this one too, thinking it meant that God hardened hearts based on His own whims, that maybe He did indeed give some people no chance to believe in Him.  But then it helped me to look back a couple verses. 
            “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. . . . For this reason, they could not believe.”  (John 12:37, 39) 
            As I now see it, God did not just decide to harden their hearts for no reason.  They had a chance – the best chance – to believe in Him, and they did not. 
            "Would not" led to "could not." 
            It’s not that they didn’t believe because God hardened their hearts; it’s that God hardened their hearts because they did not believe.  Once again, it’s a retributive hardening.  A deserved punishment.
            Same thing with Pharaoh during the plagues, as we already saw.  Pharaoh hardened his own heart and wouldn’t listen during the first several plagues in Exodus.  But then God handed him over to the hardness of his heart.  Basically, God hardens someone who chooses to first stubbornly harden themselves.  God confirms and solidifies their decision to not believe. 
            Besides, 1 Corinthians 4:4 tells us who blinds the hearts of people so that they cannot believe.  And basically, it’s not God.
            “The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
            Satan blinds.  But Jesus opens the eyes of anyone who turns to Him.
            “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”  (2 Corinthians 3:16)
 

            What about verses that talk about God “opening minds and hearts”?  Doesn’t that sound like He causes them to believe in Him, which also means that if He doesn’t open their hearts and minds then they cannot believe in Him?
            Acts 16:14:  “. . . The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
            Luke 24:45:  “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”
            As I was contemplating the whole “pre-destination vs. free-will” thing, I would run across verses like these.  And it would make me really pause and contemplate, wondering if I really am understanding all of this wrong.  Maybe God really does decide who believes and who won’t believe, because if He doesn’t open your mind and heart then you have no chance of believing.  Do you? 
            So how does He decide whose mind/heart to open and whose to not?  Is it really His own preference, with no responsibility or influence on our part?  Are we completely at the mercy of His decision of who to enlighten and who to not? 
            But as I read these verses again and prayed for eyes to see, I began to see something else.  God doesn’t arbitrarily decide whose minds and hearts to open, with no influence from us.  He opens the hearts and minds of those who already believe or who show a willingness to believe.
            Go back a few words in Acts 16:14:  “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia . . . who was a worshipper of God.  The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”  (Emphasis is mine.)  The Lord didn’t open her heart to believe, for she already chose to believe in and worship God.  He just opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message, whatever that means in this case (possibly about being baptized).
            And in Luke 24:45, He wasn’t opening the minds of unbelievers so that they could believe in Him.  He was opening the minds of the disciples, of those who already believed in Him, so that they could understand the Scriptures and what His death meant.  Big difference. 
            I think, in general, this is like the “God hardens the hearts of those who refuse to believe” principle above.  But in this case, He opens the hearts and minds of those who are already willing to believe. 
            Basically, He follows our lead.  If we harden our hearts and refuse to believe, He solidifies our decision.  But if we are willing to believe and are seeking Him, He opens our hearts and minds so that we can understand more about Him and faith and Scripture. 
 

Some other things to consider:

          1.  “Receive”
            “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship . . .” (Romans 1:5)
            “through whom we have received reconciliation.”  (Romans 5:11)
            “For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”  (Romans 5:17)
            The concordance says that the word “receive” involves the idea of deliberately grabbing ahold of something, of consciously accepting what is offered.  It is intentionally reaching out and grabbing it, as opposed to passively acquiring something.  There is a responsibility on our parts to grab ahold of this grace and salvation, to not let it pass us by.
            Let’s say you are sitting in a room with lots of people, and someone walks in and places a golden ticket into the hands of 10 of them.  Then they say, “If you have received a golden ticket in your hand, you are going to the chocolate factory.”  This is like predestination, the idea that God decides who gets the tickets and who doesn’t.  And in this case, “receiving” is passive.  It involves no effort or decision on our parts to get that ticket.
            But “receiving” in these verses involves the idea of reaching out and grabbing, of willfully and deliberately accepting what is offered.  It would be more like someone walking into the room, placing a golden ticket down on the desk before each person, and saying, “Anyone who reaches out and grabs the ticket in front of them - who receives this gift - is going to the chocolate factory.”  This is more like the kind of “receive” we read in these verses.  It is active.  It involves a response on our part, our willingness to reach out and take hold of the gift that is offered to us.  This is free-will.  We choose to accept or we choose to reject.
 

            2.  “Believe”
            “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes . . . Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  (Romans 10:4, 13) 
            “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.  Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, . . .”  (Ephesians 1:13)
            We have to hear and believe.  “Hear and believe” refers to a responsibility on our parts to accept and embrace the Truth that we hear. 
            “Believe” in this verse does not just mean “to believe, as though God has caused you to believe and you did nothing to become a believer.” 
            In the concordance, “believes” is active, not passive.  Like “receive,” it involves a conscious and willing action on our part.  It is allowing ourselves to be persuaded by something and choosing to commit to it, placing our confidence and our faith in it. 
            The word believe is used in a way that means that we allow ourselves to be convinced of the truth, to be convinced that Jesus is the truth.  This supports the idea that we are responsible for being willing to believe in Him or not. 
            And the opposite of this would be to refuse to believe the truth that we have heard and that we know deep down in our hearts.  This is why no one will have an excuse for why they didn’t turn to God (Romans 1:20).  Because God has made Himself clear to all, in His creation and deep down in our hearts.  And we will be held responsible for our refusal to respond this knowledge, to be persuaded by it.
              

            3.  “Unbelief”
            “ . . . They were broken off because of unbelief . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in . . . ”  (Romans 11:20,23)
            According to the concordance, “unbelief” is along the same lines as dis-believing something or being unfaithful to it.  It is not just an ignorance of God, as though He blinded us or never revealed Himself to us.  It is a refusal to believe in the God who calls to us and who has made Himself known.  You can’t disbelieve something you never knew about.  So this word “unbelief” refers to the idea of hearing the truth, but choosing to reject it.  If we are “broken off,” it is because of our unbelief, our unwillingness to believe what we know.  But if we will choose to believe, we will be grafted in. 
 

            4.  “Ignorance” and “Blindness”
            “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.  Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.”  (Ephesians 4:18-19) 
            The people hardened themselves, became ignorant and darkened in their understanding, lost sensitivity to God, and then gave themselves over to sensuality. 
            Sometimes, we want to say that this verse means that God caused them to be ignorant by hardening their hearts.  That He made them be blind to Him. 
            But actually, the word in the concordance is not “hardening” of heart but “blindness” of heart.  And blindness in this passage involves the idea of being callous toward something.  And it comes from a word which is used of the Israelites who deliberately refused God’s ways and His Will. 
            It’s not that God chose to harden their hearts and make them ignorant; it’s that they chose to be callous toward Him, to deliberately refuse Him.  And this led to their ignorance, their darkened understanding, and their insensitivity to God. 
            And “ignorance” is not just “not knowing” or “being unaware,” as though God never revealed Himself to them, never gave them a chance.  According to the concordance, it is a deliberate, willful decision to be blind. 
            Refusing God’s way.  Willfully blind.
            This is basically saying, “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because they have willfully chosen to be blind, due to their callous refusal of God’s Will and way.”   
            Once again, the decision to believe or not believe lies with mankind.  We choose to either submit to the truth or to be blind to it!
            And that’s why we can justly be held accountable for our unbelief.  Because if we are resistant, it's because we chose to be, chose to harden our hearts to God’s truth.

 

Some Questions People Ask:
            1.  “As Romans 3:11 tells us, ‘There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.’  Doesn’t this mean that we cannot seek God on our own?  After all, aren’t we ‘dead people’ until God brings us to life?  And ‘dead people’ can’t seek God or choose God.  So then He has to be the one who makes us seek Him and choose to believe in Him, right?”
            Romans 3:11 is often used by those who believe in predestination to support the idea that we cannot seek God, that He chooses who to make Himself known to, who to bring to life, who to save.  (And so if He doesn’t make Himself known to you or bring you to life, then you are out of luck and headed to hell, with no chance to find Him.) 
            They say that we cannot come to God on our own because we are “dead people.”  We cannot come to Him until and unless the Holy Spirit first comes to us and illuminates our heart, wakes us from the dead, and causes us to repent and have the faith to believe.  (Of course, they say that this promise is only for those pre-destined to believe.  But while I believe that, yes, faith is a gift, I don’t believe that it’s “forced” on us.  It’s up to us to accept it or reject it.) 
            But what about this verse:
            “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”  (Acts 2:38)
            To me, this says that repentance comes first.  It’s not that we get the Holy Spirit in order to repent.  It’s that we repent in order to get the Holy Spirit. 
            I do not think that Romans 3:11 is saying that no one can possibly seek God, that it is up to Him if our eyes are opened or remain closed.  I think it is stating the general condition of mankind, that we don’t generally desire to seek Him.  We are all fallen humans.  And as humans, it is not our natural tendency to seek after God and righteousness.  Our natural tendency is to focus on our sinful nature and remain in our fallen state.  But He expects us to look at creation and know that He is there and to seek Him.
            “This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live . . .’”  (Amos 5:4)
            What God is saying is “Seek Me and you will find life.” 
            And who is God talking to here? 
            Well, obviously if they haven’t yet found life in Him then He is talking to “dead people.”  He is telling “dead people” to seek Him.  People who say it’s predestination usually claim that “dead people can’t seek, which is why God has to be the one to cause us to desire Him, seek Him, and believe in Him.”  But I think this verse shows us that God does indeed expect “dead people” to seek Him.   
            The thing is, the Bible says that we are dead in our sins.  We are spiritually dead, which means separated from Christ and unable to save ourselves.  But our brains are not dead.  We can still think and reason and notice that God is missing in our lives and feel the call of God.  In response to the conviction of sin that the Holy Spirit gives the world, we can choose to see our broken condition and to turn to Jesus for the forgiveness that He offers . . . and then the Holy Spirit comes to us.  After we have chosen to repent and be baptized in Jesus.   
            “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6)       
            “But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.”  (Deuteronomy 4:29) 
            “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  (Hebrews 11:6)
            Those who believe in predestination say that we cannot seek God.  But I think God says that we can.  And should.
 

            2.  “Well then, how about Romans 3:10: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’?  Doesn’t this mean ‘total depravity,’ that we are so fallen and wicked that we don’t have the capacity or ability to even think about God or to want Him in our lives?  And so He has to be the one to initiate and carry out the desire in us to become saved?  Therefore, there is no free-will and no ability to decide for ourselves?”
            I don’t think this is what that verse means.  I think that’s adding things that the verse isn’t saying.  Personally, I think “there is no one righteous” doesn’t mean that we are so depraved and wicked that we don’t even have the capacity to think about, desire, turn to, or seek God.  I think it simply means that none of us deserves heaven. 
            We are all fallen, and we cannot earn or work our way to heaven.  Nor does our bloodline get us into heaven, as Paul is warning the Israelites.  Verse 20 refers to this – that “no one will be declared righteous” just because they followed the “rules.”  There has to be a change of heart, repentance.  This is what the whole passage is about. 
            It’s not about us being unable to seek God because we are so depraved that we cannot even think about Him or desire Him.  It’s about us being unable to earn or work our way to heaven.  Neither our “righteous behavior” nor our “bloodline” will earn us salvation. Only the righteousness that we get through Jesus’ sacrifice can get us into heaven.
            Salvation was made possible by God and Jesus alone.  We cannot earn our way; we simply have to accept the way that He made possible.  We have to accept Jesus’ payment for us.  And we are expected to seek Him!
            “God did this [created the nations of the earth] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”  (Acts 17:27)            
            Yet, of course, we could not have even thought to seek Him if He did not make Himself known to us.  We could not have desired to know Him if He didn’t want to be known, didn’t call to us, and didn’t place in us a deep ache to know Him, a void that only He could fill.  So essentially, it all comes down to Him initiating a relationship with us, making it possible.  But He makes it possible for all people.  And as I said, He expects all of us to seek.  For if we seek, we find.  And He wants to be found.  It is the way to salvation.
            He is always revealing Himself to us, reaching out to us, and offering His gifts to anyone who is willing to receive them.  But if we do not receive them, it is our own fault for not turning to Him, not seeking Him, not responding to Him.  For His gifts – salvation, forgiveness, faith, etc.  - are available to all of us.  And if we don’t accept them, it is because we did not want them.
            Let’s consider Romans 10:3 (RSV): “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” 
            First of all, we notice in the book of Romans that Paul is grieving for the lost Israelites.  But why waste your effort grieving for people and spending your life trying to reach them if God has determined that they will go to hell? 
            Instead, if you hold to predestination, you really should just be living your life and saying, “Oh, God, You are sovereign and righteous.  And if You have decided that these people shall go to hell, who am I to disagree or complain!?!  Your Will be done!”  After all, you would know that nothing you did could really have an effect because God has predetermined who will go to heaven and who will go to hell.   
            But Paul is grieving for the people.  He spends his life witnessing to them, appealing to them, sharing the Good News with them. 
            Why?
            Because I think he knows that his efforts matter, that it makes a difference, that he might be able to reach some of the lost people.
            And he grieves for those who refuse God’s way.  He says they are “ignorant” of God’s righteousness.  And as we already saw, “ignorant” does not mean “God never told me” or “I had no idea because God blinded my mind.”  In the concordance, we see that “ignorant” here implies the idea of deliberately ignoring something, of being reluctant or unwilling to see it.
            Paul is saying that the Israelites knew the truth and chose to ignore it.  It is a deliberate ignorance.  They were unwilling to see it.  They chose to resist it, to be ignorant of God’s way.  And they created their own way instead. 
            This does not sound like “predestination” to me, like God made it this way.  It sounds like they were responsible for their choice.  And Paul knew it.  And it’s why he grieved and why he worked so hard to reach them.
 

            3.  But if God is all-powerful and He wants people to be saved, surely He would force everyone to be saved, right?  So if He hasn’t done this, it must mean that He is not all-powerful or that He is not very loving, right?  And since He is in control of everything, doesn’t that mean that He does everything He wants and that everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen?  So if people go the hell, it’s because He wanted it to happen? 
            I think that this is where a lot of people go wrong.  (And I used to think this, too, and it caused me a lot of confusion.)  They assume that since God is all-powerful, He always forces whatever is most important to Him, that He always forces His Will and His plans on people.  And there can be no free-will if God is always exercising His all-powerfulness. 
            And if God is all-powerful, He could surely force everyone to become believers.  And then they think that since He hasn’t done that, it must mean He either is not all-powerful or He is not very loving or that He wants people to go to hell. 
            But I think we are wrong to assume that He always forces whatever He wants.   
            Just because God has the power doesn’t mean He always uses it.  Just because He is in control over everything doesn’t mean that He always actively controls everything.  Being “in control” does not mean that He always forces whatever He wants or that we are His puppets. 
            It means that He could force whatever He wants and that He is sovereign over everything that happens.  Everything that happens – whatever we do, whatever happens as a result of our decisions, whatever happens to us or in the world – is because He allows it to happen, not necessarily because He forces it to happen.  I think that even though God is all-powerful, He voluntarily holds back His power and control in many ways.
            [I think people who believe in predestination are trying to defend God’s sovereignty and control, His right to do whatever He wants.  They think that “free-will” lessens God’s sovereignty and control, that it makes Him weaker somehow.  But I do not think this is the case, not if God Himself has decided to voluntarily restrain His use of power and to give people the right to decide things for themselves.  It doesn’t lessen His powerfulness at all if He has decided that this is how He wants things to be.]
            To be clear, I do believe that God has some over-arching plans for history and mankind that will happen and go according to His plan, such as creating a new heaven and earth, separating the sheep from the goats, having everyone eventually bend a knee and confess that Jesus is Lord, etc.  These plans will happen, regardless of us.  But He doesn’t control the path everyone takes to get there, their every move and action.  We are definitely on a pre-determined path for mankind, but how we walk that path is up to us.  And it will greatly affect our eternity.
            He doesn’t force people to do whatever He wants them to do.  He doesn’t force us to obey or disobey, to believe or not believe.  He allows us a certain amount of freedom, the ability to make decisions for ourselves and to choose to disobey or obey, even if He has the power to force whatever He wants.   
            I think we can get an idea of God’s offer of salvation when we look at the Old Testament, how God regularly lays out the “blessing path” and the “curse path” for the Israelites, and He tells them to choose which path they want to take.  (Check out Deuteronomy 30 as an example.)  He has the plans - the destinations - clearly set for both choices, but He leaves it up to the people to decide which path they take.  And I think these are real choices, not the illusion of having a choice.   
            Also, we get an idea of how God works when we look at how God called the Israelites out of Egypt and took them to the Promised Land.  His predetermined Will and plan was to take the Israelites from Egypt right to Canaan.  And He would have done that.  But the people rebelled against Him.  And so He allowed them to die off in the desert.  And then He took the next generation - those who were willing to go with Him - into the Promised Land. 
            His ultimate Will and plan was still accomplished.  He planned to take Israel into the Promised Land.  But He allowed them to reject Him or to follow Him obediently.  He didn’t force them to go into the Promised Land.  He only took those who were faithfully and obediently willing to follow Him. 
            This is the perfect balance between “pre-planning/predestination” and the free-will of mankind, the right to go down the path God laid out or not.  His ultimate plan to have people with Him in heaven for all of eternity will still be accomplished, but we have to choose if we will accept or reject the pre-paid ticket to heaven, if we will follow Him to the Promised Land or not. 
            His desire is to have all people come to Him, yet He does not force it.  He knocks on the doors of hearts, but we have to open the door and let Him in.  And if we end up in hell, it is because of us, not because of Him.  If we choose to put our faith in ourselves instead of in Him then we will pay the penalty we owe, a penalty that is spiritual death.  An eternity separated from God.  Hell!             

            But one thing we don’t have a choice about is that someday we will all bend a knee to Jesus and admit that He is Lord.  We cannot get away from this.  But we will either do it voluntarily on earth when we still have the chance to find salvation, or we will do it after that chance has passed, when we come face-to-face with Him in the end. 
            “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.  It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’  So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”  Romans 14:10-12 
 

            4.  But how could a loving God send people to hell?
            The problem with this question is the question itself.  “Why does God send people to hell?”  When we ask it this way, it sounds like God deliberately removes some people from the bus to heaven and puts them on the bus to hell (or He predestines them for hell), for one reason or other.  People who believe in predestination sometimes suggest that God has chosen to send people to hell in order to show off His sense of justice and divine punishment, and in order to highlight His grace and love to those being saved, by comparison.  
            Of course, eternal judgment does have something to do with His justice, and salvation does have to do with His love.  But I do not think He deliberately “sends people to hell” (or that He predestines them for hell) to punish people or to show off His love and justness.  I think we end up in hell not because He sends us there but because He allows us to make our own decision about if we want a relationship with Him or not.  He allows us to choose heaven (life/eternity with Him) or hell (life/eternity without Him). 
            He doesn’t exactly “send people to hell.”  He reluctantly allows us to go there ourselves. 
            The thing is, we are all born on the path to hell, already separated from God.  So He does not put any of us on the bus to hell.  We are already on it.  But He has been desperately calling to all of us – to any who will listen and believe - trying to get as many of us off of that path as He can. 
            Imagine we are all floating in a raging river rushing to a deadly waterfall.  And we can’t get ourselves out of it.  We are headed to the waterfall, to death, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  But all along the way, God reaches down to grab people by the hand and pull them out to safety.  But the only ones that will get saved are those who reach up and grab His helping, saving hand.  Those who don’t accept His help getting off the path they are on will end up going over the waterfall, not because He sent them there but because it’s the natural consequence of staying in the river and refusing His help.
            So He does not exactly condemn people to hell in order to punish people or to celebrate His love or justness; He simply allows us to stay on the path to hell if we choose to, if we do not accept His help off of that path.  But His desire is to have all people come to Him, yet He does not force it.  He knocks on the doors of hearts, but we have to open the door and let Him in. 
            And actually, God did do something to demonstrate His justness, but it isn’t “sending people to hell.”  And He did do something to demonstrate His love, but it isn’t “condemning some people to hell so He could show those He saves how loved and blessed they are, by comparison.” 
            No!  To demonstrate His justness and His love, He sent Jesus to the cross to pay the penalty that mankind owes for our sins. 
            “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished- he did it [sent Jesus to the cross for our sins] to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  (Romans 3:25-26)
            “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)
            By this demonstration of His justice and love – by having Jesus pay the penalty that we owe – we are now free to be justified, to have our sins wiped away in God’s eyes.  If we let Jesus’ sacrificial death cover the penalty we owe.  If we place our faith in Him. 
            And if not, then we choose to put our faith in ourselves and we will pay the penalty we owe, a penalty that is spiritual death.  An eternity separated from God.  Hell! 
            But always remember that it is because of our own resistant, unbelieving hearts that we end up in hell, not because of God’s justice.  It is because of His justice and His love that we actually have the chance to be saved from hell.  The penalty has already been paid.  Will we accept it on our behalf?
            And if I may point something else out, too.  Sometimes, people who believe in predestination say that God loves everyone but that He shows His love differently to different people.  He shows His love for the “elect” by pre-destining them for heaven.  And He shows His love for those pre-destined for hell by caring for them while they are on earth. 
            But what did we just read in Romans 5:8?
            That God demonstrates His love for us by sending Christ to die for us. 
            And according to John 3:16, who does He love? 
            That’s right . . . the people of the world.  Everyone.  That must mean that if God loves everyone then Jesus died for everyone because that’s how God demonstrates His love.
            I simply don’t see how you can change God’s love from one kind to another when it comes to different people.  God Himself told us what it means when He says He “loves” people.  It means that Jesus died for them.  For everyone!
            “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)
          “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)]
 

            5.  So then, what does “God is sovereign” mean, if it doesn’t mean that He controls everything and causes everything that happens?
            “God is all-wise and all-powerful, so He always does whatever He wants.  And everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen and made it happen.  Since God is in control, He controls everything.  And we have no influence on Him.”
            This is how many of us view God’s sovereignty.  We think that because He is all-powerful, He always uses His power and controls every detail. 
            And this view of “sovereignty” is used to support the idea of predestination, that God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell and that He compels us to do whatever He wants us to do.  If you end up in hell, it’s because He wanted you there . . . because He always does what He wants.  We don’t have any real free-will because He is all-powerful. 
            And this view is also used to support the idea that He controls every detail on earth.  If there is a tornado, it is because He put it there.  He decided the exact path and who would be destroyed and who wouldn’t.  He puts the cancer there and causes it to grow or not grow.  He decides if a child should be born with a handicap or abnormality. 
            But is this what “sovereignty” means?  That because He is all-powerful, He controls every detail of our lives?  Our eternal destination?  Every tragedy?  That He makes us sin?  That He caused the Fall of Adam and Eve?  Or do we misunderstand what “sovereignty” is?
            I think that many of us do indeed misunderstand what “God is sovereign” means.  And therefore, we misunderstand how we end up in heaven or in hell and how bad things happen in this world.   
            In fact, I remember when I was younger, I heard a story of a missionary woman who was single.  And she used to pray and pray that God would call the right man to be her husband.  But she never got married.  And she said something like this, “Oh, I believe that God answered my prayer, that He called to the right man.  I just think that he didn’t listen.” 
            And at that time, I thought, How could she say that?  If God wanted her to be married, she would be married.  So it must be His Will that she stayed single.  Because if He willed her to be married and if He called someone to be her husband, it would have happened.  There would be no way to resist it.  God’s Will would be done!
            But as I have grown and learned more about God’s character in the Bible, I see more and more how He calls and guides but doesn’t force.  Many times, He lets us choose to resist or choose to follow.
 

            Sovereignty basically means “possessing supreme power, having the right to do whatever He wants without having to answer to anyone” (not an official definition).  So, yes, God is sovereign.  He possesses all the power, the ability to do whatever He wants, to create life and take it.  Nothing is here that He hasn’t made or allowed.  And He answers to no one. 
            But where we go wrong is thinking that because He is sovereign and all-powerful, He always forces whatever He wants, that He controls every detail.  However, I think Scripture is quite clear that this is not the way it is.  I believe that God has chosen to voluntarily hold back His use of power and His right to control everything.  He voluntarily restrains Himself to a degree because He wanted man to have free-will and the ability to cause things and influence what happens on earth. 
            Basically, He has chosen to grant us a certain amount of influence, rights, and responsibilities, starting in the Garden of Eden when He gave mankind a level of dominion over His creation and when He gave them the option of obeying or disobeying His command to not eat from the forbidden tree. 
 

            So how should we understand God’s sovereignty?  Here is the way that I see it . . .
            1.  Everything that exists is because God made it.  So we are all here by His power and Will and pleasure.
            2.  Many things happen because He allows them, not necessarily because He wants them or causes them.  He did not want or cause the Fall, but He allowed it.  He allowed the detrimental effects of the Fall.  He allowed us – through the Fall – to unleash sin’s influence in this world, which includes illnesses, storms, conflicts, etc.  And He allows what He does because He knows how to work it into His plans. 
            But this does not mean that He causes each and every tragedy or consequence or sin that happens.  But He does let them happen.  And He is fully aware that they happen.  He sees it all.  He misses nothing.  Nothing takes Him by surprise.  Yet He is not micromanaging everything.
            Just because He can control everything doesn’t mean He does control everything.  And when I say that He doesn’t control everything (that He doesn’t micromanage everything and that He allows people to make decisions), I am not saying that there are things that are beyond His ability to control.  I can’t stand that argument – that if you say He doesn’t control everything, it means you are saying that He can’t control everything.  Of course, He could control everything if He wanted to.  I just don’t think that’s how He has chosen to operate.
            And just because He foreknows everything that happens doesn’t mean that He causes it to happen or that it was His Will.  That is a false assumption.  He knows when we will obey and when we will disobey and He knows the outcome of each choice we make, but that doesn’t mean He causes us to do what we do.  It’s just that He knows it all ahead of time. 
            Consider for a moment 1 Samuel 23:12-13.  (Thanks to Ryan Nelson at blog.faithlife.com for sharing this example in a March 12, 2016 post called “Predestination in the Bible: A (Possible) Counter Example.”) 
           In this passage, David asks the Lord if the people of the town, Keilah, will hand him over to Saul, who is pursuing him to kill him.  And God says that they will.  Armed with this foreknowledge of what will happen if he stays in that town, David leaves.  So this thing that God foreknew would happen – that the townspeople would hand David over to Saul – never happened.  
            But if “foreknowledge” means “predetermined by God to surely happen” then David would have stayed in that town and been handed over to Saul.  David would not have had a choice about leaving the town.  
            But he did have a choice.  He had the choice to heed God’s warning or to ignore it.  God didn’t determine David’s choice.  But He did know the outcome of both choices.  He knew that if David stayed, he would be handed over to Saul . . . and that if David left, he would evade Saul.  But God let David choose!  (Reminds me how important it is to “inquire of the Lord” instead of just making decisions in my own wisdom!)
            And then there’s 1 Samuel 13:13-14.  In this passage, Saul has disobeyed the Lord’s command by improperly performing a burnt offering.  And Samuel tells him that if he had kept God’s command and done it properly, God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel for all time.  But since he disobeyed, God was now taking the kingship from him.  God had a plan, but it hinged on Saul’s obedience.  God was willing to secure Saul’s kingship, but Saul changed the plan when he disobeyed. 
            If you think that God always does what He has pre-planned, that He does not allow us to make our own choice about obeying or disobeying, and that our choices don’t affect His plans then you would have to call Samuel a liar for claiming that God had a different plan in mind that hinged on Saul’s obedience.  There would have been no different plan in God’s mind if it was His pre-planned Will that Saul disobeyed and lost the kingship.  After all, if God always did what He pre-planned, how could He have a plan in mind that He never carried out?
            To a degree, God sits back and lets life happen.  He lets us decide.  He lets us heed His warnings or ignore Him.  He lets us obey or disobey.  He lets us affect His plans and the path we take in life, for good or bad.  He lets us accept or reject His invitation to salvation and the gifts of faith and grace and forgiveness. 
            And, unfortunately, He lets the bad things happen.  He lets our cells go wonky.  He lets our smoking and poor eating lead to bad health.  He lets the natural environment stir up storms and tsunamis.  He lets us hurt each other.  It is part of living in a fallen world. 
            In the Garden of Eden, He gave us a degree of ownership over the earth.  And we blew it.  We introduced fallenness into the world and handed over part of our “ownership” to Satan by choosing to listen to him over God (when Adam and Eve ate the fruit).  And God has allowed us to face the consequences of it.  (And don't kid yourself!  Any of us would have eaten the fruit too, given enough time in the Garden of Eden.)
            Consider Job.  God did not micromanage every tragedy that came into Job’s life.  He did not tell the “fire from the sky” to strike the animals or the wind to blow the house down while Job’s children were inside.  God gave Satan a certain amount of leeway.  He gave a boundary such as “Do not touch Job himself,”  but then He let Satan run wild and do as he wanted.  God allowed the tragedies and He saw the tragedies, but He did not cause them to happen as they did. 
            I think this is how the world operates today, in general.  Satan and people are allowed to do things within certain boundaries.  So when you do something, it’s not that you have total and complete “free-will,” the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want.  It’s that He allows it.  He allows you to do it.  He has the right to stop you – to put an end to your plans and even your life – and He has boundaries.  But within those boundaries, He gives us freedom to act and decide and choose. 
            And nature is allowed to run its course within certain boundaries.  Meaning that air currents can cause tornadoes and earthquakes can cause tsunamis and cells can go bad.   
            So did God cause that tornado to wipe out your house but spare your neighbors?  It’s possible.  Did He give you cancer or cause your child to be handicapped?  Maybe.    
            But more likely, it is life and nature and the consequences of the Fall running its course.  God sees it and allows it, but doesn’t necessarily micromanage it.  Our cells are imperfect now.  Nature is imperfect.  People are imperfect.  And Satan still has a lot of influence over the world.  There are far too many factors involved for us to say that “God did it.”  And allowing it to happen is not the same thing as causing it to happen.   
            [Yet for all intents and purposes, you could say “God caused it” if you want to boil it all down to one simple truth . . . because He did indeed know it would happen and He could have stopped it, but instead He allowed it for a reason.  So in all practicality, you could say that problems and trials are from His hand, regardless of who or what caused them.  In that sense, it’s just mincing words to say “allow” instead of “cause.”  But the reason I like to differentiate it is because it takes into account all the other factors and reasons that problems happen in this world.  However, regardless of “cause” or “allow,” our response should still be to cling to Him, to trust Him, to obey Him, and to praise Him.  Because He is still God over all.  And we can trust that He has reasons for what He allows, even if it hurts.]
            3.  However, there are times when God does indeed cause “bad things” (or good things) to happen.  Being sovereign means that He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants for His purposes, with or without our cooperation or approval.  The Bible shows times when He causes storms or plagues or deaths or wars or whatever.  There are times when it might be His Will to cause a certain thing to happen.  So this is possible.  (Yet I still think that, in general nowadays, it’s more about allowing it than causing it.  But I do not think it means that God causes anyone to be evil or to do evil, although He can and does work someone’s choice to do evil or to sin into His plans.  But it doesn’t mean that He made them be evil or sin.) 
            But if He does allow bad things to happen, it’s because He knew how He could turn it into something good.  He causes or allows things that He doesn’t like or want, in order to accomplish things He does. 
            But we cannot often know when He has caused it and when He has just allowed it.  So we just have to fall before Him humbly and trust Him.  And we cannot make proclamations against people, such as “God caused this to happen to you because your sins deserve it.”  Haughty Christians love to do this, to pass judgment on why bad things happened to a city or a person.  But who are we to know the mind of God and His reasons and how involved He was in a certain tragedy?  Keeping our mouths shut and our judgments to ourselves (knowing that we don’t know God’s mind like we like to think we do) would be erring on the side of compassion and caution and humility.     
            [However, I want to address one issue in particular: childhood abuse.  I heard someone preach recently about how God has the right to ordain (“cause”) evil to happen in your life, and that He is still good, and that He does this for His purposes and for your good and because He knows what trials you need to humble you.  And this preacher included childhood abuse in this list of “God-ordained evils.”  He said that the bad things that happened to you are God's "Plan A" for your life, and you just have to trust Him in it.  (He seems to believe that God causes everything that happens, for His purposes and glory, even things like causing Adam and Eve to eat from the forbidden tree and causing people to reject Him and end up in hell.) 
            It’s one thing to say that God caused a natural disaster or loss of a job or an illness, in order to teach you something.  None of those involve causing someone to commit terrible sins.  But it’s another thing to say that He deliberately causes people to sin or causes someone to do something as evil as abusing a child . . . and that if you were abused as a child, it’s because God caused it to happen for your own good and for His loving purposes for you. 
            Are you freakin’ kidding me!?!  (I’m using stronger language in my head!)
            But I say “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”  I don’t believe for one stinkin’ second that God causes children to be abused. 
            God might summon an evil nation to discipline rebellious people, such as God using Assyria to discipline Israel.  However, God did not make them be evil or make them choose to do evil.  He just worked their evilness into His plans.  And He was dealing with Israel in His justice - to discipline them and turn their hearts back to Him and make them want to restore their relationship with Him.  But I don’t think this example is comparable to causing the abuse of an innocent child, which is not an act of justice, nor disciple, nor restoration.  (At least to my way of thinking.)
            And He might allow Satan to cause all sorts of tragedies, like what happened to Job.  But once again, God did not decide which tragedies to allow.  He let Satan do as Satan wanted, within boundaries.
            But saying that God causes a parent to abuse a child for His purposes and for their good (and that we just have to trust His wisdom and goodness because He had His reasons) is taking the idea of “God is in control” too far. 
            What kind of God would He be if that were the case!?!  It might make Him a “fully in-control” God, but it wouldn’t make Him worthy of love, worship, respect, or trust. 
            Yes, God is “in control,” but I do not believe that He causes people to be evil or to choose to do evil.  He lets people make decisions.  He lets evil run its course, to a degree.  And He will work it into His plans.  But He does not make people sin.
            Consider for a moment the child sacrifices to foreign gods in the Old Testament.  If everything that happens is because God causes it to happen – if He causes people to sin and to do the evil things they do to children - why would He say this in Jeremiah 19:3-5: 
            “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: . . . ‘For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods . . . they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.  They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.’”  (Emphasis is mine.)
            God Himself says that He never even imagined that child sacrifices should be done.  (Not that He didn’t know they would do it, just that He never thought to require this kind of sacrifice from people.)  He is not responsible at all for the people sinning in this way.  He did not cause it to happen, but He did let it happen.  He let the people choose to sin and to do evil things.  But God is in no way responsible for it.  To me, it’s clear that things happen that God never intended, nor wanted, nor had a hand in causing.  Because He lets people act out of their own free-will.        
            Abuse of innocent children happens NOT because God causes it, but because God allows people to make decisions, even bad ones.  God allowed Sarah to beat her maid, Hagar, but He didn’t cause her to do it or condone it.  God allowed Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery and He worked it into His plans, but He didn’t necessarily cause it or condone it. 
            Just because He allows people to make their own decisions and He allows them to be evil doesn’t mean that He causes them to be evil or to choose to do evil things.  He has the wisdom and foresight to orchestrate events to put someone’s sin to good use, but He does not make them sin.  Once again, it’s free-will in action.  God has chosen to give people the ability to make their own decisions.  And many people chose to do evil.  But it does not mean God causes it or condones it.
            In no way do I think He causes children to be abused.  He has a heart for children and gives them special provisions.  Ephesians 6:4 says that fathers should not exasperate their children.  Matthew 18:6 says that if someone causes a child of God’s to sin (and doesn’t abuse oftentimes cause people to turn away from God!?!), it would be better if they were drowned in the sea.  And Matthew 18:10 tells us to not even look down on children because “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” 
            If people are not even supposed to look down on children because they are like the face of God, I would whole-heartedly say that we are not supposed to abuse them either.  God has put up special protections around children and they are especially close to His heart.  Abuse is NOT in His plan or Will for them. 
            I think this kind of teaching is so damaging to someone’s faith, telling them that they have to trust that God knew what He was doing when He caused them to be raped or beaten as a child, that it was for His glory and their own good and their spiritual growth, because He loves them and He wants the best for them and He knew what they needed to go through in order to be humbled.   
            No!  NO!  NOOO!  I think this kind of teaching goes against the very nature and heart of God.  I think it misrepresents Him terribly and that it is detrimental to people’s faith.  (And I think that I might end up leaving a church over this kind of extreme teaching!) 
            God doesn’t cause people to be evil or to sin, but He does allow people to make bad decisions and to do bad things.  And evil things are part of a fallen world where demons run wild. 
            But even though God didn’t cause it, He can work it into something good.  And He knew what was happening to someone who was abused as a child.  He knew what that person chose to do to you.  And I think His heart broke for you, that He wept for you.  Because abuse is never His plan for children.  And someday, the offender will stand before Him and give an account to Him for what they did. 
            But for you, God can help heal the pain – pain He never wanted for you - and turn it into something good, if you will let Him.  He is a good, loving Father who wants to heal you and love you.  And someday, He will make all things right again!   
            But do not, for one second, buy that crap that God caused your abuse for your own good or for His loving purposes!  It’s pure crap!  (Goodness, am I getting fired about this one!  It’s just so damaging and so not what God is like!)] 
            4.  While God does let things run their course to a certain degree, He is always available to hear our prayers and to intercede if we pray for His help, if it is in line with His Will.  However, He also allows us to not pray and not seek His help. 
            Consider Joshua.  In Joshua 7 and 9, we see two instances when Joshua does something without “inquiring of the Lord.”  Every other time that Joshua did something, he sought God’s guidance.  Yet these two times, Joshua acts on his own.  And God lets him.  God was there, ready and willing to help.  But Joshua failed to seek Him.  And it reaped consequences.  And God watched it happen because He has granted us the right to seek Him or not seek Him, to pray or not pray, to obey or disobey.  To a degree, He lets us live life as we want to.  With Him or without Him.
            He allows us to tackle life on our own if we want to, and to reap the consequences.  But He is always waiting for when we cry out to Him.  He will listen to our cries for help.  But He does not have to answer us the way we want.  And if He doesn’t, He has His reasons.  And we have to learn to trust Him, even in the face of “no” answers.  Personally, I think those “no” answers are the greatest testers and refiners of our faith.  (And while He might let the bad things happen now, He will someday make it all right again and He will work good out of the bad.)
            5.  God has certain over-arching plans for mankind that we cannot thwart.  They will happen regardless of us.  Restoring the earth and restoring us from the effects of the Fall.  Having all people bend a knee and admit that He is God.  The redemption of mankind.  Having a family of believers with Him in heaven.  Putting an end to evil.  These are some things that will happen for He has planned it so.  And we can do nothing to change the plans that God has determined to carry out. 
            [And if He has planned something in particular, He will use whatever means He can to work it out.  He can use demonic influence (2 Chronicles 18), angelic activity (the angel and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22), a person’s willful rebellion (Jonah and Pharaoh and Judas, etc.), a person’s willing obedience (such as Moses), or even insanity (Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4) to make His plans come to pass. 
            This doesn’t mean He has planned every little event of our life or every choice we make or that He overrides our free-will.  But it does mean that when He has willed a particular thing, it will come to pass because He knows how to “manipulate” the circumstances and to influence us to make it happen.  He knows what kind of pressure we need to make us willing to do His Will, and He knows how to incorporate our resistance if we choose to remain stubborn and rebellious.]
            But then there are things that He has planned – things He wants to have happen on earth, in this life - that He has chosen to do in cooperation with us.  It was God’s plan that the Israelites went from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.  He planned it.  It was His Will.  It was sure to happen.  But He allowed the people to rebel.  And this earned them death in the desert.  And then, He took the next generation – the generation who was willing to follow Him – into the Promised Land.  He still accomplished His Will, but only with those who were willing to follow Him. 
            I think this is how He operates in this life, in general.  With mankind’s cooperation.  His plans will still happen, but with those who are willing. 
            In Job 42, it was God’s Will to forgive Job’s friends for what they said about God.  Yet, God asked Job to pray that He would forgive them.  He waited to forgive them until Job prayed.  This is God accomplishing His Will with mankind’s cooperation. 
            I think there are times and ways that God’s plans hinge on us.  And this is the way He made it, giving us a certain amount of influence and responsibility.  But if we always think He will do whatever He wants regardless of us, we do not stop to consider how important our obedience is and how necessary our prayers are, that God might just be waiting on us to get His Will accomplished.   
            6.  When it comes to salvation, I do not think it was His desire to decide each person’s eternal destiny.  I think He wants people to decide for themselves.  He paid the price and He offers us forgiveness, faith, love, salvation, grace, etc.  And He calls to us over and over again.  But He allows us to accept it or reject it.  And He allows us the consequences that go with our choice – heaven or hell. 
            And He did this because He is a relational being who wants a genuine relationship with people who choose to love Him, not who are forced to.  But to allow people to choose to love Him means allowing people to choose to reject Him.  He does not want people to reject Him and to end up in hell, but He allows it to accomplish His goal of having an eternal family of people who choose to love Him, who are willing to follow Him
            Salvation and a relationship with Him is still all initiated by God.  All because of His efforts and pleasure.  He chose to make us, call us, love us, reveal Himself to us, and pay the price for our sins so He could offer us forgiveness and salvation.  All of this was set up by Him and possible only because He wanted it to be, because He made it that way.  We couldn’t love Him if He didn’t first love us.  We couldn’t choose Him if He didn’t make Himself known and call to us.  We couldn’t have faith unless He made it possible, offering it as a gift that we can accept.
            But . . . He gave us the right to choose to accept or reject His gifts of faith, salvation, grace, forgiveness, love, etc.  He lets us decide.  And then, He responds accordingly.  If we turn towards Him and reach out to accept these gifts, He opens our eyes and softens our hearts and we receive these gifts He has made available.  But if He ends up hardening our hearts and blinding our eyes, it’s because we did it first.  Because we turned our backs on Him and His gifts. 
            Granted, I think He is patient and long-suffering, wooing people for years because He wants no one to perish.  But we cannot blame Him for randomly hardening hearts, for “sending people to hell with no choice,” because He follows our lead.  He responds to our response to Him.  He gave us the choice and the right to decide.  And in the end, He will give us what we wanted.  Eternity with Him or eternity without Him!   

 

Personally, I think that . . .
            When the Bible says, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” (Joshua 24:15) it means that we really do have a choice.  We have to choose between accepting the Lord or rejecting Him.
 

            When it says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” (Romans 10:13) He means that salvation is available to all, but our responsibility is to call on His name.   
 

            “I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)  To me, this means that He knocks on all hearts, but we have to hear it and respond and open the door.  The responsibility for the decision is ours.  Saying “If anyone . . .” implies that it is possible to not hear and not open the door, to not respond to Jesus’ knocking.  But if we were pre-determined by God to end up in heaven - if we had no free-will, no options, no choices, no right-to-decide - then it would be impossible to resist the knocking and there would be no need to highlight our responsibility to “hear and open.”  There would be no “if” about it.
 

            I think that “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20) means that everyone has the same chance to come to Him and no one has an excuse for why they don’t.  But you sure would have an excuse if God created you for hell, if He created you to not hear His call and to not be able to respond.  You simply cannot adequately explain this verse – in my mind – if you say that God has pre-decided that some people will go to hell.
            [I think this verse also addresses the dilemma of “What about people who never heard of Jesus, such as those on a primitive island?  How can they be saved if they can’t call on His name because they never heard of Him before?”
            While some people think it means that God has pre-determined that they will go to hell, I think this verse shows that everyone has the chance to go to heaven.  Because God has made Himself clear to all.  And according to Ecclesiastes 3:11, He has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” 
            Whether it’s that we have the Word and the knowledge of Jesus or whether it’s that we only have God’s revelation of Himself in nature, we are required to respond to the revelation He gave us and the knowledge that is in our hearts.  And we are responsible for if we don’t.
            I personally think that even if people on a remote island never heard of Jesus before and all they had was God’s revelation of Himself in nature and they responded to that revelation, they will be saved because Jesus’ death still paid for their sins.  Even if they didn’t know His name.  It’s kind of like having a mystery person pay your bill at a restaurant and accepting their payment on your behalf, even if you don’t know the name of the person who paid it.
            However, I am not saying that people who have made up their own gods and own religion are saved.  God would only lead people to truth, and the truth is that there is only one God, made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So if a culture has made up a bunch of gods and their own ways to get to heaven then they have not found the God of the Bible.  They are listening to man's ideas or demonic ideas.
            And I am not saying that those from other religions who know about Jesus and reject Him and follow their own gods are saved.  Scripture is very clear that those who reject Jesus and preach another gospel are not saved.  And they will be held accountable for rejecting the truth that they knew about.
            But I am saying that, while difficult and unlikely, I think it is possible for someone from a primitive culture who has never heard the name of Jesus to look up into the sky and to realize that there must be a Creator and to want to know Him, to cry out, "I know You're out there somewhere.  And I want to know You.  Whatever Your name is, I know You are real.  Please help me know You and find You.  Reveal Yourself to me."  And I think this cry would reach God's ears and heart, even if the person never heard the name of Jesus.]
 

            “God did this [created the nations of the earth] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).  God intends for us to seek and reach, and this affects whether or not we find Him.  The responsibility and possibility lies with us.  It is His plan that we pursue Him.  And He reveals enough of Himself in His creation to arouse our interest and to be found.  And if we don’t find Him through it, it is because we refused to notice Him and to seek Him.  If predestination is true, then there would be no “perhaps” about it.  It would be sure to happen, as God had pre-decided it to be.
 

            “This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 2:3-4)  Why would God say He wanted something that He made impossible?  If He predestined only some for heaven and the rest for hell, He couldn’t really claim that He wants all people to be saved, if He really did want some people to go to hell?
            And likewise, 2 Peter 3:9 says “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Why would He create specific people to go to hell without a choice, and then claim that He didn’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance?  It doesn’t make sense. 
            But it does make sense to say that He wants all people to come to Him and doesn’t want anyone to perish if He created man with free-will, with the chance to accept His offer of salvation.  Then, even though He knows many will not choose Him, He can claim that He genuinely desires that all men find Him.
            [When asked “How could God deliberately create many people for hell and then go and say that He wants all people come to Him?”, those who believe in predestination will often respond, “Well, it’s because God doesn’t always force everything He wants.”  This is a truth I agree with, as I’ve said before.  Yet I think that they are misapplying this truth.  It’s the right truth but it’s applied in the wrong way. 
            It’s not “God wants all people to be saved.  But since He doesn’t always force everything He wants, He created most people for hell instead and gave them no chance to be saved.”  This doesn’t make sense. Because if He deliberately created them for hell - for His purposes and glory - then He really did want them to go to hell and He can’t claim that He really does want all people to be saved and no one to perish.
            But I think it is this way: “God wants all people to be saved.  But since He doesn’t always force everything He wants, He has chosen to not force salvation on us.  He lets us choose instead.”  He invites us to accept His gift of salvation and He wants everyone to accept it, but He doesn’t force us to accept it (or reject it.)  He wants us all to be saved and He made it possible for all . . . because His Will is that no one should perish.  But He lets us choose.] 
 

            I think that when He says that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that He desires that they turn from their ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11), He means that this is indeed possible.  That they do have a choice to turn from their ways and that He didn’t just program them to be wicked.  There is no joy for Him in the death of the wicked because it wasn’t His plan for mankind.  He wants all mankind to be saved.  But He allows everyone to choose for themselves. 
 

            1 Tim 2:6 and Romans 5:18 say that Jesus died for all.  I think this means that His sacrificial death paid the way for all people, that salvation is available to all.  But only those who accept that sacrifice will be in heaven.
 

            And John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The responsibility to believe is on us.  And our belief or disbelief determines where we spend eternity.  And God loved the world, not just those who would choose Him.  He sent Jesus to die for the world’s sin, not just for a select few, so that whoever believes in Him will have life.
 

            Acts 16:30-31:  “ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’  They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . .”  It does not sound like that decision is decided for us by God.  Whoever believes will be saved and have eternal life.

 

Questions:  
(Remember, these have a strong bias toward free-will.  So if you believe in predestination, come up with your own questions to ask.  And some of these questions will sound similar to others.  Just go with it.):

1.  Does this topic bring up any questions or thoughts in your mind?  Any other Bible verses you want to discuss? 
 

2.  Why does this issue get people so worked up and cause so much conflict and division?  Have you ever experienced this?  How can we prevent that from happening?
 

3.  How do you define “predestination” and “free-will”?  Have you heard other definitions?
 

4.  What are your views/ideas on this “predestination vs. free-will” debate?  Do you side with one or the other?  Why?  And are there any other views out there? 
 

5.  What problems do you have with the other views?  And do you have any problems or questions about the view you hold? 
 

6.  Why is it worth exploring (is it worth exploring?), even though scholars haven’t been able to come to an agreement on it?
 

7.  What questions do you not have answers for when it comes to this topic?  What still confuses you?  Are there Bible verses that confuse you?  (See if you can help each other find answers in Scripture.)
 

8.  How might having a “predestination” view practically affect someone’s life and faith, how they pray, and their view of the role of the Holy Spirit?  For good or bad?  How about a “free-will” view?


9.  What is the role of the Holy Spirit?  (Do a quick Bible search and find as many verses as you can about the Holy Spirit and what His role is, in the lives of unbelievers and believers.)  Does He “control” the way people act or what they believe?  Does He cause people to become believers, or does He lead them to the truth and let them decide?  What other questions can you think of that relate to the Holy Spirit?  (Ask each other and look for answers.)
 

10.  How would you explain some of the verses we looked at in the lesson?  Any questions about them?  Any that stood out to you?
 

11.  Are we capable of seeking after God?  Can we “choose” Him? 
            Does “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” mean that we cannot seek God?  What are your thoughts on this verse? 
            Thinking of the “dead people can’t seek” issue, is it accurate to compare spiritual death to physical death? 
            Does “there is no one righteous” mean that we are so depraved that it is impossible for us to seek or desire God unless He creates that desire in those He has chosen?  Or is this reading into it something that is not there?  Could that verse simply mean that no one deserves heaven on their own, that we can do nothing to earn it?  Look up that verse and see what the passage says.  What do you think it’s saying? 
            Find other verses on "seeking God" to see if God expects us to seek Him or if we are incapable of seeking Him.
 

12.  Some who believe in predestination say that we cannot “ask Jesus into our heart,” like so many of us like to say.  They disagree with that phrase because it suggests that we have some sort of influence over our salvation, that we did something to become saved and, therefore, it isn’t all God’s doing.  What do you think about all this?  Is it all on us or all on God, or is it a blend of the two?
            Does this verse address the “ask Jesus into your heart” dilemma in any way: “I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20)? 
 

13.  “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  (Hebrews 11:6)  How do you see this verse?  What is faith?  Is it still faith if we don’t willingly choose to believe in God, if He causes us to believe?  What does this verse mean for us?  And does it relate to the “predestination vs. free-will” debate?
 

14.  The “predestination” view says that God chooses who to save and that He only calls to the ones He has chosen and that His call is irresistible.  If He calls to you, it means He has already decided that you will be saved and you cannot resist the call.  You are destined to be saved. 
            The “free-will” view says that He gives the call of salvation to all people (salvation is available to all) but many will resist that call and refuse to come to Him.  And even though He already foreknows who will come to Him and who will reject Him, it is still a real call from Him and real decision on our parts. 
            Which do you agree with?  Can you find biblical support?


15.  People who hold a “predestination view” often believe that God is most glorified when salvation is all His doing and when He is totally in control; therefore, people can have no power to choose and no influence over their salvation.  And people who hold a “free-will view” believe that God gets more glory when people willingly choose to love Him and are not “forced” to.  What do you think about this?  Do you think one is more glorifying to God than the other?   
 

16.  How would you explain the sovereignty of God?  What do you think it means that “He is in control” and that He “holds all things in His hands”?  How would a “predestination view” and a “free-will view” see it differently?  What does all of this mean for our lives and our faith? 
 

17.  Read this passage: 
            In Acts, Paul is headed to Rome as a prisoner on a ship when they come against a hurricane-like storm.  And after many days at sea, Paul tells the discouraged, scared men, “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete, then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss.  But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.  Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. . . . God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ . . .”  (Acts 27:21-24) 
            And then a little later, when the sailors were trying to escape from the ship in the lifeboats, Paul tells them, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”  (Acts 27:31)
            Does this tell you anything about God’s character, if He always does what He wants or if people have an effect on what happens?  And how might this relate at all to the “predestination vs. free-will” debate?
 

18.  Do you agree with me that God doesn’t necessarily always cause everything to happen but that He often simply allows things to happen?  Did God cause the fall of Adam and Eve, or did He just allow it to happen?  Does He cause every natural disaster, every illness, every death, every suicide, rebellion, sin, etc.?  Does He cause people to be evil, for His own personal reasons?  Or does He sometimes just allow these things to happen and then work them into His plans?  Can you back up your view with Scripture or biblical examples?  (We touch on this in a couple of other lessons, too.) 
 

19.  Do you think God’s Will always happens regardless of us, or does it happen through and in cooperation with mankind?  Or is there a middle ground?  (We will explore God’s Will in more depth next lesson, so I won’t share my answer here.) 
 

20.  Putting it another way, does He allow us to choose how to live, to choose obedience or disobedience, and then work it into His Will?  Or does He cause us to be the way we are, to be obedient or disobedient, for His purposes?  Can you think of biblical support or examples?  And how might our view on this affect our lives and faith? 
 

21.  What do you think about my view that God doesn’t just arbitrarily harden hearts or open minds but that He “follows our lead”?  That He hardens those who are resistant and who harden themselves, but that He opens the minds and eyes of those who are willing to believe?  Do you think this is accurate?  Does it fit with His character?  Or does He harden and enlighten based solely on His own reasons and purposes and with no “influence” from people? 
 

22.  I said that God’s foreknowledge of who would love Him is a key to understanding this whole issue.  What do you think about this?  Do you think God’s “elect” are those who He foreknows will choose Him, or are His “elect” those He has pre-chosen to save?  
 

23.  “Love is not love if it is not the voluntary choice of a willing heart.”  Do you agree?  What is love?  And if God causes us to desire Him and choose Him, is that really us loving Him?
 

24.  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”  (2 Thess. 1:8) 
            “. . . They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.  For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”  (2 Thess. 2:10-12)
            How can these be interpreted if it’s free-will?  If it’s predestination?  (Look them up and read the whole passage.)  Which idea do you think they support best?


25.  “But if God is all-powerful and He wants people to be saved, surely He would force everyone to be saved, right?  So if He hasn’t done this, it must mean that He is not all-powerful or that He is not very loving, right?  And since He is in control of everything, doesn’t that mean that He does everything He wants and that everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen?  So if people go to hell, it’s because He wanted it to happen?”
            What do you think about my answer in the lesson?  Do you have a different answer for these questions than what I suggested?
 

26.  Do you think it is God’s Will that people go to hell?  That certain people go to hell?  How would “predestination” answer this question?  How would “free-will”?  How do you understand and explain God’s character in light of your opinion on this?
 

27.  As I said earlier, people sometimes say that the reason God “sends people to hell” is because He wants to highlight His love to those being saved or He wants to show off His justness.  What do you think about this and about my view on this?  Does God “send” people to hell or “allow” people to go to hell?  What do you think these verses teach us about His love and His justness?  Do they have any effect on the whole “free-will vs. predestination” debate?
            John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”            
            Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
            Romans 3:25-26:  “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished- he did it [sent Jesus to the cross for our sins] to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”   


28.  In as few words as possible, how would you explain to an unbeliever the Fall, mankind’s condition, God’s character, and the way to salvation?  Who did Jesus die for and what did His death accomplish? 
            [People who believe in predestination often say that Jesus only died for those who God pre-chose, because it would be a waste of His blood and grace to die for people who will never choose Him.
            People who believe in free-will often say that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for all but we have to accept that payment on our behalf to become saved.  They say that even if there was only one human ever created, Jesus’ death would still be required to pay the penalty for that one person’s sin.  So His blood is not wasted if even one person comes to Him.
            Which do you think it is?]
            Does your view reflect “predestination” (God controlling everything and only giving some people salvation) or “free-will” (God allowing mankind to make decisions and giving everyone the chance to find salvation)?  In your opinion, how would someone who holds the other view have to explain these things?
 

29.  If it's “free-will,” what is the purpose and importance of evangelizing, praying, and obeying?  What about if it's “predestination”?
 

30.  Do you think people who never heard the name of Jesus can be saved?  If so, how?  If not, what do you think the “men are without excuse” and the “God has set eternity in the hearts of men” verses mean? 
 

31.  In the big scheme of things, does it matter if we come to an answer on this “predestination vs. free-will” debate?  Does it matter to seekers and unbelievers?  Could God have left it unclear on purpose, and why?  Or do you think it is clear?


32.  If it is unclear, what is the best way to handle it, share it, and live it?  Is there any room for being dogmatic about this issue? 
 

33.  Dovetailing from that, when it comes to unclear issues, what are some subtle and not-so-subtle ways people might "bully" or manipulate others into agreeing with them, silence any opposition, or make those who disagree with them look foolish or unintelligent?  Have you been around people who are dogmatic about unclear issues like this?  What effect does it have? 
            (If you are strongly “predestination” and found yourself getting upset with things I said, maybe you can point out some ways that I tried to “bully or manipulate” people into agreeing with my view.  And if I did, it was unconscious and I apologize.)
 

34.  Has this topic challenged you in any area?  Have you come to a conclusion in your own mind on whether it’s “free-will” or “predestination”?  Do you still have questions you want answers for?

 

35.  Are there any other thoughts or questions that you want to add?