The Protestant Reformation was a movement in sixteenth-century Europe that sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church back to a Christ-exalting, gospel-believing, and Word-centered expression of the Christian faith.[i] However, the more the Scriptures shed light on the errors of the Church’s theology at the time, the greater the divide between Protestants and Catholics became.
The cries for reform, however, didn’t begin in the sixteenth century. Many clergy were corrupt—living luxurious lives of rampant immorality and sexual promiscuity. Church positions were given to the highest bidder or to family members and widespread skepticism plagued the church due to its moral bankruptcy.
In addition to this, the Church had created a theology apart from the Bible that sought to keep certain structures in place. For example, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Pope plunged headfirst into a building campaign to raise money for St. Peter’s in Rome. To fund his endeavors, he revived and extended the practice of selling indulgences.
For a sum of money, you could waive your time in purgatory or even have one of your dead relatives immediately go to Heaven. By buying one of these indulgences or doing various works of penance, a person could earn his/her way into God’s favor. Salvation became less and less about something God does and more and more about something man earns by works.
A young German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546 A.D.), responded to the various moral abuses of the church and of a “salvation by works” theology by nailing ninety-five theses—statements of faith—to the church door in Wittenberg. Thanks to the printing press (invented around 1450 A.D.), these theses were quickly printed and distributed across Germany. The Protestant Reformation had begun.
Reformed theology, as we have come to call it, is first and foremost biblical theology—the study and discourse on the character and work of God as revealed in the Bible. And the study of God—who He is and what He has done—is certainly an appropriate place to start when formulating thoughts on topics like salvation predestination.
What is “Reformed Theology”?
I usually summarize Reformed Theology by ten expressions. The first five are often called the Five “Solas”—referring to the Latin word for “only” or “alone”. The second list of five expressions are organized by the acrostic, TULIP, or what has been called the “Five Points of Calvinism”. The first five may also be applied generally to evangelical Christians while the second five are more specific to Reformed Christians (even though, originally, all major denominations embraced all ten of these).[ii] These ten expressions are:
- Sola Scriptura – The Bible alone is the only source of authority for faith, doctrine, and Christian living.
- Sola Fide – We are justified—declared “righteous”—before God by faith alone, and not by works.
- Sola Gratia – We are saved by God’s grace alone, displayed in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, and applied by the Holy Spirit.
- Solus Christus – There is salvation in no one else but Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
- Soli Deo Gloria – All glory and honor is due to God alone and to no other.
- Total Depravity – Man, because of his sinful nature, is born into this world dead in sin, enslaved to its services, and inclined toward evil continually.
- Unconditional Election – God’s sovereign choice of His people from before the foundation of the world is not dependent upon man’s decision or will, but upon God’s free grace.
- Limited Atonement – Christ came to purposefully and intentionally die for God’s elect, His people.
- Irresistible Grace – God, by His Spirit, effectually calls and saves sinners by grace.
- Perseverance of the Saints – Once a person is saved, he or she will always be saved; true salvation cannot be lost.
The Doctrine of Predestination
Out of the doctrinal expressions listed above, the doctrine of predestination (or election) usually elicits considerable reaction—both positive and negative. But what does it mean? Scripture teaches that before God created the heavens and the earth, He chose—or “predestined”—His people to be saved for eternity. Consider some of these passages from the Bible:
- “Even as [God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5).
- “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
- “In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
- “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6).
- “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thess. 1:4).
Predestination, therefore, is a biblical word; it comes straight from the Bible. Taken literally, it means to “destine beforehand” or to determine decisively something before it takes place. In the original Greek language, it is two words joined together (pro-oridzo). Many times, self-professing Christians will say, “I don’t believe in predestination.” While I understand their point—that they disagree with an interpretation of it—to say that they don’t believe in it is contrary to the fact that it is in the Bible.
The biblical writers consistently use the words “elect”, “election”, “chosen”, and “predestined”. However it’s stated, the message is clear: God has chosen His people before the foundation of the world for eternal salvation. Conversely, the non-Christian, “whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8) “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Let’s briefly look at this second point.
There is no doubt that the Scriptural truth that non-Christians will go to Hell is under attack in our day. There have been numerous books published in recent times reaffirming the reality and existence of Hell precisely because of this attack. However, many people want to believe that if you are generally a “good person”, you will go to Heaven. But this isn’t what Scripture teaches. Even Jesus speaks more about Hell—and unbelievers going there—than any other person in the Bible!
Deep down, however, all of us want to know what is true, even if it’s difficult to bear. You have been told too many lies to want what’s easy. We live in a small-print world where everything comes with a disclaimer. From famous politicians to popular preachers, we have witnessed the scandals and the hypocritical lives of prominent people. Because of this, we have been trained to be skeptics about what people say—especially if it sounds “too good to be true.”
One of the common objections to predestination is: “If God has already elected those who will be saved, then why evangelize?” It’s a good question, and there are at least two primary reasons. First, we share the gospel because Jesus commands us to (Matt. 28:19). Second, we share the gospel because it is the means by which God saves His elect—through the hearing of the preached Word (Rom. 10:17).
This second point is important. In the Book of Acts, Luke records the Apostle Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel. He writes, “When the Gentiles heard [the gospel], they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48, emphasis added). Did you catch that last line? Paul and Barnabas preached; the Lord saved. This is by God’s design.
In such a small-print world, it’s refreshing to let the Bible speak for itself. Yes, it is full of difficult doctrines, but would we expect anything less? If it always pleased our itching ears, we would see its shallowness and emptiness from the get-go.
But what we find in Scripture is so much more exciting and awe inspiriting than small-print disclaimers. We are confronted with a God who calls His creation to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), to reflect back to Him His glory and to join in the chorus of the millennia of saints and of angels in Heaven crying out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!” This is the God we worship and adore. This is the God, who reigns forever as the sovereign Creator over the universe. This is the God, who elects His people by love.
Predestination and Calvin
So, who was John Calvin and why do people get offended at the mention of his name? As a sixteenth-century Reformer in Europe, John Calvin (1509-1564 A.D.) sought to steer the church away from a man-centered view of the Christian faith to a God-centered view of the Christian faith. In doing this, he emphasized God’s absolute control over all things, a doctrine called God’s sovereignty. As R. C. Sproul has said, “there is not one single molecule that is outside of God’s control.” God has “declared the end from the beginning,” saying, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isa. 46:11). The Psalmist writes, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:9).
In asserting that God is in absolute control, the Bible teaches—and Calvin from the Bible—that we aren’t. This doesn’t mean, however, that we are mere robots or puppets. Man is fully responsible while God is fully sovereign. In fact, the apostle Paul writes of both of these truths at the same time: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [man’s responsibility], for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure [God’s sovereignty]” (Phil. 2:12-13). Or consider this verse in Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).
That God is sovereign, however, still offends. Why? Because we are rebels at heart. We want to be like God, like Satan’s temptation to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:5). Submitting ourselves to greater wisdom, power, and holiness takes humility—something we rebels rebel against!
Because Calvin seemed to take freedom away from man, Calvin has been given a bad rap. But what Calvin sought to do, however, was to show that man’s heart is not free to begin with. Our hearts are prone to wander away from Christ every time—if left on our own. Apart from God’s grace in giving us new hearts to love Him, we remain chained and imprisoned (and dead!) by sin and unbelief. There is no freedom apart from God’s work of grace and its grace precisely because His salvation is something we don’t deserve.
What is “Fair”?
Let’s pretend for a moment that you had one million dollars. You earned it through hard work, and it was yours. You find yourself out walking one day and see an elderly homeless man digging through a dumpster. You have compassion for the man, and so you decide to give him a hundred bucks. He didn’t ask you, but you gave it anyway. Unbeknownst to you, somebody down the street sees you and comes running up to you demanding that you give him a hundred bucks as well.
Stop right there for a moment. Think about the situation. Are you obligated to give this second man the money? Is he entitled to it? Absolutely not. But because of your generosity, there is a false sense of injustice—a false sense of thinking that you’re not being fair to the second man.
When we begin considering God’s eternal election of His people, before the foundation of the world, we must step back and ask the question: “What is fair?” Is it fair that everyone goes to Heaven? Is God obligated to send everyone to Heaven? We must remember that the wages of sin is death and Hell forever (cf. Rom. 6:23). If we are all sinners, which we are, then the payment or the consequence of our sin is death and Hell.
Therefore, in answer to our question, it would only be fair to send everybody to Hell. The fact that God elects some people for salvation points to His grace and love. That God doesn’t elect others points to His holiness and justice. Or to put it another way: by choosing some, He demonstrates His perfect love and grace. By not choosing others, He demonstrates His perfect holiness and justice. He is not obligated to save anybody. But because He wanted to demonstrate the greatness of His mercy, He poured out His grace upon the beloved bride of Christ, the Church.
A Comforting Thought
Think about this: if you were morally able to choose God apart from His grace and, therefore, enter into a saving relationship with Him, then you could just as easily “unfriend” Him and exit that saving relationship. The conditional element is you and your faith, not God. It would depend on how much you had a sense of faith or how much you felt like loving God. If you were strong in your faith one day, then you were saved. On the other hand, if you happen to have weak faith, then you would be unsaved.
But thank God that He is not in the business of non-committal, semi-secure summer friends, but of a sovereign, eternal, covenantal, loving, and grace-driven relationship with His people. The good news of the gospel is that your salvation isn’t dependent upon you, but upon God’s eternal electing love. If it was dependent upon you, you would never be saved to begin with because your heart would always choose evil every time—chained by sin and oriented toward sin, like that broken shopping-cart wheel always veering toward the side of the aisle.
Reformed theology points to this biblical truth: that before you were born, God set His love on you (Jer. 1:5). He chose you from before the foundation of the world to be His adopted son or daughter by His power and grace (Rom. 9:10-23)—that He might “rejoice over you with gladness” and “quiet you by his love” (Zeph. 3:17). As Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). If you know yourself this day to be a believer in Christ, you can take great comfort that you have been elected by a sovereign love that won’t let you go.
[i] Some of this material has been adapted from Brian Cosby, Rebels Rescued: A Student’s Guide to Reformed Theology (Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2012).
[ii] Methodists, who did reject the Reformation view of predestination and election, came much later as a break from the Anglican Church through the labors of John Wesley.