A Study of Predestination and Free Will in the Bible

June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

The topics of predestination and free will are always hot button issues. Even conservative evangelicals who agree on most biblical doctrines can sometimes take different stances on whether or not someone is “predestined” to salvation or truly has “free will.”

A Study of Predestination and Free Will in the Bible

Photo Credit: superfamous

In this post I am sharing a bibical study of presdestination and free will. The outline I am following was originally provided by J. Scott Horrell, Th.D.

I. 3 Reasons I Think People Reject the Doctrine of Predestination and Free Will

    1. Hope for the Unsaved: People often reject predestination because they want to think that there is hope for their lost friends. Predestination would mean that a lost friend, family member, or coworker has been chosen to go to hell instead of heaven.
    2. Belief that Everyone Has the Right to Be Saved: Some might reject predestination because of a belief that everyone has a “right” to be saved. This belief might come from the idea that God’s kingdom is available to everyone and each person has as much right to be saved as another.
    3. A Loving God Would Not Decide to Exclude Some People from Heaven: Some might reject predestination because they do not believe that God as a loving God would intentionally reject people from being able to enter heaven.

II. How I Felt and Thought About This Study Before Doing It         

A. What were my feelings about the doctrine of predestination and how God might have predestined my life?

A part of me wants to and does believe that the sovereign God predestines history. However, as I think about him having predestined my own life it causes me to feel nervous. What did I do to deserve to be elected? What makes me different than anyone else? Why choose me?

B. How might the doctrine of predestination affect my walk with the Lord?

Knowing that I might be predestined and elected by God to be saved causes me to work hard to evangelize and “make good” on God’s investment. If he has given me a great gift, I want to make sure that I am a responsible steward of that gift.

III. Old Testament Texts Related to the Topic of Predestination and Free Will

God is sovereign. He determines who lives in palaces and who lives in the garbage dump. He gives life and death. He owns the earth and sets it in order. He makes some rich and some poor. – 1 Sam 2:6-10

This is the Lord’s Kingdom. Everything in heaven and on earth is his. He rules over everything. Wealth and honor come from him alone. He makes people great and gives them strength. Everything we have is from him. – 1 Chron 29:11-14

God does what pleases him throughout heaven, earth, and the sea. – Ps 135:6

God knows everything about me. He knows my [David] deepest and darkest secrets even before I was born. With that knowledge I cannot escape from his presence. Even before I was born every day of my life was recorded in his book. – Ps 139:1-16

The Lord has made everything for his own purposes. Even the wicked. – Pro 16:4

As humans we can make our plans but God determines our steps. – Pro 16:9

We can try to determine God’s will and he will show the way. – Pro 16:33

If the LORD directs our steps, why do we try to understand everything on the path? – Pro 20:24

God has planted eternity in the heart of people yet they do not see his work. Whatever God does is final. People should fear him. Ecc 3:11-15

God is sovereign over Cyrus, a pagan (non-Jew, enemy of the Jews). God is the Lord and there are no other Gods before him. God is so mighty and sovereign that no one has the right to question him or his work. – Isa 45:1-13

There is no one like God. He is alone. He is the only one who can tell the future. – Isa 46:9-10

God’s word is always the same. It accomplishes what He wants it to and it always produces fruit. – Isa 55:11

God, you are still the father even if earthly fathers abandon their children. You have allowed your people to turn from their path. Please return and help your servants. – Isa 63:16-17

IV. New Testament Texts Related to the Topic of Predestination and Free Will

No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the father draws them to me. At the last day, I will raise them up. – Jn 6:44

People can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me. – Jn 6:65

God knew what would happen. When Jesus was betrayed his pre-arranged plan was carried out. The Gentiles killed him, but God released him from death and brought him back again. – Ac 2:23-24

Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Gentiles, and the people of Israel killed Jesus which was God’s pre-ordained plan. – Ac 4:27-28

The Gentiles were glad about the message. And all who were chosen for eternal life became believers. – Ac 13:48

God knew his people in advance and chose them to be like Jesus. Having chosen those he knew in advance, he has chosen them to come to Jesus. Having called them, he gave them right standing. Having a right standing, they have glory. – Rom 8:29-30

The ones God chose have found the favor with God that they wanted. The rest who have not been chosen have hearts that were hardened. – Rom 11:7

Everyone must submit to the authority of God because that authority comes from God. – Rom 13:1

Before I [Paul] was born I was chosen by God and called to him by his marvelous grace. – Gal 1:15-16

Praise to God because he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. God chose us and loves us before he made the world. He decided in advance to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. He wanted to do this and it brought him great pleasure. – Eph. 1:3-5

Because we are united with Christ we have received an inheritance. God chose us in advance and everything works out according to his plan. – Eph. 1:11

God is working in you giving you the will and desire to do what is pleasing to him. – Php 2:13

This letter is from Peter writing to God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. God knew you and chose you long ago and his spirit has made you holy. As a result, you have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. God give you more and more grace and peace. – 1 Pe 1:1-2

The beast is no longer alive, but will soon come up out of the bottomless pit to eternal destruction. And the people who belong to this world whose names were not written in the book of life before the world was made will be amazed at the sight of this beast who has died. – Rev 17:8

V. Based on the Verses Above

A. There Is and Is Not a Limit to Divine Sovereignty

One limit of divine sovereignty is his sovereignty is limited to himself, not to be shared with his creation. It is God’s sovereignty to know whom he has chosen, not us. Yet, we do know that the ones he has chosen who have come to their faith in Christ can acknowledge that they have been made right with God and that their names are written in the “book of life” (Rev 17:8). However, there is no limit to God’s divine sovereignty. God knows his people in advance, he chose them to become like his son, he called them to come to him, he gave them right standing with himself and he gave them his glory (Ro 8:29-30).

God has his own purposes for doing what he does and his people have no right to question it (Pro 16:4). He can tell the future and does whatever he wishes (Isa 46:10) for his own pleasure (Eph 1:4-5).  God is the one who gives both death and life (1 Sam 2:6). He raised Jesus from death and brought him back to life (Acts 2:23-24). Not only does God know who is or is not chosen, but he knows everything about that person (Ps 139:1-5, 16).

A person can try to make her own plans, but ultimately God determines what happens. He is the one ultimately in charge of the future (Pro 16:9, 33; Eph 1:11). When talking about the Persian king Cyrus, the most powerful king in the world, God declared that He is king (Isa 45:5-7). For God is the father (Isa 63:16).

B. These Texts Minimize Human Responsibility

These texts minimize human responsibility in salvation. Under no strength are humans able to save themselves. No one succeeds by herself in salvation because “no one will succeed by strength alone” (1 Sam 2:10). This limit to human responsibility in salvation is because everything is God’s work. It is also limiting for human responsibility because it happened before each human was born (Gal 1:15-16). However, humans also must submit to God even if they are chosen (Rom 13:1). As a result of being chosen humans need to obey him (1 Pe 1:2). Humans are also minimized from questioning God about whom he chooses and how he chooses (Isa 45:9-11).

The one element of human responsibility is to receive God’s word (Isa 55:11). When receiving his word, God is declared Lord and followed as sovereign. God guides the steps of his people (Pro 16:9, 33). In fact, he directs steps (Pro 20:24) and puts the desires in his peoples’ hearts to do what they are supposed to do (Php 2:13).

Finally, because of the sovereignty of God all obligation for humans to give something back to God is forgotten. Humans are not worthy to give anything to God (1 Chron 29:14).

VI. What is human depravity and can man do good? 

A. What is human depravity?

Human depravity is a mind and heart far away from God. It is a hardened heart and a closed mind from God’s marvelous truth (Eph. 4:17-19). Hearts are hard and minds are closed because Satan, the ruler of this world, has blinded people from being able to see the Good News of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Only the people who are spiritual can understand God’s truth (1 Cor 2:14). People who are not spiritual cannot understand God’s truth because truth sounds like foolishness to them (1 Cor 2:14). At one time in the life of a believer she lived in sin and she loved it. She was lost and was dead. It is only because of the loving mercy of God’s grace that she is saved from death (Eph 2:1-5).

B. What happened to the free will of man at the “Fall”?

Adam and Eve had complete freedom before the Fall. Their free will was good because they only did what was good. And they only did what was good because they only knew good. They were perfect and complete and their free will did not cause them harm because they were perfect knowing only good. However, when the fruit from the beautiful tree was eaten (Gen 3:6), Eve and Adam received the knowledge of good and evil. Their eyes were opened (Gen 3:7) and they now knew good and evil (3:22). Man’s free will now allows him to participate in evil because he knows evil.

C. How can a non-regenerate man understand the Gospel and enter into a believing faith?

God is how a non-regenerate man can understand the Gospel and enter into believing faith. As the serpent (Satan) presented himself to the woman for her to understand evil, God also has to present himself to non-regenerate individuals in order for them to understand his truth.

VII. What about Romans 9:14-24?

What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! For he says to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may demonstrate my power in you, and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden. 

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you – a mere human being – to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? – Romans 9:14-24 (NET)

I understand that salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles. Both groups are part of the potentially saved, just as all people are lost and in a position to be saved if God choses. In other words, ancestry does not determine whether or not someone is saved (Rom 9:6-7).

Ultimately, God determines who is saved. Using the example of Isaac and Rebekah’s twins (Jacob and Esau), Paul shows that God choses whom he chooses (Rom 9:15). It is not based on the good or bad works of that person (Rom 9:11-12).

Ultimately, it is God who decides to show mercy. It cannot be controlled by humans nor worked toward by humans (Rom 9:16). Even though this is difficult to understand, Scripture makes it clear that people are not supposed to question God about whom he chooses nor do humans have the authority to question him.

VIII. My Definition of Divine Predestination

Divine predestination is God, in his sovereignty, choosing whom he chooses to enter his kingdom. He is the creator and as divine ruler he selects those who he wants to select to be his. Those who are selected are selected by grace and receive the wonderful grace of God.

IX. What about the tensions between God being just and sovereign?

A. What are the tensions from a strong view of predestination?

    • A strong view of predestination brings sorrow to believers about their lost friends, family members, and coworkers. Knowing that someone you care for and love is going to hell and that there is nothing you can do about it is difficult.
    • Another tension is how a loving God could predetermine that someone is going to hell. The Bible clearly states that God is sovereign and that he is in control. However, if he loves everyone equally how can he predestine others for salvation and others not?
    • Finally, another tension is what a believer’s role is in relationship to God if God is completely in control. How does a believer maintain a relationship with him? What is her role in doing the work of God if God has already pre-ordained history?

B. How do I deal with these tensions?

    • Believers should be grateful that God has allowed them to be part of the elect who grasp what little knowledge they have about God. Based on that limited knowledge which God has allowed them to have, they should be grateful that God has revealed himself to them.
    • Another way believers deal with these tensions is to maintain allegiance, love, and loyalty to God.
    • They should acknowledge that the God they might not completely and fully understand still deserves to be revered, loved, and faithfully followed.

X. Based on My Definition of Divine Predestination:

A. How I View God

Because God is so majestic and magnificent I still need to seek to know him. Part of the mystery of God is what makes him so amazing. I will still make it a goal to get to know him and spend time with him. Knowing how amazing God is compels me to want to know him better.

B. What This Implies for the Nonbeliever

If God is sovereign and he has predestined others, how does that affect evangelism? Is there a need for it?

The Bible sheds light on this because:

    1. People can only accept God as Savior if they know of him;
    2. Jesus commanded believers to make disciples of all nations.

Because of this, believers need to be the ones to share God’s word with others, but also to allow God to be the one to save them. It is my job to share the gospel and its God’s job to save. Therefore, I share; he saves.

Question: I realize this might be a controversial topic and that you might disagree, but what do you believe the biblical view of predestination and free will is?

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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