Predestination: Why Do Some Believe and Some Don’t?
One of the things I hope you’ve noticed so far in this series on predestination is that before mentioning what we do and don’t believe about it we need to be firmly grounded in several basic, biblical, and evangelical truths: we are sinners, God is just, and God is love. Not only do I believe this is a biblical method, I believe it is wise. There is so much misunderstanding and mockery of this doctrine that we need to lead into it gently.
In this post I want to lay out another of these foundational truths, which is one that leads us into the actual subject of the who, what, when, and why of predestination. Given humanity’s sin and both God’s justice and love, why is it that some believe in Jesus Christ and some don’t? These are the two responses to Jesus’ call:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God…Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:18, 36)
After Jesus fed the five thousand (this number does not include the women and children) the entire crowd left Him except for His twelve disciples, and one of them was Judas (John 6). The question of why leads us into a consideration of faith and its relation to predestination.
What Is Faith?
The essence of faith is found in John 3 when Jesus speaks of believing in Him. To believe “in Him” is to put all your confidence, all your hope, and all your trust in Him. It’s putting everything that you are in Jesus and not in yourself.
Our forefathers spoke of faith as “receiving” the gospel or more personally as “embracing” Jesus (e.g., Canons of Dort 1.4). This is important because all too often we can think of faith as just some mental gymnastic you do or an ethereal connection to an ethereal thing called God or Jesus. But what do the ideas behind the words “receive” and “embrace” communicate? They should evoke personalness because faith is personal. When I put my faith in Jesus this means that I receive Him and all that He is for myself. This isn’t theological Christianesse, but what John says earlier in John 1:11–12: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name …” That’s faith. Does this describe your relationship to Jesus? Do you receive and embrace all He is for yourself?
Why Is Faith Necessary?
Most simply, faith is necessary because with it we will not perish (John 3:16), we will have eternal life (v. 16), and we will be saved (v. 17). In other words, faith is necessary because without it we will perish (v. 16), we will be condemned, (v. 18) and, in fact, the wrath of God is already upon us (v. 36).
Faith in Jesus is necessary because it’s how we, as members of “the world” of sinners in opposition to God, receive the remedy for our sinful condition, for our sinful actions, and for our impending condemnation. Faith is so important because without it, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).
What Are the Blessings of Faith?
When Jesus speaks of believing “in Him” (v. 16) and “in the Son” (v. 36) He is speaking of the blessings of faith. The blessing—singular—is Jesus Himself. The blessings—many—are what Jesus gives to us. In John 3 Jesus speaks of the blessing of eternal life in contrast to eternal condemnation and wrath.
This means that through the means of faith we are delivered from something to something: from condemnation, wrath, and destruction to eternal life. When we receive and embrace Jesus He delivers us from the wrath of God. As Paul says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). When we receive and embrace Jesus He delivers us to eternal life. As Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death”—meaning eternal death or condemnation—“but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). As the hymn says:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Where Does Faith Come From?
With this basic biblical teaching under our feet, we are ready to speak of how faith relates to God’s predestinating work. We can do this by putting it this way: if faith is receiving and embracing Jesus; if faith is so necessary that apart from it we will perish everlastingly; and if by faith we receive all the blessings of Jesus Christ, where does this faith come from? John answers this question at the beginning of his Gospel when he says all who receive Christ, that is, believe in Him, become children of God (John 1:12). He explains this further by stating what happened prior to their believing: “who were born (past tense), not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). And what does it mean to be “born of God?” That’s Jesus’ teaching in John 3:6. To be born again is also to be born from above, that is, to be given new birth by God Himself. Therefore, those whom God gave new birth are those who believe in Jesus.
The natural implication of John 1 and 3 is that unbelief has its cause and fault in sinful humanity. It cannot be in God or else He cannot be God: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). As James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (Jas. 1:13). It must be in us, who were born dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–3). In our natural state we are like an untrained dog—wild, out of control, acting on instinct and according to its dispositions and nature. You don’t need to tell an untrained dog to run away, it does that anyway. This is what we are like apart from the Lord’s working in us, to “train” us to place faith in Jesus.
On the other hand, faith’s cause is not in us but in God Himself. Only God makes alive: “But God …” (Eph. 2:4). In Ephesians 2:8-9 we read: “for by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.” In Philippians 1:29 Paul writes that God has “granted” that we suffer for the sake of Christ as well as believe in Him, and Luke says in Acts 13:48 that all who were “appointed to eternal life” believed in Jesus.
So, some are given the gift of faith while others are not. Why? It is certainly not because children get it from their parents or that some adults are better than others.
The Eternal Source of Faith
Why some believe and some don’t finds its ultimate answer in God Himself, the eternal source of faith. In Ephesians 1 Paul blesses God because He has blessed us with every blessing (v. 3), described under the headings of the blessing of predestination (vv. 4–6), the blessing of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work (vv. 7–12), and the blessing of the sealing work of the Holy Spirit that guarantees our salvation in eternity (vv. 13–14). Not only is God blessed for choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world (v. 4) and predestining us in love (v. 5), but He did so “according to the purpose of his will” (v. 5). God’s eternal choice of us was not arbitrary, by chance, or random, but was in accord with His intentional will.
Again in verse 11 we read that in Christ we have obtained “an inheritance.” This is speaking of our coming into possession of Christ and all His benefits by faith. How did we come to obtain this? Verse 11 continues: “… having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This was one of those verses that literally jumped off the page in my life when I was wrestling with truth and faith. Not only does Paul say that we came into possession of Christ because we were predestined to obtain Christ, but that the God who predestined us to faith also works out everything according to His will. Do you see what Paul is saying here? Everything is ordained and purposed by God, including your faith in Christ.
The Temporal Softening Unto Faith
A common objection or a misunderstanding of this is, “If God predestines everything, including faith, there’s no need to worry about any of this because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” The answer is that the God of eternal predestining is also the God of temporal softening. The God who chooses us apart from our faith enables us to come to Him in faith.
How does God as the eternal source of faith lead to the temporal faith of sinners? Remember Acts 13:48? Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles when we read, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Do you see the connection? You may ask, “But how, practically speaking, did this eternal appointing lead to their believing in time?” In Acts 16, Paul preached the gospel to Lydia, and we read this: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The same God who predestined that she would believe opened her heart to believe. This is why the Canons of Dort says so wonderfully, “According to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe” (Canons of Dort 1.6).
God, who requires faith as the necessary means of receiving the blessings of His Son, is the same God who gives that faith by graciously softening stone-hard hearts and inclining those hearts to believe in His Son. Isn’t this a wonderful assurance to us who have believed? Isn’t this a wonderful promise to us for the hard-hearted we know? Isn’t this a wonderful encouragement to pray to the God who is able and willing to do such a thing?