Christians need to talk about and pastors need to preach predestination. But as you may know, there’s no more surefire way to create awkward silence among family and friends than to say, “Hey everyone, let’s talk about predestination.” We all know how offensive this doctrine is to the sensibilities of unbelievers and even believers. But I don’t want you to have that awkwardness. I want you and me to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ. We need more than knowledge of the truth; we need to grow in the wisdom of speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
That’s why you need to know and be prepared to communicate several things before talking about predestination. Imagine that this doctrine is as a beautiful painting. But before you can even begin to apply the paint, you need to have a canvas. Predestination is the paint. We don’t begin with the paint. We begin with a canvas to which the paint is applied.
You Know Your Sinful Condition
Don’t say a word about predestination until you know your sinful condition. When our spiritual forefathers gathered for the Synod of Dort to respond to the teachings of Jacob Arminius, the first thing they said was this:
As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin. (Canons of Dort, 1.1)
Our sinful condition is described as having sinned “in Adam.” In Romans 5, Paul says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (v. 12). In verses 13–14, Paul goes on to say that even after Adam broke God’s law and before Israel would break God’s law again under Moses, everyone was still sinful. Why? Because of Adam. Notice the progression: Adam, sin, death. God created Adam; God gave Adam a command; Adam violated the command. And you have to understand that what Adam did affected everyone else who was to come into the world. He was what our forefathers called “a public person,” a representative of everyone else. Just as what our president does matters to the rest of us because he represents us, so too what Adam did matters because he represented you and me way back in the garden of Eden.
So “sin came into the world through” Adam, and notice that it’s because of that one sin that “death” came into the world, “spread[ing] to all men.” But the question is, How did death come to everyone born into the world when everyone born had yet to sin? The last phrase is the key: “because all sinned.” When? When Adam sinned. All sinned in the one man’s sin. Thus, we are born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and born “in iniquity, and in sin . . . conceiv[ed]” (Ps. 51:5).
Because of Adam’s sin and our participation in it, we lie under the curse of Genesis 2:15. In Romans 5, again, we read in verses 15–19 a series of three great contrasts between Adam and Jesus, with the result that we are deserving of eternal death. Sin, curse, death. And you can see this in the progression of Paul’s words in Romans 5: in the beginning there was “one man,” Adam; what Adam did is described with three terms: he “sinned,” he “trespassed,” and he was “disobedient”; because of this, God pronounced his “judgment”; this judgment led to his “condemnation”; his condemnation led to his spiritual and eventual physical “death.”
You Know God’s Just Condemnation
This is offensive to the sensibilities of people, isn’t it? So often we are told, “God sends no one to hell; they send themselves there.” We’re told, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell because of their sinfulness, but because of what they didn’t do with Jesus Christ.” We’re told, “We all have an equal opportunity to get to heaven.” We’re asked, “What about those who sincerely seek after God?” The justice of God is hard to understand for a multicultural, pluralistic, so-called post-modern world. But the modern objection that says, “God is unjust,” is not modern at all. In Romans 9, this was one of the ancient objections to which Paul responded. This is an objection of natural sinfulness.
Instead, the Word of God tells us that we are sinners and God is just. Scripture tells us that because of our sins, “every mouth may be stopped” and “the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). Scripture tells us that “all have sinned” and therefore all have “fall[en] short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Scripture tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, God would have done no injustice by leaving us all to perish and delivering us over to condemnation on account of sin. So don’t say a word about predestination until you know God’s just condemnation. He is the Supreme Judge who only does what is right.
You Know God’s Love
Don’t say a word about predestination until you know God’s love. I mentioned above the first article of the Canons of Dort. Now listen to the second article, before any mention is made of predestination:
But in this the love of God was manifested, that He sent His only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (Canons of Dort, 1.2)
The Apostle John exhorted his hearers, saying, “Beloved, let us love one another” (1 John 4:7), and then again, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). In the midst of this, John speaks of the cause of our love. We are to love because “love is from God” (v. 7). He has given it to whoever has “been born of God” and now “knows God” (v. 7). Then he states the ultimate cause: “God is love” (v. 8).
God’s Love of Himself
Before you say a word about predestination, you need to know God’s love of Himself. John speaks of “the love of God” (v. 9). He’s not speaking of our love of God, but of God’s love. As theologians have described, this love exists internally (ad intra), naturally (amor naturalis), and necessarily (amor necessitas) in God and is later manifested voluntarily (amor voluntarius) from God externally (ad extra) in the sending of His Son. We know God’s love in manifesting it in the sending of His Son to us. But recognize something about that. Because God manifests His love, this means that there is a love that is prior to our experiencing it. We get a glimpse of its essence in 1 John 4:9–10 when we read of God and His only Son.
As God, He exists eternally and self-sufficiently as Them: Father, Son—both mentioned here—and Holy Spirit. What God was doing before creation was loving Himself within the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our love for our parents had a beginning. Our love for our friends had an inception point. What John is talking about, though, is love that has always been—better yet, that just is.
Look at John 17. Jesus prays to the Father for the unity of His church in verses 22–23, and then at the end of verse 23 we read the purpose: “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (emphasis added). Was this just the love of the Father for Jesus while He was on earth? That love was manifested in His baptism: “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). This love goes back further. In John 17:24, Jesus prays that His people “may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (emphasis added). Finally, in John 17:26, Jesus says, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (emphasis added). This means that God’s love of Himself as Trinity is an eternal, self-sufficient love. As Thomas Manton said:
God’s love is as ancient as himself; there was no time when God did not think of us, and love us. We are wont to prize an ancient friend; the ancientest friend we have is God, who loved us not only before we were lovely, but before we were at all. He thought of us before ever we could have a thought of him.
This means that God’s love of Himself as Trinity is a perfect love. Therefore, it is the paradigm for our love, according to 1 John 4. God’s love of Himself as Trinity is an intimate love of Father for His only Son in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The eternal Son is the first object of the whole of the Father’s love. John Owen said the Son “is in the bosom of the Father—in the eternal embraces of his love.”
God’s Love of the World
Before you say a word about predestination, you need to know God’s love of the world. The eternal, internal, self-sufficient love among the persons of the Holy Trinity is then “made manifest among us” in God’s sending of “His only Son into the world” (1 John 4:9).
What does it mean that God’s love was manifested “into the world”? The Greek word kosmos, “world,” is used in many different ways in John’s writings. First, it speaks of the created world (John 1:3, 10; 17:5, 24; 21:25). This means that there is a love of God for His creation in general. Second, it speaks of the world of humanity (John 1:10, 29; 4:42; 6:33, 51; 12:19, 46–47; 14:17, 19; 16:20; 17:21; 1 John 2:2; 3:1) as well as the world of humanity in its lost condition (John 3:16, 17, 19; 4:42; 8:23; 9:39; 12:47; 12:31; 13:1; 16:11; 18:36; 1 John 4:14). This world needs a Savior because it hates Jesus (John 7:7) and His disciples (John 15:18–19; 1 John 3:13, 17). While humanity justly deserves condemnation because of its sins, there is a special love of God for sinners in particular. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). But specifically, God loves His peculiar people whom He takes out of the world: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, emphasis added). As J.I. Packer explained, “God loves all in some ways . . . He loves some in all ways.”
So what does all this mean in terms of predestination? It means that before you speak a word about predestination, you need to emphasize the biblical teachings of humanity’s sin before God, God’s just punishment upon that sin, and the deep and high love of God. Then, and only then, does the biblical doctrine of predestination make any sense.
This article is part of the Predestination collection.