Lecture 1, Everyone Believes this Doctrine:

Scripture very plainly uses the word “predestined” in reference to the salvation of God’s people. Most denominations and some of the greatest theologians have wrestled with this issue through the centuries and have carefully formulated statements regarding this controversial topic. What do you believe about predestination? In this message, Dr. Sproul introduces us to the doctrine of predestination and explains that “Everyone Believes This Doctrine.”

Message Transcript

I’m sure you are all aware that it’s a maxim in the United States, a law of our national heritage, that we never discuss religion and politics. But any time two Americans sit down and have a discussion, it inevitably leads to matters of religion and politics. And any time there is a discussion on religion, sooner or later (and most often it’s sooner), the discussion focuses on some element of the doctrine of predestination.

Predestination is one of those things that mystifies us and, at the same time, stimulates our minds. The bewilderment we experience in the face of the concept of predestination will sometimes encourage us to dig more deeply into theology. It’s just one of those subjects that generates a lot of interest and discussion, but also controversy.

Approach with Caution

As I look at the history of Christian scholarship, I see that every great Christian teacher—every theologian that the church has ever produced—has had to address this question of predestination at some point or another. Though there is wide divergence in interpreting the doctrine of predestination, there’s one thing that every theologian I’ve ever examined agrees on—this doctrine must be treated with great caution.

Predestination is a dangerous subject because the more we study it, the more it has a tendency to raise more questions than it answers. I’m convinced that of all the doctrines we struggle with in Christendom, there are none more shrouded in misunderstanding and confusion than the doctrine of predestination. So that in itself calls for a certain kind of sober caution as we approach this subject.

I would add to the theologians’ warning of caution that it’s also a doctrine which requires an extra measure of charity as we struggle with it. We need to be patient with each other and with those who differ from us on our views of this particular question because there is a lot at stake here. Feelings can run very high when we discuss the matter of predestination, and we ought to be careful to manifest the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit among ourselves as we try to deal with it.

Now I’ve said all of that knowing it won’t work because, once we plunge into this doctrine, who knows what’s going to happen.

Let me say by way of introduction that we are going to spend six periods of lecture on the subject. That may seem like an awful lot of time devoted to one doctrine like predestination, but let me assure you at the outset that six lectures of approximately half an hour each can’t possibly do anything but skate over the surface. There are so many related questions provoked by any study of predestination that this, I’m convinced, requires in-depth study that will take years and years and years before we can ever hope to get to the bottom of it. So I’m looking at this course as an introduction to the doctrine of predestination.

Many Doctrines of Predestination

Now, I keep saying “the doctrine of predestination” as if there were only one doctrine of predestination, or as if there even were such a thing as a viable doctrine of predestination.

There are those Christians who look at the question of predestination and state it in categories like this: “Do you believe in predestination?” And some people will answer that question either by saying, “Yes, I believe in predestination,” or they will say, “No, I don’t believe in predestination,” as if everybody understood what we are talking about when we talk about the doctrine of predestination.

It may come as a surprise to you that every church or denomination of which I am aware historically that has formulated a doctrinal statement has also formulated some doctrine of predestination. There is a Roman Catholic doctrine of predestination, a Lutheran doctrine of predestination, a Presbyterian doctrine of predestination, a Methodist doctrine of predestination, and so on. We need to get that clear at the beginning. There are many, many different doctrines of predestination.

So, there is no such thing as the doctrine of predestination. I suspect, however, that when people boil it down to one they usually have in mind the Presbyterian variety, or that one which is often called the “Calvinistic” doctrine of predestination. This is because John Calvin and predestination seem to be almost synonyms in the culture, as if the first theologian in history ever to speak of predestination was John Calvin. But, as we will see in a brief historical survey, that is certainly not the case.

A Biblical Word

We are interested in this study to try to discern the biblical doctrine of predestination. The reason so many different denominations and churches have doctrines of predestination is because the Bible speaks about predestination. All Christians who take the Bible seriously are therefore led to take the concept of predestination seriously because it’s a concept, and a word, that we find in the New Testament.

Let’s take a moment and read a couple of passages that introduce this idea of predestination to us to refresh your memory. I’m reading from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where Paul, in his opening greeting, says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself according to the kind intention of His will (Eph. 1:3–5).”

Then we move on down the page in the first chapter of Ephesians to verse 11: “Also, we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” 

This, of course, is not the only place in the Bible that we encounter this concept of predestination, but I read that passage so that everybody will see that the word predestination is a biblical word. And because it’s a biblical word, all those who have been diligent students of the Bible have tried to understand what the Bible means by “divine predestination.”

Three Basic Theologies

Before we explore that closely, let me give a little bit more historical background. There are many different theologies to be found in the history of the Christian church, just as there are many denominations that we’ve already noted. But I think it’s safe to say that, historically, there are three basic, generic types of theology. Theologians speak of them in these general categories: the first is what we call Pelagianism, the second is what we call semi-Pelagianism, and the third is what we call Augustinianism.

The reason for this threefold designation of basic types of theology has its roots in the fourth century, when the church underwent a titanic struggle over many serious issues of theology.

The man who defended the faith at that period and is usually acclaimed as the greatest theologian of at least of the first thousand years of Christian history—if not the greatest theologian of all Christian history—was, of course, St. Augustine. And his chief opponent in several debates at that period of Christian history was a monk by the name of Pelagius.

One of the critical things about which they debated was how important or necessary the grace of God is for human salvation. Pelagius was of the opinion that the grace of God assists human beings to be saved but is in no way necessary. His fundamental assumption was that man, in his natural state, has within himself the capacity to keep the commandments of God to such a degree that he can be redeemed without any help from divine grace.

Augustine stressed the absolute dependence of the fallen sinner upon the grace of God for salvation and repudiated Pelagianism as an early form of sheer humanism. Pelagianism was seen not merely as a subdivision of Christian thought, but as sub-Christian. That is, it was not even worthy of being considered Christian.

Now, when I say there are three basic trains of thought that have come down through the church historically, I didn’t invent this designation, but I agree with it. These are the three major generic types of theology that have influenced church history.

I see Pelagianism as the father of liberalism. Socinianism came in the sixteenth century, and liberalism in the nineteenth century. So that you’ll know where I’m coming from, I would consider Pelagianism as un-Christian, fundamentally anti-Christian, and not an option for a Christian thinker.

I would regard the debates that have gone on within the church between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism, which were reflected in later history between the Remonstrants, the Calvinists, the Methodists, and so on, as debates within the household of faith.

The Fundamental Debate

Semi-Pelagianism says that man cannot be saved apart from the grace of God, but there is something man must do, even in his still-fallen state, to cooperate with and assent to that grace of God before God will save him. That is to say, you can’t be saved apart from grace, but it is left for man, in the final analysis, either to cooperate with God’s grace or reject God’s grace. This becomes the convincing point of whether a person is saved or not saved.

Augustinianism says that man is so seriously fallen that he is totally dependent upon the grace of God, even for his initial response to the gospel. He is dependent upon the grace of God even for the very cooperating and assenting to the gospel of Christ in the first place.

So you can see at the outset that the debate has its roots in the question of man’s ability to respond to the gospel in his fallen state. And I would say, as we enter into any discussion of predestination, that always lurking behind the scenes is this fundamental debate between the semi-Pelagians and the Augustinians.

I also need to warn you at the outset that I am persuaded of the Augustinian view of predestination. I will be setting forth the Augustinian view of predestination in these seminars. I will be trying to explain it, to clarify misunderstandings that I think abound concerning it, and to respond to objections that are brought to it from semi-Pelagian brothers and sisters. I will try to persuade you that the Augustinian view is the Pauline view, which is consequently the biblical view, and therefore the right one.

Of course, not everybody agrees with that. Again, we have to be honest at the outset and recognize that some tremendously important Christian leaders who have had an enormous influence for good in the kingdom of God have not espoused the view that I will be setting forth in this seminar.

The Scorecard: Augustinians

Let me just draw the scorecard for you and try to be fair and broadminded. I’m going to list the theologians in church history, who, in my judgment, would fall into the Augustinian camp on this question of predestination. And then to balance it off, I’ll mention the names of the theologians who fall on the other side of this issue.

We will first look at the “pro” side of the pro-Augustinian view. Now remember, we haven’t really defined the Augustinian view. This is still background. We’ll get into what that view actually is soon.

Those who follow Augustine in the doctrine of predestination include some who may surprise you, and who may even be challenged by some. But first let’s put Augustine himself at the top of the list since he did believe what he taught.

Then I would say perhaps Augustine’s most eminent disciple with respect to theology in general and even these doctrines in particular is St. Thomas Aquinas. In my judgment he belongs on this side of the column.

I can almost hear Francis Schaeffer screaming at me from heaven right now because he would certainly not agree that Aquinas belongs in that category. Remember, however, that Aquinas himself indicated his indebtedness to Augustine more than to any other theologian in church history. But since St. Thomas Aquinas is the supreme theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, and since contemporary Roman Catholic theology does not embrace the Augustinian view of predestination, Protestants generally make the assumption that St. Thomas didn’t either. You can challenge that if you want. I will leave that open to debate and discussion.

For the next man, there’s no debate. The next man definitely belongs with Augustine. He is the Reformers’ Reformer and the man who most emphasized predestination in the sixteenth-century Reformation. No, it wasn’t John Calvin. John Calvin was his junior partner. The man who most adamantly defended the Augustinian view of predestination was Martin Luther.

Now that comes as a surprise because, in the world today, Lutheranism lines up opposite Presbyterianism on this particular doctrine. This is because of a little quirk in church history. Shortly after Luther’s death, the Lutheran body, under the leadership of Philip Melanchthon, took a different turn and did not follow Martin Luther in his articulation of the view of predestination.

But I think it’s safe to say that Luther wrote more on predestination than Calvin ever dreamed of, and that there’s nothing I can think of in the doctrine of predestination that John Calvin ever taught which Luther didn’t teach first—and louder.

So now we can stick Calvin in there as a junior partner. And then I would add to this side of the column Jonathan Edwards.

Now, remember, we’re going to be honest, fair, and aboveboard about all this. If you were to ask me the question, “R.C., who do you think are the five greatest theologians that ever lived?” I would have no difficulty identifying the five greatest theologians that ever lived. They would be Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I tell you what, they are way ahead of the next five, whoever they may be.

As biased as that may be, I think that it would be safe to say that if we asked any hundred theologians from different denominations who the greatest ten theologians in history were, at least 98 out of that 100 would mention these five. Here are recognizably five titans of the Christian faith.

If they all agree on espousing the Augustinian view of predestination, does that mean the Augustinian view of predestination is the correct one? Absolutely not, because these five men disagreed on many things. That they agreed on the essence of this particular matter is no guarantee that their views, individually or collectively, are the correct version. We carry no brief for the infallibility of human tradition, or for the infallibility of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or even all of them together.

But I will say this: when those five agree on something, it gets my attention. I labor this point because, so often, the so-called “Reformed” view of predestination is lightly dismissed as a uniquely Calvinistic aberration in church history, and that’s just historically untrue.

The Scorecard: Non-Augustinians

Let’s look at the other side and see the great theologians that have fallen there. Well, there was Pelagius, there was Erasmus, there was Finney, there was Wesley, and there was Arminius, which are some important names in church history.

I can already hear somebody who’s not persuaded of the Augustinian position screaming bloody murder in protest saying, “That’s not fair to put these five up against those five!” So I’m ready to write somebody else’s name in there if you want to give me some great theologians who took the other position. Keep in mind too that the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians in the world today are on the non-Augustinian side. Augustinianism is a minority report in the contemporary scene.

What is striking to me about the non-Augustinian side is that, in terms of the sheer power of biblical scholarship, you don’t find the titans. You find them on the Augustinian side. But maybe if we look at the contemporary scene, it’ll be a little different.

The Contemporary Scene

If I talk about the pro-Augustinian view of predestination today, we would include Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, Cornelius Van Til, and all these Presbyterian theologians. We would also include some Anglican, Episcopalian, and Baptist people like J.I. Packer and Roger Nicole.

On the other side, those who do not believe in the Augustinian view would have people such as Clark Pinnock, John Warwick Montgomery, and Norman Geisler from Dallas Theological Seminary. These are some very formidable leaders in the contemporary evangelical world. Billy Graham is another. Though he is not a theologian, he is nevertheless a very important Christian leader who would fall on the non-Augustinian side—though I trust his wife Ruth would be in the right column.

In any case, all I’m trying to show you is that Christians are divided. If you are opposed to the Augustinian view of predestination, in light of those teachers of the church who have espoused it, I think there is a need to look at it very seriously before dismissing it out of hand. They command enough respect that we should listen to what they have tried to teach the church on this point.

Predestination and Salvation

Let’s take a few minutes to do some basic definitions. The word predestination in English is made up of a prefix and a root. The prefix “pre” means “before,” and destination is a word we’re all familiar with in the English language.

Many of you came to Ligonier this week because Ligonier was your destination; it was the place to which you were going. Any time you make travel reservations with a travel agent, the thing they want to know is your destination. That is, where are you headed? Where do you hope to end up? 

When we’re talking about the doctrine of predestination, we are not talking specifically about questions of whether God directly caused an automobile accident to take place, or if you were determined in advance to be sitting in the chair in which you are sitting right now.

The doctrine of predestination is concerned specifically with the question of our ultimate destination. There are only two destinations open to us as human beings. Ultimately, they are heaven or hell, that is, to be in a state of salvation or to be in a state of damnation.

Predestination proper is not concerned with those daily questions of whether or not it was predestined that I drop this chalk on the floor. That would fall under the theological heading of providence. And those questions are legitimate questions for theology—how much God’s sovereignty is involved in our everyday actions and activities and so on. But the doctrine of predestination proper is concerned about the question of salvation.

Predestination is concerned about something that takes place before we arrive at that destination. It has to do with God’s involvement in the ultimate outcome of our lives.

The Heart of the Issue

Now this may strike you as strange, but both Augustinians and semi-Pelagians agree that predestination is something God does. Predestination has to do with God’s choice regarding the salvation of people.

It may also surprise you that both sides agree that God makes this choice about our ultimate destination before we are even born. We just read in Ephesians that God chose certain people before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–5). That may surprise you. John Wesley believed that. Philip Melanchthon believed that. I meant to put Philip Melanchthon on that list a moment ago too.

In any case, the point of division is at this critical juncture: On what basis does God choose to save you before the foundation of the world? 

Is God’s choice to save you based upon His prior knowledge of something that He looks down the corridors of time and sees that you are going to do? For example, looking down the corridors of time, He knows that you’re going to respond positively to the Gospel, that you’re going to choose Christ when the opportunity avails itself to you, and then, knowing that you are going to choose Christ, God chooses you to be saved. But He bases that choice on His prior knowledge of your decision. So God is choosing you for salvation, but He’s choosing you because of something He foresees in your life.

The Augustinian view, on the contrary, would say that what God foresees in your life has nothing whatsoever to do with His choice of you. His choice is sheerly by the good pleasure of His will without any view to anything you may or may not do in the future.

This is basically the heart of the issue: whether the choice is with or without a view to what you will do with respect to the proclamation of the Gospel.

There are other things we all hold in common. Then, as we agree at certain points, the divergences come. And the first thing that every Christian agrees on is that the God we worship is a sovereign God. How sovereignty works itself out in the matter of salvation is what divides us, and so in our next session we’re going to look at the concept of the sovereignty of God.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.