Thoughts about Conditional Predestination

Say I give my (non-existent) children all the opportunity to study at university. I tell them I will pay for their education and sponsor them fully. I will pay for their tuition, their living expenses, and even give them a small allowance each month. I provide this opportunity to all three of them and I want all three of them to accept it. I encourage all three of them to do it and I try to persuade all three. Let’s also say that none of them have the money to go to university. They would never be able to do it on their own. In addition, they wouldn’t have the inclination, or they wouldn’t even have thought of going to university, if I hadn’t suggested it to them and told them of all the benefits one gets from a university degree. So my offer is the only shot they have at going to university. However, two of them reject it, for whatever reason. So, the one remaining child goes to university and I pay for him all the way. Does the fact that I provide the opportunity to others make it any less true that I’m sponsoring my child who has accepted the offer? Is it any less the case that he is there by my prerogative and action, because it was offered to two others as well and they all had the opportunity to reject the offer? No, he would not be there without my offer and my continued support, and he wouldn’t be successful in his endeavor were it not for my continued help. So I did “predestine” that child to go to university and I even predestined him to accept the offer, because he wouldn’t even have thought of it if I hadn’t suggested it and wouldn’t have accepted it without my persuading him. So not only is his initial acceptance of the offer my doing, every step in his road to his degree is entirely contingent upon my financial support. And you should notice that all of this is true even though the child could have rejected the offer and can decide to pull out at any moment, drop out of university and follow the example of his two siblings. So, even given the ability of the children to freely accept or reject the offer, it is still true that the child who accepted the offer is only at university because I purposed it. He would never be there without my purposing it.

We can think of God’s predestination, and his sovereignty more generally, in a similar way. It is true that we have the freedom to reject God’s offer of salvation. However, this does not mean that God is not sovereign, or that God did not predestine us to salvation. If we accepted the offer then God predestined us to accept the offer, because we would never have accepted that offer without God’s calling and the work of the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts to the gospel. The fact that we could resist the process makes it no less true that the process itself is determined by God, and makes it no less true that we would never even think of serving God without that God-initiated process. However, God draws and calls all people in this way, as affirmed by John 12:32 and the fact that some reject it makes no difference to the fact that those who accept it would never be there without God loving them first.

Faith is not Meritorious

Often, in the letters of Paul, he will say that there is no room to boast because we are saved by faith and not by works (e.g. Romans 3:27). Calvinists sometimes respond to Arminians and other non-Calvinists that their view implies that there could be room to boast, because human beings are then responsible for the decision to repent and believe. First of all, I should point out that any type of unconditional predestination ultimately denies that justification and salvation is by faith, because the Calvinist, or even the Lutheran, is not saved and justified by faith, but by predestination. These are very different things. The only reason you have faith is because you were predestined, which means that what justifies and saves you happened before you had faith. So, no doctrine of justification and salvation that claims to have a foundation in the Bible, can say that predestination is unconditional. If it is, then the doctrine of justification taught by Paul is wrong.

But why would Paul see faith as a non-meritorious action if it is indeed something that you have to do? Well, let’s consider the following analogy. There are two irresponsible people. They are about to go under financially, but they cannot get their hands on any bank loans, because they have terrible credit ( which is a result of their irresponsible living). Both decide they’re going to borrow money from a criminal loan shark. They borrow the money and, for a while, everything is great. However, their habits are irresponsible and so, eventually, they find themselves in debt to this loan shark and unable to repay the money. The loan shark is furious and dispatches his henchmen to torture them until they repay their debts. At the last moment, just before the torturing is about to start, a stranger arrives and offers to pay all the debts of both of them. All they have to do is sign a document that they accept that this stranger pay their debts. One refuses and is tortured. The other accepts and is released. It would be very strange if this guy, who accepted the money from the stranger, thought himself really great for having accepted it. If he bragged about it, people would think he had either lost his mind or he didn’t really understand what had happened. The very fact that he needed to be bailed out by the stranger should be a cause of shame to him, because he would never have been in that situation were it not for his irresponsible living. So boasting about it, or taking pride in it, is a lot like taking pride in the worst aspects of himself. There is nothing meritorious about accepting an offer of help. It is pure self-interest. The fact that someone else mysteriously refuses to accept it, does not objectively change the absurdity of taking pride in the action of merely accepting help from a stranger to get yourself out of a situation your own foolishness caused. Think about it like this. Do you ever feel prideful or feel tempted to be prideful about your conversion? I suspect not. Don’t you normally feel tempted to be prideful mostly about good works you’ve done after conversion? This is certainly true of me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt tempted to be prideful about my conversion or my faith, but I have felt tempted to feel prideful about good works.

Some Calvinists may also believe that their theology insulates them from boasting and spiritual pride. But this is very far from the case and the fact that some of them believe this makes them extra vulnerable to it. Take, for example, John the Baptist’s confrontation with the Pharisees and Saducees:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance;  and do not assume that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you that God is able, from these stones, to raise up children for Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3: 7-10

It is interesting here that John the Baptist does not anticipate that the Pharisees and Sadducees will take comfort in their good works, but that they will take comfort in their election as Abraham’s descendants. Something similar is evident in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself‘:God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee attributes his own goodness to God. He does not attribute it to himself, but he is still condemned as being self-righteous. It’s true that minimizing your own role in salvation does help with spiritual pride, because it is simply true that our decision to believe plays a minuscule ( but necessary) role in our salvation. However, it is ultimately unreasonable to think that the more deterministic or monergistic your theology is, the more you’re insulating yourself from boasting and spiritual pride. That is not the case.

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