One of the questions that came from our theological panel day was this: Please discuss predestination. What is this church’s position on that subject?
As strange as it may seem to start with the second part of the question first, that is what I’m going to do today. While in the larger Christian community there is a strong misunderstanding that says that what it means to be a Presbyterian is to be a person who believes in predestination, I do not know one single PCUSA pastor or even member who believes in Predestination in the way the rest of the Christian community describes it. Granted, I am mostly connected with the more progressive end of the Presbyterian spectrum. But given many of the changes that have recently happened in the PCUSA, those of us who remain in the denomination are those more progressive members and pastors. So let me say that again: PCUSA folk, with probably rare exceptions, do not believe in the classical idea of predestination. It is also true that a number of fundamentalists of other denominations DO, however believe in Predestination.
Backing up, however, I do know where folk in the larger Christian community (especially, frankly, those who want to explain why they are not Presbyterian) get the idea that this is a Presbyterian belief. First, it is in great part coming from other denominations’ very differing theology of leadership. Presbyterians believe, as a very central tenant, that the ministers are all the people, that all people are called, that all people are elected for a particular task and service to God. Because we believe in the equality of God’s people, pastors are not appointed, but instead they apply for jobs like most people in the secular community apply for jobs. They are chosen by a subcommittee but ultimately the congregation votes on a pastor’s call. The congregation chooses a person, not deciding whether that person is called by God (because we all are), but deciding whether that person is called by God to serve their particular congregation at a particular point in time in a specific position. We have people who serve in “higher” positions or places of authority, but they are elected to those positions for a specific period of time. They also are not all pastors, but half of them are elders as well; people who are regular members, like most of you, who have chosen to serve in the leadership of the church. Unlike the Pope, our church leaders are not seen as superior or more Godly or more connected to God. They are seen as being called to a specific task for a specific time. However, most other denominations run differently. Pastors, bishops and higher level folk are appointed in most other denominations, by other pastors higher up in the hierarchy, and there very much IS a hierarchy. This system also means that when a person at the highest level makes a statement of belief, those in the denomination are expected to believe it, to hold to it. When the pope, for example, says something about faith or about the church, the Catholic church is expected to follow that understanding and that belief. Calvin and Zwingli were the Presbyterian founding fathers. Non-Presbyterians therefore assume that if Calvin and Zwingli said it, all Presbyterians must believe it. If Calvin said it, it must be part of the Presbyterian Creeds and Dogma. If Zwingli said it, it becomes, many assume, tantamount to the Bible in terms of what Presbyterians must think and believe. But again, not only is this false in terms of how we function, who we are and what we believe, it is also blatantly against two statements that define who we are as Presbyterians.
The first statement comes from our Book of Order, or the book that is half of our constitution as a denomination. F-3.01 says “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of (people) which are in anything contrary to (God’s) Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” In other words, our relationship with God is a matter of how we as individuals read and understand scripture. People cannot tell us what to believe. God, God-self tells us what to believe through our conscience and through scripture.
The other is the catch phrase of all reformed churches which is “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” (also present in our Book of Order: F-2.02) which is translated variously, “the church reformed and always reforming” or “The church reformed and always being reformed.” Either way it means that we are constantly in motion, constantly re-evaluating our positions and our beliefs based on what we hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen in community and individually together. That means the Presbyterian church today does not look like it did 200 years ago. It just doesn’t. Calvin and Zwingli would not recognize the church we have today, with our ordained women, our ordained people who are divorced, our ordination of LGBTQ folk. They would also be shocked that we have instruments in church: Calvin especially condemned any musical instruments in worship. The point is, we listen to the Spirit and we grow and we change. Old understandings, old doctrines and beliefs and theologies grow and change as we mature with a new listening and hearing and reading of the Word.
Returning to the first part of the question then, What is predestination and what does it mean? The classic idea of predestination is that God has determined before time began who would be destined for heaven and who for hell. Both Zwingli and Calvin, again the Presbyterian founding fathers, do discuss this, though Zwingli discusses it only from the positive point of view. In other words, Zwingli talks about how God has chosen people or elected people for salvation and for service. He does not discuss, ever, the other side of this – the idea that maybe God has chosen some, therefore, for damnation. In contrast, Calvin does. He believed that Jesus’ sacrifice was only for some, not for all. Still, there is some indication that both of them in the end became universalists – coming to believe that God had in fact chosen ALL people for salvation and service. The greater idea behind the theology of both Calvin and Zwingli though is that nothing happens by accident, that everything is under God’s control, that this is what it means to be God, to be omnipotent and to be all controlling. Calvin and Zwingli (among others) stood on scriptures such as I quoted today: “In God we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of God’s will,” and “For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, in order that Christ might be the firstborn among many siblings.” Even the story that we heard about from Mark tells that it is the sower who decides where the seeds will be planted and those that are planted in the appropriate places will grow well, while those who aren’t will fall into ruins.
However, these Biblical verses, or their interpretation are contradicted by other Biblical verses and by an overall theme in the Bible and especially in the gospels towards evangelism, towards healing, towards increasing closeness with God and with one another. Why would we bother to work on our relationship with God, or strive for anything if it is all mapped out for us ahead of time? Why share our joy in God with others or the love of God with others if it has been decided ahead of time who is good and who is not, who will be saved and who won’t, who will have faith and who won’t? And again, there are other scriptures that give us a very different vision of God’s interaction with us than the ones we read for today. Some examples: 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” In the Lord’s prayer we say every week, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Why pray this if it has already been predetermined that it will (or won’t) be done? There are admonitions throughout scripture about how we should behave and why. If all our actions are mapped out ahead of time, and if some are simply chosen from the beginning to be damned, why give us any instructions at all? Additionally there are many verses in the gospels that begin with the phrase, “whosoever” as in Romans 10:11: “whosoever has faith in him will not be put to shame.” And 1 John 4:15 “whosoever confesses that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in them and they remain in God.” And Acts 2:21, “Whosever calls on the name of God will be saved.” In other words, anyone who makes these choices, has faith, confesses, chooses to follow Christ is with God, is part of the “elect”. There are also many verses that talk about Jesus coming for everyone: Romans 5:18: “Even so by the righteousness of Christ, the free gift came to all people of justification of life.” 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of God constrains us because we have concluded this; one died for the sake of all…He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.” And 1 Corinthians 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and people, Jesus Christ who gave himself a ransom for ALL.” 1 Timothy 4:10: “For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach because we trust in the living God who is the savior of ALL people, especially those who believe.” (but not ONLY those who believe!!). And finally, my favorite: Romans 14:11: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.”
The point is that if God had predestined that some should be elected to go to hell, none of these scriptures make sense.
It is very clear to me that God created us for genuine relationship. God called us into being because God wanted that relationship with each of us. A genuine relationship requires that people have choices, act of their own volition, are in the relationship not because they HAVE to be, but because they choose to be. Therefore the idea that God has somehow decided who we are before we are born is problematic. And again, that belief is reflected in our own book of order’s statement that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
There are little gems of understanding in the principle of predestination. The first is a belief that while there is no predestination, there is a foreknowledge of how people will move through their faith journeys. The idea here is that while God does not CONTROL everything, God stands outside of time and therefore has clear sight about what we will choose on our journeys because God sees all of time at the same time.
More importantly, perhaps, Presbyterians do believe that the faith of people is a response to a call from God, and that faith itself is a gift of God. In other words, we are here at God’s initiation. God’s call to us to be here. We are in relationship with God because God first created us for that relationship. And I believe we pray to God as a response to God’s talking first to us and calling us into that conversation. But I believe, very deeply, that God initiates that conversation with everyone, and wants that relationship with everyone. Free will means some say “no”, at least at this moment in time, but I still believe God wants that with each of us.
Again, I believe at the very core of my being that God’s grace is extended to all. It is given to all, offered to all. But it is harder for some people to accept that grace in than it is for others. I don’t believe that is EVER because God has taken it away from people or refused it to anyone, or that God has chosen some to be elected not to be offered grace. But God calls us to be ourselves, calls us into relationships and those relationships require giving us a freedom to be who we are, who we strive to be, and who we work to become. That freedom and the choices we make do determine what our lives will be like, whether we walk them with God or whether we don’t (which, by the way, is a separate question than what happens after we die. If by salvation you are talking about something that happens after death, well, that is another sermon for another time). In this moment, in this time, I think we choose to accept that grace of God or not. And each moment we make that choice anew. That means that there are moments in this life that we choose to be in hell, or, to say it differently, when we choose to be separate from God. And hopefully, there are many more moments when we choose to live in grace, in God’s light, in the peace of Christ that surpasses understanding. We are freed to make that choice, we can push God away, and push God out. But I also stand on the book of Jonah, which, as you may have guessed from the fact that I named my son after the book, is one of my favorite theological stories. Because the story is, again and again, that God does not just let us go, even when we would run. Jonah sought to escape God by running. Then Jonah thought to escape God by being thrown into the sea. And then Jonah thought to escape God by staying in the big fish. But God never gave up on Jonah. God caught Jonah, followed Jonah with a storm, with a big fish, stood with Jonah consistently. God allowed Jonah to choose – Jonah chose to get on the boat, to be thrown out of the boat, to stay in the fish. But God also never left. That is how much God loves you. That is how consistently God will stay with you. God does not give up on us, but extends that grace in every moment, again and again and again. If we were predestined to either go to heaven or hell, why would God spend so much energy trying to engage us in relationship?
Because God alone is Lord of the conscience, you are free to disagree with me. But this is my answer to what predestination is, and where we stand in our understanding of it as Presbyterians, as a congregation, as a church.
The bottom line, though, with all theological questions is that God loves us despite what we believe. We aren’t going to get it all right. But I know there is no litmus test on our dogmas and creeds. God loves you. And that is the most important theological statement that can be made. Amen.