Christians have been arguing about whether salvation is by choice or election for two millennia. Non-Christians have been lambasting the Faith for just as long. How, after all, is it fair that God holds humans responsible for a decision they cannot make correctly? Further, how can the Bible be true when it contains such obvious contradictions? These are valid concerns, particularly in light of Christian theologians’ attempts to define themselves by setting free will and predestination up as mutually exclusive propositions.
I am not a theologian (or a philosopher), but I’m going to take a shot at this topic anyway because I see its misunderstanding causing substantial problems both within the Church and for nonbelievers. The short version of my argument is:
- Scripture clearly teaches both free will and predestination
- Verses supporting free will and predestination are interspersed within the same book (e.g., John, Romans)
- The authors’ intent was to demonstrate that free will and predestination are NOT mutually exclusive
- This is but one example of how higher-order thinking reveals as complimentary what may otherwise be seen as contradictory
There are dozens of verses throughout the New and Old Testaments supporting free will and dozens supporting predestination. The easiest way to find a list for each is visit www.openbible.info/topics/ and type in “free will” or “predestination”. Rather than look at the whole list I am going to focus on just the books of John and Romans to illustrate that the “beloved disciple” and Paul teach both free will and predestination. There are verses more clearly supporting these ideas elsewhere, but I am constrained by the purpose of this argument to “contradictions” within a single book.
- John 6:35-40 – Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
- John 6:44 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.
- John 7:16-17 – Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.
- Romans 8:29 – For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
- Romans 9
- Romans 10:9-10 – If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Here and elsewhere Scripture clearly teaches both that there are things we must do and that there is something God has done. Jesus follows up His statement that only those drawn by the Father will come (John 6:44) with the claim that “anyone who chooses to do the will of God…” (John 7:16-17). Likewise Paul follows one of the strongest proclamations for election and predestination (Romans 8-9) with the command to “declare with your mouth”. I think it highly unlikely that John and Paul “messed up” and included back-to-back contradictory statements on accident. It is much more likely, in my view, that they were attempting to convey a truth that cannot be fully understood from our perspective. Both are true only within the context of the other.
Perhaps it is not unlike the One Way signs at the top of this entry. They initially appear contradictory, but upon further thought it is possible to have a road in which traffic must run away from a central point. There is also nothing in the picture which requires that the signs be at the end of a road. Perhaps it is the end of a runway, the traffic is really supposed to be gaining elevation, and it doesn’t greatly matter whether they bare left or right as long as they are going up. Only for a vehicle unable to access the third dimension is this a problem.
A better analogy, for those who have taken chemistry, is the idea of resonance structures. Valence bond theory requires that we describe molecules by the discrete position of electron pairs (lines in the structures below). The more electrons a pair of atoms share the stronger the bond between them. This works fine most of the time. The structure of propene (below) has two different types of carbon-carbon bonds. The one between C1 and C2 is stronger than that between C2 and C3.
There are times, however, when this fails. An example is acetate (below). Both carbon-oxygen bonds are the same strength, but there is no good way to depict this with valence bond theory. The structure on the left isn’t really correct, nor is the one on the right. Only if we recognize that “reality” is a combination of the two structures can we properly understand the structure of acetate.
This is the best example I can think of to parallel what I think John, Paul, and ultimately God are trying to do in describing how salvation happens. God does something. We do something. Somehow we have free will and God chooses upon whom to have mercy.
I am not satisfied with this explanation. The contradiction may not be real, but it is all that I am capable of understanding. Is it really possible that there is a higher truth that I am incapable of understanding? Yes, if there is a god (or even just one person smarter than me). I hate to admit that my intellect is so limited that I cannot understand something as fundamental as salvation, but I am more reticent to deny Scripture.
I doubt this attempt to explain free will and predestination will help non-Christians much, but I can hope. The premise of Christianity is that there is a god and His ways are not our ways. Hopefully it is possible within this context to see that apparent contradictions can actually be complimentary images that get our limited minds as close as they can get to understanding God’s ways.
I am reassured that because we have choice, God is just. I am also humbled to realize that God has somehow made it possible for me to make that choice. I see no room for pride here, just thanksgiving and hope that God will enable others to make that choice. I realize this is offensive to many who haven’t made the choice, or don’t feel that they have even been given a choice, but I hope you realize that it is not my intent to offend. My goal is to provide an alternative way of understanding this complex and divisive issue, get feedback on it, and ultimately understand it better myself.