Predestination Sucks: A Primer (Of Sorts) on "Limited Atonement"
One of the worst things that you can experience as a kid is being picked last for teams on the playground. There’s not much that sucks worse than that, to be honest.
I would like to say that I don’t know what that feels like. I would like to say that I was never picked last, because then I could sort of maintain this image that I have of myself---an image of a guy who was always so athletic, so popular, so good looking that he never watched all the other kids on the playground get picked for a team while he stood there in shame and self-pity staring at his shoes.
A few years ago, when I was still doing youth ministry, I would play football or basketball with my students during our youth group gatherings. Prior to the games, I would name two captains and then they would divvy up the players among them. It wasn’t the best way to divide teams because the process itself usually ended up categorizing people based on friendships and athletic ability.
Then I started to notice that I was getting picked second to last or last almost all of the time. Now, I had been purposefully not playing at full speed so as not to harm any of the kids, or to make them feel bad if I schooled them.
At any rate, they didn’t get the fact that I was being generous and mistook my magnanimity for lack of ability, presumably brought on by age. Eventually, I got tired of being picked last and decided it was time to retire. So, I ended up being the permanent referee. I did keep playing with the Middle School kids, though. I could dominate those little punks.
Being picked last affects how you view yourself. Being picked last can stay with you.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he begins the letter talking about what it means to be chosen. “...as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Chris, accoding to the good pleasure of his will...”
Paul also speaks to the Ephesian believers about how they have been“adopted” with the hope of an inheritance in Christ.
Paul seems to dig the whole idea of how God chooses us rather than us choosing God. Actually, he digs it so much it is one of his foundational beliefs, and a doctrine that has caused no end of difficulty for those of us who feel compelled to believe it.
Presbyterians have been called a number of things, but the most memorable of our monickers is “The Frozen Chosen.” This due to two things:
1) the fact that we are not often effusive, lively or excited about stuff---especially church stuff
2)that we claim the doctrine of “predestination” as kind of important, even though most of us don’t know what it means.
Predestination is the sort of doctrine that sounds kind of cool at first, and then when you think about it for a while you realize that you really wish that it wasn’t outlined so well in the Bible, which it is. I don’t like it very much, to be honest. I don’t like the idea that God would choose some people over others, and worse yet... that God would actually choose some people to be “not saved.”
Christians have been divided over this issue for a very, very long time. Most Evangelical Christians sort of unknowingly adopt a lot of Calvin’s doctrines---doctrines that are the bedrock of the Reformed faith tradition. But when it comes to the whole Free Will vs. God’s Sovereignty debate, they punt, rather than try to go for the first down.
They way that it was described to me when I was a kid was like this: God is in control of all things, but when it comes to human beings, God limits Godself to allow us to choose. I like to call this the “Bruce Almighty” approach to Providence. In the movie “Bruce Almighty” God appears to this guy named Bruce, who has a problem with God’s methods. God gives Bruce God’s powers (that work only in the greater Buffalo, NY area) but makes sure to let him know that the only thing that God can’t do is to make people love Him.
God’s Self-limitation seems to be the only way out for those who would argue for Free Will when it comes to Salvation. I like the thought of it. It makes me feel better inside, but it doesn’t jive with what I see in Scripture and especially not in Ephesians chapter 1.
I mean even if you just fall back on the old chestnut, “Well God is all knowing and so God knows who will choose salvation and who won’t...” it’s just not complete enough. That kind of thinking still leaves room to let God off the hook for ordaining or predestining people to be saved. The kind of God that exists in that kind of argument is one that is simply a Watcher of sorts, content to know but not to act. Somehow, I don’t think God works that way. That’s Deism--the belief in a Clockwinder God, who just sets things in motion and then watches it wind down.
“So,” some might say, “If God ordains everything, what’s the point in prayer? What’s the point in holy living? What’s the point in evangelism? What’s the point in anything?”
I don’t pretend to understand or to comprehend the mysteries of God. But what I believe to be true based on the witness of Scripture and my own experience is that God works through prayer, through circumstances, through people, and yes, through the decisions that we make to effect God’s sovereign and perfect will.
Like I said, I don’t understand it. There’s lots of things about God that I don’t get. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not one of those pastors that has a glib, erudite answer for every single question. But I do know what I see in Scripture, and I do know what I have experienced.
My father was adopted when he was infant. His birth mother knew that she could not care for him and took him to an orphanage. 300 miles away my grandmother and grandfather were going through the process of adopting a son. My grandmother had a dream that the child she was to adopt was at the orphanage right then. She convinced my grandfather to drive 300 miles to Denver, Colorado to find him. When they arrived, my grandfather began walking around looking at the babies. One little boy was screaming his head off in his crib. My grandfather peered into the crib and my father stopped crying and smiled at him.
My grandparents taught my father the importance of faith, hard work, honesty, integrity and community. When he was barely 20 years old, in Vietnam working on a ship, he lifted his head and called out to God, “Help me!” His journey toward following Christ began that day.
My father taught me the same lessons that my grandparents taught him. Until I was ten years old, my grandfather shared his wisdom with me, too. I am named after him. On the night that he discovered his grandson would bear his name, my grandfather kept waking up because as he smiled in his sleep, his whiskers would rub against the pillow and wake him up. In the little town where my father was raised, my name means something. When people say the name Leon Bloder, they remember a man who was kind and generous and strong. They remember my grandmother, who was courageous, loving and faithful. They remember my father, who was one of their own. And because I am his son, and because I bear the name of my grandfather, so am I.
I don’t understand it. I may not even like it all of the time, but what I do know is that God is sovereign, God’s will is perfect and if I am to be a follower of Jesus and desire to know God more fully, I just need to be okay with that. I am here--my whole family is here--because my father was chosen. Out of all of the babies in that room, my father was the one who was picked.
This should bring me to my knees in humility. It does when I think about it enough. The truth is, most of the time I have the bad habit of walking around as if I deserved my "chosen-ness." I have lots of company, too. Far too many Christians wear their salvation as some sort of badge or they wave it around like a Golden Ticket. Their salvation turns them into triumphant people who seem to take as much or more pleasure in the notion that the "sinners" of the world are on a slippery slope to Hell as they do in their belief that they themselves are headed to Heaven.
Here are some more of my thoughts on being "Chosen..."
Our chosen-ness does not give us the right to be triumphant. The Apostle Paul himself noted in his letter to the Ephesian Christians in the 1st century that "by grace are you saved through faith, [these are] gifts of God, and this is not something you can attain by working for it because if it was, everyone would boast about their role in it." I paraphrased the verse a bit, but you get the idea. Even faith is a gift from God, it's not something that we conjure up on our own. And because our salvation is God's doing and not ours, we don't have to every worry about losing it if we can't hold up our end of the deal. We won't hold up our end. We will make mistakes. I stumble all of the time, but I hope and pray that I am stumbling in the right direction. Additionally, even if God does the choosing, we know that God chooses also to work through us from time to time to help someone recognize the presence of God's grace in their life. Because of this, we have no idea when or where we might be used by God to share the Good News of Jesus Christ for that purpose. In other words, we need to be engaged in Evangelism--probably even more than those folks who don't ascribe to the idea that God chooses who will respond to the message. Finally, our chosen-ness should lead us to a holy life. Some folk say that the doctrine of predestination is a license to sin--basically, they are insinuating that if you believe you got your ticket punched, then what's the point in living rightly? I would argue that a desire to lead a holy life is one of the marks of chosen-ness. If you have no desire to do so, perhaps you should begin to ask yourself, "Have I really been chosen? Have I really and truly recognized God's grace in my life?"
There are lots of things that I don't know about God. I can't pretend to know what God is up to, so there's no point in speculating. I also prefer to define things in positive terms. Far too many Christians fall into the trap of defining themselves by what they are not, and what they don't believe. While I may not completely grasp the idea that God chooses, and while I may not like it a whole lot, I need to realize my job is not to "understand God," but to try to "know God." In other words, I need to concentrate on my relationship with God first and foremost, hold on to what I have experienced and the tiny amount of knowledge that has been granted to me, and believe with all my heart that God is God and I am not.
I can live with that.