I Love It When A Plan Comes Together: Thoughts on Predestination

When I was a kid and played sports, the only people who got trophies were the people who actually won something. Now everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.

 But despite the love-fest of indiscriminate trophy distribution at my children's awards ceremonies, everyone knows who the star on the team is.  Everyone knows which team beat all of the other teams for the entire season, even when the league officials fervently avoided keeping score.

 We may all want everyone to get a trophy and feel good about themselves, but we know that not everyone deserves one.  We also know that life isn't fair, and that sometimes even when we work hard, play hard, try hard and want something hard... it doesn't always go our way.

 I've noticed that the kids who tend to perform better than their peers at sports, scholastics, you name it, also tend to complain about the seeming lack of fairness inherent in the "Everyone's A Winner" approach. Because we all know that not everyone is a winner.  There are most definitely losers.  I know this for a fact.  I am a Chicago Cubs fan.  

 The interesting thing about this whole winning and losing concept is that most of us tend to take all of the credit when we win something, but none of the blame when we lose.  When we are successful, we might act magnanimous and credit all of the "little people" that helped make our great victory possible, but deep down inside we believe we won it because we deserved it.

 Don't try to deny it.  We all do this.

And then when we fail miserably, we are quick to bust out with the "sun got in my eye," litany of excuses that effectively frees us from any real responsibility for our failure.

 It's always someone else's fault.  Someone else's mistake that cost us the win.  And even when we show what appears to be character and shoulder some of the blame, it's always couched in words that sound like it's still someone else's fault.

So when we win, it's because of our effort. And when we lose, it's because of the lack of effort by someone else. And we never really stop to think about all of the things that no one could have possibly controlled in either scenario.

Sometimes I catch myself railing on about how certain people could have more in life if they just worked harder, or at all.  I will hear myself say things like, "they need to take more responsibility for their life."  I say this with smugness, because I believe that I have done exactly that.

But what control did I have over where I was born?Or the family of my birth?Or the schools that I went to when I was a kid that helped shape me?Or my race, or my gender, or a thousand other things that matter to who I am and the privileged sort of life that I have lived.

None.  That's what.

The truth of the matter is that I am just as broken and messed up and in need of grace as anyone.  Even though I live and act like I not only deserve it, but don't really need it.  So who controls all of that stuff that I had no control over?

Here's the point in the whole thing where you would say, "God, of course." And I would reply, "You are right, sir/or madam."  Then we would sort of sit there in silence, grinning at one another foolishly.  At least that's how I imagine it.

Because people often say to one another, "God is in control." or "God has a plan."  Typically when they say these things it's because something bad has happened to the person they're saying it to, and sometimes that person is you.  No one wants to hear "God has a plan" when the "plan" seems to be flawed, and full of ickiness.

We may not mind so much hearing it when things are going right, though.  "God's plan is pretty good," we might think to ourselves when we're feeling happy as a clam about our station in life---especially when God's plan looks a lot like our plan.

But just for the sake of argument here... let's all assume that that little inspirational nugget is true.  Let's assume that God does have a plan, and that sometimes that plan includes some good things, and sometimes that plan includes some bad things.  Most of us Christian-y types can hold on to such an assumption and make it work for us.

In fact, if we are being honest, it feels pretty good to know/believe that God is on top of things and has a plan for our lives and everything.

But there is one tiny little area where Christian-y people tend to fight and struggle and generally lose their minds when it comes to God's plans:  Whether God has a plan regarding who gets to "go to heaven" and who doesn't.  It's the idea that some people are "chosen," and others... not so much.

And this, my friends, is the subject of this week's sermon on what is commonly called Predestination.

First, let me get this out of the way.  The doctrine of Predestination isn't an attempt to try to explain the myriad of ways that God may be involved or related to everything that happens in our lives and all around us in the world.  It has to do with salvation, and who gets it.

We're going to be tackling this in three steps: First, we are going to talk about what the doctrine of Predestination is all about, then we're going to talk about ways that Christians get it all muddled, and then finally we are going to determine how the doctrine of Predestination helps us live our lives with purpose and meaning.

And we're going to be attempting to do this in what will eventually be about a thirty minute sermon.

We may go a little long this week---again.

Too bad, let's get to work...

The passage of Scripture that we are going to be taking a look at this week is what theologians for centuries have referred to as the "Locus Classicus" of this particular doctrine: Romans 9:6-21.

You can read it here...  

In this passage Paul is addressing the issue of why Jewish people had not come to faith in the same numbers as the Gentiles.  He asserts that salvation is not something that we receive because of our birth, race, religion or anything that we might do on our own.  Salvation comes from God and God alone, and this through his Son, Jesus Christ.

He then goes on to show throughout the Old Testament how God "chose" one person over another, time and again.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what God is doing, and no explanation other than, being chosen by God is a direct result of God's "mercy."  The implication here is that everyone of us is unworthy of God's mercy, but some of us seem to receive it, while others do not.

Paul even seems to indicate that there are some people who God has created for the purpose of not hearing, and not responding.  In fact, he claims that God "has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden."

So, what is this all about?  Does God really plan for some people to be saved, and also plan for others not to be?

Does everyone get a trophy in the end?  Or do only the people who work really hard get a trophy?  Or do the people who want a trophy really super bad get one?

Or is there something else going on here that is harder to see and harder to put our fingers on?

Before we answer these questions, let's take a look at how Christians have muddled this up a bit.

To begin with, the doctrine of Predestination is often attributed to Calvinism, which is named after the 16th century theologian John Calvin.  While Calvin most certainly did a ton of work on the subject, he was building on the work of many of ancient church fathers and mothers, like St. Augustine, for example.  When Calvin was in his twenties, he wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a piece of theology that was literally centuries ahead of his time.  Calvin was basically the Steve Jobs of theology in the 16th century.

Calvin believed that the doctrine of Predestination was one that a true Christian had to embrace.  It was in the Bible, and that was enough for Calvin.

Funny thing. Even in the 16th century, people were divided about this topic, and some argued against it, thinking that it turned God into a monster.  Calvin had a bit higher view of God than that, though.  And even though he spilled a lot of ink trying to explain the doctrine of Predestination, he had to admit, in the end, that it was a mystery.

He wrote, "Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire thus to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason!"  In other words, "Who are you to question God?"

Calvin believed that God was sovereign, in control, large and in charge.  And whatever God wanted to do in terms of salvation was up to God.  It wasn't our job to figure that out.

Sadly, most of Calvin's followers didn't really act with the same sort of humility.

To that end... One of the many ways that people interpret this passage of Scripture and this doctrine is with something called Double Predestination.  This is the essence of the classic doctrine of Double Predestination: God created some people for redemption, and created some people for damnation.

The problem with this understanding is that it creates a confusing message about the Good News.  "God loves you---maybe."  it seems to say.  Or "Christ died for you---maybe."

This is the kind of belief that states some people get trophies, and some don't, but the outcome was planned far in advance, and the losers never really had a chance anyway.

But gee, it was fun watching them run around and try, wasn't it?

Some people called "Universalists" believe that everyone gets a trophy.  They believe that God loves and is gracious to everyone, and that in the end we all are winners.  In the same way that the double predestination people dismiss the passages about God's love and mercy that the Universalists love to read, they dismiss the passages that speak of God's justice and holiness.

Then there are the people who believe that if you work really, really hard you automatically get a trophy.  These people are are called Pelagians in classic theology.  The people who believe that all you really need is desire to get your trophy and then you'll get it are called "Semi-Pelagians."  Plus, they're usually shorter people.

I made that last bit up.

Both of these views sort of muddle the thing up in different ways.  The Pelagian thinks that God only loves them when they work hard and do well.  The Semi-Pelagian believes that God loves them, but can't really show it until they first show love to God.

So why do these things matter to you and to me?  And what are we to believe?

First and foremost, Calvin was right.  It is a mystery.  God is in charge of saving people and not us.  But we need to understand that the mystery is that through Jesus Christ, God chooses to be freely gracious and merciful to broken, messed up people like you, and like me.  Regardless of who we are, what color our skin happens to be, where we were born, or what we believe.

The fact that God chooses, does not take away our freedom.  God's choosing frees us to be who we really are.  Human freedom is an illusion apart from God.

And here's the thing... the fact that this is a mystery, that it doesn't make sense to you and I, and that it is something that is so completely in the hands of God means that we cannot set any prior limits to the electing grace of God.

God chooses, not us. And it is clear that he most definitely chooses.

But this also means that we must not reduce the message that Jesus Christ has lived, was crucified, buried and resurrected for everyone into some sort of touch-y, feely abstract guarantee of salvation.

Daniel Migliore wrote, "Grace is not cheap, and faith can never be separated from obedience."

Can I get a witness on that last bit?  That was some serious wisdom that preaches.

Here is where someone might say, "Well, God has foreknowledge...God is omniscient... God knows who is going to be saved and who doesn't.  He doesn't really pre-ordain it."

This brings me back to the whole concept of God being in charge, and having a plan...  When we dismiss the idea that Predestination is just God's way of knowing everything without really planning it, we negate the idea that there is a greater purpose at work in the world.

A purpose that has a Source.

Let's think about this whole idea of purpose, because in the end we need to figure out what all of this means for us, today.

I know that this will be hard to imagine, but imagine a candidate who gets elected President, and then spends the first year of his term determining how he got elected. Imagine him doing research, conducting polls on who voted for him and why.  Think about this person giving speeches, explaining how he was elected, and giving details on what transpired to get him into office.  After a while "we the people" would get tired of such a candidate and wish that he would get to work on what we elected him to do!

I believe like Calvin that we should treat the doctrine of Predestination as a comforting truth that highlights the grace and mercy of God toward us in Christ.

But I also believe like Calvin that we were not saved to rest on our laurels.  We are "elected" for a reason.

Listen to this... If you recognize the great gift of redemption that is yours in Christ, you can know some things for sure and certain, and that's saying something in a world of uncertainty.

You are desired.  You are wanted.  You are single out. You are picked.  You are loved.

You are chosen.

But you have not been chosen for your own triumph.  You weren't chosen to wave your "trophy" around, rubbing your victory into the noses of those you think less deserving.  You are no better than any one else, but for some unbelievable reasons you have been chosen.

I believe that You are chosen to be in a Community of Believers.

A man from New Jersey was visiting a town in the South and stopped into a diner.  As he looked at the menu he waved down the waitress.  "Whats a grit?" he asked.  "Honey, she said to him, "they don't come by themselves."  The same is true for those of us who are Christians.  We were not saved to live our Christian lives in isolation.  We have been saved to be in community with other believers and fellow pilgrims.  It is in our communities of faith that we are reminded over and over again of the gracious promises and mercy of God to us.

I also believe that You are chosen to live in a Covenant Partnership with God.

We may be "chosen" but we were not chosen for our own happiness and success but to be the instrument of God's love and justice for all who are poor, marginalized, rejected, oppressed, lost, lonely and without hope.  We have not been chosen instead of, but for the sake of the world.  We were not chosen to live outside of the world looking in, but to be sent into it and to live for it.

I believe that You are chosen to fulfill your Calling to Share the Gospel.

I reject the slanderous accusation that those who believe in the doctrine of Predestination do not believe in evangelism.  We are not called to be silent about our faith.  We are called to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, and to declare that God's love is for all.  What will God say to those who are lost at the end of all things?  Will he turn to them and say, "Why did you not believe," or will he turn to us and say, "Why did they not believe?"  We must tell the world about the grace and mercy of God in Christ.  We tell them in the way our churches are filled with peace, unity and purity.  We tell them in the way we throw ourselves in wild abandon into the service of Jesus every single day.  We don't tell them that God will come near to them if they believe and obey, we tell them so that they can finally hear and believe that God loves them.  We don't tell them just so that they can go to heaven when they die, but so that they can know and receive the gift of freedom now.

You are chosen.
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