A Response to the Title Question on the Basis of God’s Foreknowledge
The Apostle John tells us Jesus knew beforehand who His disciples would be—that is, who would believe in Him—and the one disciple named Judas Iscariot who would betray Him (John 6:64). Jesus also knew Peter would deny Jesus three times (Matt. 26:31-35 ). God knew Pharaoh would harden his heart (Exo. 7:3-5). God knew the Pharisees and Scribes would have Jesus crucified (John 11:49-53). God also knew Jesus would be perfectly faithful (Matt. 3:16-17). And God chose every one of these people and many, many more—the good and the bad--in full knowledge of the outcomes because it is as it is written in Proverbs 16:9:
“A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.” [NET]
But even though God knows beforehand what those people would do, He by no means destined them to their choices, nor did God fix their eternal salvation based upon the choices they made in the situations under discussion; although, in many cases their specific decisions would ultimately prove to reflect an irretrievable hardness of their hearts; but God certainly didn’t impose such hardness in them against their will. Even though He used those people in foreknowledge of their decisions, He doesn’t force them to make the decisions they did. And even more importantly, their decisions don’t necessarily decide their eternal disposition. We know this is true by the fact that Peter wasn’t lost and the players who served God’s plan by crucifying Christ were not permanently damned because they did so; indeed, didn’t Christ forgive them (Luke 23:34)? In any event, listen to what Peter would say to them later:
“And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too. But the things God foretold long ago through all the prophets – that his Christ would suffer – he has fulfilled in this way. Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus (Acts 3:17-20).” [NET]
God urges them and us to repent in spite of what we may have done and be saved. And God continues to urge us to such repentance right up to the end. God doesn’t want anyone to perish. This is what Paul meant when he spoke of those of God’s chosen people—Israel--who remain opposed to Christ (Rom 9: 19-24). Even though, because they put their faith in their ethnic and religious heritage instead of Christ, they now remain as vessels of wrath—that is, in God’s judgment—that have been prepared by the potter (God) for destruction, should they repent they will become vessels of God’s mercy prepared by the same potter beforehand for God’s glory; for repentance is certainly the focal point of the instruction of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 18:1-12) behind Paul’s teaching here, and repentance is also the operative focus of Paul’s teaching in his second epistle to Timothy (II Tim. 2:20-21). God is calling us to repent by believing in Christ and so stand in His kingdom and live. But if we refuse, we keep ourselves outside His kingdom and remain under His certain wrath (John 3:36).
God not only continually appeals to us to repent, He always offers an open door of grace out of the course we cast ourselves. God does not want us to stumble, even if He knows we will and our actions will fulfill God’s plans. This was true right from the beginning, as we know from God’s discourse with Cain before Cain murdered his brother Abel (Gen. 4:1-6). It was true of Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus not only knew would betray Him but chose Judas as one of His twelve disciples, anyway (John 6:59-71). A careful reading of the drama of Judas shows us Jesus affording every mercy—every appeal of love—to Judas to move Judas to turn back from the sin forming in Judas’ heart. Jesus revealed Judas’ duplicity to Judas; Jesus invited Judas to recline at Jesus’ left (the place of highest honor relative to the host); Jesus gave Judas a morsel (another act of high honor). All of these expressions of love (mercy) were appeals to Judas to repent, but Judas hardened his heart with each offering of mercy extended him. In the end, Jesus let Judas have Judas’ way, and at that point Judas became irreversibly hardened in his course; as the Scriptures tell us, at that moment, Satan entered Judas’ heart (John 13:21-30).
Another example is Pharaoh before the exodus of Israel (Exo. 7-14). God, through the plagues, mercifully appealed to Pharaoh to capitulate to the authority of God and release the Israelites. Instead, with each appeal of mercy, Pharaoh hardened his heart. We can understand how Moses described the situation as both Pharaoh hardening his heart, and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. God didn’t coerce Pharaoh’s will, He appealed to it with mercy, with the result Pharaoh’s true heart was revealed. This is what Paul meant in Romans 9:14-18 when he said of God, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will harden whom I will harden;” through a relentless mercy, God allowed Pharaoh to ultimately condemn himself, so God in effect hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And because of this, all could see that God is God, the One who delivers us from our exile.
God is Good in every situation in this fallen world, and always provides grace for everyone to turn back to Him. God didn’t predispose Judas to betray Jesus, nor did God harden Pharaoh’s heart against the Pharaoh’s will. To do any of those things would require God to deny himself, and render the outcomes lies—mere facsimiles of what He intended for His creation. No, Judas and Pharaoh and, unfortunately, many others like them, kept themselves out of the righteous relationship with their Creator because they contained God’s love within themselves, where it atrophied and gave way into hate.
God foreknew these players would do what they did and so fulfill God’s purposes; but God didn’t make them do what they did. There are things that God determined before all time must happen. Such things He both foreknew and rendered certain. We have already discussed these things, and they are 1) God’s purpose of creation as a place where He dwells with His image-bearers in 2) relationships empowered and sustained in the state of holy love, 3) in Christ. When the Bible reflects on predestination, it means the predestined condition of God’s kingdom, which is both necessary for and the very state of eternal life; it is as Jesus teaches:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who is hearing my word and is believing the one who sent Me has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed over from death to life (John 5:24).”
This is God preordained place and conditions where all who choose to love Him must and will exist. The place and conditions are fixed, not the roll-call; otherwise, as I hope we have already shown, God would contradict His goodness.
Now, the implication of what Jesus said is another reality is also fixed. If there is only one place to be—and God will see that this will ultimately happen—than those who resolutely remain in rebellion against God cannot be there. So the place for such rebellious people is also fixed, and Jesus refers to this place as judgment. But the roster for this place is also not fixed but depends on the consistent choices (heart condition) of those who end up there.
The point is God has definitely chosen His kingdom and the ground rules of His kingdom, but he has not determined who will or who will not be there, even though he knows who they will be.
So why do the scriptures speak often of those who love Him as His elect? Because God has chosen before all time His kingdom—that is to say, His kingdom is His election—those who truly enter His kingdom become indistinguishable from the kingdom itself—indeed, they define it—so they are His election, or His elect. We are His elect, then, not because we have no choice in the matter, but because we stand in His kingdom, in Christ, in response to the call of God.
Jesus makes it very clear that no one comes to Him unless God draws Him (John 6:44 and 65); indeed, He teaches
“And it has been written in the prophets, ‘and all people will be taught by God;’ everyone who hears from the Father and is learning comes to Me (John 6:45).”
But this call is not irresistible; after all, the stipulation here is a willing response from us to actively be about learning from God, and almost constantly Jesus is calling us to be in a continuous state of believing in Him (e.g., John 1:12; 3:16; and 6:29, to expose the tip of the iceberg)—not, I must add, a one-time confession of Christ. If God’s call were irresistible, then God would not be Good. Yet God must give each of us all the grace we need to recognize our broken relationship with Him, our need to repent of our ill-fated alliances (i.e., our misplaced trust), the desire to repent, the ability to see the alternatives, and so on. In short, God must and does give each of us all the grace necessary to turn back to Him without contradicting love. This call involves both God and us; where God’s involvement ends and our involvement begins, and vice versa, is a mystery. Why some, even under the influence of such powerful and loving grace, choose to reject God’s gift of salvation is also a mystery.
When we speak of such situations as mysteries we speak without contradiction; we properly invoke mystery to those things beyond the limits of our understanding. They nevertheless trouble us because we are a people discomforted by tensions; and these particular aforementioned mysteries reside in the granddaddy of all tensions, the tension of God’s sovereignty and Man’s responsibility. The Bible talks within this tension constantly, yet sees no need to explain how it works. It is, I think, as Jesus described the person having been born of the Spirit of God:
“The spirit blows where it wills and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from and where it is going; thus it is for everyone who has been born from the spirit (John 3:8).”
God doesn’t explain it to us because we wouldn’t comprehend it; but more importantly, He doesn’t explain it because to walk in God’s kingdom is to walk by faith alone. We don’t need to know how God is working His love out in us who believe, only to trust Him to be faithful in doing so, and therefore, demonstrating such trust by objectively obeying Him. Therefore we need to heed His warning to us: