The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/27/2000
Text: Romans 8:28-39
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Did you watch the Grammy Awards on television the other night? Some 28-million of us did. From what I hear, no one was too surprised by the results, but some WERE surprised by what hostess Rosie O'Donnell said shortly after the program got underway. Playing on a theme we have been hearing more and more in recent years, she said, "About your acceptance speeches, I'd just like to tell all the winners, I bumped into God backstage and He said, 'You're welcome.'"

Predictably, the assembled audience laughed, but some did so with an obvious sense of unease. In a few minutes, the night's first winners, a female trio called TLC who were recognized for the best Rhythm & Blues album and best performance by an R&B group, came out with, "We bumped into God also, and He said, 'Don't forget to thank me when you get up there."

Not long after that, the Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance went to Whitney Houston (whose daddy happens to be a preacher). She also thanked God, and it was clear this was in deliberate defiance of Rosie's remark. The hostess came back after a commercial break and tried to put the subject to rest. She said, "It's not that I'm against thanking God. I just can't imagine He's up there in heaven and this is His priority tonight. You know, like he's goin' 'I gotta end world hunger, I gotta cure AIDS, and I gotta make sure Whitney Houston gets that Grammy award!!!'"

Of course, these public expressions of piety are nothing new. We hear them frequently. Sometimes they go beyond expressing thanks to God for the victory (whether it might be an award or a final score) and stake out a clear theological position. For example, after the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce who made the game-winning touchdown catch against the Tennessee Titans said this: "It was all God. I knew I had to make an adjustment on the ball, and God did the rest."(1) Sounds like the same confident mindset held by the Psalmist when he offered this prayer of celebration: "You have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants."(2) YES!!!

So what do you think? Did God arrange for Whitney Houston to win the Grammy? For Isaac Bruce to make the catch and win the game? What say you?

A recent editorial in The Christian Century spoke for many:

Though we hesitate to criticize any person for praising God we do wonder on such occasions if the one being praised is the God of Jesus Christ - the God who disciplines those he loves and who sends rain on the just and the unjust - or some more domesticated gridiron god. Can we really discern just how God is acting in the ups and downs of life? More to the point: if God was positioning the Rams for a touchdown, what did God have against the Titans?(3)

Perhaps the result was simply predestined, set in stone from before the foundation of the earth. Some folks believe that. Recently, I have been in e-mail correspondence with a young lady in South Africa named Rachel. She had come across our web site and was writing for some help with a controversy that had arisen between her and her fiancé about predestination, a bone of contention that was apparently serious enough to be causing a significant strain between the two. Now, I admit most couples do not have serious relationship-threatening arguments over predestination, but these folks did, so I wanted to help and have been writing her ever since.

Is there some inexorable fate or some divine plan that charts our lives, that says where we will be born, which school to attend, what we will do, who we will marry, who will win the Grammy or the Super Bowl, when we will die? Rachel said she believed so. Her fiancé was not so sure.

Rachel is not alone. Lots of folks are fatalists. They believe that when it is your time, it is your time - no avoiding it. Soldiers head into battle with the conviction that, if there is a bullet "with my name on it," that is it. I heard of a fellow who was afraid of flying. A friend said, "Hey, why worry? When your number's up, you're gonna go, no matter where."

The `fraidy flyer replied, "Yeah, but I don't want to go when the number of the guy sitting NEXT to me is up." Hmmm.

I admitted to Rachel that many people find great comfort in believing just as she does, that our lives are intricately mapped out according to divine plan. I also admitted that I used to feel that way, but no longer can. You see, if I believed that, I would have to say then that it was God's plan for that little boy in Kansas City to be tangled in his seat belt and dragged to his death by a car-jacker this week while his mother looked on in horror. Some of you know Curtis Patterson who, until his recent retirement, was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Thomasville [NC]. Yesterday we attended the memorial service for his wife Charlotte who for more than 20 years was a wheel-chair bound invalid suffering from multiple sclerosis. If I believed God had an intricate and immutable plan for Charlotte's life, I would have to say God arranged for those miserable years of suffering and pain. I would have to say that it is God's plan for millions to die in history's regular demonstrations of man's inhumanity to man - the holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya. How could I avoid saying that if I insisted that things happen ONLY according to God's plan? But what kind of God would plan such things? That would not be a God, but rather some kind of devil. Rachel's fiancé agrees.

For what it is worth, Rachel, I did grow up convinced that all those horrible things WERE planned (although I would not want to have shouted that out). NOTHING happened by chance - that is what I believed. It was not by chance that I was born into a Christian home, it was not by chance that I married Christie, it was not by chance that we are the parents of David and Erin, it is not by chance that we are at St. Paul. I would have happily argued that a sovereign God, the God of all the universe, the God who hung the sun, the moon and stars, the God who built the mountains and carved out the oceans, is surely powerful enough to arrange the events of my piddly life (and even those awful events of other lives). No question.

But, through the years, I have come to learn even more. I have come to realize that that great God loves me more than that. Like a loving Father, God trusts me, gives me freedom, allows me choices, gives me the chance to work things out for myself. I try to raise my own children the same way - teach them, offer them guidance, then trust them to make proper decisions. And when they DON'T, be there for them to help them up when they need a hand...just as God is there for me when I need a hand. Rachel has been listening politely to all this, but she is not quite convinced.

One more scenario arises, a situation of what is called "special providence." We regularly hear from individuals, following a plane crash or a boat sinking that has taken dozens of lives, who express shaken relief that they had gotten stuck in traffic or were supernaturally delayed and thus missed the departure. Wow! God's hand!!! Must have been. OK. But what about the ones who DID die, plus all the rest who were injured. Did God care less for them than the one who missed the boat or plane? Was this one life spared because this was a person of unique promise who would leave an indelible mark on human society? Perhaps. But I have not heard any more from those so spared - no strides toward world peace, no great music or books, no cures for cancer. Hmm.

To try to answer Rachel's concern, we must eventually get back to the Bible. That is our source of authority. What does scripture say? Any thoughtful reading would note that God allows humanity incredible freedom, from the Garden of Eden, through the lives of the patriarchs and the prophets, on to the time of Jesus and the early church. Rather than mapping out every individual's destiny or plan of life which must be followed, instead God allows circumstances to occur, choices to be made, and then makes a way for those circumstances and choices to be used for good for his children. As our lesson has it, "ALL things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to God's purpose." It does not say that all things ARE good. Our faith convinces us that God can take awful things and turn them into good. Or in the vernacular, God can take the lemons life hands us and help us make lemonade.

Now, about that Presbyterian doctrine of predestination that has so concerned Rachel and her fiancé. Our lesson discusses that: "those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." Do you hear what Paul is talking about? Our family tie as Christians with Christ. Properly understood, predestination has nothing whatsoever to do with some divinely-ordained plan for the day-to-day events of your life. Predestination has to do with our relationship to the Lord. It was the term chosen by John Calvin and other reformers to explain that our salvation is not simply the result of our choice - God acts first in extending the invitation and providing us an opportunity to respond. For Calvin, this doctrine was a source of comfort in that "salvation does not depend upon our faltering human efforts but upon the mercy and power of God."(4)

To go one step further, listen to Dr. John Leith, long-time professor of theology at Union Seminary in Richmond: "Calvin located the doctrine of predestination in the ordering of his theology after his discussion of the Christian life. This suggests that predestination can best be understood not at the beginning but at the conclusion of the life of faith. It is the testimony of the believer that what has happened in the life of faith has not been the result of one's own efforts about which one can boast but of the grace of God."(5) In other words, predestination, from a human point of view, is simply 20/20 hindsight about how you and I came to Christ.

All right, if our lives are not intricately mapped out, what then? Do you remember that wonderful movie a few years ago, "Forrest Gump?"(6) It won the Academy Award for Best Picture (but I don't remember if the producers thanked God at the ceremony). As you recall it was the story of a rather slow-witted young man with an IQ of 75 who was not only as good as his "brighter" compatriots, but better. A recurring theme in the film is destiny - Forrest's, his mother's, his friends'. On her deathbed he heard his mother say, "I was destined to be your Mama. I hope I did a good job."

Forrest replies, "What's my destiny, Mama?"

She responds, "I happen to believe you make your own destiny. Do the best with what God gave you."

Others through the years have said the same. William Jennings Bryan, one of America's best-known politicians of a century ago said, "Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice: it is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved."

Forrest Gump came to that conclusion. Here was a young man from whom, under normal circumstances, we might have expected a life of little or no accomplishment, lived on the periphery of polite society, probably at the edges of poverty. Ha! He ended up, in his term, "a go-zillionaire" because someone had suggested he invest in a new fruit company...Apple Computer.

Do you remember the end of the film? It was bittersweet. Forrest stands at the grave of his childhood sweetheart whom he had just recently been able to marry and with tears streaming down his cheeks said, "Mama always said dyin' was a part of life. I wish it wasn't." (I agree, Forrest.) Then he says, "I don't know if we each have a destiny or if we're all just floatin' around, accidental like, like on a breeze. Maybe its both."

Young Rachel is not quite convinced. In her last e-mail to me, she said she still has a lot of thinking to do. I understand. As I say, at one time I wanted to believe in God's moment-to-moment control - even who comes home with the Grammy or who wins the Super Bowl. But I no longer concern myself with that. Instead, I am content to affirm the absolute truth of those wonderful words of the Apostle Paul about our ULTIMATE destiny: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?"


And why? He says, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Oh, that is good news. That is GOD's news. In fact, that is the best news you or I will ever hear. That is gospel. Hallelujah.


1. Quoted in "God Squad," The Christian Century, 2/16/2000, p. 171

2. Psalm 92:10-11

3. The Christian Century

4. John Leith, An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), p. 105

5. ibid., pp. 105-106

6. Paramount Pictures, 1994

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