The Presbyterian Doctrine of Predestination

Predestination is a term that is most often associated with Presbyterian beliefs. However, to be honest, most Presbyterians (not to mention everyone else) have only the shakiest understanding (if any at all) of the term.

Some think that Predestination is equivalent to "pre-determinism" - that somehow, back in the far reaches of antiquity, God determined that on THIS day and at THIS time, you would be sitting down to a bowl of Corn Flakes or crossing a certain street or reading something on the Internet. Some equate Predestination with "fate." NO. Those views would make us "puppets-on-a-string," and Presbyterians have always believed that human beings were created as free moral agents, able to make our own decisions and thus responsible for the choices we make. Properly understood, the Presbyterian understanding of Predestination is not related to some divinely-ordained plan for the day-to-day events of your life.

Predestination has to do with salvation. 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. As John Leith has written, 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." (An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, [Atlanta: John Knox, 1981], p. 105).

Dr. Leith, long-time professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, goes on: "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" (Introduction, pp. 105-106). In other words, predestination, from a human point of view, is simply 20/20 hindsight about how you and I came to Christ.

Obviously these few paragraphs do not begin to exhaust everything there is to know about predestination. Whole volumes have been written on the subject, and even after reading them, the doctrine can be confusing and unsettling. If you have questions about it, feel free to drop us a note.

Must a Presbyterian believe the doctrine of predestination? No. To believe or not to believe in this or any other particular doctrine is your choice. "God alone is Lord of the conscience" as the Westminster divines affirmed years ago. After all, the Reformed church is obedient to Christ not to Calvin. The one thing that is not optional is faith in Jesus Christ.

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