07/12/15 Sermon (July 12, 015) “Predestination 101”

posted Jul 15, 2015, 10:20 AM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just 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 Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

Sermon: "Predestination 101"             Rev. David Hawkins

I’m sure that some of us have heard the phrase, “Reformed Tradition,” or “Reformed Theology” tossed around, and wondered what in the world, “Reformed” means. Does it mean that other people are unformed? Or that once we were formed, but now we are reformed? Well, no.  

The term ‘reformed’ comes from the fact that the ideas it represents were first brought into wide use during the Protestant Reformation, which included the work of several different theologians, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and many others. In order to differentiate between the ideas of Luther and Calvin, both of whom were Protestant Reformers, church historians have taken to referring to the theology of Luther as ‘Lutheran’, and the theology of Calvin as ‘Reformed’. There are some important differences between them, which we will not get into today.

When we talk about being a part of the Reformed Tradition, we might be talking about a lot of different things -- we might be talking about our emphasis on the sovereignty of God, that God alone is the prime mover and finisher of everything that happens in the universe; or, we might be talking about a particular style of church government, one that emphasizes the role of elders and a dance between the local church and the wider church; or, we might be making reference to the way we think about the Lord’s Supper, that we are brought into the presence of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But really, if there is one doctrine that well and truly defines what it means to be “Reformed”, it would be the doctrine of ‘Predestination’, the idea that God has chosen us before the creation of the world to be his children.

Some of you have probably heard the term, ‘the Frozen Chosen’ used when describing those folks who follow Reformed Theology, like, Presbyterians, for instance. And this isn’t so far from the truth, although I might take issue with the frozen part. I think especially the Presbyterians here in Texas are plenty warm. Especially after they’ve gotten into the good scotch. So, maybe the frozen part doesn’t do a very good job of describing us.  The Chosen part, on the other hand is exactly right.

Now, it’s a popular thing to credit, or to blame, this whole ‘predestination’ thing on John Calvin, who was one of the first theologians to systematically sit down think his way through what it might mean if we thought about salvation from the point of view that it is up to God to save us, not we ourselves, not even a little bit.

But the reality is, this idea of predestination didn’t start with Calvin. It really started with Paul, and it started with letters like this one that he wrote to the churches in Ephesus.

But the whole idea of predestination is a little alien to most of us. First off, it’s a long word, and we distrust any word over about 3 or 4 syllables long. Also, we have tendency of talking about the ‘doctrine’ of predestination, as though it’s something that we have to believe in, if we want to be good Christians, or at least, good Presbyterians.

And finally, the concept of predestination has been abused and corrupted by those who would use it to shame and condemn those who disagree, and to cast doubt on whether or not God has truly chosen those with whom we have conflicts.

And so, since we have maybe the clearest expression of predestination before us in today’s text, I thought we might take a moment and unpack this big word, maybe make it a little less threatening, and hopefully, find some measure of Good News for us and for our church.

When John Calvin was writing about this idea of predestination 500 hundred years ago, he was pushing back against the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th Century, which had come to regard grace almost as a substance that the church controlled, almost like there was a faucet somewhere, a holy spigot that dispensed grace. There was only a certain amount of it, and it was reserved for certain people, and the church was responsible for deciding who those people were.

And Calvin clearly disagreed with this. For Calvin, the idea that any human endeavor could, or would influence the giving of grace, or limit the amount of grace, completely went against the idea of God’s supreme and ultimate authority.   

And as we’ve seen from the letters of Paul the church in Corinth, when he was writing 2000 years ago, he facing a similar problem, only this time the idea was that we were in charge of our own grace, that we could, through our own actions influence the amount of grace that we should receive, through following certain rituals, saying certain prayers, or believing certain tenants of faith.

These two theologians are tackling the same problem, from two different angles. Paul is reacting against the ideas spread by travelling evangelists who were going around telling people whether or not they were blessed, according to the way they lived, and Calvin is reacting against the Church deciding who was blessed, and who was not. Either way, it was a human decision, not a divine one. And it showed a distressing lack of faith in the abundance of God’s grace.

And so, when we talk about predestination, the first thing we need to remember is that it is a statement of belief in the unconditional and unlimited Grace shown to us by God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This grace is wide, and deep, and mysterious, and those who would use or abuse the idea of predestination to question the salvation of others have forgotten this first thing. They are focused on the limits of grace, rather than on the expansiveness of Grace. They are more interested in naming those who fall short in their own eyes, rather than believing in the love of God for all creation.

And, when we talk about the grace of predestination, it’s important to remember that this concept grows from an even deeper truth: that God alone is sovereign, that God alone chooses whom God chooses.

Now, to be fair, most religions traditions will pay a certain amount of respect to the idea that God is in control, but when it comes to our own salvation, they become less and less sure of what that sovereignty really menas, until salvation becomes something that we ourselves are responsible for -- that God might choose us, but he chooses us because we are good enough, we are smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like us.

In other words, for some folks, yes God is king over everything except for the reason that we are saved. And the reason we are saved is because we earned it.

But the idea of predestination pushes against that. The idea of predestination is that God chose us even before we knew we were sinners, that God chose us even before the foundation of the earth itself. We don’t know why God chose us, and we certainly didn’t influence the decision, any more than I decided to be born to my parents in Mineral Wells, Texas, or to grow up in Western Colorado. All that happened before I was even aware of it happening.

Another mistake some folks make when talking about predestination is to fixated on the idea that God desires some folks to go to hell. But this is a complete misreading of the whole story of God’s salvation history. Predestination, especially the way it is presented in this letter to the Ephesians, calls us to look at our election through the lens of Jesus Christ. And this is an important consideration.

The announcement of Jesus’ birth was the announcement of goodwill to all humankind, and the angels proclaimed that in Bethlehem, we see what God’s purpose for us: God has come to earth to be with us, to heal us, to teach us, and to save us. Predestination is an expression of God’s good pleasure, not God’s wrath, and those who would seek to make others feel uncertain about their salvation have missed the whole point.

Predestination also means that we are indeed adopted children of God, not because we were born into it, or because we live in the right country, or because we have followed the right laws. Grace is not a right, we are not entitled to it. But Grace is freely given, and this means things. No longer do we obey God out of fear, but out of gratitude. We don’t live our lives in order to prove our worth. If we do God’s will out of fear of the lash, we are servants,but Jesus himself said that we are no longer slaves, but rather friends. Predestination reminds us that our lives are a reflection of gratitude for what has already been given to us, not a burden that we carry in order to earn God’s approval.

And finally, predestination reminds us that we are elected. Not elected in the same way that a judge, or a congressman or a president is elected, not by the gathered desires of a bunch of people, but elected none the less by God. And, like an elected official, we are elected to a particular kind of service. Each of us have a particular role to fill. It’s not up to me or to anybody else to tell you exactly what that role is. That conversation is between you and God.

But we are, each of us, elected to service of some kind. Again, not out of fear, not out of obligation, but out of a sense of gratitude and a desire to live our lives worthy of the Gospel. We may never measure up to that desire. Our efforts may never match our aim. But we are called to give our best in joyful worship, work, ministry, and mission.

Both Paul and Calvin are trying to respond to a particular anxiety of their time. There is a sense that the church has become anxious about its salvation. That members of the church have become afraid that perhaps their salvation is at risk, that they are not doing enough to merit being saved.

And it is against the perpetuation of this anxiety that they are both so adamantly opposed. For them, there is nothing that can come between God and those he has chosen. And, there is nothing that can cause God to relinquish his blessing, once God has decided to give it. For those who wonder about their relationship with God, who are anxious about where they stand, about whether or not God loves, them, welcomes them, forgives the, this whole idea of predestination is a resounding, Yes! God loves you, in fact, God has always loved you.

Of course, for some folks, this is not enough. For some folks, there needs to be some sort of test that needs to be passed, some sort of task that needs to be accomplished, some sort of proof of God’s approval. For some folks, the can’t conceive of a life lived well out of a sense of gratitude, rather than fear. For them, the idea of a God that chose us before we even knew we could be chosen takes the responsibility out of our hands, and that is a dangerous thing. How can we expect people to do the right thing, without the threat of damnation hanging over their heads? How can we expect people to act righteously, if there is no reward in it for them?

But both Paul and Calving thought of this as a immature faith, a faith that was based on fear, rather than love, based on merit, rather than grace, based on servitude, rather than trust. And they wanted no part of that kind of faith.

Predestination is a mysterious thing, and like many difficult to describe concepts, it has been the source of much confusion. But this was not its original intent. Above all, the concept of ‘predestination’ is a confession of faith that God chose us, and forgives us, and calls us to live and work in this good world that he created, not because we are afraid, but because we are confident in his love.

And this is indeed a blessing for us, and for all the world.