On Predestination

Bible Text: Romans 8:29-30, John 13:16-21 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: What Would Wesley Say? | This week, I would like to shift us a bit from a continued focus on the pandemic and go back to something that I have done with you once before. If you looked at the title in the bulletin, you might have an idea of what I am planning here. Our denomination was founded on the Methodist movement started by John Wesley. And as such, Wesley preached many sermons over the course of his time working in God’s ministry. As a way of not just honoring that history, but also as a way to connect stronger with our Methodist heritage, and as a break from all of the pandemic talk, I want to examine another of Wesley’s sermons.

As I mentioned the first time I did this with you all, in one of my classes in seminary I was required to outline 50 of Wesley’s sermons to help strengthen my understanding of Wesley’s theology and perspective. And as such, I found a few that really stuck with me. In this process I plan to tell you about what Wesley said and wrote, how it fits with our claimed beliefs, how it applies for our world today, and of course continue to tie it back to Scripture. I think these messages will be very enlightening to more of what our denomination was founded on in regard to theology and faith.

So today, for our “What Would Wesley Say” sermon, I have chosen a sermon titled, “On Predestination”. But before we get too far in, I’d like to better define predestination, in theological terms. Predestination is the doctrine that all of the events in our world have been willed by God, usually referring to the fate that we come to after death. Another way of saying this is that predestination means that God has already decided who is going to be saved and go to heaven and who won’t be saved and will be doomed to hell. Predestination is based on the idea that it doesn’t matter what an individual does or believes or claims in this life – God has already decided what is going to happen, regardless of our actions.

Predestination is usually associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and Calvin; the latter of whose followers are known as Calvinists. What is also important to know before we dive too far in is that in the very early days of the Methodist movement, Wesley’s position on predestination became something of a hot button topic. You see his close friend and partner working in ministry was a man named George Whitefield, and he was a very staunch Calvinist. That means that Whitefield believed that salvation was only available to those who God had already chosen. Wesley on the other hand believed that God’s gift of salvation was available to all people, but also that people can reject God’s gift of salvation.

So, with that background information in hand, I would like to give you a quick overview of Wesley’s sermon. He starts by talking about how the things that Paul talks about are through the wisdom given to him by Jesus and by God. But he also states that some of the things that Paul says can be hard to understand and that Peter addresses some of these things in Romans. But even still, Wesley points out that not just the unlearned people, but also those who are the most learned and well established in the truths of the gospel continue to wrestle with these passages so much so as Wesley says “to their own destruction.”

So, in regard to the passage that we read earlier, Wesley says that what is being described in the passage is not a chain of causes and effects, but rather it is showing the method in which God works. To be more specific, Wesley says that it shows the order in which the several branches of salvation constantly follow each other. He then goes on to describe what he calls “the whole work of God in the salvation of man”. This includes God having the foreknowledge from the beginning of the world who would come to faith and who would not. But here he is careful to point out that this foreknowledge is focusing on the manner of humanity.

Wesley continues on to explain that God has this foreknowledge because God sees all time as once. He further offers the idea that just because God has knowledge of something does not mean that God is causing that thing to happen. He equates this with the idea that he knows that the sun shines, but it does not shine because of the fact that Wesley knows it will shine. It shines because it shines. Wesley’s knowledge of it shining doesn’t change anything.

And this is important because he points out that even though God knows who will come to faith and who will not, humanity still has free will including in their choice of believing or not. God just happens to know what will happen because God doesn’t see time the way that we do as it passes, but rather God sees all time all at once – past, present, future.

This idea of free will is especially important to Wesley’s arguments about predestination because he points out that without free will, we could not be held accountable for what we think, what we do, or what we say. If we did not have free will, we would not be capable of rewards or punishments, of being morally good or bad, of having any accountability. And if humanity cannot be held accountable for any of its actions…well then things get problematic…but we will come back to that in a moment.

Wesley then goes on to explain God’s salvation for all who believe in him and in Jesus Christ. He reminds us that God knows all believers, God wills that they should be saved from sin, God justifies them, sanctifies them, and takes them on to glory.

Now in this sermon, Wesley does not address some of the problematic things with the idea of predestination. He does point out that even though God has the foreknowledge of who will become believers and who won’t, it is not God who chooses who will become a believer and who will not. That still falls on humanity. God has this knowledge because God sees all time at once, so God knows everything that has happened, that is happening, and that will happen.

Now if we go back to our Scripture reading from Romans, I think we can see how someone might get the idea of predestination. After all it does say in verse 29, “and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son.” But this passage tells us much more about salvation. It talks about God knowing us in advance, just like Wesley mentioned about God seeing all time at once. And it talks about God calling humanity.

But let’s get back now to the problematic parts of predestination. If we look at the five-point Calvinism view of predestination it tells us that Christ’s death was only enough to atone for the sins of a select few people. Well right there we have a problem in that we know what we read in John 3:16-17, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

It doesn’t say so that a few people will be saved, but EVERYONE who believes. It doesn’t say that only a select group could be saved by Jesus, but that THE WORLD might be saved through him. And if we really believe those words, then how could just a few people be saved by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection? Doesn’t this tell us right here that everyone who believes will be saved and that it is God’s intention to save the world through Jesus?

But there is another problematic reality with the concept of predestination. And it’s a big one in my mind. Predestination makes it out that only a select group will be saved. And that means that even if you are a believer, but you aren’t part of that select group, you won’t be saved. It also makes it out, depending on how you understand it, that in reality humanity does not really have free will.

Now we talked about this a few minutes ago. If we do not have free will, that means that we cannot be held accountable for what we think, what we say, or what we do. We cannot be held accountable on any level. Which means we cannot be held accountable for our sins. And that is where another problem occurs.

Because if we cannot be held accountable for our sins, then what did Jesus die for? If we don’t have free will, if God has ordained everything that will happen and everything that we will do, then what do we need to be saved from? We can’t be punished for something we had no control over, and we were basically forced to do. And if that’s true, then Jesus died for nothing. That might just be the saddest thing we could possibly imagine.

Jesus suffering, dying, and resurrecting and it means nothing. It holds no bearing whatsoever on anything. If we don’t have free will and there is just a set group of people who will be saved regardless of their belief or not, because if we don’t have free will, we cannot choose to believe, then what are we doing here? What is the purpose of our existence? What is the meaning of worship, prayer, and even more – love?

In another sermon Wesley essentially says that the idea of the sacrifice of Jesus being meaningless is one of the most depressing things he can imagine. And I completely agree with him. If we don’t have free will, then there is no sin. Or at the very least we cannot be held accountable for it because we didn’t choose to do it. Which then means that God made us commit a sin…and that makes even less sense.

Now I will admit that while I believe that those who claim a faith in God and grow in their faith will be saved, I don’t think it ends there. I claim a faith in a loving God and in a God that wants to be in relationship with us. I believe that God reaches out to us in every way that God can reach out in order to help us come to faith. And even in our final moments when we stand in judgment, I believe that even then God will give us every opportunity to come to faith and accept salvation.

And I believe that because I believe in a God of love. A God that sent his only son to suffer and die for the sins of the world, so that the world might be saved from eternal death and suffering. And people the reality is that we have free will. Yes, there may be moments in our lives where we step back and think, “Why did I do that?”. But we have free will. We have the ability to choose between right and wrong, between love and hate.

God has blessed us with his love and mercy and grace. We have the ability to choose to accept those gifts or not. Because if we didn’t…well for me the alternative is unthinkable. I just cannot accept that Jesus died for nothing. The idea of predestination limits God’s power, it limits God’s grace, and most importantly it limits God’s love. And at least for me, God is all powerful and a God of love. I hope that you know God in this way too and that for each of you, Jesus’ death was not in vain. Amen.