This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 17 states:
XVII. Of Predestination and Election
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
When people ask me if I believe in Predestination, I like to answer “Yes of course, all Christians believe in Predestination. It’s in the Bible!” Of course, the challenge is what people actually mean by “predestination,” and how it links up to other biblical doctrines concerning our salvation.
At the most basic level, predestination is the act of God’s calling upon people before they’re born to come to salvation; election is God’s actual decision. One of the major sources of this teaching in Scripture is 2 Timothy 1:9, which says God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago.” Ephesians 1:4-6, also, teaches that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
On one level this is a very simple concept and teaching. On another level, what you make of it can have massive implications for the entirety of Christian teaching about salvation, the human condition, and even evangelism. There can be said to be three categories of Christian views on predestination: Calvinist, Arminian, and Lutheran.
Calvinist theology sets predestination in the context of God’s sovereignty. In his sovereign power, God the Father elects some people for salvation, God the Son suffers and dies for them, and God the Spirit sanctifies them throughout their lives. All this takes place through God-given means: preaching the Gospel, ministering the sacraments, and so forth. Some Calvinists will take this a step further with the doctrine of “Double Predestination,” asserting that God not only elects some to salvation, but also elects the rest of mankind to die in their sins. God’s supreme lordship over all creation and his perfect and wise eternal purposes are the overarching paradigm holding this together.
Arminian theology sets predestination in the context of God’s foreknowledge. With a nod to human free will, God the Father elects those for salvation whom he foresees will put their faith in him. Some Arminians take this a step further and assert that if someone abandons their faith in God, then God’s election of that person is also undone – someone can be in a state of grace, but later abandon God and be consigned to Hell.
Lutheran theology sets predestination in the context of God’s merciful love. In grace, God the Son died for the sins of the whole world, making redemption available to everybody. And yet, by way of a divine mystery we cannot untangle, God the Father also only chooses certain people ahead of time for salvation. God’s will or wish for universal salvation is upheld alongside the fact that he doesn’t elect everyone for salvation.
When it comes to Anglicanism, one finds that all three views of Predestination can fit into the language of Article 17. Each viewpoint may latch on to different phrases therein. Calvinists may emphasize the phrase “everlasting purpose of God” to highlight God’s perfect sovereignty. Arminians may emphasize the phrase “those whom he hath chosen in Christ” to highlight that their election is linked to faith in Christ. Lutherans may emphasize the phrase “decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation” to highlight the mystery of God’s predestinating will and desire to save sinners from eternal death.
There are, however, certain aspects both of Calvinism and of Arminianism that fall outside of Anglican teaching. This is not to say that Anglicans cannot be Calvinists nor Arminians, but that certain forms of those theological systems do not fit in with the totality of Anglican teaching.
One Calvinist teaching on Predestination that is not mentioned one way or the other is Double Predestination (that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell). Although repugnant to most Anglicans throughout history, our foundational documents neither teach nor condemn this point.
One Calvinist teaching that is ruled out, however, is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. This is the idea that Jesus died only for the Elect – that is, those whom God the Father first predestined. While fitting together in a logical system, Scriptural evidence for this position cannot be proven against the default belief that Christ died for the sins of all. The Anglican Catechism of 1662 also denied this Calvinist teaching.
One Arminian teaching on Predestination that does not fit into Anglican doctrine is the claim that human free will is sufficiently free to choose Christ. Sometimes called “Decisionism,” this is a view popular among Methodists and Revivalists, claiming that we are saved according to our own decision to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Article 10, On Free-Will, upholds the classical reformation teaching that the human will is so tainted by sin that it is unable to choose the good – to put faith in Christ – without God’s grace preceding us. Thus, the Arminian doctrine of Predestination based on God’s foreknowledge of human faith must maintain a doctrine of God’s Prevenient (that is, preceeding) Grace enabling that faith to come about, in order to fit into Anglican teaching.
A positive and comprehensive Anglican teaching on Predestination, based on Article 17, is (as far as I can tell) essentially on the same page as Lutheran (and historic Christian) teaching. First, we affirm not only God’s foreknowledge of those who would be saved, but also God’s fore-decision (or Predestination).
Second, God’s grace upon his elect moves us through a sevenfold process of growth in Christ. Article 17 describes the process to be election, obedience, justification, adoption, made like the image of Christ, good works, and finally, everlasting felicity [joy]. This is essentially a paraphrase of Romans 8:29-30. Noting how obedience follows election, we must note that although we cannot say “yes” to God without his “yes” to us (that is, Election), we can, however, say “no” to God, rejection his election. We cannot lose our election, but we can reject it.
Third, Predestination and Election are to be understood as “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons” (echoing Romans 8:31-33). This sets up a distance from the extremes of the Calvinist view which tend to depict God as cold and arbitrary. Rather than focusing on God’s sovereign choice by itself and worrying whether or not someone is elect, we are to see Predestination as God’s commitment to us undergirding the evidences of salvation that we see in ourselves. We can look to the Fruits of the Spirit within ourselves as subjective signs of God’s election, as Article 17 implies. We can look to Holy Baptism as an objective sign of God’s election (Romans 6:1-4, Mark 16:16). In short, Predestination is the truth of God’s commitment to his people, not a bludgeon of fear.
Fourth, as Article 17 concludes, “we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed.” This is a warning against taking a biblical teaching and running with it to an inappropriate extreme, such as living in fear over whether one is Elect or not. This is also an exhortation to an obedient response to God’s Predestination. Since he calls us to be Christians, we are bound to believe and live as Christians. In God’s Election and through Holy Baptism we have been given the gift of faith; it is our part to receive it with joy and grow in love for God and neighbor, that we might be the more zealous to confirm our call and election, for if we do this you will never fall (2 Peter 1:10).