I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.Philippians 1:6
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.Ephesians 1:5-6
For those whom he 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.Romans 8:29-30
In this last installment of my series on the new birth, I want to end on the classic doctrine known as “predestination,” though I think it is better for us to speak of it by its proper name, the doctrine of election. However, let’s quickly review where we’ve been.
At its heart, the new birth is the free gift of God by the Spirit whereby we believe upon Christ through personal encounter with him. In receiving his Spirit, we are vivified and united with him as our souls are transformed and resurrected. When we are united with Christ in the new birth, the Spirit begins a process of restoring us in conformity with the image of Christ (Calvin, Institutes, Book III, Ch. 3, ss.6,8). The place where we can surely go to find Christ in the power of the Spirit is Scripture.
The point that I’ve beaten to death is the centrality of the Holy Spirit who accomplishes this work of new birth in us: “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself” (Calvin, Institutes, Book III, Ch. 1, s.1).
God’s free gift of grace that drew us to Christ by the witness of Scripture in the power of the Spirit (new birth) is the same gift that promises to make us more like Christ as we grow in glory. This one act of grace can be seen in various ways, or drawn into several distinctions (justification, regeneration, sanctification, etc.). Nevertheless, it is one act, located in Jesus Christ alone, given by the Father and made effective by the Spirit: God’s act alone, by God’s initiative alone. It is for this reason the writer of Hebrews can proclaim that Jesus is both the author and the finisher of our faith (12:2).
With this in mind, I ask you to consider the three passages I highlighted above. Paul tells us in each of these passages that the God who set His heart upon us before we had life (God foreknew us) is the same who began this reconciling work, and is the same who will complete us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, and before we ever drew our first breath, God chose us to be conformed to the image of His Son, calling us to Christ by the Spirit, and uniting us with him in the promise of future glory. In our encounter with the risen Lord present in the new birth by which the Spirit unites us to Christ, we have the sure promise that God will see us through. For this reason Paul can write in Romans 8:38 that nothing can separate us from this redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
That last paragraph, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of election, or predestination: one act of reconciling grace by God the Father through the Son by the Spirit. It is God who loved us and destined us, God who initiated the work by the Spirit, and God who completed the work in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, as attested by Scripture (past tense). It is God who reveals this choice for us by the testimony of the Spirit who brings us in encounter with Christ through Scripture (present tense). It is God who will complete this electing work through the ongoing work of the Spirit to make us like Christ, as promised in Scripture (future tense). This one act is eternally present, never ceasing, and sufficiently attested to by Scripture unto salvation.
I hope you can see that the doctrine of predestination isn’t some archaic or scary doctrine that eliminates human dignity and agency from the equation, as if God is capricious. No. We understand God is at work in Christ out of overflowing love, electing to put us at the center of the picture for Christ’s sake. Not only that, this same God’s promises truly mean something, and so we can rely upon them with all our heart as God repairs our hearts and wills so that we can love God as we were made to love God. At its deepest core, the doctrine of election is a doctrine of comfort for the believer, a point Calvin himself makes in his letters as well as in his Institutes (Book III, Ch. XXI, s.3).
However, given that it is God who chooses and enacts this work within us, there are many who object, arguing that we are robbed of choosing God for ourselves. Critics also maintain that if this doctrine is right, then we have no incentive to obey God by following Christ since we’re either “in” or we’re not. Why be good if God has already chosen us, one way or another?
In response, I would ask you to consider:
(1) how effective are our choices apart from God’s grace, and
(2) how can we come face-to-face with the overwhelming love of the risen Lord and not be shaken to our core? Is it possible to personally encounter Jesus and continue in our old way of life?
From my understanding of fallen human nature (see Romans 1:21-23 and 3:10-18), our best thinking is in the dark, so to speak. Our choices are motivated by hearts that are out of control and in love with all the wrong things. In that light, how can we rightly choose anything, given our blindness to the reality of God? Paul is clear as he quotes Psalm 14:3: “All have turned away, all have become corrupt.” Can we really bring our heart in line by our own power?
Moreover, once we realize that we don’t have that power, then how should we respond when we encounter God’s love? Should we just keep on as we were? Honestly, I do not believe we can authentically encounter the risen Lord and not be changed. When we encounter him, what we are in love with changes because our hearts begin to experience his healing presence. We are now in love with God in Christ by the Spirit because of God’s love for us, not with the old things. We are new creatures!
And here we arrive, full circle, back at new birth. If God has set God’s heart on you, then rest assured that God has, is, and will complete that work of new creation in you. My point has never been to pressure someone into a conversion or scare you into questioning whether you are in or out. No. Rather, I have simply stated what Jesus stated in John 3:3. If you are a new creature; if you have had that sort of heart reorienting encounter, then take heart! “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
However, I would fail in my task as a teacher of the Gospel if I didn’t bring this to your attention. If you are unsure of whether you have experienced Christ in this way, then my advice, taken from the very words of Jesus himself, is to seek him out (Matthew 7:7). The Lord I know and serve has made a promise that if you seek him, then you will eventually find out that he sought you first.