Is Predestination Contrary to Free Will?


There are many verses that indicate there is no free will, however I was raised to believe in free will. Now I am at a loss to explain why i believe. The doctrine of predestination seems so contrary to free will.


This is a big question so it gets a big answer.

First of all, I don’t think it would be fair to characterize the doctrine of predestination as contrary to free will – not even for those who hold to Reformed Theology. Even for very strict Calvinists, the idea that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell is not mutually exclusive of the idea that people choose to go to heaven or to hell freely. They would hold that somehow, people are choosing exactly what they really want, while at the same time, God has predestined and chosen that fate for them from before the creation of the world.

So also no Christian who believes in free will denies the doctrine of predestination. As you said, many verses talk about this concept, so to deny it would seem obviously heretical. Thus, all Christians hold the two ideas in tension, free will and predestination… and a perennial debate for centuries has been, how to put them together without violating Scripture, logic or both.

Some verses (ones I’m guessing you are referring to) seem to affirm a kind of predestination that violates free will. But do they really? Read in context we begin to understand what predestination means – or specifically what it does NOT mean: predestination in Scripture is not a default affirmation of DETERMINISM, which DOES undermine freewill. Determinism is essentially the same as Fate, the idea that all things play out according to a pre-written script and real freedom is illusory.

Let’s deal with 3 of the texts that deal with predestination and I think you’ll see we have reasons to doubt that these passages really do “indicate there is no free will” as you fear. Let’s begin with: Ephesians 1:4,

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Here it looks like God chooses everything ahead of time. But some have read this verse with deterministic lenses for so long that they miss what exactly it is that God has chosen ahead of time. Paul doesn’t say, “God chose who will be in Christ.” Rather he says, “God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in his sight.” The thing God has predetermined from before all time, is the end state for all the elect who are in Christ. That thing which he has predetermined is that we be perfect and set apart.

To help understand this, imagine if I give a sermon and showed a movie clip to illustrate my point. You could say I predestined that people who came to church that day would see the clip. Let’s say 4 months ago I planned and chose the clip. But the showing up in the building, was a matter of someone else’s choice, not mine. Or maybe it was a joint effort. Let’s say I asked people to come, advertised the event, and influenced them to be there. But they decided to agree with that call, or not. But once here, it is MY choice and unalterable purpose that all who are in the building, will experience that clip.

Now it should be pointed out that a few verses later (1:11) Paul seems to double down on freedom-denying predestination when he says,

“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”

To understand this we have to pay attention to the repeated use of “in Him” in the context of “choosing”. The choosing God does is always tied to Christ. One theologian said that this must mean that the only one who is truly Chosen, the One who is Loved and Predestined by the Father to rule over all things, is Christ alone. Prior to verse 11, Paul is emphasizing Christ as the center of God’s love, plan and will. Thus, it is simply and only “in Him” that we have any part of the Father or his Life and Love.

So when Scripture talks about predestination, it is the glorification of Christ that is in view, and us by association with him and that by faith.

This explains why there’s no mention in Ephesians of the “un-chosen”. It would be strange indeed if Paul was underlining here that everyone’s eternal destines have been predestined without their complicity, to not mention the non-chosen who are equally locked in by the plan of God. When talking about how Christians appear to the saved, in 2 Cor 2:16, he mentions the corollary fact of how we appear to the unsaved. Why no corollary here? Because there is no corollary to talk about!. There is no un-choosing, there is only God’s choosing of Him and us “in Him” – and that through faith, which he will detail at length in the next chapter.

The choosing which creates the “Elect” is never a simple business in Scripture. Sometimes, it sounds as though the Elect are those who choose God as in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. And twice when the Bible mentions God’s choosing us, it also mentions his “foreknowing us” – giving indication that the choosing is in concert with His omniscience – his seeing us in advance (1 Peter 1:2; Rom 8:29). This suggests some kind of concert between our choosing and God’s choosing. And again, in Romans 8:29, we see the foreknowing and the choosing in advance are towards a purpose or end state (which is conformity into the image of Christ), not a choosing of some and an “un-choosing” of others, without regard for their faith.

You cannot read these sentences half way and expect them to make sense. “God chose us” or “God predestined us…” is only half a sentence. The other half is always, “…in Him” or “… to be holy”, or “conformed to the image of his Son.”

When talking about what it means to be chosen, Jesus himself gives a parable to help us understand how God’s choosing works. In Matt 22 Jesus says the Gospel banquet invitation goes out to everyone. Not just to the expected or worthy, but to the outsiders and the unworthy too. Everyone. And in the parable, it’s the response to the invitation that determines if one becomes one of the chosen or one of those cast out. Jesus’ own conclusion is this:

“many are invited, few are chosen.” (Matt 22:14).

This is in keeping with the overwhelming theme in Scripture that God in some sense “chooses” everyone. That is, He calls and woos all, and His love is universal, his love is impartial, and his love desires all to be saved (e.g. I Jn 4:8; Deut 10:17-19; 2 Chron 19:7; Ezek 18:25; Mk 12:14; Jn 3:16; Acts 10:34; Acts 17: 27; Rom. 2:10-11; Eph 6:9; I Tim 2:4; I Pet 1:17; 2 Pet. 3:9). To take Eph 1 texts about God’s choosing to imply that God predestines some to salvation others for damnation without regard for their faith forces you to radically bend these texts or ignore them altogether.

Another key text used by Determinists is John 6:44

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,”

It is of course, obvious biblically that for a person to choose Christ, God must be involved in their broken desires, to enlighten and to draw. But this doesn’t violate their free will, nor does it affirm a Fatalistic universe where he sets us up to want what he wants us to want. Nor does it assume that if a person DOESN’T come to Christ that the Father never loved them or drew them. It simply means that God is among the free wills operating in the world, and one of the things he freely does is draw people and gift them with the ability to respond to his offer, and without his help, none would respond.

But does this verse mean (as Determinists would argue) that God never “draws” or woos or calls people to reach out for him, who do not ultimately choose grace? In fact, we’re told Jesus has “mercy” on the rich young ruler and calls him specifically to discipleship and salvation. But that man turned away. Jesus also looks at Jerusalem in a stirring lament and says,

“how I longed to gather you… but you were not willing.” (Matt 23:37)

In the Determinist world, God never really drew the rich young ruler nor all the lost in Jerusalem and they were destined for hell from before all time. Well, this doesn’t jive with the text. Jesus is clearly drawing Jerusalem – but they are freely rejecting the gift of God’s offer. If this rejection was not just seen, but PLANNED by Jesus from before all time, why is He crying over their damnation? In the Determinist view, it is Jesus after all, who MADE them to reject him!  This view violates everything about this text.

A final key verse used to under-gird Determinism is Romans 9:14-15:

“What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

The entire chapter of Romans 9 is seen by many as a blueprint for understanding God’s negating of free will. They say God chooses unilaterally who is saved and who is not, and if you happen to raise the issue of logic (“how can God rightly condemn a person whom he predestines from all eternity past to be hardened?”) then you are simply directed to this passage and accept that God has mercy on whomever he wants. If you press the matter further and say, “but that’s not fair”, you are told, “who are you talk back to God?” (vs. 19).

At first this seems to be persuasive for a Deterministic view. But then we step back and see Paul’s overarching argument from Romans 9 thru 11, and that argument is not about individual salvation, per se, but about God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel, and their role in salvation history. The question being answered in Romans is, why have the Jews by and large rejected their Messiah? This is a disturbing question that caused many Jewish Christians to wonder if God’s Promises to Israel had failed.

Paul’s argument then is to establish that the Jewish rejection of Messiah, and God’s subsequent picking of a covenant people from among the Gentiles is not unfair or a failure or out of pattern. Paul is reminding his Jewish audience in Romans 9 that God has always chosen nations for service based on his own choice and not on inherent goodness in them or their pedigree.

He proves this by reminding them that God did not choose ALL Abraham’s descendants as his covenant people, but only those of “the promise”; sons of Isaac. And then afterwards, God chooses Jacob and not Esau. But this is not referring to individuals for salvation, but nations for service. The quote from Malachi proves this. “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” is specifically about the nation of Edom, not one man, Esau. So Paul is arguing that God has a right to pick any people he wants for such service. In both Isaac and Jacob, God picks them unexpectedly, out of birth order, and both are rascals, which shows God’s mercy and lack of concern for human works or family background in his choosing.

What he’s saying is simply that the Jews should not be shocked that God is now including Gentiles into his covenant people. Why not? He delights in showing mercy to whomever he wants, and this is his established pattern of upside-down grace. Yet we’re talking about broad people groups, not individuals.. If it were about individuals, we have to imagine that God is saying here that every Edomite and every Moabite and Ishmaelite was eternally condemned because God didn’t choose them when he chose Isaac and Jacob. That’s absurd, and unbiblical since we may safely assume the Moabitess Ruth is among the elect. No, it simply means that those men and their nations were not chosen or preferred for service as Israel was.

The strong reprimand then, “who are you to talk back to God…” is reserved for those who question God’s right to pick Gentiles based on their faith (he makes that clear in a second), and who are upset that God is not (as he never was) impressed with Israel’s works or her genetics.

What should cement this case is simply that Paul concludes his own complex reasoning with a simple thought. So we should let him speak for himself and not impose Determinism on his thinking, when he is very clear that that’s not what’s driving this argument in this chapter. He wraps by saying,

“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal…”

This is incredibly important. If the Deterministic view was right, here we should expect Paul to summarize by saying, “so then we see that God sovereignly chooses who is saved and who is damned randomly and mysteriously and don’t question him.” Instead, Paul says God’s picking and granting righteousness is not arbitrary at all. It is based on the condition of faith which God has always been looking for, and not on a genetic pedigree from Abraham, or even meticulous law observance. In other words, in the end, Paul appeals to free will, and grace, not Determinism.

The charge of God being arbitrary or unfair is, in fact behind the whole flow of Romans 9-11 – but not unfair because he picks who is saved and no one should talk back to him. The Jews Paul is addressing here would probably like that line of thinking, assuming God has always picked them and anyone who questions that favoritism should be reprimanded. No, Paul clearly doesn’t want to play into that hand. Rather the charge he’s dealing with is that God is unfair because he allows the Gentiles into the Kingdom while at the same time has hardened the Jews.

For the Jews would see God’s hardening of them, the law keepers, and the granting of mercy to the Gentiles, the sinners, as very arbitrary. In fact, Paul is arguing, this is perfectly consistent with what God has always done. This is why Pharaoh is brought into the argument in 9:17. Now, you Jews, Paul is saying, have taken Pharaoh’s role. God hardened him BECAUSE OF HIS UNBELIEF (Ex 8:15). He hardens those who harden themselves.

So just as Paul concludes that the picking of the Gentiles was NOT arbitrary, so the hardening of the Jews was also not arbitrary. They pursued righteous by works instead of by faith (9:32). So this hardening was perfectly consistent with the criteria of faith God has always worked with. He gives mercy in response to faith and he hardens in response to unbelief. It’s not the other way around! People don’t have faith as a result of God having mercy on them, and people don’t have unbelief as a result of God hardening them, yet this is exactly what determinism teaches. So the person making the complaint against God’s will (9:19) is a Jew complaining that God has hardened them without cause, NOT a free will advocate complaining that God applies his mercy arbitrarily.  Once you understand who Paul is arguing with here (his rhetorical interlocutor) the whole chapter begins to make sense.

Interestingly, when he brings in the Potter analogy to emphasize the, “don’t talk back” point, if we understand the Old Testament reference, it’s opposite of the “God predestines your destiny and just shut up” idea. In Jeremiah 18, the Prophet is taken to a Potter who starts with a lump of clay and then starts over. God tells Jeremiah that God too has the right, to start over with Israel. God can announce a plan to bless, but he reserves the right to change that plan, based on the stubborn disobedience of that nation. And visa versa – he has this right to change his plan, based on the repentance or the condition of that nation.

Now, transpose that clear allusion to the overarching conversation of Romans 9 and Paul’s point clears up. He’s not saying to those who wonder why God elects some for damnation against their will, shut up and don’t talk back, God does whatever he wants. No.  He’s saying to those who wonder why God elects some nations and hardens others, “God can change his mind if he wants to, based on the changing conditions in people. If the sinful Gentiles believe on the Christ, they will be elected for salvation despite their past. If the chosen Jews disbelieve in the Christ, think they can be justified by works or genetics, they will be hardened, despite their past glory (9:4.5).

Paul seals his case by quoting Isaiah, “see, I have placed in Zion … a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him [not the one whom I predetermine without regard for belief] will never be put to shame.” And later we’ll find out that even God’s hardening of the Jews in response to unbelief is not determinative because all they have to do is stop their unbelief, and God will change his plans for them (11:32)! Which again underscores Jeremiah 18:8.

So predestination is agreed to by all Christians, but what does that idea mean? We’ve seen that it doesn’t have to mean that God has fatalistically planned all things out and removed free will in the process. It’s more likely that it means God sees all, and sees those who would believe in him, and since God calls all to reach out for him (Acts 17:27), and desires all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), we can say that those who respond in faith, complete his salvation offer and become the chosen. And God has predestined, and planned for this Chosen People to be holy and like Christ, and nothing will stop that plan from being executed.