Sovereignty means kingly rule. God rules everything; not one atom is outside his control (Ephesians 1:11).
Providence refers to the fact that God not only keeps our universe running (Hebrews 1:3), but ensures that every event within it conforms to his will—every random reaction (Proverbs 16:33, Matthew 10:29-30), and every moment of every life (Psalm 139:16). Even suffering (Isaiah 45:7), unbelief (John 6:65, 2 Thessalonians 2v11-12, 1 Peter 2v8), and other evil thoughts and acts (Exodus 4:21, Genesis 50:20) are somehow predetermined by him. Indeed, Satan can only cause such things by God’s will (Job 1-2).
Three things need remembering: First, we remain free and responsible (Romans 2:6-8). In his infinite wisdom God so orders things that our response to them is at the same time a willing response, but also the response he has determined. So we are not free to do other than God has decided, but are free in the sense that whatever we do is still what we want to do. Second, it would be outrageous if God did not take such control. He could not then answer prayer, there would be no limit to wickedness, and even Christ’s victory would not be certain (Daniel 4:35). Third, God alone has the knowledge and right to permit or provoke suffering and evil without actually doing wrong. His motives are always pure (Genesis 50:19-20), and the greater good he intends always warrants what he determines (Romans 8:28). This good may be to exercise a deserved punishment (Isaiah 10:5-6), to strengthen or display the faith of his people (Hebrews 12:4-11, Job 1-2), to achieve someone’s salvation (Genesis 50:20, Acts 2:23), or make us appreciate our own (Romans 8:19-25, 9:22-24). Of course we will rarely know God’s reasons, but are simply called to submit to his will (Daniel 4:35), trust his goodness, and humbly admit our own limited understanding (Prov 3:5-6, Job 42:1-5).
Providence demonstrates that God loves everybody. We deserve nothing from him except death and hell (Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10), yet he providentially provides for and gives much happiness to all—whether they acknowledge him or not (Matthew 5:44-45, Romans 9:22). Yet God loves some in a special way, by choosing to save them whilst leaving others in their unbelief (John 6:65). This is predestination, the category of providence referring to who is and isn’t saved.
Faith is the one act God’s general providence can never ensure: People love sin so much that without a direct work of the Spirit they will never willingly express their freedom and responsibility in accepting Christ (Romans 8:7-8, John 6:65, 1 Corinthians 2:14). God therefore renews the wills of his elect so that when hearing the gospel they do, definitely and willingly, freely and responsibly, repent and believe (Romans 8:9-11, John 6:43). So our salvation is utterly by grace. Even our faith is God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). He didn’t choose us because we first chose him; we chose him because he first chose us (Romans 9:10-24). We might define predestination then as the decision by God before all time as to whether to save an individual or leave them in their unbelief.
In John 6v37 Jesus states: “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” He then reassures his hearers in v39 that “I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” He then elaborates in v44: “No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The argument is not unclear: There is a group of people that the Father has given to the Son. Every one of them will be saved on the last day because the Father will ensure that they come to and stick with Jesus in faith. This is made most explicit in v65 where Jesus explains why many who claimed to believe stopped doing so when they found his teaching too difficult: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” The reason for their falling away was that the Father had never actually enabled them to truly believe!
Now three important qualifications need to be made to protect against misunderstanding: First, predestination doesn’t make evangelism unnecessary, because God works out what he has predestined through it. He draws people to Christ through the preaching of the gospel brought home by his Spirit. Second, predestination alone actually makes prayer worthwhile, because we know that God really can intervene to save those we pray for, having incorporated our prayers into his purposes. Third, predestination doesn’t make it God’s fault that some don’t believe. He certainly does ensure Christians accept Jesus, but he does not make non-Christians reject him. They do so because of their own hardness of heart.
What if we struggle with all this?
In one sense a certain struggle with predestination is a godly response. God himself takes no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” but desires that they “turn from their ways and live” (Ezekial 23:32). It is therefore actually god-like to want all to be saved and to be distraught that some will not be. This is exactly Paul’s response when considering the fact that God had not chosen many of his fellow Jews (Romans 9:1-3). Those Christians who assert predestination harshly and without feeling its implications therefore display a certain god-lessness themselves.
Having said this, when our struggle develops into a refusal to accept what scripture teaches on this issue, we implicitly deny God’s right to do as he pleases and imply that we think him unjust. In Romans 9, Paul goes on to challenge those who expressed this sort of outrage at predestination, saying in v19-21: “who are you, O man, to talk back to God. Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”
Jesus is just as frank. After many abandoned him because they found his teaching too difficult, Jesus challenged his disciples about whether they would do the same. Yet Peter’s response in John 6v68-69 is that of true faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” One sign of having been chosen is our willingness to keep believing even when we find it hard.
Our understanding of the what’s and why’s of predestination (and providence) will always be limited. Yet whether or not we accept a difficult doctrine does not depend on whether we understand it, and certainly not on whether we like it. It depends on whether or not the Bible teaches it. It depends on the fact that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and that his words are those of eternal life. What he says therefore goes, and what the book he sanctioned says therefore truly reflects God’s ways.
In speaking of predestination, the apostle Paul describes the mind of God as “unsearchable” and “beyond tracing out” (Romans 11:33). How ironic then, that so many reject this doctrine because they cannot search and trace out its reasoning. Instead we must remind ourselves again of God’s love and goodness, but also that his ways are way above our ways, and so beyond full comprehension. Perhaps we will never know why he doesn’t choose to save everyone through Christ. But what we can know, is that he must have the best of reasons, for as we’ve already mentioned, the Bible is clear that he takes no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” but desires that they “turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 23:32). The logic is compelling: God longs for all to turn and be saved, God is capable of ensuring than all turn and are saved, yet God chooses not to ensure that all turn and are saved. We can only conclude then that he must have a “greater good” in mind that supersedes even the salvation of all.
Weighing up the alternative views
Some teach that predestination is simply about God seeing in advance whether we will believe and so choosing us on this basis. But there are three substantial problems with this argument:
1. This still wouldn’t get rid of the difficulty of God choosing some to be condemned, because we would still have to accept that he chooses to create people he knows will not believe. And he does not have to (Isaiah 46:9-10, Psalm 139:16).
2. We are so sinful, that we are simply unable to believe unless God enable us to. And the bible is clear that he enables only some (2 Corinthians 4:4-6, Romans 8:7-8, John 6:65, 1 Corinth 2:14-16).
3. The bible simply doesn’t teach that God’s choice is dependent on our faith. It does speak of God “foreknowing,” but the focus of this is us as individuals, not the faith we express (Romans 8:29,11:2, 1 Peter 1:2). On the contrary, we are explicitly told that God’s choice is not dependent on anything we do (Romans 9:11-18).
Others teach that God chooses Christ, and that we therefore become chosen when we believe in him. The problems here are also significant, and similar to those above.
1. It would not get rid of the difficulty of God creating those he knows will end up being condemned.
2. The bible teaches we need to be given faith to respond, and that God only gives this to some.
3. When speaking about predestination, the bible speaks of God’s choice being directed to individuals not to Christ (John 6:36-70, Romans 9:6-24, Ephesians 1:3-14).
In terms of providence, the main alternative propounded is that we are free in a way that is independent of God’s predetermined will, and that, as in a chess game, God therefore has to make moves in response to ours to ensure his purposes are ultimately fulfilled. The problems with this view are that it simply doesn’t do justice to the biblical teaching outlined above. Moreover, it is an horrific scenario, because it means that God cannot intervene in people’s lives directly. Prayer is therefore pointless and there can be no certainty that God will overcome evil in the end.