The following article is an excerpt from "A Book of Bible Study"
by Joseph F. Harwood.
The entire book may be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the “Download” button below.
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There are many different Christian denominations: from Southern Baptist, to Primitive Baptist, to Roman Catholic, to Methodist, to Pentecostal, to Presbyterian and all points in between, it seems. All of these different denominations came about because of differences in interpreting the Scriptures. Some of the most common differences of opinion and interpretation occur on doctrines about baptisms, eternal security, and the concept of free will, or man’s choice in the matter of his own salvation. This matter of free will gets directly to the subject of predestination, and the issue of whether God chooses who will be brought to faith in Christ, or whether each man chooses for himself whether he wants to believe in Christ and be saved.
The doctrine of predestination is one of the most controversial and divisive doctrines among Christians. Believers who earnestly desire to know the truth about predestination should be willing to thoroughly and carefully examine the biblical teachings on this subject in order to determine what the word of God teaches us about our salvation in Jesus Christ, and to what extent our own will or decision is involved in our salvation.
All Christians can agree from reading the Bible that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and that those who have not come to faith in Christ during their lifetimes here on earth will spend an eternity in Hell separated from God. Jesus taught His disciples that relatively few will be saved, and that most will in fact spend eternity separated from God (Matthew 7:13-14). The disagreements begin when we begin to discuss whether man has a say in determining his own salvation, or whether God Himself determines who will be saved and who will be left in their sins.
During our study on predestination, we will look at “both sides of the coin” so to speak. We will consider Scriptures used by those who say the Bible teaches that man’s own decision either to accept Christ or reject Him is the determining factor in his salvation. And we will also consider Scriptures used by those who say that God decides who will ultimately come to faith in Christ, and who will be hardened and left in their sins with no hope of salvation.
In our endeavor to determine just what the word of God teaches us on this difficult subject, we will interpret the Scriptures considering the context of the passages in which they appear. We will also consider who is being addressed in these passages, and we will interpret these Scriptures in the light of all the rest of the Scriptures as a whole. When we derive an interpretation of God’s word that is not contradicted by other passages of Scripture, then we can be confident that we have derived a correct interpretation, and that we have correctly handled the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Later in this book, we will also consider what the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God in the lives of all men, and in the events that transpire in His creation. We will examine Scriptures that speak of the sovereignty of God in determining the paths that men take during the course of their lives, whether they are believers or unbelievers. We will also see from the Scriptures how God works in the lives of His people to motivate them, sometimes even forcefully overcoming their own wills, in order to make them will and act according to His sovereign will and purpose for His creation.
The Apostle Paul prayed that we as God’s people would grow in our knowledge and understanding of the things of God. Paul wrote: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). And again Paul wrote: “…we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). Therefore, let us now look diligently into the Scriptures to see what God’s word teaches, so that we may fully understand what God has done for us as recipients of His saving grace.
Predestination –Two Widely Held Interpretations
In the Bible we find numerous references used to describe those who have, or will at some point in time, come to faith in Christ. These references describe believers with words such as “predestined”, “chosen”, “elect”, and as those who are “called” by God. With this in mind, we must admit that the subject of predestination is mentioned in the Bible, and at some point during our walk as believers, we will find ourselves wanting to know more about this teaching.
What exactly do the Scriptures teach us about predestination, and does man himself have a choice in the matter of his own salvation? Predestination refers to one’s eternal destiny after their life here on earth is over, and the issue of that eternal destiny having already been decided beforehand by God.
Some interpret the Bible as saying that God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is an offer that is open to each and every human being who has ever lived, and that their ultimate destiny rests with their own decision either to accept Christ or reject Him. Those who interpret salvation in this way will say that predestination, or God’s choice of those who will be saved, refers to those whom God foreknew, or knew before hand, would make the decision to accept Christ as opposed to rejecting Him, at such time as they are drawn or enabled by God to do so.
Others believe the Bible teaches that those who will receive eternal life are predestined to come to faith in Christ, in that they are foreknown and chosen beforehand by God Himself to be brought to faith, regardless of any works of their own whatsoever, including any decision made while they are still dead in their sins as to whether or not they will accept Christ. In this second case, God foreknew from before the creation of the world those individuals whom He will call to faith in His Son. This calling is effectual, meaning that all of those who are called to faith in Christ will come to Him, and none will refuse that call.
So we see that there are two widely held and different interpretations of the biblical doctrine of predestination. Regardless of which interpretation we hold as being the correct biblical teaching, let us resolve to do as the Bereans did when they considered the message brought by the Apostle Paul, and let us search the Scriptures ourselves, to see whether these things are true (Acts 17:11).
As we begin our study of predestination, we should first consider what the Bible teaches about the depravity of man. When we understand what the Scriptures reveal to us about man’s sinfulness and the extent of his wickedness and depravity, we will better understand our own salvation and what God has done for us through His saving grace.
The Fall of Man and Its Consequences
In Genesis 2, after the Lord God had created the heavens and the earth, the plants and creatures that live on the earth, we find that He created Adam, and then Eve to be Adam’s helper. God planted the Garden of Eden, and He placed Adam and Eve in the garden to tend it and take care of it. He put all kinds of trees in the garden that were good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God commanded Adam and Eve, saying that they could eat from any tree in the garden, but they must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would surely die.
Following in Genesis 3, we read the account of the fall of man. The serpent, or the devil, deceived Eve with a lie, saying that if she ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that her eyes would be opened, and she would be just like God. The serpent also lied to Eve again saying that she would not surely die if she ate the fruit, as God had said she would.
Eve, after hearing this enticement, looked at the fruit and saw that it was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable as something that would give her wisdom. So she took some and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband Adam who was with her. Adam, who also knew that God had forbidden them to eat this fruit, ate it as well.
This is the point at which sin entered the world. Immediately after they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve became aware that they were naked, and they felt shame, whereas they had no awareness of their nakedness before. As a result of this transgression, God cursed the serpent saying:
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
This curse that the Lord God pronounced upon the serpent was fulfilled in Christ’s victory over Satan at Calvary’s cross. After cursing the serpent, the Lord said to Eve that He would greatly increase her pain in childbearing, and that her desire would now be for her husband, who would rule over her. The Lord then said to Adam that because he had listened to his wife and had eaten the fruit of the tree that He had commanded him not to eat, he would have to toil painfully by the sweat of his brow to obtain food from the land until he died and returned to the ground from which he was taken (Genesis 2:7).
At the point in time when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God had told them not to eat, sin entered into the world. This was the fall of man. Before that time, Adam and Eve had the power to either obey God, or to sin by disobeying him. After that point, the inclination and tendency of man was to do only evil. The extent of man’s depravity after the fall is revealed in Genesis 6 where we read: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5).
Paul described the fall of man saying: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.” (Romans 5:12-14). Paul then explained that just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and that one sin of Adam’s brought death and condemnation to every man, so also through one Man, Jesus Christ, and His one act of righteousness, God’s grace would overflow to many, resulting in justification that brings life.
No One Seeks God, Not Even One
Paul wrote about man’s depravity in Romans 3:9-18, and within this passage he taught us that there is no one who seeks God, not even one. Paul also described the extent of man’s wickedness when he wrote in verse 9 that all men, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin. Beginning in verse 10 we read:
“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
In these verses, Paul quoted Scriptures from Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 to describe the extent of man’s wickedness, and to emphasize that there is not one man who seeks God, not even one. Paul then continued in this passage to quote several verses from the Psalms and Isaiah that speak of man’s wickedness and depravity. Since Paul taught us clearly that “there is none who seeks for God”, then God Himself must seek men if any from among them are to be reconciled to Him.
Unregenerate Man is Dead in His Trespasses and Sins
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described the totality of man’s depravity by saying that he is “dead” in trespasses and sin. In chapter 2 we read:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
In verse 1, Paul did not say that man is sick with sin, or terminally ill with sin with some small spark of life left in him, but he said that man is dead in trespasses and sin. He described man’s total depravity and condition of deadness and inability to respond to the things of God in order to emphasize the magnitude of God’s grace toward us whom He has saved.
Paul taught that all of us as believers were also once dead in our transgressions, until God, because of His love and mercy which He chose to show toward us, made us alive with Christ, even when we were still dead in our sins (verses 4-5). Paul then taught that it is solely by God’s grace that we have been saved, through faith in Christ. And he also taught that our faith does not come from within ourselves, but it is a gift given to us by God. (Consider also Philippians 1:29). Paul made it clear that our salvation does not come about through any work or effort of our own whatsoever, so that no one may boast that he had anything at all to do with his salvation (verses 8-9).
If our faith were somehow based on even one good work of our own, even making a “right decision”, then we would be able to boast that we made the right decision when others refused to do so, when they too supposedly could have. However, Paul taught that for those of us who have come to faith in Christ, we should understand that our faith is the gift of God and has nothing to do with any works of our own.
Paul again emphasized the inability of unregenerate man to receive and respond to the things of God when he wrote: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Corinthians 2:14, emphasis added).
The natural man, or man in his lost, unregenerate state, does not accept the things of the Spirit of God because he cannot understand them. The things of the Spirit of God cannot be discerned with the intellect alone. Rather, as Paul said, “they are spiritually appraised”, which is to say they are discerned and understood only through the Spirit of God. For this reason, when the lost, unregenerate man hears the Gospel message given to us through the word of God, it sounds like foolishness to him. He is simply unable to understand or accept it because he is without the Spirit of God, which means that he is still spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins.
A dead body is unable to respond to any outside stimulus other than the call of God raising it to life, as was the case when Jesus called Lazarus to life though he had been dead for four days (John 11:38-44). In the same way, the unregenerate man who is dead in his transgressions is unable to respond to the Gospel message until he has been called to life by God, and his regeneration occurs. At this point he is made alive with Christ, and he is then able to respond to Jesus Christ as his Lord who has saved him, just as Saul, who would later become the Apostle Paul, was able to do for the first time when the time for his conversion came on the Damascus road.
Saul’s Conversion on the Damascus Road
Saul’s conversion is recounted three times in the Book of Acts: the first time in Acts 9:1-16, the second time in Acts 22:1-11, and the third time in Acts 26:9-18. When our sovereign God chooses to repeat events and teachings in His word, we should consider very carefully just what He is saying to us.
At the time of Saul’s conversion, he was still thoroughly intent on persecuting the church. He had made no decision at all to come to Christ. In Acts 9:1-2, we see that he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”, and that he was on his way to Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem in chains any followers of Christ he found there, to be punished (See also Acts 22:4-5 and Acts 26:9-12).
Saul had heard the Gospel message. He knew what it was about, and he was opposed to it. We see from these accounts of his conversion in the Book of Acts that he had remained steadfastly opposed to the Gospel, right up until the instant in time when he was confronted by Jesus Christ Himself.
However, this persecutor of the church and enemy of the Faith was one whom God had foreknown from before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). In His time, though Saul was overtly hostile to the Gospel of Christ, God intervened in his life to bring him to faith. God forcefully overcame Saul’s own will, which was hostile to the Gospel message as is the case with all unregenerate men (Romans 8:7). And as a result of God’s forceful intervention in his life, Saul then responded to Jesus Christ as his Lord for the first time, as we see recorded in Acts 22:
“But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.’ (Acts 22:6-10)
If we read the text in the passages of the book of Acts recounting Saul’s conversion, and if we refrain from adding our own thoughts and conditions to the text, we will come to this conclusion: Saul got saved contrary to his own will, and apart from his own decision in the matter. At the time of Saul’s conversion, he was still hostile to the Gospel message; he had made no decision to come to Christ. God intervened in Saul’s life to change him and bring him to faith, and He does the same in the lives of every one of us who comes to faith in Christ.
Paul himself emphasized the inability of unregenerate men, all unregenerate men, to respond to the things of God when he wrote: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8, emphasis added).
Paul taught us in these verses that “the mind set on the flesh”, or the mind of unregenerate man, is hostile toward God; it will not subject itself to the law of God because it is not even able to do so. Sinful, unregenerate man is unable to accept or subject himself to the word of God, and therefore he cannot please God. Paul’s teaching in these verses is consistent with his teaching in Romans 3:10-12, where he emphasized that no one seeks God, not even one.
Since no unregenerate man will seek God, because he is unable to do so, how then can man be saved? How can sinful man be freed from his inability to respond to the Gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ and through him alone?
The answer is that God must intervene in an individual’s life to overcome their own will, which is hostile toward Him, and He must forcefully and effectually bring them to faith, just as He did in the life of Saul. When God does this, an individual’s regeneration has occurred; they have been born again (John 3:3). The evidence that they have been born again is that they respond to Jesus Christ as Lord, and they believe the Gospel message, just as happened in the life of Saul.
This is the lesson that God communicates to His people through the conversion of Saul, which is recounted three times in the Book of Acts. And as we will see, this same teaching is consistently communicated through other passages of Scripture as well.