V. Predestined? Time, God’s Sovereignty, and Love
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | July 30, 2020Last week, our Sunday lectionary gave us the powerful concluding verses of Romans 8. A major theme of that passage is Paul’s unshakeable confidence and our own security in the love of God in Jesus Christ. One of the ways Paul communicates this theme is by using the language of predestination. Paul writes, “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” (Romans 8:29). Paul’s pastoral goal with the predestined talk in Romans 8 is to affirm for the Roman church God’s sovereignty over the world on behalf of the followers of Jesus. But the theological ‘how’ of God’s predestining things is far from clear. Moreover, for us today, that word predestined can come with a lot of baggage. I want to unpack some of it for us today.
Nowadays, when Christians talk about predestination, we are usually talking about whether it is predestined by God that someone goes to heaven or hell. If it is predestined by God whether someone goes to heaven or hell, is that predestination essentially random, or is it the continuation and result of how we lived our lives on earth? And if that predestination is the continuation and result of how we lived our lives on earth—heavenly reward for the righteous and infernal condemnation for the wicked—wouldn’t it follow that whether we lived our lives on earth righteously or wickedly was also predestined?
All that baggage in that one little word! But it’s important baggage. If God has predestined some folks to be conformed to the image of Jesus, as Paul says, then what are we to make of free will? If predestination is how things go, then is free will a myth? Are my choices real choices or not? If God is all knowing, then God knows the future. And if God knows the future, then God already knows my choices before I make them, right? But if my choices are known before I make them, well, are they really choices?
There are three ideas that can help us make sense of this. The first is philosophical and has to do with God’s transcendence in regards to time. The second is historical and has to do with proclaiming God’s sovereignty in Paul’s particular context. The third is about relationships and has to do with how we only really know what we love.
First, the philosophical. As we’ve noted, the basic tension here is between our belief in an all-knowing God and our own experience of free will: if God knows the future, are my choices really free? Some of this tension dissolves, however, if we keep in mind that God is not bound by time in the way that we are. To predestine something is to determine beforehand that it will happen later. When I light the fuse on the bottle rocket, say, I am predestining a tiny explosion in the sky a few seconds later. There’s a sequence of events: I do X now and make Y happen later. When we talk about predestination, we usually imagine God doing something similar: God decrees X (either now or before the world began), and sure enough, Y happens later.
In this view, we’re imagining a God who sets the world going, and then watches it as a predetermined series of events unfolds in sequence. And because God is the one who lit the world’s fuse, so to speak, God knows ahead of time who is going to heaven and who is going to hell and all the rest.
But notice what we’ve done: we’ve assumed that God lives in a sequence of before and after, now and later just like we do; we’ve forgotten that God transcends categories like before and after. Maybe one of the ways God is present to history is analogous to the way you or I might look at a mural on a wall, everything all at once. Maybe God sees my lighting the fuse and the bottle rocket exploding, not one event after the other, but ‘next to’ each other, like panels on a mural.
When we talk about predestination, maybe we’re not talking about a God who decrees ahead of time the inevitable result of our lives but are simply affirming that God is not bound to time as a sequence of events. Perhaps Paul is simply affirming God’s sovereignty: it is God’s prerogative to view my whole life as something like a mural rather than the unfolding of a play. In this light, perhaps our language about free will is a way of saying that I have real agency in painting the mural God sees: time is one of the colors we humans use to paint. In short, a philosophical idea that might help us make sense of this predestination language is that it’s only problematic if we imagine that time, with its categories of before and after, is bigger than God and not the other way around.
The second idea that might help us make sense of this predestination stuff is historical. Simply put, at our point in history, we take certain things for granted that Paul couldn’t take for granted.
Here’s an example of what I mean: in our own day in the United States, the overwhelming number of people who believe in God believe in the God of Abraham. Jews believe in the God of Abraham; Christians believe in the God of Abraham; Muslims believe in the God of Abraham. Now there are lots of things those three great religions disagree about, but we all believe that there is only one God, and that this God is God of all the earth. The American imagination from the beginning has been fundamentally monotheistic. We take monotheism for granted; Paul’s contemporaries don’t.
In ancient Rome, there are lots of gods on offer. And moreover, even folks who were devoted to only one god still believed that other gods existed. The Roman Empire knew this: when they conquered a territory, they usually let that region keep worshipping whatever gods they had and simply insisted that they now also participate in the worship cult of Rome focused on the emperor. What this communicated was, “Your gods are real, sure, but they are not as powerful as the gods of Rome and we know that because we beat you in battle.”
So, if you’re going to be a monotheistic Israelite in the ancient world, you are not going to say that the Jewish people are suffering because God lost a fight with some invading empire’s gods, and you’re not going to say that God has broken his side of the Covenant. Instead, you’re going to say things that make us 21st century Episcopalians squirm, things like the prophet Jeremiah says: God is punishing his people for idolatry, etc. If you’re going to be a monotheist surrounded by pagan polytheism and henotheism, maintaining your own God’s sovereignty meant sometimes affirming that your own misfortune was the will of the One True God. It makes us squirm because it makes God sound bloodthirsty and mean. But if we did not take monotheism for granted, we might also hear an affirmation of our core belief: only our God is God; the Romans (or Assyrians or Babylonians or Persians or Medes) are wrong.
For Paul, however, there’s an added layer. Because his historical context does not take monotheism for granted, not only does he have to continue affirming the sovereignty of the God of Abraham and this God’s utter faithfulness to his covenant with the Israelites, but he also has to show that this Jesus is guy is intimately connected to the God of Abraham they’ve believed in all along. He has to guard against folks thinking that Jesus is a new god, or that God has been divided, or that this Jesus guy somehow represents the God of Abraham ‘changing His mind’ about things. Paul can’t take for granted that everyone is a monotheist, and Paul can’t take for granted that everyone will see Jesus as a fulfillment God’s eternal purpose.
We contemporary Christians usually take all this for granted. But Paul can’t, and one of the ways he resolves the tension is by using the language of predestination: God predestined the coming of Jesus and that some would be conformed to the image of Jesus, His Son. The same God who called Abraham is at work in Jesus, Paul says, and the division we’re seeing within Israel—about whether Jesus is the Messiah, about the inclusion of the Gentiles—all of this is part of God’s predestined purpose. In short, a historical idea that might help us make sense of this predestination talk is that we take for granted some of the values and truths Paul is trying to push in this portion of Romans. It is possible that Paul’s predestination language is answering different questions than the ones we usually ask.
Finally, the relational idea. This one is the simplest. In Romans 8:29, God’s predestining of some persons to be conformed to the image of His Son is connected to God’s foreknowledge of those same persons. When we have a long and intimate relationship with someone, whether a best friend or a family member, we gain deep knowledge about them. Sometimes, this knowledge is so deep and intuitive that we can tell ahead of time what they’re going to do or say or feel in a certain situation.
Here is an example: when Lucy and I used to go to the rock climbing gym together, Lucy knew ahead of time that I was going to put my climbing shoes on fast and start stretching pretty quickly, that I would want to climb for longer than she most likely would, and that if we had time, I’d want to grab a beer afterwards at the brewery down the sidewalk. Lucy knows all that the moment we show up at the climbing gym, but her knowledge that it will happen does not cause it to happen. Rather, because she has intimate foreknowledge of who I am and what I am like at the climbing gym, it is ‘predestined’ in her mind how I am going to behave.
We have a key insight here: we only really know what we love. The predestination of the afternoon’s events in Lucy’s mind are the result of her foreknowledge of me, and her foreknowledge is the fruit of her love. How much more intimate must be God’s foreknowledge of us, His daughters and sons adopted by the Holy Spirit? In short, a relational idea that can help us make sense of predestination is that God knows us so intimately that God knows the decisions we are going to make before we ourselves have even chosen them. We are predestined by God not because God causes us to choose this or that life, but because God has loved us into being, and therefore his foreknowledge of our pilgrimage is entire. If it is true that real knowledge is the fruit of love, how could a Love as deep as God’s not know what you, His beloved, will say, do, or feel at any given moment, even though you are still entirely free to choose it or not?
Thank you for reading.
 Henotheism is adherence or devotion to one god above, or against, many other gods. This is in contrast to monotheism, which is better characterized as a belief that one’s religious devotion belongs only to one divinity because only that divinity exists. Polytheism could be characterized as a belief in, and at least potential devotion to, numerous gods.