The subject of predestination is perennially interesting. I have discovered this everywhere I have ministered. People have a right to know what the church stands for and I am glad there is such a continuing interest in predestination.
Let it be said at the outset that Presbyterians are not the only ones who believe this truth. Martin Luther did. He was a "high predestinarian." True, Lutheran doctrine has been somewhat modified since his day.
The doctrine of predestination and the companion doctrine of election unto life are clearly stated in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (upon which American Episcopalianism is founded). And the confessions of the Baptist churches, the London Confession and the New Hampshire Confession are practically identical and both are almost the same as our own Westminster Confession of Faith in this regard. Yet it does seem to be the case that when you say "Presbyterian" you also say "predestination." Somehow it is associated with us more than with anyone else.
An interesting book is Col. Starling's sprightly account of his years of service at the White House protecting, as a secret service agent, the life of several presidents. Starling was a Presbyterian, as was Woodrow Wilson. Starling quotes a little quatrain composed by a newsman who knew of President Wilson's Presbyterianism. Said the newsman, with tongue not altogether in cheek:
A Presbyterian is tough,
Because his way of life is rough.
He knows that sin and death are fated,
And all his acts predestinated!
That was a reporter's version of predestination. Of course it isn't quite correct. We would never use the word fate in connection with this truth of God. But there it is again: The popular analysis of what it is to be a Presbyterian always seems to mention predestination.
What is predestination? I can as quickly set it before you out of the Shorter Catechism as in any other way. Asks the question: "What are the decrees of God?" And then comes the frank, unequivocal answer:
The decrees of God are His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby for His own glory, He bath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
That is predestination. An easy way of saying it is: When God proposed to create the universe, He did not leave it an open universe, He planned how He would make it, and He planned what He would do with it, and His plan embraces all things. His plan embraces the so-called natural laws. Better we should speak of them as God's ordinary ways of doing things. He planned a universe in which He would be active, maintaining order and regularity, the basis of science, incidentally.
He planned a universe in a corner of which He would create a race made in His image. He planned what He would do with that race and He planned what would be the outcome of the history of that race. His plan embraces all things. This is the doctrine of predestination.
Is it taught in the Bible? Of course. You can see it in the text I have chosen for this message: "My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure." The God of the Bible clearly reveals Himself so that you cannot mistake it. He is God. He is not a being who is ever taken by surprise. He is not a being who has to improvise on the basis of new evidence. He is not a being who can be defeated. The God of the Bible is God!
There you have the very basis of Presbyterian doctrine in all areas: God is sovereign! Do other Scriptures say the same thing? Yes, they do. Ephesians 1 puts it like this: "God worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." Acts 4 puts it like this: "God does whatsoever his hand and his counsel determine before to be done." In Acts 15, we read it like this: "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world." Romans 10 says "Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate."
Everything in Scripture is consistent with this teaching. Much in Scripture depends upon it. The Bible includes, for example, the element of predictive prophecy — prophecy which looks forward to things that will happen. The Old Testament said that Christ would come and that He would be born in Bethlehem, and born of a virgin. Then it spoke about His ministry, His work, His death and His resurrection. These predictive words were uttered because God had an all-embracing plan which He most certainly intended to work out. Thus predictive prophecy is a part of Biblical teaching on the subject of predestination.
We can detect this same thinking in Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost. To those gathered thousands who wondered what the amazing signs of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit meant, Peter gives an explanation. He says: You took Him, Jesus of Nazareth, and by wicked hands you crucified and slew Him. This happened, Peter goes on to declare, by the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God."
There it is again. You meet it constantly in the Scriptures; The sovereign God, His eternal plan, His purpose is everywhere worked out. God is in control. God rules.
As soon as I mention this teaching of Scripture, I can sense a dozen questions rising in the minds of those listening. I have thought such questions myself and have had to deal with them in my own struggle in coming to a personal understanding of God's truth. Some of you, for example, are asking, what about freedom of the will? What about human responsibility? Is life just a puppet dance? Do I have the power of choice against God's will?
What I want to do here is to try to relate two great ideas that the Bible emphatically teaches:
- The absolute sovereignty of God; and
- the complete responsibility of man.
In my student days, this was the subject we seminarians tossed around in our discussions constantly. Groping toward a personal faith, some of us said that what happens is that the sovereign God limits Himself and where man is concerned He resigns from the game, so to speak, so that man's will is left untouched by God.
As we went on in our discussions, we saw that this was an impossible thing to say about God, that He would limit Himself. He cannot deny Himself. God can not do that which is contrary to His own nature. He cannot lie. Nor could He limit Himself to be less than the sovereign God. So we had to reject that notion.
Finally, I came to the position I now hold. I saw that Deuteronomy 29:29 is the key to my intellectual conclusions:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children that we may do all the words of this law.
I came to understand that the eternal purpose of God, the counsel of God, the decree of God is a secret thing and it is not for me to say, what is God going to do with me next week? What is God going to do with me next month? What will be the story for me next year? All that is in the "secret things." God alone knows. I only find those things out when they actually occur.
The plan is His business. What I am to be concerned with is the revealed will of God. The Scripture has been very plain and frank with me. It has let me know without any doubt that God has a plan and that God is working out His plan and that His purposes are undefeatable. Scripture doesn't want me to be questioning: What is your secret plan, Lord, for next year? The Scripture makes it very plain that what I am to ask is: Lord, what is my duty as Thy Word discloses it?
My marching orders are the Holy Scriptures. This is what I am to go by. This is what I must do. Not the secret will of God, but the revealed will of God is to be my concern. Not God's overarching plan but what I know to do now, in the light of Holy Scripture.
I am day by day to go in the light of God's Word, trusting Him who has it all in His hands, trusting Him who is working it all out according to His pleasure, trusting Him.
I find that high thinking, good thinking, sturdy thinking, sustaining thinking. That satisfies my mind and that satisfies my heart. This is exactly what Paul is talking about in the 8th chapter of Romans: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose." We know that in spite of illness, we know that in spite of accidents, we know that in spite of shameful things that happen and that make us very discouraged, we know that in spite of losses, we know that in spite of death, we know that in spite of all of these things that seem against us, God has a beneficent purpose and will do good to us who belong to Him.
So we are sustained, so we are strengthened, because we are not in the grip of blind, impersonal fate, but in the thought and hand of our loving Almighty heavenly Father. My times are in God's hands. I am loved of the heavenly Father for Jesus' sake; and so come storm or loss or sickness or death, I know that He intends me good and I am content to trust Him. This attitude, this belief in the sovereignty of God, and this grasping of the principle of our own responsibility unto Him make for a good life. Nor is the nerve of personal endeavor cut. We aren't like the fatalist who says, "Well, if I am going to live I will live, and if I am going to succeed I will succeed. If I am going to fail I will fail, and there is nothing I can do about it."
You have heard the man in the street talking in such a vein, as though that were the meaning of predestination. It is not. The doctrine of predestination has this practical application, that under God as we are, we must do our commanded duty. Under God as we are, we must do our best. Under God as we are, we must try to improve ourselves and improve our situation. As Christians we must bear witness to Christ and seek to build up His kingdom.
We realize that the results, after all, can best be left in God's hands. Col. Starling put it correctly:
As war clouds began to gather and I had to think of protecting the President and as he went here and there often to places of danger; as I saw the thousands of possibilities that existed for someone to kill the President; I would have been beside myself with anxiety but for this: As a Presbyterian I did the best that I could to protect him and then I left it up to God.
That is sound and wholesome thinking, isn't it?
Do your best and trust God. That is Presbyterianism. That puts steel in men. Look back at the worthies who believed it. See Calvin and Knox and Witherspoon. See them — men who stood and men who wrought and men who counted, vitalized and upheld by confidence in the sovereign God. Theirs was an undying allegiance to the duty He revealed to them in His Word. Trusting Him as to the outcome, they sought only to follow His revealed will.
So we study and we work and we pray and we do the things that God's Word tells us, looking to God to bless us and looking to God to help us and looking to God to give the good result. That outlook is satisfying. That honors God. He is acknowledged to be in control.
This doctrine, which the Confession of Faith so well tells us to handle with a great deal of prudence because it is a high and holy mystery, is a teaching of use even among the unsaved. I have seen it result in the conversion of souls. Why is that? Because somehow God impresses upon unsaved hearts that they had better not be careless, that they had better take Him into account, that they had better while they are under the sound of His Word — maybe led there by God himself — hear that very Word: Listen and heed and believe.
By Luther, Cranmer, Spurgeon, as well as Calvin and Knox the doctrine of predestination was held as of evangelistic value. In heaven's glory where they see it better than we do, I know they do not renounce the testimony that they — Lutheran founder, Church of England light, Baptist preacher, Presbyterian reformers and theologians taught as the mind of God while they were here on earth.
Let God be God indeed. Let us attend to His Word as our daily marching orders. Let us confess that over all things is the Lord our God, the God of the whole universe. The text sets forth both ideas: Do your duty and rely on the sovereign God. Rejoice to know and rely on Him who said:
I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand. I will do all my pleasure.
God, Thou art God. I am Thy creature and responsible to Thee. O God, I bow before Thy Word and I believe it, and I will seek to obey it. Help me, O sovereign God, help me to be Thy child, Thy servant.