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Predestination for the Produce Aisle

November 15, 2010

“Predestination for the Produce Aisle” Isaiah 42:1-4; Romans 8:28-39; Ephesians 1:3-14; Matthew 20:1-16; 22:1-15 © 11/14/10 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

You never know where theology will turn up. Like that other thing that we say commonly happens, you might encounter it anywhere. Such as on the side of a delivery truck.

I was sitting at the light at Louisville Street and Highway 12 in Starkville when I noticed a semi next to me operated by a company called “Predestination Transport LLC.” How odd, I thought. Who would name a business such a thing? Then I noticed that the truck was carrying produce from Wood-Fruitticher, a distributor in Birmingham. They regularly display the Christian fish symbol on their vehicles. Well, that explains it, I told myself; the owner must be an old-fashioned Calvinist.

You never know where you’ll have a theological conversation. Like in the produce aisle of the Food Giant or the Piggly Wiggly. You’re pondering which bunch of organic carrots to buy when your reverie is interrupted by “Hi, haven’t seen you in awhile.” You look up, and it’s an old acquaintance, not quite a friend, just somebody you know. You get to talking, and the other person says “Aren’t you one of them?” “Them what?” “You know, Presbyterians.” (This is said a little derisively.) “You believe in predestination, don’t you?”

You start praying: “O God, please let my cell phone ring with an urgent call.” But all you hear is silence. What do you say that will let you politely get out of there and move on to the frozen foods and your rising crust pizza for tonight?

OK, I admit this scenario is a little far-fetched. But stranger things have happened. And haven’t we all had conversations with people at work or school or in a club or at a party that turned to religion? When people hear the word “Presbyterian” from our lips, they automatically think “predestination.” And not in a good way. They probably think it means God chooses a little elite group and damns all the rest or else that everything we ever do is predetermined. If they had read Thomas Paine, they probably would join him in calling predestination “absurd and impious…a doctrine destructive of morals.”

So what do you say if the subject comes up? Depends on whether you and the other person want to and can have a serious conversation or your questioner is just out to make fun of somebody else’s religion. In the latter case, the quick shut ‘em up answer is: “You have me mistaken for somebody else. I’m not that kind of Presbyterian. My denomination repudiated the idea you’re thinking of over a 100 years ago. I believe in the God I know in Jesus, who wants everyone to be saved.”

What you would be referring to is a chapter on the Gospel added later by the Presbyterian church and a statement placed at the end of the Westminster Confession in 1903 by one of our predecessor bodies. It says that the gospel is freely offered to all, and no one is condemned except on the basis on his or her sin. Of course, I suspect in Mississippi when most people think of Presbyterians they mean the PCA and a single confession of faith from 1646, the Westminster Standards, without any of those new-fangled additions. To be fair, until reunion in 1983, that same system was our only confession of faith, too. The general public is not aware, indeed, I’d guess some Presbyterians are not aware, that we have had a Book of Confessions for almost 30 years which contains documents that do not teach what Westminster does.

It’s unfortunate that Westminster was our sole standard for so long. The confession was heavily influenced both by the political conflicts of the day in England and by a movement called “scholasticism.” This was a way of doing theology that emphasized logic and method and debating subtle points. Theology was considered a kind of science.

Westminster’s teaching on predestination is both unbiblical and sub-Christian. Following Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor, it pictures God as passionless, sitting in heaven issuing decrees. Here is a typical passage from Chapter III: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established…. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed any thing because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions…. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death….These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.” I’ll let you read the rest for yourself sometime. The Westminster Confession is readily available online (www.creeds.net/reformed/creeds.htm).

This decree-making God is not the God we know in Jesus Christ. And that brings us to the first principle to keep in mind in any serious conversation about predestination. The God of the Bible is an involved God who walks with and among human beings. In Jesus Christ supremely he shared our suffering and our need. He reached out to the least and the downtrodden. He preached peace to those far and near. He told parables like those we heard this morning that emphasized God’s care for those who are left out and on the margins, those who believe no one could love them, who feel as if they are outside the reach of God’s grace. The same stories condemned in the strongest terms those who believe God owes them something, who think that God divides the world into haves and have-nots, who make light of the gifts and invitation of the Sovereign.

And Paul, in the passages that have deeply influenced Reformed thought about predestination, focuses his discussion on how God keeps us in Christ. In Romans, he doesn’t talk about “decrees.” Instead, he reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. He insists that God intends for us nothing but good. In Ephesians, we are chosen “in Christ.”

Jesus is the Chosen One of God. It’s through our engrafting into him, our connection to him through faith that we are elected. Another Reformed confession put it this way: “Let Christ, therefore be the looking glass, in whom we may contemplate

our predestination. We shall have a sufficiently clear and sure testimony that we are inscribed in the Book of Life if we have fellowship with Christ, and he is ours and we are his in true faith” (Second Helvetic Confession).

We can’t talk about God as Christians without looking at Jesus, in whom the Sovereign is uniquely and fully revealed. Westminster didn’t do that. But other Reformed standards did and do.

There are other things we need to keep in mind when we talk about predestination. To the popular imagination, including that of Presbyterians, “predestination” means everything in your life and mine is planned out, set in stone, predetermined before we were even born or indeed, before the universe was ever created. The common idea seems to be that predestination is the same as fate or determinism or destiny. So when your house is foreclosed on by predator bankers, that’s God’s will. When your sister dies of cancer or your son is killed in combat, God made that happen. Even when you’re looking for a parking place on a crowded street, and you find it in front of the store you want, that was God’s idea. It’s like the old joke about a Calvinist who fell down the stairs and broke his leg. His first words were “Whew! Glad that’s over.” He thought that accident was part of God’s “plan” for him.

Bunk. Hogwash. God does not plan out every little detail of your life and mine. If he did, how could he blame us for doing something bad or commend us for doing something good? Aren’t we then merely his puppets?

The truth is that our choices are real. We are held accountable for them, for good or ill. And God trusts us to make responsible, faithful decisions. He’s given us the means and the will to do that. If there is anything that limits our choice, it’s not the purposes of God. Instead, we have to consider factors like our backgrounds, our upbringing, our race, our economic status, our gender, our education, and on and on, not to mention the laws of physics, like gravity and the speed of light. We are in fact limited, some might say scripted by all those kinds of factors. But within those boundaries, our decisions are real, and our wills are free.

So what is predestination if it’s not determinism or fate? It’s all about salvation, and only salvation. Predestination says that God chooses to come to us and give us grace. He calls us to be his own. Nothing in us motivates his choice, because we are in rebellion against God. Our wills, when it comes to choosing to obey God, are bound by sin. But God sent Jesus, his chosen One, to save us, to reconcile us to himself. He gives to Christ a people, the church, to serve him joyfully and witness to his love.

The late Shirley Guthrie was a respected Reformed theologian at Columbia Seminary. His book Christian Doctrine (Revised Edition) is a must-read. In it he says: “According to scripture…predestination has to do specifically with the question of salvation….Who does God choose to save—or not save?” (119).

Guthrie goes on to remind us that in seeking to answer such questions, we have to take into account the whole Bible, including passages that appear to contradict each other or don’t fit into the neat logical systems we long for. He writes: “Although we must not forget God’s wrath and judgment and the possibility of eternal punishment, we must remember that the doctrine of predestination fundamentally proclaims good news we can gladly hear. The Bible never speaks of a plan of God before the foundation of the world to save some people and to damn all the rest. It speaks of God’s plan to “gather up all things” in Jesus Christ…. In the Bible, predestination does not point to joy and terror, salvation and damnation, a Yes of God and a No…. In scripture, predestination does not include what Calvin called a ‘horrible decree.’ It is the summary of the good news of Jesus Christ—for everybody (131-32).”

Predestination is good news because it assures us that God’s way will ultimately win out; his dream for humanity and this planet and the whole cosmos will be fulfilled. Try as we might, we cannot defeat the ultimate purpose of God. We are held in God’s hand through thick and thin, in joy and in sorrow. So we may live our lives in real freedom, because our salvation is not up to us, but is a gracious gift of God.

Our calling is not to worry about who’s in and who’s out or why. That’s up to God, and God knows who are his. Our task is to proclaim good news: that God is for us in Christ, and if God is for us, who can be against us? We preach this good news indiscriminately, to whoever will hear, holding out good hope for everyone. The Second Helvetic Confession, earlier than Westminster, says: “We are to have good hope for all. And although God knows who are his, and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a

reprobate…. And when the Lord was asked whether there were few that should be saved, he does not answer and tell them that few or many should be saved or damned, but rather he exhorts every man to ‘strive to enter by the narrow door’ (Luke 13:24): as if he should say, It is not for you curiously to inquire about these matters, but rather to endeavor that you may enter into heaven by the straight way” (Chapter X).

Let God be God, then. We don’t need to delve into matters that are too weighty for us, things we can’t possibly know. As Deuteronomy 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.” Leave the mystery to God. It’s above our pay grade. We have enough to attend to.

Ultimately, then, predestination is probably not a subject for the produce aisle. It takes real conversation, reflection, and humility. Perhaps that’s why in our impatient, loud, and arrogant age, we have little use for it. But when properly considered and looked into, it can be a thing of beauty, because it tells us that good news we long to hear: God is gracious, and he will not let us go.

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