The High Mystery of Predestination
Chapter III, The Decree of God paragraph 7
The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. ( 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5; 2 Peter 1:10; Ephesians 1:6; Romans 11:33; Romans 11:5, 6, 20; Luke 10:20 )
Our Lord Jesus Christ possessed a perfect knowledge of God’s truth as well as a perfect understanding of the hearts to whom He spoke (John 16:30; John 2:25).1 Yet, on the way to the cross, He told His disciples that he had many things yet to teach them which they could not bear at that time (John 16:12). One has to consider the condition of the hearer when teaching God’s truth (2 Timothy 2:23-25). Jesus was ever the pastor who taught the truth while considering others’ understanding and spiritual condition.
In like manner, our forefathers added the pastoral seventh paragraph to Chapter III: the Decree of God. It cautions that one must have “prudence and care” in how one teaches the high mystery of predestination.
The following exposition of this paragraph will include: (1) the teaching of predestination considered; (2) the reasoning for such a consideration; and (3) the expected effect upon the believer in predestination.
The Teaching of Predestination Considered
This paragraph enjoins the actual teaching of the “high mystery of predestination.” It must be handled. It cannot be ignored by those ordained to teach the Word of God. And it must be taught in the manner which Scripture enjoins its teaching. To whom should it be taught? How should it be applied? What should be the effect upon the believer in it? How should it be handled with “special prudence and care?”
Those who would use the caution of “special prudence and care” to avoid teaching the biblical doctrine of predestination find no refuge here. Pastors are called to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:17; Jude 3; 2 Timothy 2:1-2). To avoid teaching this major doctrine in Scripture is to violate pastoral responsibility. To teach it erroneously does harm Christ’s sheep. Predestination must be handled.
However, the teaching of predestination must not be entered without prior “special prudence and care.” Some have taught others with a brash, argumentative spirit; this undermines the very concept of a predestination moved by the undeserved grace and kindness of God (Ephesians 1:4-6).
Yet, it is true that this “high mystery” is difficult for many to understand, even with the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 3:16). It is not a secret doctrine only for the intelligentsia, for it is expounded openly for all both in the Old and New Testaments. In fact, predestination is the very foundation of all prophecy and fulfillment. However, there are some mysterious issues about this doctrine which defy human reason fully to understand.
For instance, how can one explain the mystery of the absolute sovereignty of God over all things in His decree (Daniel 4:34-35; Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28) yet harmonize it with the biblical truth of the unforced will of spiritually dead men freely to respond to the gospel when they are regenerated (Genesis 50:20; Ephesians 2:4-5)? To harmonize the sovereignty of God and full human responsibility to repent and believe is like trying to explain the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. It is wholly inspired by God yet written through the minds of fallible men. Such mysteries humble us and call teachers to use prudence (wisdom applied) and care (careful teaching with care for the hearer) in their teaching of the “high mystery of predestination.” We must neither ignore nor speculate about God’s revelation to make it more palatable to ourselves or others.
Chapter III describes election as God’s eternal decree to choose sinners as gifts given to Christ who would accomplish their salvation, including giving them the lost ability to understand and believe the gospel (John 6:37-39, 17:1-3; Ephesians 2:8-9). Having predestined all things to save His elect, including the sending of His gospel to them, God regenerates them by the Holy Spirit, “to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”2 This faith of God’s elect is the consequence of regeneration, not its predecessor …which some wrongly teach as the condition of eternal election (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Therefore, God predestines the life of His elect from eternity past to their eternity future in glory (Romans 8:29-30). The internal effectual calling (vocation) of God’s elect comes through the external call of the gospel of Christ to all people without exception (Luke 24:47). However, because of their natural spiritual deadness, the elect must be born again by the Holy Spirit to receive that Word and to respond in repentance and faith. If God in His sovereign grace had not predestined their regeneration, creating faith in them, no one would be saved.
Therefore, the “high mystery of predestination” in no way hinders either evangelism or missions or the calling to all men everywhere to repent and to believe the gospel. As Paul told the Gentile philosophers on Mars Hill:
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent…” (Act 17:30).
The fact is that predestination makes evangelism certain on two counts. First, it guarantees the preacher that God will save sinners from every tongue, tribe race, and nation through the proclamation of the gospel to all men (Revelation 5:9-10). If one keeps preaching, someone will be saved. And, second, predestination promises the preacher that he can justly call all men to repent and believe because the electing God always keeps His Word:
for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED” (Romans 10:13).
These two great truths of God’s predestination of His elect and God’s just command to all men to respond to the gospel of Christ is perfectly reconciled in God’s mind but is still a “high mystery” to our puny minds. Still, this “high mystery of predestination” still must be taught because it is in Scripture—yet with prudence and care.
The Reasoning for Teaching Predestination Explained
After introducing the necessity and manner of teaching predestination, our forefathers explained the reasoning for teaching predestination with these words:
…that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election;…
Some objections to teaching predestination are (1) that one may so wrestle with whether they were elected by God before the foundation of the world that they may never attain assurance of salvation; (2) that if one believes only the elect are predestined to salvation, then they may not respond to the call to salvation, and (3) that believers may not pursue obedience to God’s commandments in their life because they are eternally elect and cannot be lost no matter what they do.
But notice who should be assured by the teaching of predestination. It is not those who presume upon God’s grace and let their sin abound (Romans 6:1-2), but those “attending” to the Word of God and “yielding obedience” to it in their lives (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; see also Matthew 7:31-23). These should have a certainty about their eternal election (Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9; John 6:37-39) because they bear the evidence of effectual calling in their heart and life (1 John 2:3-6). Those who rightly understand biblical predestination would never use it as an excuse to refuse God’s promise of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone; nor would they use it to refuse an obedient life to their God of grace.
In fact, Jesus and His Apostles taught that election brings greater assurance to believers and stimulates them to pursue holiness with a greater zeal (Colossians 3:12). They no longer have to look to their own power and perfections to convince themselves they are saved. Under electing grace, they can keep looking to Christ’s unchanging love and power to “keep you from falling and to make you stay in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy…” (Jude 24).
Even to those believers who go through great trials and spiritual warfare with sin, the doctrine of election and predestination brings comfort and perseverance:
Providence, Chapter II, Paragraph 5. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for other just and holy ends.
So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good.
(2 Chron. xxxii. 25,26,31; 2 Cor. xii. 7-9. Rom. viii. 28).
Those believers who attend to the will of God and yield obedience to Him may know that their effectual calling from God is true and also that they are the undeserved objects of God’s eternal election and predestination. This motivates their thankful worship and obedient life, no matter their earthly circumstances (Romans 8:28-39).
The Resulting Effect of Predestination upon the Believer
The final statement describes the effect which a right handling of predestination will have upon the one who believes it for himself:
…so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.
When Peter and John were released from custody by God’s power, the disciples attributed their release to God’s predestination, so clearly seen in Christ’s betrayal and death. This fueled their praise:
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28).
This was the praise and worship of believers who understood predestination.
However, one must remember that election and predestination were not preached to the unconverted in the evangelistic messages of Acts. This was not part of the gospel message to sinners.3 The sovereignty of God over all things and in the world was preached to sinners to establish His authority to judge them for their sins, thus calling all to repentance and faith in Christ:
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
On the horizontal plane, God calls all men everywhere to repent because they are already guilty, condemned, and under obligation to be reconciled to their Sovereign Maker and Judge (John 3:18, 36). Election and predestination do not enter into that part of presenting the gospel message.
But on the vertical plane, Christ and His Apostles instruct believers that they know God only because God the Father chose them in Christ before the foundation of the world so they might be holy and without blame before Him (Ephesians 1:4, 2:1-10). The predestination of believers is the foundation for many comforting truths which result in praise and admiration of God Himself. To think that such a great and holy God would decree to set His love upon “me” in Christ before the foundation of the world so creates an awe-inspired humility that one desires to obey this God of grace in all of life. This is not works-based repayment for the gift of eternal life. It is the sincere gratitude of returned love to the One who first loved “me.”
This attitude is true revival. It can only come through the teaching of predestination with prudence and care.
Paragraph seven of God’s Decree is the pastoral application to pastors who are called to teach “the whole counsel of God” to God’s people (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Such a “high mystery of predestination” must be taught the people of God in full and handled with prudence and care. This doctrine is not meant to be part of the gospel preaching which God designed to call all men everywhere to repent and obey Him. Yet, to know afterward as a believer that God was seeking you when you were seeking Him; to know that it is not that you found Christ but that Christ found you; to know that God had always planned to save you and overcome your fallen, spiritually dead nature to give you spiritual life that desires to come to Christ for salvation; to know that the Father always loved you, that Christ came to rescue you for Himself upon the Cross, and to know that the desire of your heart to seek eternal life was the Holy Spirit raising you from spiritual death to walk out of the tomb into the light of Christ’s love, forgiveness, and undeserved blessings; …to know all these things and many more besides impels the saved sinner to believe the love God has for us (1 John 4:19). Believing in such unconditional eternal love to the guilty, the forgiven ones find themselves “looking unto Jesus” each day with a thanksgiving that resists temptation and is filled with such love for such love given that obedience is a small thing to give to please the One who is so good.
1 New American Standard Bible. (La Hambra, CA: The Lockman Foundation), 1973. All Scripture quotations will be from the New American Standard Bible.
2 The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 2000), IV-A. “Regeneration…is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
3 J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 68-69, 98-100.