As a rebound to what I wrote about what LeBron James said, I want to deal with a very controversial theological question: Predestination.
On this topic, here is a sermon I delivered in Washington, DC on Sunday, 2005 April the 10th in front of the Frenchspeaking Protestant Church. For sure, it is not new, but it is still not bad…
Jean Calvin in his major work, l’Institution de la Religion chrétienne, promotes the doctrine of predestination: God would predestinate ones to salvation and others to destruction Predestination is a classical theme in Christian theology. Throughout the history of the Church, some of the most important theologians promoted predestination. Among them, Augustine and Jean Calvin. Predestination means that before one does anything, before one thinks anything, before one believes anything, even before one was born, even before mankind had existed, even before the world had been created, God knew one’s destiny. Yes Sir, yes Madam, before the beginning, God would have known the destiny of every one of us. And what our destiny would be? Here is the answer: some of us are predestined to salvation and others to destruction! In fact, there is a double predestination: a good one for salvation and a bad one for destruction!
Do I have to tell you how hard such an idea is? It’s not difficult to understand its meaning but it’s so hard to believe what it implies. Could God really be so unfair? Could he really have chosen, before I believe, think or do anything, before I was born, if I will be saved or destroyed? Among all the doctrines developed in the reformed tradition, the doctrine of predestination is probably the most problematic one. How could it be possible that our destiny would have already been written, chosen by God before our birth? Does it mean there is no free will? Are we just robots? Are we only God’s puppets?
This morning, in this Huguenot service, I would like to discuss some questions about predestination, because it’s a Huguenot doctrine. I want to evaluate the doctrine of “Eternal Election, or God’s predestination of some to Salvation, and of others to Destruction”, as wrote Calvin. In fact, I just want to think about one: “Has God chosen our future before our birth?” But for answering such a hard question, it’s better to part it in some smaller and, hopefully, easier aspects.
In order to answer this very classical problem of predestination, I want to use an uncommon form of sermon, uncommon in the Western Christianity at least. It’s a traditional way of preaching in the reformed church in Tahiti. And that’s where I learned it. I have built my sermon like a tree. At the base, there is the trunk: it’s the question I want to discuss. And the answer is at the top of the tree. Because I want to get the answer, I will climb up to the top of the tree. Fortunately, to help me, there are some branches along the trunk and I will find some clues to the final answer. But I have to warn you: climbing up could be a little bit hard. But I promise you: it’s worth it. So take a deep breath and… let’s go!
The big question, the fundamental question, the base of the tree is the following: “Has God chosen our destiny before our birth?”
I recall you that to get the answer to this question we need to climb up on the tree. For doing this, we can use the small branches along the trunk.
The first branch, the first question is this one: “Where does Calvin find this doctrine of predestination?”
First, he finds this idea in his personal experience. By observing people, he realizes that God’s Word is not preached to every one and that God’s Word does not have the same effect on everyone. This practical point of view is very important, because predestination is not at first an intellectual construction, but a personal experience. By the doctrine of predestination, Calvin tries to answer this question: Why when hearing the Gospel, ones believe and others do not? And he answers: it’s not the responsibility of the preacher, it’s not the responsibility of the listener, it’s just because God has predestined some to believe and not the others. Calvin is rather smart, isn’t he? But personal experience is not enough. And Calvin finds in the Bible the confirmation of what he’s thinking. The predestination is a biblical idea. We find it in the Old Testament of course – the vocation of Abraham, the election of Isaac and the rejection of Ismael for example –, but we also find the same idea in the New Testament, after Jesus-Christ, after God established a new covenant with mankind. We can read this doctrine of predestination, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, that we are going to read.
“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1)
Now, we can climb up and catch the second branch, answering a second question: “Is such a doctrine very common in Christianity?”
Calvin didn’t invent the doctrine of predestination. It’s a very old and a very classical article of faith. But when Calvin promotes this doctrine, he’s using it as a weapon to criticize the Catholic Church. For Calvin, predestination is the best mean to express that God saves human only by his free grace. If before one’s birth, one is already predestined to salvation or destruction, whatever one would do, or think, or believe doesn’t have any importance. You can still buy all the indulgences sold by your priest, but it’s no use to be saved! Your destiny is chosen by God and only by God. Neither by believing, nor by good acting, nor by taking part to the Eucharist, nor by anything else, you can earn or deserve the salvation. Neither yourself, nor any church can guarantee your salvation. Salvation is always an unmerited mercy of God. No one but God can give you salvation, no one, neither a pastor nor a priest, not even a pope, no one but God. You can just welcome your salvation as God’s choice.
Now, we are ready to take the next step and to ask a third question: “Does the predestination mean the ones are saved and the others destroyed?”
Calvin has absolutely and definitely no doubt! He answers yes, since there is a double predestination to salvation and to destruction. He writes: “God has one for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction.” The ones are saved and the others are destroyed. Calvin doesn’t have any problem with this idea. These ones will live and those ones will die! And this is independent of what the ones and the others are, believe, think or do. According to the doctrine of predestination, God has chosen our destiny before our birth, before we can believe, think or do anything. So the decision of God is quite arbitrary, we could say he decides randomly. God decides to choose this one and to reject that one. “I pick you for salvation and I let you for destruction”! One more time, I don’t have to tell you how problematic is such a doctrine. What kind of God is a God who is acting like that? Would it be possible that God could be so unfair? Could we believe in such a God?
But before discussing this image of God, we need to get more information. So, let’s climb up and reach another branch: “Is it fair for God to condemn some people to destruction?”
According to Calvin, God to be fair, should condemn everybody to destruction. Mankind to get what it deserves, should get death. And we to count on our own beliefs, our own thoughts or our own actions, should be condemned to destruction. But God by his free grace decided to give life, to give salvation to some people without considering their beliefs, their thoughts or their actions, without considering what they deserve. Damnation would be mere justice, and salvation is “gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit”. So, according to Calvin, God is not unfair to condemn some to destruction. On the contrary, he’s right to do that. It’s only what everybody deserves.
Are you tired of climbing up? Don’t worry! Hope is on the way! Only one branch left and we’ll reach the top of the tree: “Is it possible to recognize who is predestined to salvation and who is predestined to destruction?”
Calvin thinks it’s not very obvious to recognize those who are predestined to salvation from those predestined to death. In his “Institution”, Calvin says it is “the wonderful secret of Divine grace”. Since it’s a secret, it’s not possible for us to know who is predestined to what. With Augustine, Calvin thinks, since we don’t know who will be saved and who will be destroyed, it’s better to consider and to desire that everyone will be saved. But despite this very clear statement, Calvin thinks that our behavior can give some indication about what we are predestined for. The one who is predestined to salvation will act like someone predestined for salvation! Those who God has chosen for life have to act like the chosen for life! That’s why Calvin adds sanctification to justification. Justification is God’s gift, which God gives freely to whom he wants. Sanctification is a human duty, the task of those who are justified. But the order should be always clear: because one is predestined for salvation, one can believe, think and act according to God’s will! Justification is always first and sanctification, second. Off record, I confess that sometimes, Huguenots seem to change the order, making the sanctification the only way to salvation. Sometimes, it seems, that Huguenots seek to earn salvation by correct ethics, by right thoughts and by a perfect behavior. From time to time, Huguenots want to deserve what God has already given to them. For that, I have to say, they are not faithful Calvinist!
Anyway, now we have reached the top of the tree. We can rest a while, have a look to the view and answer to the big question, the fundamental question: “Has God chosen our destiny before our birth?”
I don’t have any problem with this doctrine. I believe that God has chosen my destiny before I was born. But watch out, God chose my destiny, not my future. He did not know, before my birth, what I would be doing on Sunday, April the 10th. God has let me free. I hope he’s not too disappointed with what I’m believing, thinking and doing now. But I made my own choices, I make my own choices, and I will always make my own choices. God gave me this liberty, this free will. Whatever, good choices or bad choices, they are my own choices. I’m responsible for my future. But I believe that, before I was born, God had already chosen my destiny. My destiny, my ultimate destiny, eventually the only thing that matters, is my status before God. Destiny is what God thinks of me; my destiny is what I look like to the eyes of God.
So, what’s my destiny? You know, I’m a protestant, a reformed theologian, I’m the descendant of a Huguenot family, I like a lot of Calvin’s work, but I do not agree with him on double predestination. On this point, I do not agree with him at all. And that’s my right! In protestant churches, no one is infallible; no one is infallible not even Martin Luther, or Jean Calvin.
Yet, I do believe, in agreement with Calvin, that my destiny, what God thinks of me, does not depend on what I believe, think or do. I do believe that if I should get what I deserve, it would be death and destruction. I do believe that life and salvation can only be the gift of the gratuitous mercy of God. I do believe that God has predestined me to salvation. But I do not believe that some are predestined for salvation and the others are predestined for death. I do not believe that, randomly, God could pick this one for life and let that one for death. For me, a God who predestines someone to death and destruction is properly UN-BELIEVABLE! For me, such a God is properly UN-BELIEVABLE! I do not to know if God is like that more anything else. I can’t know how God is. My point is that I can’t believe in such a God. I can’t believe in a God who, before our birth, randomly, has already condemned some of us to death and destruction. If I really have to choose, I would prefer a God that gives to all of us what we deserve, life or death, according to our beliefs, thoughts and behavior! But I can only believe in a God who gives life to every one. And what I know of God, what I know of him through Jesus-Christ, let me believe that eventually, he will give life to every one. So I hope!
I understand that in the 16th century, in the context of the religious wars, it was very difficult for Jean Calvin as for every one else to conceive that everybody could at the end be saved and get eternal life. I understand his position, but I don’t agree with him. Whatever we believe, think or do, before we were born, before mankind has existed, before world has been created, God has predestined every single human being to salvation and life. That’s what I believe!
And I want to close this sermon with another biblical reading. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said not to worry for our heavenly Father is taking care of us!
“25 « Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, « What will we eat?’ or « What will we drink?’ or « What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 « So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6)
I do not worry, because I know that my heavenly father is taking care of me! I do not worry, because I know that our heavenly father is taking care of all of us! I do not worry, because I know that our heavenly father will always be taking care of every body without any exception.