Foreordination

Theology

Young, W. C

“Foreordination. Activity of God by which he establishes events and outcomes before they occur. In common usage, “foreordination” and the term “predestination” are synonymous. “Predestination” or “election,” however, specifically refers to the destiny of persons.

Foreordination underlies the whole plan of God: his decision to create the universe, to care for it (providence), and to determine its destiny “according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). The Westminster Shorter Catechism states the teaching in this way: God has decreed “his eternal purpose according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Foreordination, then, is at the foundation of all Christian teaching, for it concerns the history and destiny of the whole world, the universe, and all that it contains.

The apostle Paul spoke of God’s plan for the fulfillment of all creation: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:19–21). Scripture gives only a glimpse of the redemption of the whole creation. It speaks of new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pt 3:13). Those things that mar human existence and demonstrate human fallenness and sinfulness (i.e., depravity) will all pass away. God will make “all things new” (Rv 21:1–5). So the destiny of everything rests with God himself.

Foreordination creates problems for theology and commonsense thinking, particularly in relation to human freedom and responsibility and that aspect of foreordination concerned with salvation. How can people be held responsible for their actions and decisions if they have been predetermined? To remove that difficulty some have denied God’s foreordination as it relates to human freedom. In creating free beings, they argue, God must have limited his determination of things that “must” come to pass. Otherwise free and responsible human activity has no meaning.

Calvinism rejects such an argument, insisting that free activity is possible even though it is foreordained and foreknown. The problem remains, however, for humanly speaking there seems to be no possibility for a last minute change of mind.

On the other hand, denial of the doctrine of foreordination implies that God does not control his creation. If that were true, the existence and happenings in the universe, including human activity, would be determined either by something above or beyond God, or by occurrences whose ultimate causes are unknown. God’s providence and care revealed in the Bible and human experience make such a view untenable. Christian thought generally states that God foreordains and controls his creation and that humans are able to act freely and responsibly within that larger control. The apparent contradiction or paradox remains unresolved because there is a limit to human understanding.

Foreordination was referred to by many early church fathers and was a major emphasis in the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Augustine greatly influenced the reformers, particularly John Calvin. Reformed theologians begin the study of the doctrine of foreordination with the eternal decree of God, as indicated by creeds such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. The decree of God is one, but for purposes of discussion and explanation it is usually referred to as “the decrees of God.” Martin Luther believed in foreordination but did not stress it as much as Calvin. Luther’s theology is generally silent on foreordination, primarily discussing predestination or election. Contemporary Lutheran thought stresses conditional, rather than absolute election, that is, election or predestination based on foreseen faith.

Foreordination in Scripture. There are many references to foreordination (including predestination, or election) and the related idea of foreknowledge in the Bible. Foreordination can be thought of as logically prior to foreknowledge, but there is no actual priority since both activities are eternal in God.

Speaking of judgment to come upon Babylon, God said: “This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Is 14:26, 27). God also declared that he has determined the end from the beginning. “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (46:10). Paul stated that the purpose of God is carried out “according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11; cf. Ps. 119:89–91; Dn 4:35).

With respect to human affairs it is said that one’s life span is determined (Jb 14:5), that God’s concern extends to his creatures (Ps 104:14–30; Mt 10:29), and even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Mt 10:30). Furthermore, God’s plan extends to peoples and nations, for “he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined alloted periods and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).

God knows and even uses people’s evil acts for his own ends. For example, although Joseph’s brothers sinned by selling him into slavery, Joseph later said, “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gn 50:20). Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, but God used that sinful intent. Jesus said, “For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Lk 22:22). On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter said “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23; cf. 4:27, 28). Paul refers to God’s determining authority over pharaoh’s acts (Rom 9:17). Revelation 17:17 says, “God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose.” God, then, foreordains the events of nature and history, and even evil acts are subject to his control and are made to fulfill his purposes.

Election of sinners to salvation through Christ is also included in God’s foreordination (Rom 8:28–39; cf. Acts 13:48; Phil 2:12, 13; 1 Pt 2:9). God’s choosing or electing is not arbitrary, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). God’s plan of salvation is grounded in his eternal love and good pleasure (Eph 1:3–14; Rom 5:6–11). The Christian is the recipient of God’s grace in that the believer knows God and is known (i.e., loved) by God (Gal 4:9). Both election and believers’ faith are part of the salvation process.

Foreordination and Providence. The doctrine of foreordination is implied in the doctrine of providence or God’s care. Providence is the working out of God’s plan for the world. God’s care and control of the whole creation point to his plan of redemption for man and woman made in his image. God sovereignly controls the events that take place in the world, but God is not responsible for sin. He created human beings who may say no to God as well as yes. That does not mean that God’s plan can be thwarted; it goes on in spite of opposition. God’s ultimate plan is being realized through all the events of human history, evil and good. Yet, his sovereignty is not imposed arbitrarily. God is not a tyrant, but holy, loving, and righteous. His plan is effected according to his nature, which is expressed in care and concern for the whole creation and in steadfast love for undeserving sinners.

Natural law refers to the rules God has laid down (foreordained) to control the universe. What about destructive forces of nature, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes? Why are such apparent evils necessary in a world made and controlled by a loving God? It is no answer to suggest that God is unable to act or control nature fully. If life’s total meaning resided in the temporal, physical world, there might be reason for complaint. But considering the whole plan of God and his ultimate redemptive purpose, the answer takes on a different dimension. God’s ultimate purpose transcends the present life and centers in the fulness of the redemptive kingdom yet to be revealed (Rv 11:15; 21:1–4). The doctrine of foreordination is a great mystery, but it should be a source of joy and comfort to believers whose loving Lord has brought them to a knowledge of his great plan.”

WARREN C. YOUNG

Young, W. C. (1988). Foreordination. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 808–810). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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