Free Will

A man arrived at the gates of heaven and noticed that there were two lines. One had a sign labeled “Predestined,” and the other, “free will.” He headed over to the predestined line first, and while waiting, an angel came up to him and asked, ”Why are you in this line?” The man said, “Because I chose it. ”The angel replied, “Well, if you ‘chose’ it, then you should be in the free will line.” So the man obediently wandered over to the free will line, and after a few minutes, another angel came up to him and asked, “Why are you in this line?” He said, “Because someone made me come here.” This humorous anecdote illustrates well the perceived conflict that exists between the popular concepts of predestination and free will. However, such a conflict need not exist if we understand what the Bible has to say about predestination.

Predestination is a biblical concept. In Ephesians 1:5 Paul wrote, God ”predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Then, a few verses later in Ephesians 1:11 he added, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” In both of these verses, Paul used the Greek term proorizō, which means “to predetermine [or] decide beforehand.” In these verses, Paul indicates that God decided before the creation of the world who could be adopted as sons and who could receive His inheritance. Based on Paul’s words, some have developed a theology of predestination that associates it with predetermined salvation for the individual. However, such an understanding of predestination is not consistent with the whole of Scripture because the Bible identifies predestination as the foretold acceptance by God of a corporate body based on revealed conditions.

There are two major components of biblical predestination. The first major component has to do with WHO is predestined, and the Bible consistently identifies predestination as a corporate status rather than an individual status. In other words, a group is predestinated rather than an individual. In the Old Testament, God chose the Israelites as a nation. Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7:6, “you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (cf. Deuteronomy 14:2). In this passage, the “chosen” status is associated not with individual Israelites but with the nation of Israel as a whole. Likewise, in the New Testament, the chosen status transfers to the church. Using the language of Deuteronomy, Peter said in 1 Peter 2:9-10, “you [referring to the church] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” Here, Peter indicates that the chosen status in the New Testament is associated not with individual believers but with all believers who as a collective group comprise the church. Thus, Scripture indicates that God’s people, whether it was the Israelites in the Old Testament or the church in the New, are “chosen” by Him as a collective group. Such implies corporate predestination not individual predestination.

The second major component of biblical predestination has to do with HOW predestination is obtained. In particular, the Bible identifies predestination as a conditional state, meaning those desiring to be a part of the predestined group must meet certain conditions in order to obtain entrance into that group. In the Old Testament the Israelites were chosen by God, but each individual still had to choose to be a part of the Covenant people. Do you remember Joshua’s final address to the Israelites? He presented them with a choice in Joshua 24:15 saying, “if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The presence of the conjunction “if” indicates that the decision was up to each Israelite as to whether or not he or she would be associated with God’s people. It also indicates that choosing God possessed a condition, and that condition was to “serve” Him, which necessitates adhering to the conditions He identified in the Mosaic Covenant for inclusion among His people (e.g. circumcision, kosher diet, sacrificial system). Likewise, according to the New Testament the church is chosen by God, but each individual still has to choose whether or not he or she will be a part of the church. Jesus presented people with the choice to follow Him when He said in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Once again, the presence of the conjunction “if” indicates that the decision to follow Jesus is up to every individual. It also indicates that choosing to be a disciple possesses a condition, and that condition is to “follow” Him, which necessitates adherence to the conditions that He presented for inclusion in His church (e.g. belief, confession, repentance, baptism). Based on these biblical examples, association with God is a choice made by individuals who willingly accept His conditions for inclusion among His people. This means that predestination is a conditional state since there are conditions an individual must meet in order to be included within the predestined group.

Since Scripture identifies predestination as a corporate status and a conditional state, it should not be viewed as predetermined salvation for the individual, but, instead, as the foretold acceptance by God of a corporate body based on revealed conditions.

A good analogy for the biblical concept of predestination is traveling by plane. Airlines schedule flights between cities months in advance, which means that particular aircraft have predetermined destinations. While an aircraft has been predestined to travel to a particular location, the passengers who will board that aircraft have not been predetermined. Anyone can purchase a ticket to board a flight as long as space is available and as long as the flight has not departed. The responsibility of prospective passengers is to secure a ticket for the flight and to be in the aircraft when it is scheduled to depart. The group of passengers on board the plane will then travel to the predetermined destination because they met the conditions for inclusion on the aircraft. Once again, it is the aircraft that is predestined, not the people. In the same way God has predetermined the destination of the church, and it is up to individuals to secure their place in the church in order to be predestined themselves. When one meets the conditions for inclusion in the church, he or she secures his or her place among those who are “predestined for adoption to [God] as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4).

[1] Thayer, Joseph Henry, Carl Ludwig Wilibald Grimm, and Christian Gottlob Wilke. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 541.