If we are going to take the Bible seriously, we have to have some doctrine of predestination.
The idea of predestination wasn’t invented by Calvin or Luther or Augustine. Paul says in Ephesians 1:4–6 that in love, God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” So, predestination is a biblical word, and it’s a biblical concept.
But the very concept of predestination raises the question, why does God elect certain people and not others? We know that it’s not based on anything that we do. It’s not based on our running, our willing, or our doing anything. It’s based solely on the purpose of God, as Paul says in Ephesians. But that raises another question: If the reason for the Lord’s selecting some to receive the tremendous benefit of salvation but not others is not rooted in those whom He chooses (Rom. 9:1–18), doesn’t that mean that somehow God is arbitrary?
Let’s take a moment to define what we mean by the term arbitrary. People who are arbitrary do what they do without any reason. They just do it, and when you ask them why they did it, they might respond, “No reason. Just on a whim.” We don’t have a lot of respect for capricious people who do things for no reason. Now, are we going to attribute to God that kind of impetuous or motiveless behavior—that He is arbitrary and capricious? Scripture certainly won’t allow us to do that.
Here we must make a distinction between God’s doing something for no reason and His doing something for no reason found in us. We say clearly that His grace is given not for any reason in us. But the fact that there is no reason in me for my salvation does not mean there is no reason behind God’s action. Scripture actually tells us over and over again that God has a reason behind His choice of some for salvation and His not choosing others for redemption.
Ephesians 1:11 fleshes out the purpose behind predestination by telling us that predestination is “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” The counsel of God’s will has to do with the wisdom, the plan, the thought processes of God. The very word “counsel” suggests intelligence and an intelligent reason for acting, and God never wills apart from His own counsel. A person who is completely arbitrary has no counsel, takes no counsel, listens to no counsel. He just does it. And so the very word “counsel” should alert us that the biblical idea here of God’s sovereign grace is rooted in the wisdom of God, in His own thought, which is perfect. It’s not irrational—it’s eminently rational and far from arbitrary.
The reason for our salvation does not rest in us, but that does not mean that God is without a purpose in choosing His elect.
Another key word that is used again and again with respect to predestination and election in the Bible is the word “purpose.” We saw in Ephesians 1:4–6 that predestination is according to God’s purpose. Someone who does something arbitrarily does it for no purpose. But, the New Testament makes it clear that there is a divine purpose in God’s electing grace, and part of that is to make manifest the riches of His grace, to display His mercy (Rom. 9:22–24)—that is, to reveal something about His marvelous character, which His grace certainly does. It makes manifest His awesome, marvelous, beautiful mercy. There’s also another purpose, and that’s the purpose of honoring Christ. Remember the promise to Christ that He would see the travail of His soul and be satisfied (Isa. 53:11)? According to His own counsel, God determined from the foundation of the world that the cross of Jesus Christ would yield its appointed fruit and that Christ would be satisfied by the results of His pain, suffering, and death.
Notice that when the New Testament speaks of election and predestination, it always speaks of our being elect, or chosen, in the Beloved, in Christ. Ultimately, the New Testament tells us that people are chosen for salvation so that God the Father can bestow His glory, love, and affection on God the Son (Eph. 1:3–6). Ultimately, we’re redeemed not because of our worthiness but because of the worthiness of Christ. God is gracious to me in order to reward One who does deserve a reward—His only begotten Son. Do you see the intersection here of grace and justice? It is right or just that Christ should receive an inheritance, and we are that inheritance. That we are that inheritance is grace for us and justice for Christ.
The final thing I want to note is found in Ephesians 1:5. We are chosen “according to”—on the basis of—“the good pleasure” of God’s will (NKJV). God chooses and elects us according to what kind of pleasure? “According to the good pleasure of His will.” That word, “good,” makes all the difference in the world, because there’s no such thing as the bad pleasure of God’s will. God does not take pleasure in evil, even if we take pleasure in evil. In fact, we sin because it’s so pleasurable to us. If it weren’t pleasurable, we wouldn’t be enticed to it or tempted by it. But there is no evil will in God. The only thing that has ever pleased God is goodness, the only pleasure that He’s ever had is a good pleasure, and the only purpose that He’s ever had is a good purpose.
Clearly, then, in the mystery of the grace of God, He is never whimsical, capricious, or arbitrary. Though the reason for our salvation does not rest in us, that does not mean that God is without a purpose in choosing His elect. He does have a purpose, and it is a good one.
Dr. R.C. Sproul was founder of Ligonier Ministries, founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and first president of Reformation Bible College. He was author of more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God.