Bound for GloryJuly 16, 2006, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Associate Pastor for Congregational Life
Someone asked me, just in the past week or two, what Presbyterians believe that makes them distinct from other Christians. This was in a social setting, with someone I had just met, and I'm never all that quick at thinking on my feet in such circumstances. Before I could say anything, the questioner continued, "oh, you believe in predestination, right?" Now that is a complicated question-one that I've been needing to brush up on, because frankly, I don't think about predestination all that much. Before I could get any words out at all, something interrupted our conversation, and I breathed a sigh of relief that we never made our way back to it.
After spending time this past week with this scripture lesson from Ephesians, and after doing a little reading to refresh my knowledge on the doctrine of predestination, it would be nice to have another chance at that question. When most people think of predestination, or say something like, "oh, you're Presbyterian, that means you believe in predestination"-they aren't usually thinking of it as something positive. Most of us think of it in terms of what Augustine, and Calvin after him, formulated: what's known as double-predestination, where some people are elected for salvation and others are consigned to hell. That's enough to make any of us question the whole notion. At least, I hope it is.
Predestination is one of those concepts that many of us have trouble with, and none of us fully understands-there's a certain amount of mystery about how God works that is as much a given with predestination as with any other doctrine of our faith. There is not just one single understanding of predestination among Reformed Protestants, and there are conflicting passages about it in Scripture.1 It was one of those doctrines that scared me as a teen-ager. How would I know if I was one of the elect? What if I wasn't? And how could God just pre-determine that certain people were going to hell? How could God be that unfair? Looking at this passage from Ephesians gives us an opportunity to look at what it means, and what it doesn't mean to be chosen "in Christ before the foundation of the world,""destined for adoption as God's children," and "marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit."
There are a lot of misconceptions that we need to clear up in our understanding of predestination. The common understanding, or misunderstanding, is to think of it in negative terms, that it means that only a few are chosen and most of us are destined to remain outside God's grace forever. But the doctrine of predestination is actually nothing but good news. It is central to what we believe as members of the reformed Protestant tradition-that we are saved not by any of our own doing, but purely by God's choosing, by grace. We are not saved because we have chosen to believe and accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; we are not saved because we live good lives; we are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, period. And according to the author of Ephesians that's how God ordained it to be from before the foundation of the world. We were destined to be holy and blameless before God in love. Destined for adoption as God's children through Jesus Christ. And it's not just a chosen few who are so destined. We read here that the mystery of God's will, that has now been revealed to us, is that all things in heaven and on earth will be gathered up in God. There is nothing that will remain outside of God's grace and mercy.
Now according to the theologian Shirley Guthrie, who I will be quoting heavily in this sermon, there are three classical interpretations of predestination. The first is double predestination that I spoke of earlier-some are chosen to be included and some are chosen to be excluded. This is the understanding most people think Reformed Protestants, especially Presbyterians adhere to. I'm sure this is the understanding my new friend was referring to the other evening when he said, "oh, Presbyterians believe in Predestination, right?" This is what Calvin taught, and we find it in the Westminster Confession of Faith. But other Reformed theologians have not espoused this understanding, and though we find it in the Westminster Confession, we do not find it in most of the other confessions that make up our Book of Confessions.2 It is just one possible understanding, and there are significant problems with it. It certainly doesn't fit with this passage from Ephesians which tells us that nothing ultimately is beyond the reach of God's loving arms. And we don't find anything in scripture that tells us that God had a plan from the beginning of time for certain people to be saved and others to be damned.3 If we believe that there are people for whom there is never any hope of salvation, then we are limiting the power of God's spirit for transformation and redemption, the ability of God to continue to be at work in people's lives. And how can we reconcile our fundamental belief in a God of love and grace with an understanding of a God who would choose before they are even born to keep some individuals forever beyond the reach of that grace?
Another understanding of predestination, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is universalism, which we seem to find here in this text from Ephesians and in several other places in scripture. Universalism understands the scope of God's love and salvation as all-encompassing. God's plan from the beginning of time was that all things in heaven and earth would be gathered in. Or, as we read in the third chapter of John, God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that through him the world might be saved. And Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, "for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ."4
The problem with universalism is that it doesn't take into account the scriptural references to judgement and to God's wrath.5 We can't simply gloss over or ignore the fact that those references are there as well. Just as it is difficult to conceive of God as one who would choose to keep someone outside the realm of grace, it is hard to conceive of God who would simply overlook evil, sin and death and allow them to be present in eternity. Though God's grace may be ultimately all-encompassing, there is no place for evil in the kingdom of God, so while we may not understand exactly how it happens, we have to allow for judgement in our theology.
There's one more understanding of predestination we have to look at, so bear with me in this predestination tutorial. It's the one that most of us probably lean towards-even though we may not be aware of what it's called: Pelagianism, or semi-Pelagianism. Pure Pelagianism says that God chooses or rejects no one, we are the ones who choose or reject God. We have the freedom to choose to follow God, or not. If we choose to follow, then God will help us and save us; if we reject God, then we'll get the punishment we deserve. The problem is that this puts our salvation on our own shoulders. Pure Pelagianism is rejected by most Protestants and Catholics. But semi-Pelagianism is another story. This seems far more attractive at first glance. According to Shirley Guthrie, this is the semi-Pelagian position: "we are all unworthy, undeserving sinners. . . we are totally dependent on the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ for our salvation. But although it is true that we are not free and able to save ourselves by our good works, we are free and able to do one thing. We can acknowledge our need for God's grace and turn to God to ask for the deep, abiding faith, hope, and love we cannot achieve for ourselves." Some may choose to reject this grace, but salvation is available to all who sincerely ask for it and want it.6
Now that sounds pretty good on the surface of things. And I think it's what a lot of us believe. But at its root, semi-Pelagianism is not all that different from pure Pelagianism. It still overestimates our ability to make a choice for God. As Guthrie writes, we are not as free to choose God and redemption as we think we are. There are all sorts of things that get in the way of our choosing God and salvation: our own self-loathing or inordinate self-love, our anxiety, our prejudices and fears that cause us to hurt others and alienate ourselves. We are dependent upon the grace of God for the very freedom it takes to choose God, to say "yes" to God.7 We can't get there on our own. Our salvation does not rely, cannot rely on anything we do, even something as deceptively simply as making a choice. None of us really has the freedom from sin that it takes to choose God of our own accord. Presdestination, God's grace, God's choosing of us is what makes us free. As Guthrie says, it's not a question of predestination or human freedom, it's "predestination and therefore human freedom."8
So where does that leave us? What does predestination mean? Too often when we think about predestination, we're thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders. Who's saved and who's not? Judgment is not our business. We are called to share the good news, through our words and through the witness of our lives. We are called to serve and glorify God. We are called to serve the "outsiders." We are not called to judge them. Judgment is God's job. And we have to accept that we will never fully understand, at least this side of the grave, the mysteries of predestination, judgment, of what happens to evil and people who do horrible things, or the wideness of God's mercy and grace. What we are called to do is to celebrate and give praise to God, like this writer of Ephesians, for the unfathomable gift of God's grace and redemption. Predestination means that we have been given the gift of life in the Spirit, given something that we could never obtain on our own. We have been redeemed, chosen. And with all the sadness, hardship, violence and evil we see around us in our world-the good news is that God's mysterious plan, laid from before the foundation of the world, is that all things will ultimately be gathered into God. The good news is that we are bound for glory. Bound up in God, sealed in the Holy Spirit. Glory is not just our final destination, it is our calling here on earth. We are saved, redeemed for God's glory-to glorify God, to give praise and to reveal God's glory through the way we live our lives.
We don't have to worry about whether or not we are chosen, or among the elect. The doctrine of predestination is our assurance that God has chosen and redeemed us. As we say in our baptism liturgy, "you are a child of the covenant, sealed as Christ's own forever." Being a person of faith means we don't have to live in fear of whether or not we are one of the elect. It means we live in the assurance that God has chosen and redeemed us. The way we live our life doesn't save us. The way we live our life is our response to being saved. As the author of Ephesians writes, "God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved." Through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made us his children, adopted us. That's a given. It's already accomplished. We don't have to earn our way into the family. Our calling is not to win our salvation. Our calling is to live as those who are already saved, who are members of the family of faith.
Towards the end of this passage we read, "In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit." For some mysterious reason, by the grace of God, those of us gathered here, like those early Christians the author of Ephesians was writing for have heard the word of truth, the good news of our salvation and believed it. In our baptisms we are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. This morning will baptize Sean Patrick, celebrating and acknowledging that he too, is marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, part of the family of God. He has not chosen this any more than the rest of us did. We confirmed our faith when we were old enough to do so, just as we confirm our faith every time we gather to worship. But we are only confirming what has already been accomplished. Neither Sean nor we have earned our way into the family. We were adopted, chosen by the grace of God. We won't always respond to God's grace in a loving, life-giving, faithful way. God will need repeatedly to call us and Sean back. We are still sinful, human beings, made new over and over again by God's grace. But though we often fail to live as God's children, we are sealed as Christ's own forever-bound for glory, bound to Christ, and by sheer grace living for the glory of God. Amen.
- I am indebted to Shirley Guthrie's chapter on "The Doctrine of Predestination" in his book Christian Doctrine, for much of my "refresher" on predestination and for much of the material on that doctrine in this sermon. I highly recommend not only this chapter, but the entire book! Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).
- Guthrie, 119-120.
- Guthrie, 131-132.
- See John 3:17, I Timothy 2:4; Colossians 1:19-20; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 11:32.
- Guthrie, 125.
- Guthrie, 128.
- Guthrie, 129-130.
- Guthrie, 133.
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