Prequels can cause problems. Whether we’re talking about The Lord of the Rings films and the later-released prequel, The Hobbit (and yes, I know they were books way before they were films), or the prequels in the Star Wars saga featuring the most unloveable character in movie history (Jar Jar Binks), tempers flare and eye-rolling begins. Some people care way too much about the place of prequels, and others don’t care at all.
But I love a good prequel. Who doesn’t love the “aha!” moments they provide? Background information found in prequels heightens and deepens the stories we know and love. Character arcs, plot development, insights, and connected dots provided by prequels make the stories we enjoy even sweeter.
And there is one prequel every Christian can enjoy. Predestination. That’s the prequel to your faith in Christ.
You’re on the Roster
This truth naturally follows total depravity. Why in the world does anyone get saved if we’re so warped in our nature and will, unable to turn to God? Election is the explanation.
If you believe in Christ, it’s because God decided to save you long before you saw you needed to be saved. Before you were born, God already loved you. When your heart first swelled with joy over the forgiveness you found in the crucified and risen Christ, you didn’t sway God to let you into his kingdom—your name was already on the roster.
Paul writes an extended praise of God’s grace in Ephesians 1, and here we find an exposition of God’s sovereign grace for sinners.
For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One. (Eph. 1:4–6)
Election means that before the events of Genesis 1:1 unfolded in space and time, the triune God chose which depraved sinners would receive his mercy in Jesus Christ. God chose who would be saved.
Predestination is the prequel to your faith in Christ.
In his God-given glimpse of heavenly reality, the apostle John saw the Lamb’s book of life—written before earth’s crust was established. This book contains the names of everyone who will be redeemed by Christ’s blood (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). In heaven, right now, there is a page in the Lamb’s book of life with Jeffrey Alan Medders on it. For a moment, think about your name, and about that book. If you are in Christ, your name is there too. And your name is written in ink older than the dirt in Jerusalem.
Christian, arrangements were made for you long before you took your first breath, committed your first sin, or sang your first hymn. God knew you would come to faith. God set your destination long before you could crawl. He predestined you to be adopted into his family by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. He wasn’t surprised when faith flamed in your heart. He knew the day was coming. He planned it.
And God’s plan to save particular sinners for eternity was, and is, unconditional. No human factors were considered in God’s election. No conditions outside of God played a role in his choosing. Election was all, as Paul says, “according to the good pleasure of his will.” Charles Spurgeon hit the high note on this:
I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love.
God didn’t look at the schoolyard of humanity and pick out the best, brightest, and most talented he could find to play on his team. There were no best. We were all dull and dark in our hearts. “No other cause,” John Calvin says, “makes us God’s children but only his choice of us in himself.” God made his choice according to his mysterious, merciful will, to the praise of his glorious grace.
Corridor of Time, Crystal Ball, or Choice?
In an effort to unravel this mystery of mercy, folks will explain predestination and God’s foreknowledge as God choosing those he knew would choose him. Did God look down the corridors of time and base his election on who would respond to the gospel? That’s not the testimony of the Scriptures. God consulting with the future sounds like God polished off a crystal ball to see if he could learn something he didn’t already know. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, show me who will respond to the gospel call. Didn’t happen. Paul clarifies the domino effect of sovereign grace:
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28–30)
God’s foreknowing in predestination was a foreknowing of those people. Paul isn’t telling us about the things God knew in advance, but rather the things he planned irrevocably in advance. He’s telling us about the biography of believers, the those—those who love God, those who are called because of God’s purpose, those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. As John Piper says, “Faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith.”
Do we choose God, or does God choose us? Yes.
So, do we choose God, or does God choose us? Yes. Our choosing of Christ and God’s choosing of us aren’t running in different directions. Spurgeon was asked to reconcile these two truths as they’re expressed by Jesus in the Gospel of John: “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Here we see the Father giving people to his Son, and people coming to his Son—God’s choice, and human choice, in one sentence. How, Spurgeon was asked, do you reconcile these two truths? His answer? “I never reconcile friends.” Election doesn’t erase our choosing of Christ. You really did choose him. Election shows the chronology of choice. God chose you before you chose him. You freely chose to put your faith in God because God had freely chose to bring you to faith. We chose second because God chose first.
Yes, election is a mystery we can’t fully get our heads around from our time-limited, creaturely perspective—but ultimately there’s no reconciliation needed. And when we see what fruit grows in the soil of this gracious doctrine, we get less consumed with arguing over it because we’re too busy enjoying it. Let’s be too happy in his sovereignty and too busy rejoicing to get mad about it.
Stabilized in Sovereign Love
Imagine if God’s choosing to save me was conditional. I’d become a seriously unstable person. Doubt and fear would live in my mind. How can I be sure that I checked the right boxes? What if he decides to release me because I’m not meeting his conditions? And on the other side of the road, if God did choose me because of me, I’d be so full of myself that elevators wouldn’t be able support the weight of my pride. If something we did got us in with God, then we aren’t freely loved by God—we earned his love by wisely putting our faith in him, or by diligently doing good works for him, and we may somehow lose his love again. Conditional love makes us anxious, defensive, self-justifying. That’s no way to live, not only because it’s miserable, but because it’s not true.
God doesn’t love us because we chose him. He chose us because he loves us. As J. B. Phillips translates Ephesians 1, “He planned, in his purpose of love, that we should be adopted as his own children through Jesus Christ—that we might learn to praise that glorious generosity of his which has made us welcome in the everlasting love he bears towards the Son” (Eph. 1:4–5). Love was his purpose. He chose because he loves with an everlasting love, and he elected to bring us into his eternal love. We’re stabilized in his love.
Knowing unconditional election doesn’t puff up our chests—it takes the breath out of them. “In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). When you realize the mega-magnitude of this truth, you’re left in awe of sovereign grace.
No one has ever loved you like God does.
Election means God loved you before anyone else did. Way before. The almighty God is the first person to ever love you. God made plans to take care of you, eternally, when you didn’t ask him to. God decided to give you an inheritance with the Son without getting second opinions or calling your references.
Why did God show you this mercy? Because he wanted to. “For he tells Moses, ‘I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (Rom. 9:15). God’s mercy comes with a hue of mystery. Why me? Why you? Why anyone? Because God, of his own free will, displayed his mercy, compassion, grace, and love. So now I’m neither puffed up by success or crushed by failure. I’m loved, regardless. Stability and humility is found in God’s sovereign grace.
Humbled to Love One Another
Unconditional election shows us the way we’re to love one another. We’re to love unconditionally. “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10–11). Here’s John’s logic. Love is God loving us. Love is God loving us without us doing anything to deserve it. Now, if you know God loved you like that, you go love others the same. The way of God’s love is the way we love others. It’s unconditional. It’s about us choosing to love, regardless of what comes back.
I’ve yet to find a command in the New Testament that says, “Love one another, as long the person is love-able, deserves it, and agrees with you.” It doesn’t exist. Grace rebuilds what it means to love. Heart-Calvinism teaches us love one another without condition.
Election isn’t confined to pages in our Bibles and books. It’s 3D. It hugs you and shakes your hand on Sundays. Maybe it helps you move from your third-floor apartment. You see election while sitting in a small group filled with varying ages, races, and backgrounds. It’s easy to learn about a doctrine in a book, but you live and love among sovereign grace. Every Christian you see, you’re seeing election.
At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells the church in Rome, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord” (Rom. 16:13). Paul takes an action of God from eternity-past and paints it on top of the way Rufus should be viewed in the present. He’s a ripened fruit of sovereign grace. He’s a chosen one. Paul wants them to look at Rufus and think, My elect brother. Rufus is a grand recipient of supernatural grace—and so is every Christian you meet.
Don’t think here of the brothers and sisters in Christ you naturally “click” with—the ones with whom it takes almost no effort to get along, to love, and to experience real Christian community. Think of the brothers or sisters you struggle to be around. You know God loves them, but you’d honestly rather get a cavity filled—without novocaine—than fill your calendar with them. Your heart sinks when you’re drawn into conversation with them, or when they move into your small group.
Every Christian you see, you’re seeing election.
Now, instead of seeing them as someone who doesn’t quite meet your conditions of acceptance, see them as chosen in the Lord. That brother who can’t help but have an awkward conversation—you’re talking to one loved from eternity by the Ancient of Days. He matters to God. He should matter to you. That sister in Christ who is always trying to wiggle her way into a conversation she’s not a part of, texts too much, and doesn’t know boundaries—don’t define her as a nuisance. She is a royal heir of the kingdom, chosen in the Lord. God loves her. How can you not? Every Christian you meet is a manifestation of predestination, of God’s unconditional decision to love those who don’t deserve it. “If God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.”
When we’ve been humbled by the sovereign love of God, we grow in humility toward one another. We Calvinists are passionate about Romans 9:16: “So then, it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.” And we should be just as passionate about Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”
The exhortation to live in harmony is here because there’s an ever-present temptation for discord. While differences among Christians are unavoidable, division can be avoided. Personality differences, personal preferences and opinions, political and theological differences, and cultural and ethnic diversity are all opportunities for the unconditional grace of God to harmonize the people of God. We don’t lose our differences, we just refuse to make others lose out to them. We sing the same song in different harmonies: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). The Lamb unites us in his holy glory.
At our church, our elders are unashamed about the doctrines of grace. It’s in our doctrinal statement and distinctives. I teach our view of election in the membership class, but we don’t make someone’s membership contingent on their view of election. We have Arminian-leaning members. We have Calvinist-leaning members—and we have confused or unsure members too. But I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a debate or fight over election. You know why? Because Jesus is first. He unites us together. We show grace to one another and love one another the way Christ has loved us. We commit to not being divisive, argumentative, and arrogant about our doctrine. Everyone is treated with dignity. Every believer you meet is a part of the royal, royally chosen, family.
The doctrine of election wants to take us somewhere more important than a Bible boxing ring. Calvin reminds us, “But ye must always bear in mind that God’s electing of us was in order to call us to holiness of life.” Holiness is the destination of predestination. “For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4). Holiness is where we’re headed. We were predestined to be molded into the image, character, and way of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Far from leading us toward arrogance, election humbles toward holiness, and God’s sovereign love is the locomotive power to get us there.
Far from leading us toward arrogance, election humbles toward holiness, and God’s sovereign love is the locomotive power to get us there.
When news of God’s sovereign love first landed on my ears, an earthquake hit my heart. Predestination rattled me, in a good way. As a sophomore in high school, a speck among 800 other sophomores, I was as uncool as sociologically possible. I never went to a dance or on a date, I was too short to make it on the basketball team, and my skin and hairstyle refused to cooperate with my plans to not be lame. All I had going for me was a starting spot in the puppet ministry at my church. Puppets, y’all. High school was rough.
My lack of coolness isn’t what made these years even more crushing. My hidden sin and hypocrisy did. I led Bible studies, played my acoustic guitar in the youth band, all while I was enslaved to pornography. I didn’t know what to do, whom to talk to, or how to stop. The shame shackled me. I knew my parents would flip. My Christian friends and I didn’t talk about the matters of the heart and soul—we debated theology and played video games instead. All of this added up to a profound amount of insecurity. Loser, hypocrite, disgusting.
But one Sunday, as the preacher walked us through Ephesians 1:3–14, I perked up. I was tracking with the passage—verse by verse, word by word. An internal dialogue began in that pink-cushioned church pew, and it lasted for days.
“God predestined me to be saved? Me?”
“So, the one who spoke nebula galaxies in to existence and is robed in unapproachable light—he chose me?”
“That’s what Paul said.”
“Okay. Hold on. The only true God, the one with angels swirling and singing, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’—he loved me before he gave earth its shape?”
“You are reading it right.”
“Loser-me? Hypocrite-me? Porn-addicted-me? The Almighty not only wanted to save this mess but found joy in me? Why? Why would God care about me? I’m nothing, nobody”—and then the earthquake.
God’s love shook the lukewarmness out of my heart. Sovereign love set me upright. Insecurities and sophomoric ways were pushed out by the expulsive power of this new affection: God. God is love. As the old song goes, “Love lifted me!”, and it lifted me toward holiness.
The precious truth of election is a serrated point on the double-edged sword of the Spirit. It tells us of God’s love for his children, a love we did not earn and cannot lose. It slays dragons. It soothes saints. It makes principalities and powers flee. It cuts temptation down to size. It detaches idols. It changes us.
Predestination conquered my craving for pornography. Instead of cycling through images in my mind when trying to fall asleep, I was thinking about election and God’s love. I saw my sin and the great love of God, and my sin became bitter next to the deep richness of sovereign grace.
The doctrine of election is often found at the heart of heated debates. But it was designed to be found in the heat of battle. The precious truth of election is a serrated point on the double-edged sword of the Spirit. It tells us of God’s love for his children, a love we did not earn and cannot lose. It slays dragons. It soothes saints. It makes principalities and powers flee. It cuts temptation down to size. It detaches idols. It changes us.
When the love of God gripped my heart, my heart let go of the clods of mud I thought were so precious. I could hear a holiday at the beach being offered to me. My love for God grew, weakening my love for this sin, as I saw his love for me, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
It wasn’t predestination that severed my craving for digitized hook-ups—it was the love of Jesus displayed in predestination. Even more, it was (and is) Jesus himself. Jesus is the expulsive power in our affections. Jesus is more exciting, invigorating, and satisfying than anything that moth, rust, or high-speed internet could destroy.
God’s love is leading us into the likeness of the Son. What are the sins you’re struggling to stay away from? What are the cravings of your flesh? What is luring you from the path of faithfulness with your risen Lord? Look it full in the face and tell it, “I’m not chosen for you. You don’t love me. You’re not there for me, unconditionally. I belong to Christ. I’m being made like Christ.” Turn. Walk in God’s love. You were elected for this transformation.
Predestination and the Pride Problem
A head-only grip on unconditional election makes pride and predestination into frenemies. We know pride is a sinister enemy to Christians, but when it comes to disagreements over the doctrines of grace, somehow we welcome pride in as our friend and ally. We need to end our friendship with pride. Frenemies no more.
I’ll never forget what a 50-something-year-old mom asked me while riding in the busted up church van for a youth trip: “What should we think about people who refuse to believe in election?” As a 20-year-old, I was puzzled. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I mean,” she paused and leaned in, “Are they even saved?” My response? “Well, have you always understood election the way you do now?” She furrowed her brow, “Well, no, I guess not.” “Well, were you a believer before you believed this way?” Brow un-furrowed. A series of nods commenced. “I see what you are saying, but . . . ”
I could’ve felt proud as we spoke—I believed in election like her, and I wasn’t being judgmental like her. And I would have felt that way, if the Spirit hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder: Hey, you realize you’ve often been on the other side of this conversation? The judgmental one? Many times before, I had thought the same things, Are they even saved?—those people who say they trust Christ but don’t agree with election? And I know brothers and sisters who, even as they’ve grappled with the doctrine of unconditional election, have been told, If you think about this, and then reject it, then you are rejecting the authority of the Scriptures, and so you are rejecting Christ. This is something we Calvinists must continually be cautious of—because we’re adding to what it means to be saved by Jesus, and that’s as un-Calvinistic and, more importantly, un-Christian as it gets. When you question the salvation of an Arminian, because they aren’t a Calvinist, you’re adding to faith alone in Christ alone. It’s a denial of the Reformation’s battle cry, “Christ alone!”
Understanding election in the exact way we Calvinists do isn’t what makes or breaks someone’s Christianity. Faith in the crucified and risen Jesus for their sins is it. No asterisks. No I-see-what-you-are-saying-buts. If we add any of our precious views—even the doctrines of grace—we end up betraying grace.
Don’t think you’d never do such a thing. It can happen to the maturest of believers. We know that because it happened to an apostle. In Galatians 2, we hear about Peter walking away from a table of Gentiles. Peter used to eat with them, fellowshipping and enjoying their company. But when a certain group of legalistic Jews came to town, Peter moved the goalposts and his dinner plate. He added conditions to his love and fellowship. He decided he shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, have meaningful fellowship with uncircumcised Christians. Peter believed that kosher-keeping Sabbatarians were now the line of acceptable fellowship for him. You can hear Peter say, “I can only fellowship with like-minded believers.”
Paul saw this and decided he must give Peter a piece of his mind—or rather, give him the gospel. He confronted Peter in front of everyone because, “I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Peter, and those he influenced, detoured from radical grace into legalism. He didn’t deny the cross and resurrection of Jesus—but he added to it, so he diluted it. Peter’s actions preached a gospel-denying hypocrisy that Jesus is enough to save us, but he’s not enough to unify us. Christ alone saves, but we need more conditions if we’re going to have fellowship. Peter didn’t walk in love. He actually walked away—literally and theologically.
How many times have we done this? Have we ever made Calvinism, instead of Christ, the comfortable terms of Christian love and fellowship? Whether we do it explicitly or implicitly, breaking fellowship, or never giving fellowship a chance, because of the way someone views election is to love with conditions—and that is a betrayal of unconditional election.
In Christ, to Christ, for Christ
How do we get the doctrine of election in our hearts? Well, when we think about the doctrine of election we typically think of the what, when, why, how—and we forget to glory in the supreme who. Christ. Election isn’t a bland, aimless, or monotone theological category. It’s the glory of Christ dazzling in high-definition with a symphony of savory joys. Predestination works because of the work of Christ—his death for our sins and his supernatural resurrection from the dead. We’re chosen in and to the Chosen One. We were predestined to be united to the Son of God forever. Election is about us saints, but not chiefly. Election is supremely about Christ, the one who has first place in everything (Col. 1:18).
Election isn’t a bland, aimless, or monotone theological category. It’s the glory of Christ dazzling in high-definition with a symphony of savory joys.
God’s sovereign grace is lavished on us in the Beloved One (Eph. 1:6). Every blessing we enjoy is because of Christ—his accomplishments and him being the risen Son of God. The new in-Christ-ness we have is what defines us. Every fruit we bear, every sin repented of, and every comfort felt, it’s all because of the Messiah. Paul tells us that “every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). The promises of God, whether in the Old or New Testament, are answered, fulfilled, and kept because of Jesus. He’s the Chosen One, through whom God gathers his chosen ones. And because of God’s mercy, we reap a harvest of blessings in our election for connection to the Beloved Son. We are:
- Crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20)
- Buried with Christ (Col. 2:12)
- Raised with Christ in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5)
- Seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6)
- Forgiven in Christ (Eph. 4:32)
- Justified, declared righteous in Christ (Rom. 8:1)
- Made new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)
- Sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2)
- Joined to the church in Christ (Gal. 3:28)
- Called coheirs of the kingdom in Christ (Eph. 3:6)
It’s all because of Christ. We were chosen to belong to Jesus. We are elected to exalt the risen King.
Predestination is the backstory of your faith in Christ. Ephesians 1 reminds us of God’s end goal of election: the praise of his grace. As far as I can tell, God didn’t elect us to go punch holes in the theology of our brothers and sisters. The truth of election is meant to move you to praise the One who loved you before the foundation of the world, and will love you 10 billion years (and counting) from now.
Let this grace cause you to worship him with more than just your mind. Engage your heart. A sign of heart-Calvinism is that we don’t get our jollies from arguing about election, and feel like we have to question the salvation of those who don’t hold to our view. Rather, grace in the heart means we become more humble, and more holy, and more loving.
This is an adapted excerpt from Humble Calvinism (The Good Books Company, 2019).