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How Much of the Future Is Planned?
March 6, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


Is the future planned? How much of the future is planned? Are events planned that have happened to you and that will happen to you? Does God know the future? Does God know where you will be and what you'll be doing in ten years? Do fortune tellers know? Has your life been predestined, preplanned? 

We are looking at the heroes and heroines of the Christian faith. Today we ask these questions because we are looking at the life of John Calvin. His name is written at the base of the pulpit along with the other reformers, Luther and Zwingli, symbolizing to all of us that the great Protestant reformers brought preaching back into the church. Hopefully our preaching yet today comes out of the reformed tradition. John Calvin is the French theologian, the French reformer who moved to Switzerland. Presbyterians call him their founder. Calvin has also had a profound effect upon all Protestantism. The word associated with Calvin is the word “predestination”. 

John Calvin was born in France in 1509, which makes him younger than Martin Luther. He had an excellent education in philosophy and law. He began to write philosophical treatises and then fell upon Luther’s writings, discovered them and joined the Reformation movement in France, trying to reform the medieval Catholic Church of that day. Opposition came, persecution came to the reformers and he fled to Basel, Switzerland, and then later to Geneva, Switzerland, where he designed a model community. His first writing was called “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”. The first edition of the treatise was sent to the King of France, along with a letter justifying the Reformation. The letter and the Institutes are among the classics of the Reformation. 

John Calvin had a logical mind that allowed him to have a great influence on Protestantism, especially Presbyterianism and Puritanism that owe much to Calvinism. Calvinism has been defined as follows, “Calvinism trains strong followers confident in their election to be fellow workers with God and the accomplishment of his will, courageous to do battle, insistent on character, and confident that God has given in the scriptures, the guide of all right human conduct, and proper worship.” 

Perhaps one of the most controversial doctrines throughout history associated with Calvin is the one I'd like to discuss today—predestination. Predestination is based on an Old Testament doctrine: God elected. God chose a people to be his people through which the entire world would find salvation, would find unity with God. This doctrine is carried into the New Testament most specifically in relation to Jesus. God preordained, predestined Jesus at the foundation of the world. Jesus would be the Messiah, Jesus would be the Christ. This doctrine was extended then to include the church. Those who believe in Jesus, those who trust in Christ, those who follow him become his church, his body. The church was elected, chosen. 

Calvin intended this doctrine primarily to emphasize the sovereignty of God, and confidence that believers have in their election. God, the sovereign, almighty, omnipotent God created all that there is. God is in charge. The universe is under the control of God. God's will will be done. God’s plan will come to pass. God's purpose will be accomplished. And God's choosing of his people is forever. Therefore, believers can have confidence. Therefore, we have security. We have a sense of security, a sense of belonging and a sense of peace because our salvation depends not on our merits, but upon the sovereign power and grace of God. 

But Calvin, in my humble opinion, pushed this idea too far. He had such a logical mind that he pressed this idea further into the next logical step and asked the question, “If God chose some to be his people, did God choose some not to be his people?” Calvin answered this by writing, “Eternal Life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.” We are predestined either to life or to death. But Calvin did insist that this belief should promote gratitude, humility and hope in the believers. Calvin did insist that no human being has the right to identify, to name, to designate those who have been elected to grace and those who have been elected to damnation. Calvin would not go that far. But his followers did. Calvinist followers pushed and strained this doctrine to also include that the whole future has been predestined, that the present and the future are all in the plan of God. The Westminster Confession reads, “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy Counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. God has ordained and decreed and decided whatever comes to pass.” Thus the future is planned and predestined. 

Such a doctrine strained the doctrine of predestination to the point that many people lost a belief in the doctrine completely in the early days of this country. In the early frontier days, there were great debates between Calvinists and Arminians— Calvinists represented by Presbyterians and Baptists, and Arminians (not Armenians) represented primarily by Methodists. Calvinists saying we're all predestined to either be saved or damned, and the world events are predestined, and Methodists emphasizing free will, and over emphasizing the idea that you can fall in and out of grace, like getting in and out of bed. You can backslide out of grace. Both extremes, I think, go too far. The truth of the doctrine lay in the middle. The idea of predestination, the belief of predestination has a very relevant, valid meaning for you and for me. 

So what does the doctrine mean? First, I believe that we should reclaim and reassert a belief in the sovereignty of God. God is in charge, not us. Our sin, stupidity and selfishness may thwart God and His plan, but ultimately God will prevail. God is in charge. This means primarily that our salvation, our relationship to God, our sense of belonging, our sense of purpose on this earth, a sense of peace and inner stability, comes not by our own doing. Your salvation is not dependent upon what you do or what you don't do. It's not dependent on your merits. It's not dependent on how well you live your lives. For if it were, none of us would make it. We do not have the righteousness, the character, the ability to live our lives in such a way that we can find that inner sense of belonging and peace, and that hope of eternity, which we call salvation. So thank God, praise God, our salvation is not dependent on us, but upon the sovereign grace and power of God who is in charge. 

God elects. God chooses. But don't ask the question, don’t push the question to the extreme and ask, “Who does God not choose?”  The Bible does not push the doctrine that far. The question—are some saved, are some predestined to be saved and some predestined to be damned, is not to be asked, and is not to be answered within the context of our faith. Like the question—what about other religions? What happens to those who believe in other religions? What happens to those who have never heard of Christ? That question is not to be asked or answered, for that is not our responsibility. We do not have responsibility for anyone else. 

You do not have responsibility for any other person. Parents, do you hear that? You only have responsibility for you. You are only accountable for you. You are responsible as I am responsible to work out my relationship with God and to accept my election and to respond to him. As Calvin said, “To know and to do the will of God.” That's my responsibility. My responsibility in doing the will of God is to witness to other religions, to witness to wherever there is injustice and oppression, to witness to the salvation that I have found in Jesus Christ. That's my responsibility. But it's not my responsibility to ask the question, “What happens to those who don’t?" Paul did not push this doctrine of predestination to that point in the Bible. He shied away from that, saying it's not within our purview. 

But the doctrine does mean that God has elected you and me. God has chosen you to be his people. And how do you know that? How do you know you are one of the chosen? Because you have heard the gospel. Faith comes by hearing. You have heard the call. You have heard and for most of you out there the call has been dramatized upon your head in baptism. Baptism is the claim of God reaching out and saying, “You are mine. I chose you.” The Bible is very clear. We don't choose God. God chooses us. Our salvation lay in the sovereignty of God calling us. God has a plan. Predestination means God has a plan. But don't push that idea to specific plans for the future. And don't push that idea to include that specific events are planned. That's beyond our comprehension. 

The doctrine of predestination can best be understood and experienced by looking at our past. People of faith have been able to discern God working in history. The biblical authors looked on all that had happened to them, and they could plainly see God working. A person of faith can look back on his or her own life, and as you sit here this morning, can't you see how God has worked in your life, how God has brought you to this place today to hear, worship, and serve.? God has put your life together and has worked through all that has happened to you to bring you to today. But don't project that into the future. That’s beyond our comprehension. Look at the past, reflect on the past and live today. As Jesus said, “Take no thought for tomorrow. Or as someone said, “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” That's predestination. God knows. Predestination means that God knows. But whether God knows the entire future is not to be pushed that far. The question—is the future planned, are events planned—is not to be asked. It is not to be answered within the context of faith. That's beyond our comprehension. 

God's knowing is a different kind of knowing than what we call knowledge. Knowledge in the Bible is of a different nature than our kind of thinking. We associate knowledge with knowing about something objective out there like two and two make four. Or, I know that Stockton is a city to the north and I know my way around Stockton to a degree. I know some of the streets. I can find the stores and I can find UOP. I know about Stockton, but I don't know Stockton. I don't know Stockton like I know Manteca. I have a sense of what it feels like to be a Mantecan. I don't know Stockton like God knows Stockton. I know a lot of other people. I know facts about a lot of other people. But I only know a very few people. 

To say that we know God and to say that we are known by God means to enter into relationship. God cares about us. God knows about us like a hypothetical ideal mother knows her child. She knows facts about her child and she knows her child like no one else does. She knows all the blemishes. She knows the birthmarks. She knows the runny noses. She knows almost before the baby cries, when it's going to cry. She can tell by the tenor of the cry what the baby wants. She knows. Sometimes she's so sensitive to the baby, she can respond to the baby's needs before they are expressed. As the child grows up, the mother knows her child on a level and on a basis where she feels what the child feels. And because she sees how her child is deciding and what kind of friends he is choosing, what kind of values he is incorporating into his life, the mother has premonitions about the future. She has premonitions whether he is really going to make it, whether he is headed on a life of happiness, achievement and success, or headed on a road of downfall, discouragement and despair. She knows deep down in her soul. That's how God knows us. God knows about us, cares about us and is closer to us than we can breathe or think. But don't apply that to objective facts and events, whether they are preordained. 

To summarize, the best description of the doctrine of predestination is the New Testament lesson this morning. Go home and read again the first chapter of Ephesians, especially verses 3 to 14. Paul spells it out. Notice how long it took for it to be read. In Greek, that's all one sentence. Paul gets wound up. He’s so hard to interpret, it's so hard to translate into another language because he gets wound up. His mind jumps from one thing to another. He doesn't quite complete one thought before he's onto the other. He never puts periods in. 

He writes like my wife talks. If you've ever talked to her, you know that when she gets excited about something, she rarely finishes her sentences. All these things come into her head, she just has to get them out. Paul is like that because he gets excited about what he's writing. The full import of predestination in Ephesians and the way he writes about it is that he just got so excited about it. He was so amazed. He was so filled with the wonder and the awesomeness that God who created all that is, chose us, chose us to be his people. Paul gets excited about that with sheer amazement and wonder. The God of the universe knows your name, chose you to be his people, knows you closer and dearer than you know yourself. 

In God’s choosing of you lay your confidence, your security and your peace. In that knowing and choosing of you comes the call to know and to do the will of God. We owe a great deal to Calvin for spelling out this beautiful doctrine. God elects and chooses. God is in charge. God will bring his plan to fruition, and that plan includes you and me. Thank God!

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris