“If I have free will, how can God have predestined me? Wasn’t faith my choice?” Our conscious experience is that we make choices without coercion. For example, no one is forcing me to type these words. I am doing it because I want to. I am not forced to love my wife Jackie. But I can’t “not” love her. That’s who I am now.
Reformed theology does not question this freedom. But our theology does ask us to dig deeper: what kind of people are we, as we make decisions? Scripture answers by teaching us about ourselves and about God’s love. Our choices express the kind of people we are. Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
What kind of people are we? Because of original sin, we are not able to love God and do his will. Theologians call this “total inability”: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). After writing his amazing hymn to the praise of God’s grace in Ephesians 1, Paul writes to these beloved Christians about their past: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3). They were the “walking dead,” living in constant sin.
Then Paul writes about the amazing love and grace of God! During their lives, God gave them a new heart, and made them one with Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:4-10). No longer the “walking dead,” now new creations in Christ!
But where did this change come from? It came from the Father’s eternal, loving choice. “… even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5). He chose to save these particular people. Paul says the same about every believer. “…who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). God chose us before we choose him. Election to salvation was not based on anything we do. It was entirely gracious. And it was eternal.
We don’t feel forced, because we are not forced. God does no violence to our will (see Westminster Confession 3.1). By his almighty power, God has freed believers from the power of sin—freed us to love Him and to trust Christ. John sums it up: “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Dr. Howard Griffith
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.