Divine Action, Discernment and Predestination 

The ability to point to an event and name it as divine action is a fundamental characteristic of Christian life. To say, “God did this,” is ingredient to the life of one who knows Christ. “God healed my mother”; “God answered my prayer”; “God sent his Son”. Without the ability to utter such statements in knowledge, one could not be a Christian.

Yet the ability to make such statements knowingly is a matter of discernment. The knowledge needed to truthfully name an event as divine action and not, say, chance or nature or, in a different way, human action, is not always readily available. Sometimes it must be discerned.

In some cases, this is simpler. For example, where Scripture speaks of a past event, such as God’s sending of his Son Jesus or deliverance of Israel from Egypt, we have God’s own testimony to his action. Sometimes we are able to extrapolate from testified past divine action to discern God’s hand in the present: the healing of cancer is like God’s past healing of leprous Naaman or Miriam.

Other times, however, discerning whether or not God has acted in a certain way is difficult. This is especially so, it seems, in that particular divine action called predestination, by which God predestines his own in Christ for eternal life. That God has predestined us for eternal life is evident from the testimony of Scripture: “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭1:5‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Who “we” — the object of this divine action — are, however, is ultimately difficult to discern.

In fact, John suggests that the identities of God’s predestined people are sometimes discerned only retroactively. He writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us”‭‭ (1 John‬ ‭2:19‬ ‭ESV‬). This should, of course, suggest that discerning another’s predestination is something from which we should abstain.

It is crucial that Christians be able to confidently and knowingly name certain divine actions, such as God’s creation of the world and salvation of the world in Christ. Others, though, are properly hidden from our discernment, available to our eyes only retroactively, once they have taken place in their full eventuality — once, in other words, God brings all things to completion in Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:1-14: Some Thoughts on Predestination

Yes, I really am wading into this debate. It is unfortunate “wading” in the pool is what is required, since for Paul, predestination is an ocean of grace:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, for he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be saints and unblemished before his sight in love, having predestined us for adoption into him through Jesus Christ, according to the good favour of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace which he graced us with in his beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, according to the wealth of his grace which he caused to overflow into us, in all wisdom and understanding having made known to us what was the mystery of his will, according to his good favour which he purposed in him in the management of the fullness of time, to recapitulate all things in Christ, the things in heaven and the things on earth in him. We were also allotted [an inheritance] in him, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who carries out all things according to the intention of his will, for us to be to the praise of his glory those who are the first to hope in Christ. In him also we heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and having also believed in him we were sealed with the holy Spirit of promise, who is a first payment of our inheritance until the redemption of [God’s] possession, for the praise of his glory.

This passage screams Exodus. The redemption of a people through blood—the lambs’ blood on the doorposts; the fullness of time—430 years since Abraham (Gal. 3:17); the first payment of an inheritance—the tabernacle in the desert; predestination of a people—the choosing of Israel (Ex. 19:4); ruler over all things in heaven and earth—God’s rule (Ex. 19:5); and the praise of his glory—a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). This suggests Paul is deliberately evoking the Exodus, the central history of Israel’s faith, to say that in Christ (which appears constantly in this passage) a new Exodus has taken place.

But this means that in no way is Paul talking about the predestination of individuals, but about a people: the “saints,” the “faithful.” What has happened in Christ is that predestination opens up from Israel to the whole world, all things in heaven and on earth in him. Never was “I” chosen from the foundation of the world, but “he chose us in him.” He “predestined us” (v.5), “we were also allotted an inheritance” (v.11), and the holy Spirit is “our inheritance” (v.14). The central divide is not between these and those individuals, but between the Church and those outside it (in John, the “world”); just as before Christ the divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Others passages would need to be examined to establish this as well (something NT Wright has already done in many places), especially Romans 9-11, a passage massively important simply for what it handles: Israel and Church, predestination, law, covenant and justification. Maybe in a bit.