Responding to False Ideas about Predestination

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:28-32).

“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:4-6).

The universal Christian teaching of the Church holds in tension two realities we see clearly expressed in the Scriptures: (1) God desires all to be saved and gives what is necessary for each and every human person to be rescued from sins and death, and (2) no one is saved apart from God’s grace, so that no one is able to choose God, believe in Him, and persevere in the Christian life apart from God’s Presence and help. In other words, if anyone is saved, God gets the glory and credit, but if anyone is damned, the fault is entirely that person’s own. “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

The orthodox teaching of the Church catholic is neither Pelagian (basically salvation by works) nor semi-Pelagian (salvation partially by our own self- generated works). God (being omniscient and outside time) knows whether each person will cooperate with His grace. But how this relates to His predestination is complex and debated. Various proposals have been made at great length, but none are church dogma.

Multiple theories have, however, been condemned as false. Calvinism, which teaches not only predestination but “double predestination” -the idea that God chooses some (indeed most) to be damned, and that those chosen for damnation have no choice about this whatsoever- is rejected as false. The idea that free will means that human persons are able to choose the good apart from God’s help is also heretical.

Multiple schools of thought try to faithfully deal with the very difficult details. What exactly is the teaching God has given in the Church, as found in the Scriptures as the Church has always understood them? The two main positions are Thomism and Molinism (including a modified sub-view called Congruism). Sometimes Thomists accuse Molinists of being semi-Pelagian, and Molinists accuse Thomists of being Calvinists. Both of these accusations are really untrue. Both try to reconcile difficult details, and both are within the boundaries of permitted teaching. The Church has never been led by the Spirit to settle this in further detail. The Church in the West follows the canons of the Second Council of Orange. This means being willing to live with elements of mystery. We don’t feel the need to resolve every deep issue in theology if it means going beyond what God has clearly revealed. The Church teaches that the elect, God’s saved people, are predestined (and this is true in both Thomism and Molinism). She teaches (just like Augustine and over against Calvinism) that we have a free will, too. And as the conclusion of the Council of Orange shows, she denies that the damned are predestined to hell (“double predestination”).

Those who are saved choose, entirely by God’s grace (Presence and help), to accept God’s salvation. The damned choose to reject this grace and therefore choose to separate themselves from God. God doesn’t predestine that, as Calvinism teaches. As C. S. Lewis said, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” We have real freedom. That freedom can be misused. It is only fully and genuinely free by cooperation with God’s grace, however, and the choice to cooperate is itself only possible by God’s help. Jesus dies for all people, not just some. God does not, however, force Himself upon us.

How does anyone “choose God”? Some aspects of this seem insolvable. People choose in the same way they choose to sin or not sin at any given moment. If we seek God (and that very seeking is necessarily and always caused by God), He will give us the enabling grace to refrain from sin and follow Him all the way to heaven. But we do make that choice. This is part of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. So is the absolute necessity of grace and the predestination of the elect, those finally saved from sin, death, and hell and into heaven, the fulness of life.

Suggested Reading:

A translation of the Second Council of Orange’s canons:

Salza, John. The Mystery of Predestination: According to Scripture, the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas. TAN Books, 2010. A Thomist take.

Stratton, Timothy A. Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism. Wipf and Stock, 2020. A Molinist view.