Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Predestined for the Fold

This is a sermon I preached a few years back based on John 10:22-30.


For years, I didn’t really know what that word meant. I thought it might have something to do with being a Presbyterian. That maybe John Calvin had invented it way back in the 16th Century Reformation and that our Puritan forbears had used it to scare people with hellfire and brimstone sermons.

Growing up in the United Methodist Church, I never heard much about it. What I did know was that it sounded scary.

As the years went by, when I heard the word “predestination,” I associated it with the idea that before the creation of the world God foreordained everything that would ever come to pass – good, bad, and indifferent. Everything from that parking ticket you got last week, to the pizza you had for lunch yesterday, to the “War on Terrorism.”

Besides the fact that it sounds repugnant, such a view of predestination is also easy to ridicule. I’m reminded of the difference between the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian who both fell down a flight of stairs. When the Episcopalian came crashing to the bottom of the stairs he said, “Good Lord! I should have watched where I was going!” But when the Presbyterian crashed to the bottom, he said, “Thank God that’s over!”

During graduate school I learned that this isn’t really what predestination is all about – as if God is the cosmic micro-manager mapping out everything that happens to every person every moment of their lives. Instead, predestination refers to God’s will with respect to the eternal destiny of human beings. Sometimes this idea is called “election.” It refers to those whom God chooses or elects to inherit eternal salvation and those whom God elects to inherit eternal damnation. God’s election has nothing to do with whether or not the persons in question deserve heaven or hell. God’s will is absolutely sovereign. God is accountable to no one. It’s like what we read in the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8 NRSV). For His own inscrutable reasons, God can choose an unrepentant axe-murderer for heaven and Mr. Rogers for hell. God’s will always trumps the human will.

It would be easy to just dismiss this whole business of predestination and election by saying, “That’s cruel and crazy. I’ll have no part of it!” But there’s a problem. Far from being something cooked up by cooky Calvinists, ideas of election and predestination are all over the Bible. They’re biblical through and through, from God’s call to Abraham, to his election of the people of Israel, to His sending Jesus as the Messiah.

We hear echoes of God’s predestination and election in today’s gospel reading when Jesus says, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29 RSV). Jesus is referring to his sheep, to those persons who hear his voice and follow him. It’s one of many instances in John’s gospel of a great divide between those who belong to the light and those who belong to the darkness, between those who live inside of God’s fold and those who are outsiders.

But here’s the kicker. Jesus says that it’s not we who give ourselves to him. It’s God the Father who gives us to Jesus. It’s God’s choice, not ours. We Christians are a part of God’s flock, not because of anything we’ve done, but solely because of what God has done. It’s like what Jesus says later in John’s gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (John 15:16 RSV). God’s will in Jesus trumps our wills.

So we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, if you’re like me, you may find the theology which says that, regardless of their merits, God chooses some and not others to inherit eternal life morally repugnant. But on the other hand, John’s gospel calls into question the view which insists that right now, at this very moment, you are completely free to decide for yourself whether or not to give your life to Jesus, to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior.

In John’s gospel, Jesus insists that we are not the ones who choose him. We’re not in the driver’s seat. God is. God is the agent of our salvation. God gives us to Jesus. On the surface, John’s gospel appears to say that God arbitrarily chooses some for heaven and some for hell. So, for instance, in spite of all of Jesus’ wonderful signs that testify to his intimate connection with God, Jesus’ enemies entrench themselves in disbelief and hatred. It appears that John gives biblical support to a hard-line understanding of predestination and election.

But appearances can be deceiving. This is why it’s so important that we remember one of the basic rules for reading scripture: "Always read any part of scripture in the light of the whole of scripture." If we do that with John’s gospel, we have to read those passages which suggest a strong theology of predestination in conjunction with passages like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 RSV).

“God so loved the world.”

According to John, God’s election to salvation is directed towards everybody, and even creation itself. God doesn’t pick out a few lucky individuals. In Jesus Christ, God chooses the whole world. And so John’s gospel repudiates the idea that God is picky or arbitrary, opting instead to accent God’s extravagant generosity.

Our Anglican forbears were right when they wrote: “Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God” from “before the foundations of the world were laid” [“Articles of Religion” in the The Book of Common Prayer, p. 871]. But that doesn’t mean that we are computers that can only act according to a program God downloads into our hard drives. Nor does it mean that everybody will be saved regardless of how they respond to the gospel.

Paradoxically, we are free, but we are also not free.

We are free in this crucial respect: we can either accept or reject God’s prior decision to save us in Jesus. We can choose to either stand in the light of God’s grace or remain hidden in the darkness of this world’s sin and evil (cf. John 3:20-21).

But we are not free to change God’s prior choice of electing each and every one of us for salvation in Jesus Christ.

So here’s the bottom line: You have been chosen by God. As baptized Christians, you are part of Jesus’ flock. You are God’s sheep. And nothing can change that.

Sure, you can run away from it. You can deny it. You can live as though God doesn’t love you or as if God is out to get you. But you can’t change the truth. Your salvation depends not on your faith, your love, or your knowledge. It depends solely on God’s gracious will revealed in Jesus Christ. You are God’s chosen. You belong to Jesus’ flock.

So when you hear His voice, don’t run away. Don’t hide behind doubt. Don’t throw up a smokescreen of shame, wallowing in unworthiness. Before you were even born, God found you worthy - worthy enough to send His Son into the world to suffer and die for you.

So remember: God has given you to Jesus. God is stronger than anything in the world. And nothing and no one can ever snatch you out of His hand.


Perpetua said...

"But you can’t change the truth. Your salvation depends not on your faith, your love, or your knowledge."
This seems to contradict the bible passage you had previously quoted:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 RSV).
Are you making a distinction between 'believes in him" and "your faith"? I had thought they referred to the same thing.

Bryan Owen said...

Hey Perpetua. Good questions.

If my salvation depends upon my faith as an individual Christian, I'm quite sure that I will be eternally damned. For if I'm honest, on any given moment of any given day of the week, my faith (and let's not even go to my behavior!) as an individual Christian is more or less strong or weak.

While I "believe in" Jesus Christ, that "belief in" may be more more or less weak or strong at any given moment of time. So if my salvation depends upon the strength or weakness of my faith at any given moment in time, then whether or not I spend an eternity with God or in hell depends upon whether or not I die when I'm fortunate enough that my faith is particularly strong at the moment of my death.

If we Episcopalians take the Prayer Book's theology of Baptism seriously, we need not get caught in this conundrum of "faith-righteousness." If it's true that "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (BCP, p. 298), then I don't need to be concerned about the strength of my faith as an individual Christian when it comes to my eternal destiny. I am free to trust that God is faithful to the Baptismal Covenant even when, in spite of my best efforts, I am not.

Yes, I can walk away. I can slam shut the prison cell that locks from the inside. But if I can trust my Baptism, then God will not give up hope on me. And if God doesn't give up hope ...