In the last 2,000 years, a lot of theological baggage has developed around the idea of predestination as theologians have discussed it.
Today, people associate the idea of predestination with being inexorably fated to either heaven or hell. To many people, if something is predestined, then it not only will happen, it will happen in an unstoppable way.
This leads to the idea that predestination is incompatible with free will. Further, many suppose that God predestines things arbitrarily—with no basis for his decisions. He simply picks some people to go to heaven and leaves the rest to go to hell.
Not surprisingly, many people are uncomfortable with the idea of predestination, and many don’t like it.
But the Bible uses the word predestination. It does talk about God predestining things.
The question is: Does the Bible mean that God predestines things the way people today understand the concept?
It’s easy for people familiar with one way a term is used to read their understanding of it back onto an older text.
For example, if someone today said, “That actor’s performance was awful,” they would mean that it was really bad, and if they read a theatre review from Shakespeare’s time and saw that statement, they likely would assume it meant the same thing: the actor put in a bad performance.
But the critic from Shakespeare’s time actually would have meant something very different. The word awful comes from the roots awe and full, and it originally meant something full of awe.
Back in Shakespeare’s day, to say an actor’s performance was awful would mean either that the performance itself was full of awe (i.e., the actor was very reverential when delivering his lines) or that it inspired awe in the audience.
Because language changes, we always have to check ourselves—when reading an older text—and ask whether a term had the meanings we attribute to it today.
So: Does the Bible understand predestination the way modern people tend to?
The Greek Word
The term that gets translated “predestine” in the New Testament is proorizô, and it is not very common—either in the New Testament or in Greek literature.
As Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, it is “a comparatively rare and late word.”
This is a sign that we need to be very careful. If we don’t have a lot of examples of how a word is used, we can’t build a good case that it must mean this rather than that. The fewer the examples we have, the less we can flesh out our understanding of the word and the more ambiguity and uncertainty there is.
That, of itself, should tell us to be very careful not to read modern assumptions about predestination into the term.
If you want to advocate a particular understanding of predestination, you’ll need to prove it from the biblical text, because you can’t simply rely on the word having the sense that developed later in theology. At this time, that development had not occurred.
Where It Comes From
The origin of a word is known as its etymology, and it often is not a particularly good guide for what words mean, because of the way language changes over time.
How a word is used—not where it came from—is what ultimately determines its meaning. Otherwise, the English word “nice” would mean foolish, because it came from the Latin word nescius (“not knowing”).
But there is an exception to this rule: To the extent a word is late or rare, it lacks much of an established usage, and its word origins are a better guide to how people were using it.
Proorizô comes from two Greek roots: pro and horizô. The first means before and the latter is a verb that means things like set limits to, define, explain, determine, appoint, fix, set, designate, or declare (see BDAG).
Based on its word origins, proorizô could mean a lot of things, and they don’t all indicate inexorable fate. It could simply mean “to set limits beforehand,” “to explain beforehand,” “to appoint or designate beforehand,” etc.
None of those things involve inexorable fate. If someone sets limits or lays down guidelines before a discussion starts, if he explains something ahead of time, or if he appoints someone to a position before an event happens, none of those things involve overriding free will or random choices.
In fact, they don’t even guarantee that the thing will happen or that it was accurate. People in a conversation can exceed the guidelines they were given. An early explanation can be botched. And an appointed official can die before he takes office.
“Wait!” someone may say. “But what if it’s God doing those things? He’s infallible and omnipotent, so if he does one of those things, won’t it definitely happen?”
Maybe. However, one glance around the world—in any period after the Fall of Man—illustrates that not everything is happening the way God willed.
God doesn’t will that people commit adultery, but they commit it nonetheless.
God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9), yet some don’t repent.
So, if one used the Greek verb proorizô to say things like, “God determined beforehand that spouses should be faithful to each other” or “God appointed it ahead of time that men should repent” then we would be in a situation where God ordained something, but it doesn’t always come to pass.
Of course, there are particular situations where God has ordained something in such a way that it is guaranteed to happen, but this strong form of ordination can’t be presumed. It’s something that has to be argued in a given case.
In any event, it’s not the word proorizô that would tell you something is ordained in the strong sense—as illustrated by the fact one could use the same word to describe the action of an earthly king who made laws against adultery or failure to repent. Kings may preordain anything they want for their subjects, but it doesn’t mean the subjects will obey.
The word by itself thus is not enough to prove a strong sense of predestination. That’s something that will have to be argued from the biblical context, not the mere use of the word.
The Word in the Bible
The above understanding is based on interpreting proorizô in terms of its word origins. However, we noted that this isn’t always a reliable guide to what something means.
It’s perfectly possible to argue, based on later usage, that the meaning of a term drifted from its origins and should be taken in a different sense.
But here’s the thing: You have to argue that based on later usage. You can’t just assert it.
So what happens if we look at how proorizô is used in the Bible?
It turns out that it’s not found at all in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—and it only appears 6 times in the New Testament.
That’s not much.
It’s certainly not enough to build a case that the meaning of the term has fundamentally shifted away from its origins (the way “nice” and “awful” have). You’d need a lot more examples than 6.
The most you could show is that, in particular cases, proorizô had acquired a new meaning. But you wouldn’t be able to rule out that it still had its prior, expected meaning in other cases.
But let’s look at the New Testament examples and see what we find.
In Acts 4, we find Peter and John making a speech to the Sanhedrin in which they say:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (4:27-28).
Here the text refers to the conspiracy against Jesus, which involved both Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, as well as various Gentiles and Jews. It says that these people conspired “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
The verb “predestined” is singular in Greek, meaning that it was God’s plan that predestined what happened to Jesus—a rather interesting phrase, as it personifies God’s plan.
The association of God’s hand with his plan also suggests God was in some way involved in bringing these things about, though we are not given more detail about how.
What would this passage contribute to an overall doctrine of predestination?
The first thing to note is that the plan in this passage concerns Jesus. It’s true that God has plans for ordinary people, but those are not in focus in this passage, and we can’t simply generalize this passage to refer to things not under discussion.
Consequently, this passage would make a contribution to a doctrine of the predestination of Jesus and what happened to him, but it doesn’t tell us about God predestining people to heaven or hell.
Could what the plan predestined concerning Jesus have failed to happen? I’d be inclined to say no, but it’s primarily my theology that tells me that: God had determined to send his Son to die for us, and nothing was going to stop that. The reference to God’s hand in the passage also suggests this. But it is these factors—my theology and the reference to the hand—that tell me this, not the word for “predestined.”
Did God override anybody’s free will in the unfolding of these events? The passage does not tell us so. While the reference to the hand suggests God took some kind of role in bringing these things about, that doesn’t mean the parties involved didn’t have free will. God is active in the world in all kinds of ways, but that doesn’t mean people lack freedom.
Was the predestination in this passage arbitrary? The passage does not suggest this, and that holds true regardless of what one considers the subject of predestination:
- If it’s Jesus, there was a reason God had his Son die for us and not some random individual.
- If it’s Herod, Pilate, the Gentile soldiers or the Jewish leaders, there was a reason God used them (namely, because they were the ones with the ability and/or authority to put Jesus to death).
- And if one takes the events of Jesus’ passion as the subject of predestination, there was a rational basis for those as well, as illustrated by all the Christian literature devoted to the question of why God chose to have his Son die on a cross.
1 Corinthians 2:7
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is discussing his ministry and says:
We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed [proorizô] before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (2:7-8).
The secret wisdom he is discussing is the message of the gospel, as illustrated by the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Paul says that God predestined the gospel before the ages, and he indicates one of the goals of the gospel: the glorification of those who accept it.
As before, we do not have the predestination of people to heaven or hell under discussion. Indeed, the subject of predestination here is not even a person. It’s a message: the gospel or “secret and hidden wisdom” that God preordained. Thus, this passage also has no direct relevance to the doctrine of predestination to heaven or hell.
Was it certain that the gospel would play the role God preordained for it? Again, I’d say yes, but it’s my theology that tells me that, not the Greek verb.
Also, this passage contains nothing about people lacking free will. Neither was the predestination of the gospel arbitrary. The fact Paul refers to it as “wisdom” indicates it had a rational basis.
In Ephesians, we find two references to predestination. First, Paul writes:
He destined [proorizô] us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (1:5).
Here we do have a passage referring to the predestination of ordinary human beings (rather than Jesus or the gospel). However, the predestination in question is not to heaven or hell. Instead, it’s “to be his sons through Jesus Christ.”
Some might argue that whether you’re a son of God determines, infallibly, whether you will go to heaven or hell, but it would be their theology that tells them that—not the passage.
The passage does not say that a son of God cannot imitate the Prodigal Son, leave the Father, and be spiritually “dead” (cf. Luke 15:32). And Paul himself elsewhere warns that Christians must “continue in his [God’s] kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22).
The passage also does not require a strong, inescapable form of predestination. As we noted, the term proorizô can just mean to appoint something ahead of time. This passage is consistent with the idea of God appointing—in a general way—anyone who responds to the gospel to be a son through Christ. That does not mean that everyone who hears the gospel will respond to it.
Neither does it mean that free will was not involved in their response to the gospel.
Alternately, since proorizô can mean to declare something beforehand, the passage also is consistent with the idea of God declaring certain individual people to be his sons through Christ—based on their free will response to the gospel.
Would either of these be arbitrary? Some might think that the reference to God preordaining us his sons “according to the purpose of his will” might suggest this. But that would assume that the purpose of God’s will is arbitrary, and this would not be indicated if God predestined people to be sons based on their response to the gospel, as in the previous two possibilities.
Also, some translations render the last phrase “according to the kind intention of His will” (NASB), which would simply suggest God predestined us to be his sons out of kindness, without implying arbitrariness about who would become a son.
A bit further on, Paul writes:
We who first hoped in Christ have been destined [proorizô] and appointed to live for the praise of his glory (1:12).
Many commentators have taken “we who first hoped in Christ” as a reference to Jewish Christians, though it also could refer to simply a group of people who had been Christian longer than those Paul is envisioning as his primary audience.
Whichever is the case, the passage does not refer to predestination to heaven or hell.
Indeed! It speaks of being predestined to a task in this life—namely, “to live for the praise of his glory.”
This is very interesting, and it reveals just how much flexibility there can be in the New Testament’s understanding of predestination. While some things—like what happened to Jesus—might be unalterable parts of God’s plan that are guaranteed to happen, that is not the case here.
Did all of the people Paul is speaking of—whether Jewish Christians or not—always live for the praise of God’s glory?
It would seem not! This is something that sin would interfere with, and Paul himself speaks of the reality of Christians sinning:
Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Cor. 11:28-29).
Or, as in other translations, “Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (NASB), “Who is caused to sin, and I do not burn with indignation?” (LEB).
Later in Ephesians, Paul will warn the readers:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice (4:30-31).
It is thus quite clear that Christians do not always “live for the praise of [God’s] glory,” despite being predestined to do so. Predestination, at least under some New Testament conceptions, thus can fail.
And, of course, free will is involved when that happens.
Finally, is this kind of predestination arbitrary? No. If Christians are predestined to live in such a way as to promote God’s praise and glory, that is non-arbitrary. It is a calling rooted in basic morality and the natural outworking of God’s grace in a person’s life.
I’ve saved this passage for last, because it is the one that people normally go to first. That makes it easy to unwittingly read modern conceptions of predestination into it, so it’s helpful to see what else the New Testament has to say on the subject before coming here.
In Romans 8, Paul writes:
Those whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified (8:29-30).
There is more to say about this passage than we can cover here (look for a future blog post), but here we’ll focus specifically on what this passage says about predestination.
One thing to note is that the second reference to predestination (“those whom he predestined he also called”) simply resumes the thought initiated at the first mention. It doesn’t add to it. Therefore, we need to focus on the first mention to understand how this passage is treating the concept.
Here the subjects of predestination are “those whom [God] foreknew.” We’ll cover their identity in more detail another time, but for now suffice it to say that they are a group of people with whom God has a special relationship. It’s not everybody.
The object of their predestination also is explicitly stated. He predestined them “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (thus generating the many brethren of whom Jesus is the firstborn).
When does that happen? When do Christians receive the image of God’s Son?
This can be understood different ways. If Christians are understood as being sons of God right now, as in some passages (e.g., 1 John 3:1), then we have already received the image of God’s Son and have joined his “many brethren.”
Paul speaks of this transformation when he writes:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation (Gal. 6:15).
However, our transformation into being Christlike is still in process in this life and will not be complete until the next.
The text of Romans 8:29-30 does not give us the data needed to determine (though the rest of Romans might) whether Paul is envisioning the acquisition of Christ’s image as an accomplished fact or as a process that is still ongoing.
That means the passage itself is consistent both with the idea that the predestination in question has already been achieved or that it is still in progress.
Either way, this passage is not speaking about predestination to heaven or hell.
The most a strong predestinarian could hope for would be to mount a winning argument that the passage is conceptualizing predestination to the image of God’s Son is an ongoing process that will not be complete until we are in heaven, making it an implied predestination to heaven.
But that’s an argument that has to be made. It can’t simply be assumed.
Further, given what we saw with Ephesians 1:12, we’d have to take into account the possibility of human sin interfering with this pre-established goal on God’s part.
Even if the passage were speaking of a goal that awaits us in heaven, that wouldn’t mean those whom God foreknew couldn’t fall into sin and fail to achieve the goal—any more than “we who first hoped in Christ” couldn’t fall into sin and fail to live to God’s praise and glory.
The possibility of free will thus isn’t eliminated.
And neither does the passage speak of the predestination being arbitrary.
None of the passages where the New Testament uses the term predestination require the concepts that people today often associate with it:
- None of them explicitly refer to predestination to heaven or hell
- None of them say that such a predestination is inexorable
- None of them say that such a predestination doesn’t involve free will
- And none of them say that it is arbitrary
That’s not to say that one couldn’t argue for these ideas—either in passages that use proorizô or in other passages. But it is to say that they can’t simply be read into the texts.
Addendum: A while ago, I also did a similar study of the concept of election in Scripture and discovered that, the way the Bible uses language, “the elect”/”the chosen” are not simply those predestined to heaven, as so often assumed today. For information on that, see my Chosen by God: God’s Elect in the Bible and the Church Fathers.