This is a complicated and controversial topic, but the answer is a lot simpler than folks want to give God credit for.
I grew up around people who deeply studied Calvinism. I posited so many arguments back and forth with them, and they gave me a run for the money. I finally arrived to a “balanced” conclusion about it all, but it was inadequate because of the limitations of the human mind. We cannot fully understand God. We can only draw conclusions from what we read in his Word.
As for the common views of predestination, and the verses to support them (see the end of this essay for references), they still fall short for a simple reason – they are looking in the wrong place.
When we consider the concept of “time” (see my essay On Foreknowledge) we must wrap our heads around God’s utility of time. If predestination is anything, it presumes a wide range of things about time and God’s relationship to time. God knows what will happen before we do. How does this play into our freedom to choose God?
Some people believe Time is, and always has been. And that over time, people created God. Indirectly speaking, time created God.
Some people believe God is, and always has been. That God created time when he created space and matter. After all, space, matter, and time cannot exist without co-existing.
Some people believe God knows the names of all those people who will be in heaven, and knows the names of all those who will be in hell.
If God knows all things past, present, and future, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. After all, if God exists at the end of time, the beginning of time, and all points in between, God is everywhere and everywhen. Is there any knowledge unavailable to him?
Psalm 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
In the above verse, an infinite God is able to infinitely remove knowledge (of a person’s sin) from his infinite mind. Note the knowledge never leaves his mind, but it is infinitely removed within an infinite mind.
Infinity has some interesting nuances.
If I have a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, and an infinite number of guests show up, I can accommodate them all. If another group of people arrives, also infinite in number, can we accommodate them? Sure, have the current occupants move to odd-numbered rooms. This opens up an infinite number of even-numbered rooms.
So when we say the transgression is removed from God’s mind – it is removed as far away as it can possibly be, but never leaves God’s mind.
Back to the original question, why would it “please God” for the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor 1:21) to save people? Why does he say we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:9-9), and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom 10:17)? If he already knows who is going to heaven and who isn’t, why bother? God already knows the outcome no matter what we do.
So why would he commission our participation? It’s one thing to “say” he “knows” our participation will matter, but if it’s all “in the can” anyway, why bother? It’s all under control.
I’ve watched pastors draw an array of dots on a board. And then circle a few. And say this is how predestination basically works. God circles the ones he wants to keep.
Is it that simple, and that rigged? Stay with me.
Gideon was going against the Midianites. He didn’t have a big bunch of folks. God told him to take the soldiers to the river, and for those who drank with their cupped hands, tap them on the shoulder. For those who drank with their faces in the water, leave them be. (Judges 7:5-7)
When Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, the servant prayed for specific characteristics and actions to be displayed to him. Rebekah came forward and did exactly that (Genesis 24:1-29).
Jesus tells a parable of a man who needed workers (Matt 20:1-6) and went to the marketplace where they stood idle. Notice he didn’t go door to door, or put out an advertisement, or go through the streets shouting. He went to one place, the marketplace, where people had come seeking work, but were idle.
Naaman went to Elishah (2 Kings 5:1-27) and asked for help with leprosy, but Elishah told him to dip himself in the Jordan seven times. Not another river, and not five times. Naaman balked at first, and said he had rivers back home. His servant said to him, paraphrased here, if he had told you to do a great thing, you would have done it. Would it kill you to dip yourself seven times?
We can see, in this model, Naaman cannot take credit for having done anything for the cure. Only his faithfulness is required. Do what God says. Do it his way. See what happens.
Elisha’s servant took it upon himself to chase after Naaman and take money for the service, even after Elisha told him not to – and Elisha cursed him and his children with leprosy. That’s a permanent gig. Says his skin turned white as snow.
In the examples above, God sought for people doing certain things at a certain place.
Or rather, Naaman asked of the prophet of God, not the prophet of Baal. He was in the right place, asking the right questions. Same for Gideon, his three hundred men, and for Rebekah. In the right places, responding the right way, asking the right questions. Their hearts aligned in God’s direction, and God responded in their favor.
Now for the opposite side – Jesus said of Judas, it would be better if he had not been born (Matt 26:24). God says Esau sought repentance carefully with tears (Heb 12:16-17). Jesus said to the pharisees they would burn in hell, and declared this while they were still alive (Matt 23:33). Jude speaks of the “twice dead”, the people who have rejected the call of God. And we’re told if we blaspheme the Holy Spirit, we’re not eligible for heaven no matter what (Matt 12:31). Likewise, those who take the Mark of the Beast will not enter heaven (Rev 14:9-11).
And with the account of Cain and Abel, when Genesis 4 opens, it’s obvious Someone showed them how to ritual-sacrifice – they were doing it as if it were a routine. We see Cain brought an offering from the ground, and Abel brought a meat offering (Genesis 4) and later learn Abel’s was a more acceptable sacrifice (Heb 11:4). Why? Because Abel offered the blood, and only blood provides the remission of sin (Heb 9:22).
Some say Cain was rejected because he came with a corrupt heart, but we all do (Jer 17:9). And some say Cain had a bad attitude, but we all do (Rom 8:7). In the end, Cain came to God on his own terms, rather than Abel, who came to God on God’s terms.
All of us know people who were well-meaning when they did something in God’s name, but it didn’t bear fruit. They make decisions under the notion that God will bless their plans because they have a “good heart”. I’ve even known people who will seek advice from all their friends, and then take a path none of them suggested. This way none of them can take credit for the success, nor can be blamed for failure. But the person’s life was wreckage for this practice. What did it actually accomplish?
Whatever happened to doing things God’s way, and watching the fruit of his promises come to pass? Isn’t it a blessing to recognize when God is honored, the fruit of joy, peace and love? Or do we go about it (like Cain) on our own plans, and experience a hollow victory? A fleeting moment of glory, not for God, but for us, our cleverness, and our ability to show “it can be done another way”. God knows it can be done another way. He’s chosen the most foolish one (preaching) to see if you or I will step up to it. Moreover, the foolishness of preaching “pleases” him. If any of the other “clever” methods pleased him (and we knew it) they are fair game. But God didn’t point out any of those. He said it pleases him for preachers to audibly preach the Gospel to listening ears.
We back off, and go to electronic evangelism or hand out booklets, or do things passively. But we don’t step up to what Jesus said was foolish, because it’s foolish. We are more clever than that. We can come up with another way yielding more. Really? In today’s mechanized and automated world, the church is making less progress in reaching people for Christ, than it did before the horse and buggy. Machinery and technology has made us less efficient than ever.
So we have these bad actors who God pre-designated, it seems, to be damned. While others, according to that pastor, God “circled” and called-out to be saved.
The Bible does clearly say that many are called and few are chosen, this “few” being the same word as used for a mustard seed. A very small number chosen. At the same time we see in Revelation that a “numberless multitude” will be saved. No doubt the total number of people saved will be vast. What does this say of the total people lost, if comparatively speaking, the total saved were like a mustard seed?
As noted in the essay on foreknowledge,the answer is here just as obvious. God has the capacity to remove from his immediate knowledge certain forms of knowledge, almost like a filter, and removes them infinitely from his infinite mind (As far as the east is from the west). What plays into this is God’s foreknowledge of who will be in heaven and who will not, and how he has chosen d the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor 1:21) to save people. And says people must believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead in order to be saved (Romans 10:9) and goes on to say this cannot happen without hearing God’s word, which cannot happen without a preacher.
Bottom line, God has clearly commissioned humans (Matt 28) to participate in the salvation of others, even though his Spirit will call the unbeliever, and his Spirit will activate the faithful heart to respond to the call (Eph 2:8-9).
But doesn’t God know who will answer the call? Why all the machinery of getting people involved, and all the mistakes and weaknesses of humans?
One simple word: Glory.
God says his strength is made perfect in weakness. The weaker vessel steps up, fulfills God’s directives and the miracle of salvation comes about, God is glorified. He receives little or no glory for stepping in where he wants human involvement.
And this is the primary answer to the nagging question. If God wants humans to participate, for his glory, how do we deal with the fact he already knows the outcome?
Simplest answer is – he doesn’t. Or rather, he’s chosen not to.
A simple example of God’s practice on this, is when he claims to have “winked” at sin in times past (Acts 17:30). He’s essentially saying he looked the other way and let it ride. He received glory for his mercy.
Another simple example is Christ’s parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30). The evil is there, and everyone knows it. Let it ride. God receives glory for letting it ride.
Same for the removing our sins as far as the east is from the west. He infinitely pushes this knowledge from his infinite mind so he can experience the glory and the delight of a saved soul. This is why he says he’s “patient”. Time itself allows him to be patient to us, and allows him to set aside knowledge that would necessarily preclude glory for him.
And why not glorify the one who made heaven and earth, and all that’s in it, and redeemed it to himself as a righteous owner and king? He’s earned it.
The conclusion is simply this: we get wrapped around the axles of logic and reason when we try to put God into a logical box. If this, then that, when God is a dynamic personality on his own, and loves to participate in the joys of his own creation. He would constrain himself from ruining the blessings he has for us – and this is what time does. He would also constrain himself so he can participate in the thrill of the salvation experience for both himself and the recipient of the gift.
How is this any different than a parent taking a child to practice a presentation, and staying out of it until the day of the show? Sure, the parent has the ability to look-in on progress, and can certainly hear or see snippets of the presentation coming along. But the thrill of watching it unfold with everyone else – all of us know nothing compares to it. Jesus even said he would confess us before his angels if we confessed him before men. Wait – doesn’t he already know when and where we’ll do this? The answer again is – sure he can know that – but it gives him glory and delight to set aside this knowledge so his own creation can participate.
If he says it is more blessed to give that to receive (Acts 20:5), imagine how blessed God is each time a new person receives the gift of everlasting life? Knowing who will do this before they were even born, is knowledge worth putting aside until the day it actually shows up, in exchange for the blessing and glory that will arrive with it.
So let’s not “logic God” into a box and see if he gets out. Not really a fair practice and it short-changes God’s intent for us. It also turns God into a dark personality. Choosing people before they are born. Who even has a fighting chance?
God has the capacity to know who will join him in heaven, but his desire for glory and delight in his creation compels him to set this knowledge aside so the preachers can get to work, and he can delight as his own creation participates in the Greatest Story Ever Told.
For his glory.
Romans 8:29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son…