What the Early Church Believed About Predestination
It is essential that we first understand the basic Calvinist definition of predestination, so that we can offer a more biblically consistent definition in response. For clarity's sake I have chosen to use the definition given by Matt Slick, a Calvinist.
“Predestination is the doctrine that God alone chooses (elects) who is saved. He makes His choice independent of any quality or condition in sinful man. He does not look into a person and recognize something good nor does He look into the future to see who would choose Him. He elects people to salvation purely on the basis of His good pleasure. Those not elected are not saved. He does this because He is sovereign; that is, He has the absolute authority, right, and ability to do with His creation as He pleases. He has the right to elect some to salvation and let all the rest go their natural way: to hell. This is predestination.”1
Calvinists view the following Scriptures (among others) as substantiating their position:
“...to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”- Acts 4:28
“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, so that He would 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.”- Romans 8:29-30
“..he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will..”- Ephesians 1:5
Do these verses really substantiate the Calvinist view? Part of what makes the Calvinist position possible is their position on the atonement, which they view as being limited. Sacred Scripture, however, does not support a limited atonement. For example:
“The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sons of the world.”- John 1:29
The Greek word translated world here is kosmos, which leaves no room for a limited atonement. John's use of the word also means the atonement is made for the entirety of creation.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”- John 3:16
Again John refers to the world with regard to the availability and intended recipient of the atonement.
“They said to the woman, 'We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”-John 4:42
Jesus also refers to Himself as the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), not the light of the elect/predestined. There are a host of other verses that prove the point that the atonement is unlimited, but these suffice to make the case.2 It is also instructive to note that the Church Fathers3 fall on the side of unlimited atonement as well, lending historical and apostolic support to the position.
“Christ freely brings...salvation to the whole human race.”- Clement of Alexandria
“It was needful that the Lamb of God should be offered for the other lambs whose nature He assumed, even for the whole human race.”- Eusebius
“The sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world.”
- Gregory of Nazianzen
“Christ suffered for all, rose again for all.”- Ambrose
So then, predestination cannot be biblically defined as the Calvinists do. So what then is a biblical definition of predestination? As we know that grace is indeed resistible- that is, that one can exercise their free will to reject the offer of salvation (Acts 6:10; 7:51-55)- election and predestination do not violate that ability of free will, which would be necessary for the Calvinist position to be correct. This means that those who are predestined are those who freely choose to obey Christ. This group of people are not limited, but open to “whosoever” believes. (John 3:16) “Whosoever” will, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17)
Election is simply the decree of God to justify and accept whosoever will receive Christ.
"Therefore, all having been called, those who are willing to obey have been named "the elect"."- Clement of Alexandria
In turn, this means that predestination is not some predetermination of those who believe and those who will be punished eternally, but simply the predetermination that “whosoever” believes will inherit sonship, glorification, and eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
"He determines also our fates for us, according to the deserts and the qualities of individuals. Thus, in our case, it is not the star under which we are born that is punished. Rather, the particular nature of our disposition is blamed." - Mark Miucius Felix
If we are found to be faithful in Christ through the exercise of our own free will, we are numbered among the elect and predestined for a glorious future.
2. Others are: 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1 Timothy 4:10; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14;
3. All Patristic quotes taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Belief, David Bercot (Ed.), Scroll Publishing, 2014