What is predestination? Do Presbyterians believe in free will?

//What is predestination? Do Presbyterians believe in free will?

So…one of the first questions every Presbyterian seems to get is…what up with that business of predestination? It’s like the stray dog that seems to follow you everywhere. Do Presbyterians believe that God has determined everything – like fate? And if that’s true, how is there any room for human free will? All questions that have vexed many a believer and theologian for centuries – and I approach with some fear and trembling. It’s a bit of a long one here…sorry.

As I hope you’ll see, the doctrines of free will and of predestination are not simple – but there is one key thing you should keep in mind as you think about them. All these theological ideas are rooted in one solid, bedrock belief at the heart of Reformed (Presbyterian) theology: God is in charge of life – of your life, my life, all of life – and God’s love is larger than we can imagine or apply human reason to. Put that at the top of your notebook. It’s all about God’s sovereignty – God being in charge – and God finding a way to love human beings into becoming who they truly are: children of God. How it all works is a mystery that we can never fully make sense of with our human reason. It’s like looking at the broad vast universe with the cheap telescope you bought at Radio Shack: you know there’s a lot more there, but this is all you can see with your eyes. Theology is the cheap telescope, and your unreliable eyes; God is the vast expanse you’re trying to see.

So…yet another difference between Presbyterians and Catholics and other denominations has to do with how we think of salvation. That term itself deserves a lot of explanation, because it doesn’t just mean, “who gets to go to heaven,” or “who is on God’s team.” It’s often referred to in scripture as eternal life: a life you can experience now, but that has implications for…well, forever. But the question is – who gets saved? Do the people who choose God, out of their own putative “free” will, get saved? A baptist would heartily agree with this – just confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and go ahead and try to be a Christian. For Presbyterians, not so fast. We have a very radical idea about God’s love. There’s nothing we can do to get it – it’s of such a nature that it must be freely given, and not earned or controlled by you in any way. You don’t choose it – you can’t. It chooses you.

So maybe you could think of it this way. Your spouse says, “You didn’t say thank you for the amazing paint job I did with our room.” Response: “Oh – yes! You did a fantastic job painting our bedroom, honey!” We’ve all been there, yes? Not terribly satisfying. That wouldn’t really be “thank you.” But if I receive that compliment unbidden, it’s a much more powerful form of grace, a kind of love that comes to us despite anything we do or say. This is God’s form of love. It’s of such a nature that we can’t even choose it – in fact, there’s nothing that we can do to deserve or get that kind of love, except (an important except) trust it’s already there, have faith in its presence. We can’t get it by being good people, we can’t get it by giving to the United Way, we definitely can’t get it by buying a piece of paper from the Catholic church. Nada. It’s given for free, regardless of our virtue, our good looks, our church attendance, or our bank account.

What? you might say. Nothing required to get the best thing life can offer – a life with God, eternal life? I don’t have to do anything?

Yup. That’s right. That’s the good news. Christian life then emanates from a sense of gratitude for what God has already done for us, before we could choose it, and furthermore it cannot be undone. Did you get that last bit? Predestination has to do with that – God has already determined your purpose in this life – that it will be for God. If that’s what God chooses, it can’t be undone. You just have to trust it, and live out of that bliss.

Now, this is where things get complicated. If that’s true, said the early Calvinists, what about those people who don’t seem to “get it?” Who don’t seem to participate in the life-transforming power of Christ’s love? It must be that God has predetermined that they will not be on the good-guy or good-gal team when the eternal bell rings. It must be that God has predestined them for a different life (or fate?)

This is a vexing question, and there are no easy answers. But the key thing is to remember that God’s love is always to seek good for every human being. Human beings are the ones who reject this goodness, over and over. And if God’s in charge, it looks like God just let’s this happen – holocaust, Boko Haram, Jeffrey Dahmer…if God’s in charge, we might think God intends for this to be the case. But there are some theologians – like Karl Barth – who would argue that we simply can’t see how God’s love might be operating even in the lives of people who look for all intents and purposes to be totally anti-God. Could God save Hitler? We don’t know. But the tragectory of God’s love, mysterious as it is, would have us hope that God will work salvation in everyone, even though we can’t ever know.

And that’s the point – the important point. We can’t know who’s on God’s team, and what often messes us up is thinking we do. We exclude people (gays and lesbians, for example, until recently, and even now there’s still some dispute), thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong. Bottom line: I don’t decide who receives heaven. God does. I can’t even choose it. God has chosen it for me.

So – what about the whole question of free will then?

And then there’s that subject – free will. A little post-script on that. Above, I’ve talked about how God’s love is of such a nature that it must be given, we must simply trust that it’s there for us and live out of that gratitude. God chooses whom God wills, because God’s in charge. But is God in charge of everything? Did God determine that I would buy Goat’s Milk from Walmart yesterday (fun digression: Walmart is the only store around that carries it; it’s delicious).

The answer is no. God doesn’t dabble in those sorts of details. God doesn’t control us like a puppeteer. In fact, God’s saving love does the opposite thing for us. God’s salvation enables us truly to have freedom, to be free.

Without going into too much detail, one other bedrock idea of Presbyterian theology – and all Christian theologies – has to do with the doctrine of sin. Sin is often thought of as a behavior – fundamentally, it’s not; it results in behavior that we often call “sinful.” Sin is actually a condition, like polio or diabetes, or acne. We’re born with it. It’s a propensity to do evil. It’s a defect that keeps getting transmitted – just like if the mint messed up the one mold that makes all the coins out in circulation. This is what the story of Adam and Eve explains. The Firesign Theater puts it this way: “We’re all bozos on this bus.”

That seems rather depressing, but it doesn’t need to be. First of all, if we realize that we human beings are all messed up, and it’s not totally our fault – our parents’ did it! – then we have a more realistic expectation about life. We’re all sinners. We are all little children trying to get our needs met, often screaming on the inside but looking like well-behaved adults on the outside. No one is perfect – in fact no one can be. We all fall way short of the kind of creatures we were originally designed to be: perfectly content and loving, and grateful to our creator. It all starts with admitting – like in the 12 step programs – we are powerless over the power of sin.

But here’s the good news – there’s a cure! What is it? You guessed it: God’s grace, God’s healing love. How do we get that? Not by being good boys and girls. Simply by trusting it. Going back to the 12-step model: we get it by trusting in a power greater than ourselves to save us from the power of alcohol/drugs/gambling/sex. Addiction is in fact a good analog to the way we think of sin.

So – getting to my point now. What is it that truly gives us the ability to be free? Grace, freely given. God’s grace is the only power capable of restoring our broken human will, which by itself is incapable of being free. Can we truly be free if we live under “sin” – under compulsion, say, to have another five drinks, or gamble away our 401K? That’s not freedom – we are totally enslaved in our illusion freedom. We are free to mess ourselves up. The only cure for sin is true freedom, which we only receive through the redeeming love of God. That kind of love enables us truly to be free, to be healed – a process that doesn’t happen all at once, but through a process we call sanctification (“making holy/whole), a lifelong journey with God.

Make sense? You’re confused? OK – keep looking through the telescope…!


2018-04-14T11:30:35+00:00April 14th, 2016|Uncategorized|


  1. Michael Emmerson May 6, 2017 at 10:33 am - Reply

    No, it doesn’t make sense. We don’t use our “free will” to obtain God’s grace. “God” apparently dispenses grace to whomsoever he chooses, and we are not to ask why. You really didn’t address the issue of “free will” in a very serious manner, just this business about “trusting in God’s grace”, etc. What if “He” hasn’t bestowed it upon you?

  2. Michael Johns May 22, 2017 at 11:32 am - Reply

    The doctrine of predestination seems to pre-suppose that some people will achieve eternal life and are members of the chosen ‘elect’. This is a very dangerous doctrine by Presbyterians which actually can be traced back to Calvin himself. So can we assume that Calvin was part of this ‘elect’ when he pushed for Servetus, another reformer, to be burnt alive?

  3. Jeffrey Vamos May 24, 2017 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Michael and Michael,

    Good thoughts both and – Michael J – indeed yes, vexing that Calvin chose to burn another Christian – irritant and curmudgeon that he was. Perhaps Calvin of all people knew the mess we’ve made of things, himself, his enemies, how hard it is to choose the right thing; how much we need grace. All that.

    Michael E – not sure I understand your critique. Please feel free (ha!) to say more; I’d like to understand. Ours is not to ask why – but mustn’t we ask why? (We cannot speak about God, but we must speak about God – says our brother Karl B… Etc.)

  4. S B August 9, 2017 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I came to the blog, seeking answers. As a young Christian, I am expected to confirm soon, but the idea seems scary to me. I hoped that this page might reassure me, but it didn’t.
    The writer makes it seem like we only have free will because, by this point, it is meaningless. Nothing we do or don’t do can take away God’s love for us. This cancels out the value of free will. It also denies the idea of there being a Hell. God had created us. Since his love strives for goodness in my human life, he couldn’t possibly decide my fate in such a way that I don’t end up in heaven. Since I already am promised heaven, just by existing, nothing I do can take heaven away from me.
    What then is this human life for? Does sin just mean being a bad child? Is God going to love me despite sin?
    These questions are making me question my faith. Please, someone shed some light.

    • Jeffrey Vamos August 14, 2017 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      S B,

      Wow – what excellent questions, and what an excellent quest you are on. A few somewhat brief comments here in response…and perhaps others wish to weigh in. Snippets, as ’twere.

      #1. It’s complicated – this business of free will. This is the Presbyterian spin on it, which very much differs from a Baptist’s or a Methodists – both of which traditions would say that salvation depends, to some degree, on one’s own choice for God – ie it depends on human choice. Presbyterians/Calvinists have a much more radical (and I would say, life-transforming) view of free will.

      #2. OK – perhaps another way to explain it in response to your comment above is to use the analogy of a very human relationship: that of a parent to a child. Here’s a question to begin with: is love, in order to be love, dependent on how you behave, what you do? That’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Does my mother love me ONLY when I behave well? For many, that’s a recipe for quite a lot of psychotherapy, because of course it often does seem that way – contingent. Limited. I will only love you if you play by my rules, if you do what I want you to do, only then will I love you. That is not really love, is it? For love to BE love, it must be freely given, without condition. Love is not a transaction; it is something we get for free, in order for it to be what it is. This is the kind of love we speak about when we talk of grace.

      #3. So following on the above example as it applies to free will. We could ask the question – in what does freedom consist? If you assert that I will attain heaven if I abstain from bad behavior (sin) and if I exhibit positive behavior (good works); and if you assert that I will avoid hell by the same means (my behavior), am I really free? Some would argue you are indeed not; you are responding to a kind of rewards-and-punishments set of stimuli – and your desires and compulsions are driving you – much like the scenario above, in which your behavior is governed by a desire to earn your parents’ love…which would cease to actually BE love. You would find yourself in a trap, you can’t really be free because your behavior is governed by compulsion, the desire to avoid pain (hell) and attain pleasure (heaven). These are actually the stimuli that govern animal behavior – instincts governed by pain and pleasure. Can we be free under these conditions? I (and I believe Apostle Paul) would say – certainly not! This is the trap we’re in due to the fall and our human sinfulness.

      #4. In what does true freedom consist then? If my behavior isn’t governed by fear of punishment, or its opposite desire of pleasure (heaven), how can I be free? Freedom for the Christian consists not in trusting that our own good behavior gets us love; true freedom consists in the faith that we are already loved, regardless of what we do. To use the example of parental love – isn’t it the case that if you’re not worried that your parents love you, you’re not fearful that your behavior will somehow wreck their love for you, can you not indeed be completely free to be who you are? And if you truly trust the love your parents have for you – appreciate it, give thanks for it, relish it, would you not then be inclined to exhibit behavior that is pleasing to them? Do things that are consistent with who you are, but in relationship to your parents who love you? You in a sense would be following the same “rules” of good behavior in the previous scenario (earning their love) but this time out of gratitude, not out of fear or desire FOR something. This is the model of Christian freedom we’re talking about. It’s not about earning heaven or avoiding hell; it’s about living a life that’s pleasing to God, in complete human freedom that allows one to be who one truly is.

      No compulsion, no rewards and punishments.

      I realize – this is a whole different way of thinking, when our natural human tendency is to think of everything as a transaction, involving reward and punishment. This is not how God’s grace – and relatedly, human free will, works. Calvin write of divine grace that HEALS our free will, which has been damaged by sin and the fall. We cannot fix that our selves; it requires divine help, in the form of this transforming love. If there is any work involved, it is in appropriating – deeply taking in and most importantly TRUSTING, having faith in — this love and grace.

      Now – I haven’t spoken about the opposite thing. Hell. What about that. Well, that’s a mystery beyond my pay grade. But the original Calvinists spoke of hell as a way to explain why some people are NOT transformed by this amazing experience of God’s freely-given love. It must be that God has a different fate for them. And because of this many then were motivated to exhibit behavior that was worthy of the “saved” – to assure themselves that God had chosen them, God has loved them and “predestined” them for heaven. Personally – I don’t focus as much on that. What we are to do is simply to trust – like your parents’ love, God’s love.

      OK – hope that helps!! Keep steady in your faith!!

  5. Jennifer U August 20, 2017 at 7:36 am - Reply

    My mind is blown. What does Calvin have to do what with GOD says? Another denomination throwing a human’s views into Bible theology. Almost as strange as Catholicism throws Mary into the Trinity somehow just because she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. The Trinity is God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Nobody else! The whole idea of predestination doesn’t make sense. I had a Presbyterian/Calvinist state to me “I’m glad God chose us to be saved” as they know I’m a Christian. This person believes a certain “elect” are chosen somehow. I was seriously mortified by the theology. Yes, God may already know who will end up in heaven or hell but it’s our own free will to choose Jesus as Savior and Son of God. Salvation is open to all. Man needs to stop throwing their own “twist” onto what the holy word of God says. Anybody reading it anymore? It’s pretty straight forward. It’s about an ongoing personal relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Some of these denominations are doing a bang up job of throwing in strange theology that can be very dangerous and confusing to those who don’t know better.

    • Jeffrey Vamos August 28, 2017 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Hmm. Jennifer, one of the dangers of Christian faith is thinking we know exactly what God thinks (which is so often simply…what WE think!). The Bible is easy to interpret: it matches my own views, biases, perspectives. That is rather dangerous.

      One of the great theologians of the church, Karl Barth, stated that it’s impossible to speak of God – by definition God is beyond time, space, concept. But we MUST speak of God. That requires us to be humble, and to be open, and able to receive the divine help we need to rightly interpret the Word of God. Humility is the only way that grace can find us, and that we can indeed choose God, for indeed I heartily agree with you, salvation IS open to all!

      I would humbly ask if there were any other means than “a human’s view into Bible theology.” Is it possible to have a non-human view into Bible theology? Are you claiming you have God’s own perspective here? I am doubtful of that. No, we’re left with this humble apparatus: our lowly brains, and our faith in the love of the savior, who is the only means by which we’re saved. Not our own good works, our own smart understanding…even our own good and holy choices. We are saved by God in Christ alone.

      I once read a poster that has always stuck with me: a mind is like a parachute. It only functions when open.

      I pray that God will indeed shed light on your own quest and journey to know what is true, Jennifer. God’s peace to you.

  6. Raymond October 16, 2017 at 1:55 am - Reply

    Coming from a Catholic perspective…We are made in the image and likeness of God, therefore not innately sinful but innately good. We inherited our sinful nature (Original Sin) from Adam and Eve. God loves us unconditionally…even when we sin. We freely choose heaven or hell. God does not desire our damnation but his justice demands it when we reject him. We are given gifts of grace…true. It is up to us whether to accept or reject. We make these choices every day. God is also infinitely merciful, and willing to forgive, even in the last moment of our lives. True love is a choice. We make it veryday in our family life as we do in our relationship with God. Also, no piece of paper (church indulgence) will guarantee our salvation. For one thing, an indulgence can only be granted to someone in a proper state of grace. This can not be properly understood from a Protestant understanding. We have a different understanding of Church and magesterial authority. The Church does admit terrible abuses of indulgences before the reformation. There are abuses in every church including the Catholic Church.

  7. Raymond October 16, 2017 at 1:59 am - Reply

    Also, I need to respond to Jennifer. The Catholic Church does not throw Mary into the Trinity. The Trinity is the Father, Som and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one God. We affirm this Truth each time we make the sign of the cross. The Catholic Church defines this dogma centuries ago.

  8. Jeffrey Vamos October 16, 2017 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Raymond – I say…well said. Thank you.

  9. JASON W BUDA November 28, 2017 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    I must say that this has been a hour of my time wisely used! I thoroughly enjoy listening to everyone’s view through the Radio shack telescope!!! I look forward to the day that God allows me a peek into his telescope. The more I study the scriptures the more I realize that I have so much more to learn. This is by definition the process of sanctification. My girlfriend is Catholic and I am Presbyterian. We attend each others services. There are things she likes of my church and there are things that I like of hers. The common denominator is that God is at the center. @SB the Westminster confession of faith: What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. We will always fall short of glorifying Him because of the fall, but it is Grace that will pull us back to Him. Thanks to everyone who took the time out of their day to provide their understanding. It is humbling to hear from all of you. I pray for unity, peace, and love and I am so thankful for the grace of God. Peace be with you all!

    • Jeffrey Vamos November 29, 2017 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      Jason, thank YOU for taking time to comment, and sharing your perspective. I am glad that the reflection here was useful to you. I will pray for you, and hope that you and your girlfriend will share your mutual seeking for God, and that you’ll continue on the path.


      Jeff V.

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