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Predestination or Free Will? (Post 1)

Every believer I know struggles with understanding how God works in our lives to bring us to faith. Are we predestined to follow Christ? Or is this a decision we freely make? Or is the answer somehow both? If both, how can this be without entailing a contradiction? Or is a contradiction acceptable in this case?

These questions lead to many more questions and often lead to heated debates. In this series, I will offer a unique way to approach this issue. This approach has helped me think through this question and come to a conclusion I believe is biblically sound, logically coherent, and existentially comforting. (For a full summary of the argument, see the last post in this series.)

But, first, I must say a few words to frame the issue, add some caveats, and clarify my intentions.

Why Is This Important?

First, why is it worth the time to write, read, and think about this issue? What difference does it make, anyway?

It is important to think about this issue because where we come down on this issue has many implications. It helps us understand more of who God is, and how God works in our lives. It helps us understand better what it means to be saved from the penalty of our sin and to be a child of God. It helps us understand how God is working in the lives of those we know and love who do not yet know him. From this it helps us know how we should engage them in evangelistic and apologetic conversations.

If those reasons are not enough, it is important simply because God, in his infinite wisdom and desire for us to experience fullness of life, commands us to think about these type of things. He tells us to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). More broadly, we are instructed by Jesus to, “… love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37-8, italics added).

So if we hope to understand our salvation, grow in our relationship with Christ, engage others effectively with the gospel, and obey God’s charge to deepen our knowledge of His truth, we must think about this issue.

Convictions, Persuasions, and Opinions

I also want to emphasize that this is an issue on which believers, all sharing a high view of Scripture, disagree. This is not an issue essential to the Christian faith, and therefore one we should discuss, but can legitimately agree to disagree about.

Dr. Alan Scholes, in his Enjoying God: An Introduction to Christian Theology,  offers a helpful way to think about this (a summary is found here). He observes this and other theological beliefs can be placed within one of three concentric circles.

Convictions

The innermost circle contains our Convictions. These are beliefs we hold so deeply and are so certain about that we are willing to die for them. They are non-negotiables for all believers. In this circle is, for example, the deity of Christ, for which many martyrs have given their lives, and on whose sacrifice for this truth the gospel continues to bear fruit. These are issues essential to salvation, which comprise the essence of the gospel.

It is these, and only these truths that we should be willing to “break fellowship” over. In other words, if a church did not affirm a Conviction, this is an adequate reason to not be members of that church. For example, I could not be a member of a Jehovah’s Witness church due to their denial of the deity of Christ.

Needless to say, what we place in the Convictions circle should be very, very limited. They are the beliefs identified in the historic creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) as central Christian beliefs. By placing too many beliefs, or the wrong beliefs, in this innermost circle many churches have split, many believers have stopped fellowshipping together, and much harm has been done to the name and reputation of Christ.

Persuasions

The next circle contains our Persuasions. These are those beliefs we hold, perhaps quite strongly, yet beliefs which do not rise to the level of Convictions. They are issues we have studied in some detail. We have weighed the arguments for and against the belief, and have come to a reasoned conclusion.

We are willing to engage others in sometimes rigorous debate on the topic. We may be quite passionate about why the issue is important, and desire to convince others that they, too, should adopt our point of view. The topics I write about–in this blog and elsewhere–fall into this category for me.

However, we hold these beliefs more loosely than our Convictions. Though we have done quite a bit of thinking about these issues, we still hold these beliefs more loosely than our Convictions. We will also know many good, thoughtful, genuine believers who have thought just as much about these issues as we have, yet have come to different conclusions.

Therefore, we should not make Persuasions grounds for breaking fellowship with other Christ followers. We can discuss, debate, and try to convince one another our view is correct. But the tone should be one of seeking to discover the truth of the matter together. Furthermore, no matter the result of the conversation, we must be willing to part as friends, even if we have to agree to disagree on the issue in question.

As we grow in Christ and learn more, this category will continually expand. But it will never be as large as the third, outermost ring of beliefs–our Opinions.

Opinions

Opinions are those beliefs we hold very loosely. We haven’t thought much about these issues. We have perhaps only one or two vague reasons to believe as we do. We don’t understand the more detailed, nuanced, and rigorous reasons and arguments offered for and against the position. Our understanding is quite superficial.

If pressed for an answer we may be able to state what we are inclined to think about the issue, but not with any degree of certainty. We should not be inclined to engage others in debate on the topic. Rather, we should seek to listen and learn from others who have thought about these issues more than we have.

For instance, in my Opinions include my beliefs concerning the End Times (Eschatology). I’ve done some reading on the topic, and have a superficial understanding of the reasons people take various positions. But I have not studied the topic in enough depth for my beliefs to be Persuasions. If pressed, I would say I have a slight inclination to one of the three overall positions on the topic. Yet I only hold that belief tentatively. I want to learn more, and am eager to talk with those who have studied this issue more than I have. One day I very well may have a Persuasion on this issue, but that day is still a long way off!

From this brief outline it should be clear how important it is to keep our beliefs in the right categories, for our sake and for the sake of those around us. This is certainly true concerning our beliefs about the role predestination and free will play in our coming to faith in Christ. For many this is an Opinion. As I argued in the first section, we should certainly seek to grow in our understanding of these issues, and develop a Persuasion.

Yet even after we have studied this issue in some detail, we must be careful to not move our Persuasion on this issue to the status of a Conviction. So many have done so, on both sides of this debate, and the results are not pretty.  Good people can and do disagree on this. That’s OK. Let’s agree to disagree, even if we believe strongly in our view. Let’s never make this a Conviction that we break fellowship over.

Conclusion

Next, before outlining how I believe the question of predestination or free will can be answered, I need to define my terms. I’ll do so in my next post. Until then, grace and peace.

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