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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 19: Help for Ecumenism: On Predestination"


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The Church, whose authority Luther rejected, assures us that we are saved by faith alone-provided we interpret faith in St. Paul's sense of a total adherence of a person to God, not in Luther's sense of just being confident Christ has paid all debt for sin in advance, with nothing else to be done. The Church tells us too that we are totally dependent on God, as Luther did, but the Church does not say we are totally corrupt. Luther's teaching on that point tended to imply a blind predestination to Heaven and a similarly blind reprobation to Hell. Luther did not explicitly say that; Calvin did.

The Catholic Church, in the second Council of Orange from which we quoted earlier, also said, "We not only do not believe that any persons have been predestined by divine power to evil, but also, if there are any who wish to believe so great an evil, with all detestation, we say anathema to them."121 The detestation comes from the fact that such a view implies a denial of the goodness of God. A lesser Council, that of Quiersy in 853 A.D., added, "The fact that some are saved is the gift of Him who saves; the fact that some are lost, is the merit of those who are lost."122 As we shall see, this is just a restatement of the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

But the Church has not given us a full and complete explanation of the two important concepts just mentioned: predestination and human interaction with grace. Since the Church has not yet done so, we must make use of what information the Church provides to find the proper solution.

We hope our attempts may be of some help to ecumenism. The last chapter shows that these two questions are basic in ecumenism. We are going to propose some original, new solutions to these problems.123 The solutions will be, on the one hand, well within the lines marked out by existing teachings of the Church; but yet they are closer to Protestant ideas than other proposals. We will treat predestination in this chapter, interaction with grace in the next chapter.

Students in high school have been known to put up a hand and say, "Since God knows where I am going in eternity, what is the use of trying to lead a good life and get to Heaven?" Their question is the result of inaccurate information about predestination. First, to know in advance is not the same as to compel or force anything. We remain free even if God does foresee. Second, we can say positively that God does not foresee anything. This may sound shocking, but it is not. Here is why: We know that God is completely unchangeable. But, time is a constant succession of restless changes. Ahead of me now is a moment I call future, but quickly it becomes present, and just as quickly, it turns into past. Unlike us, God is not immersed in such a sea of changes. He is in eternity, with no change. Therefore for Him there is no past and no future-everything is one great eternal present to Him! So He does not foresee anything-He sees all as present.

Here is another way to think of it: We say God made the world, in the past. But to Him it is present. We say Christ will return at the end. But to Him it is present. Our minds cannot grasp this concept. But it is good for us to begin to realize our minds are small compared to God.

Yet, as we implied, there is a real question about predestination. That word means an arrangement of Divine Providence to see that something gets done. What must get done? There are two things to remember here, though people commonly have in mind only the first when they use the word: a man may be predestined to Heaven, or to full membership in the People of God, the Church. Scripture rarely uses the word predestine, and when it does, it is always only in the second sense which we have mentioned. Failure to see that-for people forgot the Scriptural context-led to some long and bitter debates among Catholic theologians, and Protestants too. Reprobation means the unfavorable decision that a man is not to be saved.

Even though Scripture does not speak explicitly of predestination, it does so implicitly, as we shall see. And from just reasoning a bit, it is evident that there must be such a thing.

To see that, we first realize that people can be very different in good or evil. At one end of the scale, some spend most or practically all of their lives in the state of grace (that is, in God's favor with His transforming grace at work in their souls). They may be out of that state of grace for just a brief period. At the other end of the scale, there are those who are out of the state of grace for most of their lives and may be right for only one short stretch. And of course, there are all degrees in between these extremes.

Further, we realize that in this world of ours there are many natural causes at work set up by God. These can bring sudden death to anyone, at any age. For a teen-ager, such a thing happens more readily by an auto accident; for a person in his 50's, more easily from a sudden heart attack.

With these things in view, we must face the question: Will Divine Providence either order or permit death to strike a man who is out of grace most of his life-but who is good for just one short stretch? Providence makes that decision. If favorable, it is called predestination; if unfavorable, it is called reprobation. Similarly, picture a man who is in the state of grace most of his life, but out just briefly. Again will Divine Providence order or permit death to take him at just the wrong instant, causing him to be damned? Clearly, Providence decides these extreme cases, and all cases in between. So there is such a thing as predestination and reprobation.

Next, on what basis does God decide? Does He decide with or without looking at a person's merits or demerits or how he lives, his qualities in general?

Theologians have always assumed (wrongly, as we shall see) that if God decides predestination without looking at a person's life, He also decides reprobation the same way. Both predestination and reprobation are opposite sides of one coin: you are one or the other.

But this poses a great dilemma because both ways of deciding turn out to be impossible.

It is impossible to assume that God decides both predestination and reprobation without looking at a person's life, for He has revealed that He "wills all men to be saved." (1 Tim. 2:4). Imagine that Joe Doaks is a man who is reprobated, without God looking at his life at all. Can God reprobate Joe this way and also, at the same time say, "I want all men to be saved"? Of course, that is impossible.

On the other hand, if we suppose God decides by looking at peoples' good lives, we have another impossibility. For merit or good in our lives comes only as God's gift. St. Paul says, "What have you that you did not receive" from God? (1 Cor. 4:7). Nothing, of course. St. Augustine said, "When God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."124 So merits, or a good life, are gifts of God. How then could He use as a basis of predestination something we will not have unless He gives it? Again impossible.

This dilemma can be solved by discovering that it is not necessary to say that He must decide both predestination and reprobation on the same footing, as theologians have been assuming. There are two possible explanations.

First, notice that Jesus constantly refers to God as "Father." Some foolish persons have said, "If God is a good Father, there can be no Hell." But Jesus taught us that there is a Hell. Without being emotional, examine Jesus' comparison of God as Father to a normal, human family situation. We could, logically, speak of three points or stages:

1) The Father (and Mother, too, of course) want all the children to turn out well. This is like 1 Tim. 2:4 saying that God wants all to be saved.

2) Does a son say, "I know what I must do. I have to dry the dishes, cut the grass, help out in the house, and then I will get my father to love and care for me"? This is nonsense because the father loves and cares not because the son is good, but because he, the father, is good. This basic love and care is too great and fundamental to be earned. It does not have to be earned and cannot be earned.

3) But even though a son cannot earn and need not earn that great basic love from his father, he can earn punishment if he is bad. In fact, if he is bad enough, he can even earn being thrown out of the house permanently.

So it is with our Father in Heaven: 1) He wants all His children to be saved; 2) He looks ahead to see who will resist His grace so much that he cannot be saved. (This is just our way of speaking because there is no "future" for Him as we perceive it.) Remember, grace is a divine power to save us and if one throws it away too often, he cannot be saved. So then, sadly, God determines to reprobate or reject those who have earned it fully. (3) He then turns to all the rest, to those who are not forcing their own loss, and He decrees to predestine or save them. Why? Not because of their merits or good lives. He has not even looked at such things yet. He has been looking only at resistance to His grace. Further, it is not even because of their lack of such serious resistance. No, the bottom-line reason He will save them is simply this: He always wanted to do that-He wants to save all-and those He saves are not stopping Him by throwing away the means that could save them or His grace.

To sum it up, predestination is determined without consideration of merits or good living; reprobation is decided with or because of consideration of demerits, resistance to grace.

As we have shown, this is a very simple concept and many people, after hearing it explained, say, "What else would you expect?" Others, caught in a "theological puzzle," cannot grasp it. This brings to mind the strange case of the Inca Indians centuries ago in South America. They had a rather advanced civilization, yet nowhere in their civilization was a wheel found! No one had discovered a wheel. Now, a wheel is such a simple thing, but it is simple only after someone discovers it. Before that, it can be missed by a whole civilization for centuries.

Similarly, this answer we have found could be, and was, missed for centuries. It seemed not just difficult but impossible. Yet, once aware, we wonder how anyone could have missed it.

We said there was a second way to reach the same answer. It too is simple. St. Paul in Romans 6:23 wrote, "For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God, life everlasting." So we can earn punishment, reprobation, but predestination, eternal life, is just a free, unearned gift.

How much resistance to grace will bring reprobation? We can hazard a guess. It is the amount which will bring spiritual blindness that makes us incapable of even perceiving that God is calling us by His grace, at a particular moment, to do His will. If we cannot even perceive His call, the rest of the process cannot happen either. Such blindness comes from repeated sinning, especially from sinning in presumption, in the attitude that says, "I will get my fill of evil, and then later tell God that I wish I had not done it." But would there be a real repentance, that is, a real wish not to have done it, when it was all planned that way?125 Further, it is conceivable that God might send death and the resultant Hell, after one mortal sin, to a man whom He foresees would sin even to blindness if allowed to live a full lifespan. That would be mercy to the man himself, for his eternal ruin would be less after one sin, and also to others, who would not be corrupted by him.

We now return to the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod of Lutherans, "As to the question why not all men are converted and saved, seeing that God's grace is universal and all men are equally corrupt, we confess that we cannot answer it."126 Part of this statement shows fine insight, yet it misses important points, with the result that it concludes without knowing the answer. The insight lies in seeing that predestination to Heaven cannot rest on merits, that we cannot earn salvation. Yet, the Lutheran Synod wound up with no answer, since they could not find anything on which to prove that there could be a difference in men. This happened partly because of their mistaken idea of the total corruption of man, and partly because they did not know how to solve the dilemma we have just broken. So they were led in the direction of supposing that God reprobates without looking at anything in people. They wisely pulled back from such an implication, for that, in turn, would imply a denial of the goodness of God. Hence they concluded, "We cannot answer."

We hope they may be pleased with the alternative solution that God does indeed save us without our earning it (predestination without merits). But He never reprobates blindly; He does it only because of, and in consideration of our great resistance to His grace.

A note on a pauline puzzle

Our discovery, especially in view of Romans 6:23, provides the answer to another difficult puzzle in St. Paul. Examine the following two sets of statements:

First, Jesus Himself said, "Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." (Matt. 5:17). Similarly, in spite of his words about salvation by faith and not by law, St. Paul says many times that if one violates the law he will be eternally lost. For example, in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, "Do you not know that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor those who lie with men, nor thieves, nor covetors, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." So if one breaks the law on a major point, he will not be saved. (St. Paul has similar statements in Eph. 5:5 and Gal. 5:19-21.)

Secondly, St. Paul insists equally, and over and over, that we are free from the law. For example, Romans 3:28 says, "For we judge that a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law." Or again in 1 Cor. 6: 12, "All things are lawful to me." Or in Romans 6:14, "For sin shall not have dominion over you; for you are not under the law, but under grace." (More similar statements: Rom. 3:21; Gal. 2:16, 5:18, 3:21.)

Yet, we can easily make sense of all these statements with the help of Romans 6:23, as we said, "For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God, life everlasting." That is, eternal death can be earned by breaking the law; but eternal life is a free gift of God. Our keeping the law does not earn it; not even faith earns it. It is our "inheritance" as sons. Note the word "inherit" in 1 Cor. 6:10-they who break the law will not "inherit the kingdom."

Consequently, a Christian must follow the Spirit of Christ, who teaches him to live as Christ did. Then he need not even look at the law. 1 Timothy 1:9 says "Knowing this, that the law is not made for the just man, but for the unjust and disobedient." If the just man breaks the law, he loses his inheritance.

A student in a discussion class once summed it all up neatly: "You can't earn it [salvation], but you can blow it."


121 DS 397.
122 DS 623.
123 For a full presentation, Cf. W. Most, New Answers to Old Questions, St. Paul Publications, London, 1971. [2d ed. = Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions, Christendom Press, Front Royal, Va., 1997.]
124 St. Augustine, Epistle 194.5.19.
125 Cf. Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates 4.3.1-6. Even so, grace is very powerful, and natural fear at the end might bring a change of heart, so one should not despair.
126 Cf. note 119 above.

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