Trinity & Predestination

The doctrines of the Trinity and predestination (or God’s decree) come together in the eternal covenant of redemption: before the world existed, the triune God is already turned toward us, with a purpose to create all things and redeem a people for everlasting fellowship.

I. Drama to Doctrine to Doxology
Predestination is clearly taught in Scripture, but its meaning has been debated throughout the history of the church. The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign over all that comes to pass. There is also a close connection between God’s foreknowledge and foreordination: God knows all things exhaustively because he has decreed them from eternity. Therefore, even the sinful acts of humans are included in God’s plans, though they remain freely willed by us. Predestination typically refers to God’s sovereign determination of all events, while election and reprobation refer to his decree with regard to salvation or condemnation. There are four key conclusions to draw from the biblical testimony on these themes:

  1. Predestination is an exercise of God’s that freely expresses his character; because he is holy, righteous, loving, and good, God cannot will any ultimate
  1. Reformed theology distinguishes between God’s permission and positive determination; God neither sins nor causes people to sin, though in his goodness and wisdom he remains Lord over sinners and sinful acts.
  1. God’s decree in eternity and its execution in time must be carefully distinguished; purposes are different from their fulfillment, and determinations are different from their accomplishment—both must be affirmed.
  1. God’s sovereignty is not only demonstrated in narratives and described in doctrines; it is celebrated in praise, such that only when we are led to doxology have we really understood the revelation of the mystery of God’s decree.

II.      Historical Interpretations of God’s Decree
Divergent historical positions on predestination have often reflected deep theological disagreements about the God-world relation and the meaning of salvation.

  • Pelagianism—God elects to salvation on the basis of foreseen faith and obedience accomplished from our own free will, even apart from gracious assistance.
  • Semi-Pelagianism—Though human salvation begins in our free movement toward God, growth and ultimate salvation require God’s gracious assistance (and our subsequent cooperation).
  • Augustinianism—Against Pelagianism: God unconditionally elects to gracious salvation (including the faith and obedience of the redeemed will) and reprobates to just condemnation because of sin.
  • Arminianism—Against the Reformed: God’s grace is not only necessary for perfecting faith and obedience but is a precondition for both, yet this preceding grace is universally available to all, God electing those he foresees will exercise their free will toward faith and good works.
  • Socinianism—Denies both God’s predestination and foreknowledge of the free acts of creatures.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy—Often understands the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy as a Western problem because of the focus on legal categories but nevertheless affirms synergism—that is, salvation is a process of grace-assisted cooperation with God.
  • Lutheranism—Does not fit into any of the preceding categories; denies the Augustinian-Reformed understanding of reprobation and the irresistibility of grace but is just as committed to monergism (salvation is the work of God alone).

The notion that predestination is the “central dogma,” or all-controlling idea from which the whole Reformed theological system is deduced, has been refuted by recent historical scholarship. It is of immense benefit to consider our election in Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, but it is a dangerous labyrinth if we presume to speculate about God’s secret counsels.

III.   The Logical Order of God’s Decree
There is no temporal before and after in God’s eternal decision making; “succession” in God’s decree is a logical rather than chronological consideration. The main question is whether God’s decision to elect some and reprobate others came before or after his decision to permit humanity’s fall. The supralapsarian answer is that election comes before the decree to permit the fall. The fall—as well as creation itself—serve to carry out God’s free purposes in election and reprobation. The infralapsarian answer is that election comes after the decree to permit the fall. Election and reprobation are God’s free, gracious, and just response to the fall of his human creatures.

A.Traditional Reformed Interpretations
Both infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism (but not necessarily their terminology) have a long history in Western theology. It is difficult to classify the Reformers on this issue, except Zwingli, who was consistently supralapsarian. The Reformed orthodox tolerated supralapsarianism but favored infralapsarianism. Supralapsarianism seems to make God the author of evil and suggests election to salvation and reprobation to condemnation are virtually parallel “positive” purposes of God. While election is the cause of salvation, reprobation should never be seen as the cause of condemnation.

B. Barth’s Revised Supralapsarianism
Barth brought this internal Reformed debate to the forefront of theology by strongly endorsing a thoroughly reworked supralapsarian position: Jesus Christ the one Son of God is also the one eternally Elect Man, and all humanity is already eternally elected, justified, and sanctified in him. Such a position collapses time into eternity and law into gospel, undermining the historical reality and diverse characteristics of God’s activities in creation and redemption. Yet in his radical supralapsarianism and affirmation of universal election, Barth stopped short of advocating the final universal salvation of all humanity.

(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Nine)


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