The “Unspeakable Comfort” of Predestination

The “Unspeakable Comfort” of Predestination

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Seikokai in San Francisco on July 27, 2014.   

When was the last time you heard a sermon about predestination? My guess is it could be a long while. I think it’s not a subject Episcopalians usually worry about.  John Calvin, on the other hand, talked about it a lot and it always used to be a major theme in the churches of the Reformed tradition – the Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Congregationalists.  But I don’t think they worry about it anymore. Ask your Presbyterian friends when they last heard a sermon about predestination. But in the second reading today St. Paul has a lot to say about predestination and if we want to learn from St. Paul, we need to spend some time with the subject.

So what is predestination?  It’s the idea that God has destined some people for salvation from the very beginning – and others for elsewhere.  It’s the belief that judgmentsalvation is God’s decision made before we were born.  Predestination is not the idea that everything that happens is predetermined, that God has every event all planned from the downing of a Malaysian jet to the day you will die – when, as they say, your number is up. Predestination is not about that; it’s about your salvation, your eternal destiny, and it’s the notion that God determined that even before you were born.

Now, that is obviously unfair and even un-American. We’ve all been brought up to believe that you should make something of yourself, that it’s up to you what you achieve, that you can go as far as you want in this country and so we also tend to think that if you’re a nice person, and pay your taxes, and don’t upset the neighbors you will be rewarded hereafter.  Predestination seems to say just the opposite: Predestination seems to say that it’s all decided in advance and we’re just playing out the game with no hope of changing the final score.

If you look in the back of the Prayer Book, however, you’ll find a short essay on predestination on page 871 which says “the godly consideration of predestination . . . is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.”  So I hope that includes us and that we can find some unspeakable comfort in thinking about a subject that’s not very appealing at first.

What St. Paul tells us in this morning’s passage from Romans is that God first foreknew, then predestined, then called, then justified, and finally glorified.  In other words, God chose certain people and then worked in them and on them to save them – and only them.  I don’t know about you, but I instinctively don’t like that.  It goes against everything I believe about the way things ought to be.

So what I’ve been asking myself as I ponder the matter is, what would be a better plan.  If not predestination, then what? What are the alternatives? I think there are really only two alternatives. One alternative would be that God simply saves everyone: no choosing, no favorites, no standards, everyone wins.  What about that?  Well, I have to admit, I don’t like that any better. In the first place, it gives carte blanche to all our worst instincts.  You want to make a killing by insider trading, buying up banks with political influence, destroying the economy so you can rake in billions?  Go to it; it makes no difference to God.  You want to covet your neighbor’s wife, batter your spouse, neglect the kids?  That’s cool; God loves you anyway and we’ll all be saved no matter what.  Now, can you really imagine a universe built on those principles:  the idea of universal salvation?  What kind of heaven would it be if there were no alternative place for Hitler and Eichman and Stalin? I think I prefer predestination to that.

There is a second alternative.  What about a world where you are free to choose and to earn your reward? What about the American ideal: a level playing field on which each is rewarded according to the choices they make and the deeds they do? Of course, there isn’t a level playing field and we all know it – some people get born with a silver spoon in their mouths, some people are born in San Francisco, others in Gaza or Iraq or Afghanistan. But God can probably compensate for that. God would see that some had an innate advantage and some made bad choices out of ignorance but it wasn’t really their fault so God would balance out the natural advantages and forgive the sins of invincible ignorance and judge everyone with absolute fairness and heaven would be for those who truly deserve it. Why wouldn’t that be fair?

Well, It sounds good at first, but the fact is I think such a world would also be a terrible place.  In a world like that we could all take full credit for our accomplishments.  It would be our doing, not God’s. But what kind of heaven would it be where finally God had to let in those who measured up and keep out those who didn’t? One great advantage of predestination, in fact, is that it rules out human pride and human boasting. Earlier in this same epistle St. Paul says, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded.”  No one, says St. Paul, should be able to boast in God’s presence.  And besides that, it takes God almost out of the picture, as if God had no say in who wins heaven and who gets sent elsewhere. God becomes – as Grantland Rice put it long ago – “the One Great Scorer” who simply adds it up and announce the results. And, as I said, the losers, simply get left behind.

Of course, this does have a certain appeal because it’s a lot like the present system in our world.  The communist system was supposed to be different, but it was actually even worse.  So we’ve given that up and now it’s free enterprise for all and democracy for those who can get it.  I’m afraid I don’t know a better human system, but I hope God does and I hope we can figure one out eventually because our system still leaves too many people out in the cold, back in the dust, unemployed, homeless and hungry, without hope, on drugs, in jail. Even predestination might be better than that.

So I may not like predestination, but even less do I like the alternatives.  I don’t like a God with no standards who opens heaven to all, nor do I like a God who keeps score and lets in only the winners. And notice this: neither alternative involves a God who acts in human life. God doesn’t do anything to change anything, just waits for us and either lets us in or not but never gets involved in our lives here and now. That’s a pretty useless God.

So I think the only real choice is a God who is involved, who chooses, who predestines. What does our text really say? What it says, it seems to me, is that God does act and that God has worked from the beginning of time for you to belong to God. God loves you that much.  Before the planets spun away from the sun, before the earth ever cooled or the first amoebas swam in the primeval ocean, God knew you and knew you would respond, and so God called you and died for you and justified you and glorified you.  God was at work in your life long before you knew it and all for the purpose of sharing God’s glory with you.

Now, what’s wrong with that? Only one thing, of course: what about everyone else?  How is it fair for God to choose some and not choose others.  Well, if that worries you, let me suggest three answers. First, what others? Choosing some implies not choosing others, of course, but who is not chosen?  How many are not chosen?  We can’t answer that.  The Bible gives no numbers.  Perhaps it’s only a few not chosen: Hitler and people like that. But maybe no one. We don’t know.  So that’s God’s problem, not ours.

Second, Paul says that first God knew and then God chose: “those whom he foreknew he also predestined…”  So the choice, perhaps, is not arbitrary but based on foreknowledge of our response, our free choice.

But third, and most important: is this, in any event, something to worry about, to lose sleep over?  God chose you. What business is it of yours to ask why? If they tell you that you won the lottery, is it your first concern to ask Why?  Do you worry about the losers?  If someone you love asks you to marry them, do you worry first about all those who were not asked? God loves you.  That’s what predestination is all about. God loves you. What else matters?  Shouldn’t our first response – and maybe our only response – be gratitude and love?

You know, there are lots of problems, we won’t work out this side of hereafter anyway; this isn’t the only one.  There’s the Trinity, the Incarnation, evil, suffering, pain.  I don’t expect to get final answers on any of these either any time soon.  But what are the problems as compared to the answers? What matters to me is the fact that the Creator of the universe cares enough about you and me to choose you and me, to call you and me, to die for you and me, to make you and me the free gift of eternal life and glory.  If everyone gets that gift regardless, what’s the thrill of that?  If you have to earn it, what chance does any of us have?  But if God gives me this gift for love alone, that is truly glory.

One more question:  What is glory? We use the word all the time in church and seldom ponder it.  But glory is God’s nature, God’s splendor, God’s very life.  And we, to quote a contemporary English priest, must come to realize:

that we are the glory of God . . . we live because we share God’s breath, God’s life, God’s glory.  Take this,” he writes, “as your koan (a phrase to be repeated).  ‘I am the glory of God.’ . . . You are the place where God chooses to dwell . . .and the spiritual life is nothing more or less than to allow that space to exist where God can dwell, to create the space where God’s glory can manifest itself.  (Basil Allchin)

You are the glory of God. God chooses to dwell in you and calls you to eternal life. So do you believe in predestination?  What other choice is there? So give thanks for God’s love.  Give thanks that God chose you and called you to share God’s glory.

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