Predestination has become a controversial theological topic, despite the fact that the term is relatively rare in the New Testament. The controversy usually revolves around questions such as: what exactly is predestined? Does predestination mean that everything that happens in the universe is pre-determined, decided and controlled by God? Did God deliberately select and destine some individuals for salvation and some for destruction before the creation of the world? The aim of this brief word study is to consider how the term should be understood in its biblical context, and therefore how it would have been understood by the earliest Christians.
The word predestination only appears 6 times in the whole of the New Testament, and not once in the Old Testament [although the related word orizw (horizo) does appear 21 times in the Greek version of the Old Testament]. It translates the Greek word ‘pro-horizo’ (proorizw), which is made up of the prefix ‘pro-‘ (equivalent to our ‘pre-‘, meaning ‘before’), and ‘horizo’ (orizw), from which we derive our English word ‘horizon’. ‘Horizo’ in Greek has a range of meanings such us ‘to define’, ‘to set the limits or boundaries of a thing’, and therefore ‘to determine, fix or set’ [these definitions are based on the BDAG Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, which cites a word’s occurrences in classical Greek literature as well its particular usage in the New Testament as its basis for translation]. A horizon is a helpful visual aid for us to understand the meaning of the word: it is a line of definition, a boundary line, a broad limit, a demarcation. It is not something narrow, individual and constricting, but a horizon or a boundary—something that has definition and limits, but is nonetheless broad and expansive and can encompass a great deal. A line is drawn to define and explain both what our destiny is and what it isn’t. ‘Predestination’ is therefore a reasonable English translation, and is only made problematic by the fact that people read all kinds of different pre-conceived ideas into the concept of ‘destiny’. ‘Predestination’ is simply ‘pre-horizon-ing’: the setting of a definition, a boundary, a destiny beforehand.
Use in the New Testament
So much for the word itself—but what does the Bible say? Of the six New Testament occurrences of the word, two refer to the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:28; 1 Corinthians 2:7). Most Christians will not be surprised to read that when it came to the central salvific event for the whole of human history, God had thought about it beforehand and had a plan. The remaining four are all about the church—the destiny of believers in Christ (Romans 8:29,30; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:5; 1:11). Let’s look at each of these four examples in turn:
Romans 8:29 and 30
“Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…”.
Who and what is it talking about?
These verses tell us the destiny we are given beforehand: to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. As far as what we are predestined for is concerned, we have the answer. But does this verse tell us anything about who is predestined? If we read it in its context, yes it does: the whole of chapter 8–right from the very first verse—is concerned with ‘those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). In Romans 8:29, what does God know beforehand about those in Christ? That they will need the Spirit’s help in their weakness (8:26), and that despite knowing their weakness God has given them a glorious calling and destiny (v29), and He will indeed work with them in every situation in order to achieve that good purpose (v28).
This is the indication from the immediate context of Romans 8, but even if we are determined to push this idea of foreknowledge back pre-creation, it still tells us nothing about God selecting particular individuals to be in or out of the body of Christ. God would have looked ahead from before creation at His glorious plan for humanity and ‘foreknown’ that there would be a community of people in Christ being conformed to His own image—this was His express purpose and intention in creating, and therefore the existence and character of such a people was both ‘predestined’ and ‘foreknown’.
These verses say nothing about who will be in Christ and who won’t, or about certain individuals being predestined for salvation or otherwise. Paul is simply talking to those who are in Christ and telling them what their destiny is.
Ephesians 1:5 and 11
5. He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will”
What does ‘adopted as sons’ mean?
Here again we see that predestination is to do with sonship. But a new term is introduced: the ‘adoption’ as sons. ‘Adoption’ is a somewhat unhelpful translation of a Greek word that means something very different to what we mean by ‘adoption’ in English. The word in Greek is literally ‘son-placing’, and as far as the New Testament is concerned, it speaks of an event that is in the future, not in the past (Romans 8:18-25, particularly v23).
We think of adoption as being at the beginning of the Christian life–the popular idea of being ‘adopted into God’s family’–but we are not in fact adopted into God’s family, we are born into God’s family, born of the Spirit (eg John 1:13, 3:5, 1 John 5:1). This is a wonderful truth, as is ‘son-placing’, which speaks of the future revealing of the sons of God (Rom 8:18). It is based on the Jewish idea of a son coming of age and receiving his inheritance and the rights, privileges and responsibilities that come with it. [For a thorough biblical study of this theme, see G. H. Lang ‘Firstborn Sons, their Rights and Risks’.] This ties in exactly with verse 11 of Ephesians 1:
“11. . . . also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will”
In Christ we have become heirs to an inheritance (Galatians 4:7), a concept which is also linked with adoption and predestination in Romans 8 (Romans 8:16-17, 23, 29). Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 are speaking of the same process of being predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son of God, one day to be revealed as sons of God, when we will come into the fullness of our inheritance. This will be our ‘adoption’ or ‘placing as sons’.
The teaching of the New Testament regarding predestination is therefore clear and consistent. Before creation God had a plan in mind for humanity—that in our union with Christ we would become conformed to the image of God’s Son. This is the limit, the definition, the destiny that God has given humanity beforehand—not to be some other kind of creature, or to develop some other kind of character, nor to live for some other destiny or purpose—but together in the body of Christ to be conformed to the character and maturity of Jesus the Son, one day to receive with Him and in Him the fullness of our inheritance as sons of God.
So why all the fuss?
To think through the implications of our understanding of predestination, see my blog article: ‘Predestination: what’s all the fuss about?’ To read about all these issues in much greater depth and to see more of the evidence behind these ideas, see ‘God’s Strategy in Human History: Volume 1 – God’s Path to Victory (chapter 16) and Volume 2 – Reconsidering Key Biblical Ideas (chapter 5), available to buy in the shop.