The Scriptural Teaching of Predestination

The Scriptural teaching on predestination is found mostly in Romans chapters 8-11 and in Ephesians chapter 1. Doing a full exegesis of these texts is a task which exceeds what can be done a blog, so readers are referred to a full reading of the relevant texts on their own. Some of the relevant bits will only be cited in passing.

Much discussion of predestination centers around the question of individual salvation and damnation. People holding to a belief in what is called “double predestination” assert that before the universe began God surveyed a list of everyone who would ever live and distributed their names between one of two lists. In this scenario, before anyone was born or did or believed anything, it was all decided by God: those chosen (or “elected”) to be on the “Saved” list would certainly be saved, while those chosen to be on the “Damned” list would certainly be damned. This was described as an exercise of God’s sovereignty. Since all were sinners, the argument goes, no one has any right to complain about anything—everyone deserves to be damned, so those chosen for the “Damned” list are simply getting what they deserve. They are damned to the praise of God’s justice, while those on the “Saved” list are saved to the praise of His grace. In fairness to those holding this view, it does not necessarily mean that no one has free will. Everyone freely makes their choice, unaware that God stands behind everything and every choice made. If grilled more closely about the meaning of free will, the predestinarian would simply say, “It’s a mystery”. Orthodox who are no strangers to mystery can have at least a smidgeon of sympathy for the reply, even if we ultimately disagree. After all, the betrayal of Judas was foreseen and prophesied, but such prophetic foresight did not negate his free will—he freely chose to betray Christ, and the other apostles recognized that such a terrifying choice was taken up by God to serve His will for the salvation of mankind. That was a mystery too, as was every instance of fulfilled prophecy. And it’s not as if predestinarians delight in the damnation of the damned. We may disagree with the whole thing, but we still ought to keep the outraged moralistic rhetoric down to a dull roar. Just because Calvinists offer easy targets doesn’t mean we should take the free shot.

I suggest however that the passages in Romans and Ephesians are not answering the question, “Who gets to be saved and how?”, but something else—namely God’s plan for those who love Him and who freely choose to serve Him in humility. A key part of the puzzle is contained in the word “foreknown”—in Greek proginosko/ προγινωσκω. We get some idea of how the word is used from 1 Peter 1:20, which describes Christ as “foreknown before the foundation of the world” and who “was manifested in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God”. The author’s meaning is that God always knew what His Christ would do to accomplish salvation, and that the events of Christ’s life around 30 A.D. were simply the outworking of His eternal plan.

This understanding of proginosko also informs St. Paul’s meaning in Romans 8:29, where after saying that God causes everything to work together to help us in our salvation (v. 28) he writes, that those “whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the first-born among many brethren”. The word translated “predestined” is the Greek proorizo/ προοριζω, literally to pre-appoint, orizo meaning “to appoint, to order, to designate”. The word orizo is used of a prophet ordering a meal (in Didache 11:9), and of God appointing Jesus Christ to be the Saviour (in Acts 17:31), and of Him designating Jesus as the Son of God by raising Him from the dead (in Romans 1:4). The word proorizo therefore means that God pre-appointed those whom He foreknew would believe in Jesus to be conformed to Christ’s image. The emphasis in not on individual’s choice for or against Christ, but on corporate destiny; it does not answer the question, “Who gets saved and how?”, but rather, “What is God planning to do for those whom He foreknew would believe?” The answer: their destiny is to be conformed to the image of Christ, so that all that Christ is by nature He shares with them by grace. Thus Christ is but the first-born of many brethren; all of God’s people are pre-appointed to be like Jesus.

Paul says the same thing in Ephesians 1:4-5. Paul begins his doxology for God’s work in Christ by blessing Him because He has given us every spiritual blessing through our union with Christ in the heavenlies (v. 1). Unlike the rest of the world, Christians enjoyed heavenly and transcendent blessedness through their incorporation into Christ. This, St. Paul goes on to say, is the outworking of God’s eternal plan, for “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before Him”. In Christ and through our union with Him God “predestined us (Greek proorizo) to adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ to Himself” (v. 4-5). Note: the content of this predestination and pre-appointing is not our inclusion or exclusion in salvation, but what such a salvation consists of— namely, being “holy and blameless before Him”, our “adoption to sonship”. As God’s sons, we are thus brothers of Christ, and He is therefore “the first among many brethren”.

Messianic salvation could have consisted of something else, and in the first century, most Jews assumed that it did. They were sure that the Kingdom was indeed of this world, so the Messianic salvation consisted of Jews being given the top spot in the world order, with Israel presiding over a kind of Pax Hebraica which would replace the Pax Romana. Jews would all sit each one under his vine and fig tree while the hated Gentiles fulfilled their subordinate roles as hewers of wood and drawers of water. That was one vision, but Paul assures his hearers that it was not God’s. God’s vision and destiny for His people was that they be conformed to the image of Christ, sharing His sonship and His heavenly glory, parts of a Kingdom not of this world. Salvation consisted of spiritual transformation, not political revolution. This was bad news to the Zealots of Palestine, and to many other Jews besides them. It was wholly unexpected. That of course is why Paul wrote about it so much; his teaching about the predestined salvation of those God foreknew would remain true to Him was intended as a correction of the more conventional view.

Paul expands this teaching in Romans chapters 9-11. Once again he is not dealing with the question, “Who gets saved and how?”, but the Jewish objection that God would be unfair if He confined Messianic salvation to those who believe in Jesus. In their view, all Jews were entitled to salvation simply because they were Jews. In the writings of the prophets God had promised that “all Israel would be saved” and if only those parts of Israel confessing Jesus were saved, God’s word and promise would have failed.

Paul begins his three chapter long reply by more closely examining what is meant by the term “Israel”, and he asserts that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6). That is, not every Jew was necessarily a part of true salvation-bound Israel just because he was racially descended from Abraham. Paul points out that God had always distinguished between persons sharing the same father, giving the covenant to one and not the other. Thus Isaac was given the covenant, not Ishmael; thus Jacob was chosen to bear the covenant, not Esau (9:7-13). Paul’s point is that God can order His saving plan in whatever way He likes, and neither Ishmael or Esau have any right to complain. Even Pharaoh, the archetype of Israel’s oppressors, bows to God’s purposes: after oppressing Israel, God’s judgment finally caught up with him, as God hardened his heart in order to make him a laughingstock by the Red Sea (9:17).

It is crucial to understand that the context of these divine choices was the arena of history. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but only after Pharaoh himself had already provoked His judgment. “God hardens whom He desires” (9:18), but this hardening always comes as a judgment on those who have already made themselves ready for just punishment. This is no arbitrary and unjust judgment. In these cases the wicked have long and consistently provoked God’s wrath, and He “endured with much patience” such wickedness. Eventually however the long-delayed wrath would come upon those “prepared for destruction” (9:22).

Who prepared them for destruction? They did, by their own wickedness. Note that the wicked and proud “prepared for destruction” are contrasted with the righteous and humble who were “pre- prepared for glory”: the wicked are “prepared” (Greek katartizo/ καταρτιζω; the righteous are “pre- prepared” (Greek proetoimazo/ προετοιμαζω, etoimazo meaning “to make ready, to prepare”). God does not arbitrarily choose some for wrath and others for mercy. The wicked prepare themselves for wrath by their wickedness, whereas the righteous are prepared by God for mercy, in that the mercy given them has been in store from the foundation of the world. The contrast between the vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy is clearer in the Greek than in the English: the prefix pro-/ προ- witnesses to the fundamental differences between the two groups, between the earthly and human cause of the wrath and the heavenly source of the mercy, as do the two different verbs used (katartizo for the wicked and etoimazo for the righteous).

Some Jews of Paul’s day indignantly insisted that if this was the case, then God was being unjust, for all Jews must be saved, regardless of whether or not they rejected Jesus (wickedly rejected, as Christians thought). Paul’s answer? “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (9:20). If God wants to judge those who wickedly reject His Christ, what did they have to say about it? The potter can choose what he does with his clay, and in the same way, if He wishes, God can choose to use their prideful rejection of Christ as the catalyst of His long-deferred judgment upon them.

We see the same principle of judgment in Luke 2:34 and in 1 Peter 2:8. In Luke 2:34, Simeon tells the Mother of God that her Son is “set for the fall and rise of many in Israel”—that is, His ministry will provide the occasion for the proud to stumble and to fall to damnation, and for the humble who will accept Him to rise to salvation. Peter writes the same thing in 1 Peter 2:8. The proud wicked will regard Christ not as a choice corner stone, but as a stumbling stone (2:7-8). They will find His humility, His claims to divinity, and His other-worldly Kingdom an offense, and stumble over Him, being disobedient to the Word He preached. They were “appointed to” such a doom, in that God had decided long ago that Christ’s ministry would provide the occasion for all to reveal what was in their hearts, either pride or humility, so that they either stumbled or rose. Note: what was “set” and “appointed” was not the individual choices made by those involved, but the nature of Christ’s ministry which would provide the occasions for all to manifest their true natures. The choices remained free, and were not simply the outworking of God’s decisions made before time began. But the choices formed part of God’s eternal plan for both judgment or salvation.

Biblical predestination does not involve God working behind the cosmic scenes, like a puppeteer pulling the strings. It involves His decisions to use the ministry of Christ so that “the thoughts of many hearts are revealed” (Luke 2:35) and to bestow sonship and the glory of Christ upon those whose hearts are ready to receive Him. Do Orthodox believe in predestination? Yes, of course; it’s in the Bible. But we must take care to define what we mean by the word.


  1. For some time I have understood predestination as follows: men are free and make their own choices. God, knowing the “history” of human choices before that history began, knew how to work out His plan, riding on the cumulative outcome of human choices. Human history and God’s plan are now working themselves out in time.

    Of course knowing what each man will do “preordains” the ultimate destiny of each man. Predestination is an aspect of God’s omniscience or foreknowledge. It is also an aspect, I suppose, of God’s choice, but that choice is determined by the free actions of men.

    It matters how we say these things. Perhaps I’ve said it wrong. I’ll stop before I make things worse. Thank you, Fr. Lawrence, for your writings. I look forward to each one.

  2. I remember being impressed many years ago by C. S. Lewis’s description of God’s foreknowledge and how it is distinguished from the idea of Him pre-ordaining/causing things contrary to our freedom.

    He pictured all of history as a line segment – from beginning to end. Since God is outside of time He looks down at the line from above, able to see the entirety of history in a single view. Lewis said something to the effect that God’s knowing/seeing what will happen as a result of our freedom is not to be confused with Him causing it in the same way that our seeing events happen is not to be confused with our causing them. Not a perfect analogy (nothing is), but it was helpful to me.

    And I thank you most sincerely, Father. That passage about Pharaoh has always troubled me, even if only in a minor way. Your explanation really helps.

  3. Father Lawrence,
    Thank you so much for this post. It is of the utmost help. I have come to understand predestination as you have described, but have not, up until now, read a piece as clear and concise. Very helpful…especially when you address the verses which are frequently cited in “Calvinistic predestination”.
    In reading this morning about today’s feast of our Mother (OCA daily lives of the Saints) I could not help notice in St. Gregory Palamas’ discourse these words:
    “Now [God] finds a Handmaiden perfectly suited to these needs, the supplier of Her own unsullied nature…God predestined Her before the ages for the salvation and reclaiming of our kind… She was chosen, not just from the crowd, but from the ranks of the chosen of all ages, renowned for piety and understanding, and for their God-pleasing words and deeds.”
    God, in His mercy and grace, supplied her pure nature…an example of the righteous being pre-prepared. He predestined Her for our salvation, to be conformed into the image of Christ. His choosing Mary is not an example of “who gets saved and how” but rather the revealing of a most significant part of His plan of salvation. Again Father, I must thank you for this teaching.
    Another interesting point is that even though the main purpose of St. Gregory’s discourse is the honor of the Virgin Mary, here we have an example of a Church Father who sheds light on the how the Church understands the term predestination.
    I do have a request, Father. Would you further explain your statement “It is crucial to understand that the context of these divine choices was the arena of history.” I well recall you make this point in your book on the Old Testament, that in order to interpret the meaning of the OT we must consider its historical context. Yet further clarification would be a help.

    1. By “the arena of history” I meant that the context for the divine choosing was life in this age, not in eternity past. Israel is thus “the chosen people” because God chose them through the faith and actions of Abraham and liberated them from Egypt and entered into covenant at Sinai–all this taking place in this historical age. God “chose” us through baptism, claiming us as His own in this age. Paul’s point was that these choices and the salvation He offers us reflect the outworking of God’s eternal plan from before the world began, and are not simply historical accidents. Does this help?

  4. Yes Father, I think so.
    The historical events of this age regarding salvation are not matters of happenstance, nor was every action of man set in stone by God from eternity past, but are the results of the workings of God, His providence. This is how we are to understand the biblical meaning of predestination. Correct?

    1. Yes, I believe so. The whole discussion of predestination, now considered as a theological or philosophical problem or puzzle, needs to first be set within the Jewish polemical context of the NT. It is significant that in Romans 9-11 Paul’s main concern was not predestination itself but the salvation of Israel and how their unbelief could be explained. Paul’s Jewish adversaries considered that Jesus and His movement were heretical, accidents of history, things having no more lasting significance than that of any other false prophet. Paul’s reply is that Jesus and His movement were the outworking of what God had planned from eternity and were the goal to which all things were headed. To fully understand Paul one needs to catch the echoes of those with whom he was debating, the polemical conversation in which he was engaged.

  5. Very good Father. That helps. Paul’s adversaries believed the “Jesus movement” appeared simply by chance, with no lasting consequences. In Paul’s response he included the word predestination to make a point about God’s salvation plan. And the point is made clear to us readers when attention is paid to the historical context…here being the Jews and their (polemic) response to Jesus.
    Thank you much.

  6. Great article, Father. God’s providence does not mean God is actively creating new (irrisistible) grace which man has no choice but to accept. Neither is God purposefully keeping men from repentance. As a former Calvinist, I never considered cultural context when it came to this doctrine. God is soveriegn. Nobody denies that. The ancient Hebrews attributed everything that happens as under God’s providence and not a fate. It’s a literary device and cultural understanding that I fear gets lost in western minds. When we pray “lead us not into temptation” we aren’t imagining God taking us by the hand and saying “come with Me. I’m going to tempt you.” God tempts nobody. We are praying instead “lead us in the opposite direction, away from temptation and the evil I’m so easily drawn to.” God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart by giving him many opportunities to repent of his already hard heart. God sent the plagues so Pharoah would repent, even though He knew it would only make him more hardened in his pride and false glory.

  7. Father,
    Thank you for this article! I used to be a Calvinist and I was well trained in every aspect of Calvinistic predestination. Now I don’t know what I know, except that I am orthodox and don’t believe in double predestination anymore. This shed just a little light on a very murky topic for me. Thank you!

  8. Father Lawrence,

    Before becoming Orthodox, John Piper was instrumental in my understanding of the grace and sovereignty of God. I would suggest that your explanation here is quite similar to the way I understood contemporary Calvinist teaching (at least that espoused by John Piper). “Who are you O man.” We cannot understand the mysteries of God. I would also suggest that according to the Calvinist it is our heart that must learn to change so that we begin to see the glory and grace and sovereignty of God in all its mystery, so that we may begin to glorify God in the midst of our pain and suffering even when it doesn’t make sense. Those who refuse to acknowledge the grace and sovereignty of God in the midst of their life are those that are preparing themselves for destruction and the wrath of God. Though, this too, is a mercy.

    Anyways, thank you for not completely dismissing the positive aspects of Calvinism that shaped me and brought me into Orthodoxy.

    Just my two cents.


  9. You mentioned the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel being the dominant power with Gentiles being “hewers of wood” and such. There are more frightening ones regarding the plagues for the nations who fail to give their due. Those were legitimate prophecies in canonical Scripture, so what happened to them? I know of a peculiar form of Dispensationalism that teaches that this is yet in Israel’s future and that the “Church Age” is a kind of intermission in the prophetic drama. Given that the Church is a union of Gentiles and of Israel that believed, it creates an awkward problem to reconstitute some earthly, political Israel to rule the world while the Church and the saints exist above or alongside it. What do we do with Old Testament prophecies that show an eschatology that is at variance with that of the Church?

    1. I don’t believe that the OT prophecies, when rightly interpreted, are at variance with the teaching of the Church. The prophecy of Zech. 14:16f, for example, speaks of God’s judgment upon those who resist His work in Israel. The question is: who (or what) is Israel? The NT teaches that the Church is Israel–i.e. Messianic Israel, God’s people dying as a nation and reborn as the Church. The Church is heir to Israel’s glorious Messianic destiny and the promises of God to bless His people. That is, the Church is simply the faithful remnant of Israel (i.e. the disciples of Jesus)–as Paul taught in Romans 11–with a number of Gentiles mixed in. Since the second century the Gentile believers have more or less swamped the core of Jewish believers, but the Church nonetheless still remains “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2) and “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6). This being so, the Gentiles referred to in Zech. 14 are those who resist the Church’s message and oppose her work.

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