Knighted British actor Sir Rex Harrison starred in many, many movies over the course of his long career, including “Cleopatra” and “Dr. Doolittle,” and in many stage plays as well. But there will be one role he will always be remembered for and identified with far more than any other: that of Professor Henry Higgins in the play and movie “My Fair Lady.” In “My Fair Lady,” Professor Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering made a bet with each other, as to whether Higgins could take a poor flower girl named Eliza, and teach her to speak and act as an upper-class English lady—or “English lidy,” as Eliza pronounces it.
After weeks of training, and many discouragements, and very nearly giving up, Professor Henry Higgins finally succeeded, and won his bet; he took Eliza to a fancy ball, and no one suspected that she was anything but royalty or upper class-born. Afterward, Colonel Pickering acknowledged that he had lost his bet by singing the song, “You Did It” (“because you really did it, you did it; you said you’d make a woman and indeed you did”)—a song in which he gave all the credit to Professor Higgins, credit which Higgins not-so-humbly accepted. Neither one of them ever acknowledged Eliza’s effort and accomplishment, even though she was standing right there in the room with them.
Instead, they marched around singing their song in praise of Professor Higgins alone, acting as if he had taken a stone and turned it into a fine sculpture, or an empty canvas and turned it into a beautiful painting. Eliza, in their minds, had nothing to do with the success; she was just an object which he had lifted up, had single-handedly saved from a life of poverty and ignorance.
Keep the image of Higgins and Eliza in your minds, and especially Higgins’ attitude, as we begin our discussion today—because we come to a subject that can be a bit difficult. We’re going to consider the topic of Presbyterians and predestination, and that doctrine can be a little complicated, and has been known, at least in Presbyterian history, to raise some strong feelings. But it’s a subject worth addressing because, as Presbyterians, many people expect us to believe in the doctrine of predestination—so we should probably at least know what it is. It’s worth addressing because the Bible does say some things which sound very much like predestination; and we do try to understand our Bible. Also, you’d probably be surprised at how often I’m asked, “Do I have to believe in predestination to be a Presbyterian?” And besides, I know we can handle it.
The way our scene from “My Fair Lady” is helpful is this: those who believe in predestination assert that the salvation of a person depends entirely on God, just as Eliza’s development was attributed entirely to Professor Higgins; and that it was decided long ago, before the person’s existence. It is God who has decided who will be saved, God who makes it possible for a person to be saved, and God who does the saving. Nothing that a person thinks or says or does has anything to do with the salvation. God has picked who will be saved and single-handedly saves them, just as, in Pickering’s mind, Henry Higgins had singlehandedly chosen and saved Eliza. All the credit goes to God, just as Pickering had ascribed it to Higgins. As Eliza played no role in their minds except for being lifted up, a person is given no role in being saved, according to the theory of predestination. It is entirely God’s decision and God’s doing.
John Calvin provides the most succinct statement of what predestination is, in his book called The Institutes: “All people are not created in equal conditions,” he writes. “Rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” God has chosen, he says, before the universe was created, which of us are saved and which are not, and what we say, or think, or do, makes no difference.
The Westminster Confession, parts of which we sometimes use as our Affirmation of Faith, elaborates further: The exact number of people, and which people they are, it says, who will achieve everlasting life, has been determined by God before the foundation of the world was laid, and the number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. Some people are “predestined” into everlasting life, others “fore-ordained” to everlasting death, by God’s choice, “according to the unsearchable counsel of God’s own will.”
Now for many years, the Westminster Confession was taken as the one definitive statement of what all Presbyterians believe. So it is no surprise that it was, and still is, often thought that all Presbyterians believe in predestination. After all, the founder of the Reformed, or Presbyterian, church, John Calvin, believed it; and their statement of faith, the Westminster Confession, says they believe it. God has already decided, millions of years ago, which of us are saved and which are not, and what we believe and say and do has nothing to do with it. That’s predestination.
Part of the reason the early Reformers like John Calvin and the writers of the Westminster Confession emphasized predestination is historical. They were reacting against the Catholic Church of their time, which had been teaching, back then (not now), they said, that a person could earn or buy their way into heaven, by joining the right church and by giving lots of money to it. “If you join our church, and give us lots of money, and do what we tell you, you will guarantee yourself eternal life.” Not unlike some TV preachers today. And the Reformers had a complaint about that approach. A person can’t buy salvation by giving lots of money to a certain church, they said. Human beings, all human beings, are sinful, and can’t buy or work their way into God’s favor themselves at all, just as the apostle Paul wrote so often.
The Reformers were very good at reminding us that we all sin; none of us are perfect. So none of us can lead perfect lives, perfectly obeying all of God’s laws, and thus guarantee ourselves eternal life. No; instead, they said, we must rely on God’s grace, on salvation as a gift from God. We are sinful, and so cannot attain salvation ourselves; it is entirely God’s doing.
And since it is entirely God’s doing, they went on, and God has perfect knowledge, having known everything from the beginning of time, including the future, it follows that it must have been determined long ago which ones would be saved. God’s the one that makes it happen; and God has known for centuries who it is it will happen to. And when you put those together, they said, you get the conclusion that God decided centuries ago what will happen, for each of us, regarding eternal life.
There is some Scriptural support for this position. Sections of Ephesians 1 and 3 are cited as supporting predestination, and Romans 9, and II Timothy 1. And also cited, as one of the main pieces of evidence in support, is the passage from Romans 8 we read this morning, the one that says this: “For those who God foreknew, were predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s son.”
Scholars who believe in predestination zero in on that word “foreknew.” It’s a combination of two words: “pro” meaning “before,” and “egno” meaning “he or she knew.” “Proegno”—“God knew beforehand”; God knew ahead of time. And since God is the one who makes things happen, God’s knowing, they say, is the same thing as God deciding, or God choosing. So some of them even translate Romans 8:29 that way, “those who God chose were predestined to join God’s son in eternal life.”
And so there you have it: All people sin, so can be saved only by God’s action, and God’s plan dates back to the beginning of time. Therefore God chose at the beginning of time who would be saved and who wouldn’t, based on reasons known only to God. That’s predestination. “That’s what the Bible says.” That’s what the founder of Presbyterianism and its creed says. That’s what all Presbyterians believe.
Right? Well, you’re all Presbyterians, so that’s what you believe, isn’t it? That God predestined some of us to go to heaven and some of us to go to hell, and nothing we can say or do or believe can change it. Right?
Unless this is an unusual Presbyterian congregation, there are going to be some of you who aren’t convinced. The fact is, there are many Presbyterians, including some who even know what it is, who don’t believe in predestination, who don’t believe that a person’s beliefs and actions have no effect on the question of their salvation. There are many Presbyterians who believe , in fact, that it is their beliefs and actions which will determine if they will go to heaven or not. Somehow, it seems unfair to them that God would have decided a long time ago who would be saved and who wouldn’t, without even waiting to see if we were going to be Christians nor not, without taking into consideration the choices we were going to make. That reasoning seems to them to make our life rather pointless—if God decided millions of years ago if I was to be saved or not, why should I make any effort to lead a good life now? What’s the difference? No, they say, my life must make a difference. God must decide my future at least partly based on whether I have faith, and on how I lead my life.
Now at times in our history, people who said that would be accused of heresy. And at times in our history, heresy was punishable by death—you could be burned at the stake or dragged through the streets by horses until dead. People who believe such things, it has been said, either don’t know their Bible or are denying the Bible, denying verses like Romans 8:29.
So, the stakes being rather high, we better look at that verse again. Does Romans 8:29 necessarily say that God decided long ago who would be saved and who would not? The key . . . is that word “Proegno”: “foreknew.” Does “know in advance” mean the same thing as “decided in advance?” Or can you know something without having made it happen yourself?
My contention, at the risk of being labelled a heretic, is that “knowing in advance” at least for human beings, doesn’t necessarily mean “deciding in advance.” You might know ahead of time what Grandma’s going to fix for Thanksgiving dinner, because Grandma always fixes the same thing for Thanksgiving dinner, without having picked it out yourself, without your deciding the menu. You might know ahead of time which rides at the fair your kids are going to want to go on without picking them out yourself. At least for people, knowing in advance isn’t the same thing as deciding in advance.
Is that true for God too? Predestinationists say “no,” based on the reasoning we have already described. They say that God’s knowing is the same as God’s deciding. Non-predestinationists say “yes”—that God might know in advance who’s going to choose to live a life deserving eternal life, but that doesn’t mean that God’s the one who decided who’s going to make that choice, that we have nothing to do with it.
And those non- predestinationists claim Scriptural support too. In Matthew 25, for example, when the Son of Man comes for the last judgement, and divides the people into those who will go into eternal life and those who will go into eternal punishment, how does he make his decision? Those who go into eternal life are those who fed the hungry and thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited those in prison; those who acted in certain ways during their lifetimes. Stories like these, say those who don’t believe in predestination, prove that what you do in your life does make a difference as to whether you’ll go to heaven or not. So do verses like John 3:16, they’ll say: “Whoever believes in God’s son will not perish but have eternal life.” Whether you choose to believe or not, they say, does make a difference.
So there you have the two sides. On the one hand Presbyterians who believe in predestination, who emphasize the sin in all people and say that salvation is entirely a matter of God’s grace, that a fallen sinful human being cannot save themselves by any of their beliefs or actions. Those Presbyterians are like Colonel Pickering, who gave all the credit to Professor Higgins; just as Eliza could not have taught herself to act like a princess, neither can we contribute to saving ourselves. Those Presbyterians like hymns liked our second one today, “Amazing Grace,” because it emphasizes the gift of God, while describing human beings with words like “wretch” and “blind” and “lost.”
And on the other hand, Presbyterians who aren’t advocates of predestination, who abandon the early tradition, who think that God must consider what we choose and believe and do when determining who will have eternal life. God might know in advance who will be faithful, they say, but God doesn’t decide in advance who’s going to be faithful.
Those Presbyterians don’t mind hymns like our third one today, which makes predestinationists nervous with its suggestion that we can choose whether or not to be holy, that that’s something we have some control over. Two sides.
And, as I mentioned before, the two sides have not always gotten along very well over the years. Charges of “heresy” have flown back and forth, descriptions of the others as “ignorant” or “deceived” or “evil.” As is too often the case, historically we have not handled our difference of opinion well.
And that’s especially unfortunate in this case, because it turns out that predestinationists and non- predestinationists aren’t all that far apart in the ways they live out their faith. Whatever our take on that doctrine, we can still easily agree on how to behave as a church, or as individual Christians. This particular difference of opinion doesn’t have to have a great impact on church practice.
Both groups believe that we should still do our best to live a good life, whether it’s a grateful response in case we are among those who have been saved or in the hope of being saved. Both acknowledge that we all make mistakes, all sin, and need God’s grace; we can all sing “Amazing Grace” together. Both insist that we should treat the people around us equally, and with respect, because even if some are saved and some are not, we don’t know which ones, if that even makes a difference. And both agree on dozens of other Scriptural passages, including these from Paul:
- “The aim of our charge is love and a good conscience and sincere faith. Don’t swerve from that into vain discussions.”
- “I pray that in every place people should pray, without anger or quarrelling.”
- “I appeal to you that there be no dissentions among you, but that you be united . . . we are fellow workers for God.”
Whether you believe in predestination or not—whether you side with Higgins or Eliza—we have plenty in common as church members, and plenty of work to do together.
So now you know something about predestination and Presbyterians . . . I hope. Perhaps you’ll embrace the label of “heretic,” since its consequences aren’t as severe as they once were. At least I don’t hear anyone sharpening a stake, or rounding up the horses. Perhaps you’ll take a stand one way or the other—or not. Perhaps you’ll see why it’s no longer a big deal for Presbyterians, a defining or essential part of our belief and practice. We’ve got plenty of other things which do unite us as a church—our gratitude to God, our striving to lead good lives, our commitment to Scripture, our dedication to helping others. Whether God brought us here single-handedly or we had something to do with it, we can proceed from here. . . together.
God, however it happened, whatever the specifics, thank you for calling us to be your people: for your offer to lead us in this life, your offer of eternal life, for this community of disciples. Help us not to “swerve into vain discussions” about any particular doctrine, but to work together to carry out your purposes. Amen