What does God think about me? This is, at the most basic and personal level, what the doctrine of election is about. Election, or predestination, is how the Church has historically referred to the question of who goes to heaven (or hell), how they get there, and God’s role in the decision.
Like so many theological topics, Lutherans walk a middle way that defies easy categorization and can be confusing to people outside the Lutheran Church. But, like so many beliefs we hold as Lutherans, the Lutheran doctrine of predestination is incredibly comforting and, crucially, absolutely faithful to the words of Scripture. It is important that we understand how our Lutheran Church has understood predestination so that we can rest fully in the Gospel message confessed therein and share it with our friends and neighbors. So, what do Lutherans believe about predestination?
God Is Holy; People Are Sinful
Our God is perfect and holy. The Hebrew word we translate as “holy” literally means “set apart,” as in, set apart from anything imperfect and sinful—like us. All mankind fell in Adam’s fall (see Lutheran Service Book 562; cf. Romans 5:12), and, as a result, all mankind was estranged from God. This estrangement means death and hell. God’s absolute perfection precludes any way of human beings crawling back into favor with God. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) got it right: God’s holiness will absolutely obliterate the sinful flesh, like when God put to death the seventy people from Beth-shemesh who looked into the ark of the covenant (see 1 Samuel 6:19–20).
God Desires All People to be Saved
And yet, as St. John says so clearly and concisely, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Our God is perfectly and super-abundantly merciful. God desires the salvation of every single human being who has ever lived. All of them. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus Himself says, “that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Christ Jesus, the eternal Son, begotten of the Father, died to save all humanity. The Second Adam, Jesus, undid the First Adam’s work and saved all mankind (see Romans 5:17). This means that Jesus did not just die for some people; He died for everybody ever. All the sin of the world has been paid for because Christ Jesus’ death paid the full redemption price of the entire universe. Every sin committed past, present, and future has already been put onto Jesus. Every person is one for whom Jesus died.
Not All People Want God to Save Them
Despite God’s infinite mercy, human beings still reject Him. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, bears witness to man’s capacity to reject God’s good and merciful ways—and the condemnation they will face if they reject God’s love and return instead to His holy wrath. However, the Bible always speaks about people choosing this path. For example, consider what the prophet Zechariah has to say about God’s people when they rejected Him:
They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 7:12)
The people hardened their own hearts and chose freely to reject God’s messengers and, ultimately, Yahweh Himself.
Putting It All Together
So what does all of this say about predestination? What does all of this say about what God thinks about me?
Can a person choose God? As Lutherans, we answer no. Because God is perfect and holy, He is set apart from sinful man—set infinitely, impassably apart from man in his fallen state. God chose to save us—not the other way around! We are saved because of His grace, not because of any action on our part. The only thing that man can choose to do outside of Christ is reject Him.
But maybe you are wondering if this means God chooses some people to be damned? The answer to this question is also no. Scripture makes it clear that condemnation is sinful man’s fault. God can know in advance who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, but that does not mean He foreordains people to hell. The sins of every person outside of Christ are forgiven, but a person can reject that forgiveness. Those who reject Christ face the reality of the Most High God without the intercession of our great High Priest, Jesus, who Himself says, “The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48).
What does God think of me? God knows I am sinful, which is why He sent His Son to die for me. God chose to save me before He laid the foundations of the world. And God reminds me that He has chosen to save me by telling me in His Word, cleansing me in Baptism, forgiving me in Absolution, and feeding me in the Lord’s Supper. It is dangerous to try to peer into God’s hidden mind, but God has chosen to reveal His mind to me through His Word and Sacraments, where He is always telling me that He loves me and has saved me.
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