Of predestination. Really

A sermon by John A. Bolt
Terra Alta (WV) Presbyterian Church
Sunday, June 5, 2016

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to be with you in worship today. This is my first trip to Terra Alta – not only to the church but to the town as well, so I thank you for the motivation to expand my horizons. One of the most enjoyable parts of traveling around the state filling the occasional pulpit is that I get to visit some of our smaller churches and see the beauty they offer. Your sanctuary is an especially pleasing place to worship God.

I bring you greetings from First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, where I currently worship. I know that my friend and fellow First Morgantown member George Lilley was here last week and others before him. It is an exciting time at First Morgantown, and I invite you to come by some time and visit the ministry we have begun at Harless Center at Central Place. It is the culmination of the dream of many people at First Presbyterian to provide faith-based housing to WVU students. It’s taken a winding road to get where it is now, and we are still experiencing birth pangs, but I’m confident that the ministry will be a success.

Central Place itself is an apartment building owned and built by local developers, with Harless Center as the ministry component, jointly provided by the congregation and Westminster Foundation of West Virginia.

And I bring you greetings from the Foundation itself, of which I am privileged to be the chair, for a few more days anyway. The Foundation has been around for more than a 100 years, supporting campus ministry at state-supported schools throughout West Virginia. We provide full-time campus pastors at WVU and at Marshall, and support ministries at West Liberty, Fairmont State and Shepherd University. We hope soon to expand to West Virginia State, Glenville State and likely WVU-Beckley. In addition, we collaborate with Davis & Elkins, even though is a private, Presbyterian school and not state-supported.

And one more greeting, this from the Synod of the Trinity, of which the Presbytery of West Virginia is a part. I am privileged to serve as one of two commissioners from the presbytery to the Synod.

I would be more than happy following the service to talk to any of you about either the Foundation or the Synod. It is important, as part of a connectional church, that we understand and be familiar with the various ties and relationships we have across our region, and indeed our nation and world.

It is relationships, after all, that bind us together. They connect us to our contemporaries, but they also connect us to the people in the Bible – and to that great cloud of witnesses that has existed, and will continue to exist, through all of time.

Witnesses like the women we’ll hear about today in 1 Kings and Luke, witnesses whose sons were brought back to life, not – and this will be my main point – because they asked for resurrection, but because of the grace and love of God.

Let us first listen to 1 Kings,17:8-24. We meet Elijah just a few verses before the selection, when he suddenly appears in the story to confront King Ahab, who had done “more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:6)

Elijah predicts a drought, saying “there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kings 17:1) God sends him out to the wilderness, where he is fed by ravens. Then we come to today’s Old Testament lesson. Please listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying:

Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.

This Old Testament story is alluded to several times in Luke and is strikingly similar to Luke 7:11-17. Listen again to God’s Word:

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.) Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth, and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Before I get too much further along, I suppose I should tell you a bit about myself, and where I’m coming from in unpacking these scriptures. Even though pride is a sin, I am proud to be a lifelong Presbyterian. I have been privileges and honored to have served at all levels of the denomination, from local to regional national. I have been a clerk of session, a stated clerk of the presbytery, and committees? Lord, have I served on committees.

I tell you this not to be like the tax collector praying loudly in the temple, but to be clear that I am Presbyterian through and through. I will say out loud that there are other valid ways to do church, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t really think so.

So, why go through this list? To explain to you that I am not afraid of, nor do I shy away from, the doctrine we Presbyterians so often get labeled with: PREDESTINATION. (I kinda’ feel like there should be a soundtrack going duht-duht-duht-done.)

How in the world, you may ask, do I get to the subject of predestination out of these two Bible verses. Pretty easily, really.

But first, let’s look at what the doctrine is, and even more importantly, what it isn’t.

There are two main books I’m going to refer you to when thinking about this topic – well, two BESIDES the Bible and the PCUSA Book of Confessions. One is Christian Doctrine, the classic work by renowned Presbyterian theologian and seminary professor Shirley Guthrie. The second is much more light-hearted: Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt: A theological survival guide for youth, parents and other confused Presbyterians by two pastors from Oklahoma: Ted Foote and Alex Thornburg. Both are excellent works to study, and not just about predestination, but about all that is means to be a Presbyterian-flavored Christian.

We often make jokes about – and are the brunt of jokes about – predestination. That job we got, that parking place that suddenly appeared, that item we want that just went on sale, all of those must have been foreordained, predestined to happen.

No. Nope. Nada. Not it.

As Foote and Thornburg put it: “Predestination does not mean that God has preprogrammed every action or that God necessarily knows or has a purpose ahead of time for every development and action.” (Foote Jr. and Thornburg, 37)

As much as I would like for it to be the case, God doesn’t care if the Mountaineers win a football or basketball game. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. (Neither does God care if Notre Dame wins or loses, but don’t tell that to your Roman Catholic friends.)

While yes, we believe that God is sovereign, that God is in all things, is all around us, is in ultimate control, this is not the area that predestination covers.

“Predestination,” Guthrie says, “has to do specifically with the question of salvation. Whom does God choose (or not choose) to love and care for in the bad as well as good things that happen to us? To whom does God choose (or not choose) to give the gift of faith that enables people to trust, count on, and live by God’s love in sickness and in health, in life and in death? Who is chosen (or not chosen) to be included among those to whom the “saving grace” of God is not only promised but actually given so that, whatever happens, they find wholeness of life now and forever in loving the God who loves them and in loving others as they have been loved? Who, in short, does God chose to save—or not save?” (Guthrie, 119)

But don’t rely on modern authors to tell you this, listen to the Bible, specifically Romans 8:28-30:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30 NRSV)

And Ephesians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, .. (Ephesians 1:3-12 NRSV).

And then there’s the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the now 12 confessions in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The confession says in Chapter 10:

(A)lthough not on account of any merit of ours, God has elected us, not directly, but in Christ, and on account of Christ, in order that those who are now ingrafted into Christ by faith might also be elected. But those who were outside Christ were rejected, according to the word of the apostle,” (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 5.053).

And The Westminster Confession of Faith says, and remember, this was written in the 1600s:

God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose,1 and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his  free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.” (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 6.018)

But the Westminster Confession also warns us:

The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 6.021)

I suppose at this point, you’re probably wondering, “How in the world did he go from two women, with dead, but resurrected, sons to dense, 17th Century language about some high-fallutin’  theological doctrine? And what does any of it have to do with how I am to live today?”

For me, that’s an easy trip, and I think you’ll understand why – especially when you consider that as I read the Bible, I read it with a mindset that accepts the idea of predestination – and election – based on nothing you or I have, are or will ever do.

Here’s a simple question: Did either of these women ask for help? Ask for relief?

Listen again. From 1 Kings: “She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” And from Luke: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.'”

Nowhere in either passage is there a recognition, request, anything to suggest that the women had any faith or belief in God or in who Jesus was. Nowhere. And it’s not just in these stories. The Bible is replete with instances where God reaches out and heals, saves, protects people who neither ask for it, or in many cases deserve it.

I can go on and on – you may think I have already – but I have come to believe, without question that it is God who choses us, not we who chose God. And, as Paul says, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV)

This does not mean there are not questions. After all, even Calvin talked about so-called “double predestination,” that is that some are saved, and that some aren’t and that God has decided and nothing either can do about it. And there are those who say that, because God is a God of love and mercy, that all have been saved, are going to heaven, if you will, (yes, even Hitler and Osama bin Laden). While I lean toward the latter, I am comfortable with not knowing. I am comfortable with, as the Westminster Confession says, “this high mystery” of predestination. After all, it isn’t my decision to make.

And that’s the most important thing to take away from this.

You see, predestination isn’t a concept that limits us or confines us. On the contrary, it is a concept that frees us. In Guthrie’s words, “Predestination or human freedom? No. Predestination, therefore human freedom. … As the grace of God in Jesus Christ is the reason for our election, it is also the assurance of our election.” (Guthrie, 133, 136)

In some respects, it all comes back to the Ten Commandments. Does that confuse you? Are you wondering how I can in one breath that we have no role to play in our own salvation, and in the next sentence start talking about these rules that seem to lay out a path for us to do just that?

Here’s how, and it’s one of the aphorisms I’ve developed over time: “The Ten Commandments are not a roadmap to heaven, but are a response to grace.” In other words, don’t do these 10 things to get into heaven, do these 10 things because God loves you, has saved you, and desires it of you.

After all, right before the commandments, is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2 NRSV) In other words, “Because I have saved you, do this…”

This is a freeing doctrine because our concern over our own salvation is removed. We do not have to worry about whether we’ve been good enough to go to heaven, or fallen short enough and are going to hell. It’s not our call.

It’s also why we Presbyterians do evangelism the way we do evangelism. We don’t stand on street corners shouting “Are you saved!?” to passersby. We go and treat the sick, help bring clean water to areas that need it, build roads, houses, run hospitals, schools, even take political action. All in gratitude for the saving actions of God. And when people ask us why we’re doing these things, we answer because what God has done for us.

To God alone be the glory.

Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, the good news we preach is that you have loved us, you have saved us, you have sent your only Son to show us the way. Give us the grace, and willingness, and understanding to respond as you wish, so that we may give you honor, glory and praise now and forever more. Amen.


Foote Jr., Ted V., and P. Alex Thornburg. 2000. Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt: A theological survival guide for youth, parents, and other confused Presbyterians. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press.

Guthrie, Shirley C. 1994. Christian Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 2004. The Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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