Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Happy Friday, everyone. I mentioned last year, back in APJ 1720, that in our emails, the most asked-about chapter of the Bible is Romans 9. It’s not even close, and understandably so: the chapter raises a truckload of theology questions. And within that chapter, Romans 9:22 is the most mentioned text, the most asked-about verse in our entire inbox, because that verse raises the difficult but necessary topic of predestination and double predestination, or reprobation — the divine design of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22). It is a sobering text raising many questions — relevant and important questions.

We’re not in that text, but we are back to the theme of double predestination through a different text, in a question from a listener named Josh. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for all the resources for people like me, seeking Bible answers. I have a question about 1 Timothy 2:4, and how it, when read in context, pertains to the doctrine of double predestination. To me, double predestination seems a logical result of the doctrine of predestination. This verse seems to refute it. How do double predestination and this verse hold up together? Also, if addressing 1 Peter 2:8 would be applicable, I would appreciate that as well. My understanding of one verse contradicts my understanding of the other. I know the Bible is cohesive, but I’m unsure how to reconcile these texts.”

Yes, the Bible is cohesive, it is coherent, it has integrity — and that’s a good assumption to start with. First Timothy 2:4 has been perceived for centuries as a problem, not just for double predestination, but for any predestination or any unconditional election of who will be saved.

So, let me say a word about double predestination (since it’s brought up in the question) and then show how I think 1 Timothy 2:4 is not a contradiction of predestination or double predestination.

Some Predestined to Believe

Predestination refers to God’s appointing the final destiny of a person before creation. So, for example, Ephesians 1:4–5 says, “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” So God assigns, or destines, the elect for adoption; that’s the destiny. He plans for his chosen ones before creation. Hence, the term pre-destined — destined beforehand for adoption.

These predestined ones always correspond in real life with those whom Jesus calls to himself and those who believe on Jesus and are justified by faith. And we know that the predestined and the believers always correspond because of Romans 8:30, which says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” And we know that justification is by faith and no other way. So those are believers. Those whom he called he brought to faith and justified, and those whom he justified he glorified.

“Human beings are morally accountable, even though they do not have ultimate self-determination.”

So, the predestined ones and those who are justified by faith in Jesus are always the same group. Because God not only predestines, but he also calls people to himself, and brings them to faith, and justifies them, and finally glorifies them. There are no predestined ones who do not believe, and there are no believers who are not predestined. God is sovereign in the whole process of salvation — beginning to end, eternity to eternity, in every aspect of it.

Some Destined to Disobey

Now, the term double predestination is used to refer to the fact that if God destines some for salvation and adoption, then he passes over others, so that their destiny is judgment and not salvation. Now, some people think we should not call this passing over a second predestination, since the Bible does not speak of it that way. And I would agree that we at least shouldn’t make a focus out of what the Bible does not make a focus.

But in fact, while not using the word predestined for unbelievers who perish, the Bible does refer to the reality of it. And it’s not just a logical deduction. Sometimes this gets a bad rap because they say, “There you go applying your crusty, wooden, cold logic, which the Bible doesn’t do.” Well, forget that. We’re not talking about a logical deduction here — we’re talking about texts.

For example, consider these three texts. First Peter 2:8, the one that was mentioned, refers to those who “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” Romans 9:22 refers to those whom God “endured with much patience” — namely, “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

Now, each of those texts needs careful attention and true interpretation. But my effort over the years has yielded the fact that I think they do in fact teach that God plans the destiny of each person, whether judgment or salvation. And that, of course, is very controversial. But it’s also very important.

I mean, think of it. It’s not marginal. Think of what it says about the sovereignty of God either way, or about the nature of saving grace and its power — its sovereign effectiveness. Think about the implications for prayer and evangelism and assurance and so many other things. This is not a marginal issue, as though you could just shunt that aside and say, “We’ll just talk about other things.”

‘Free Will’ or Sovereign Grace?

Now, the primary objection to this biblical teaching of predestination — whether you call it single or double — is that it seems to result in people being punished when they are not morally accountable. So this seems to be unjust. It seems unjust to people and unjust in God. The alternative view says that God does not decide anyone’s destiny before they exercise their ultimately self-determining free will.

The assumption of this alternative view is that a person cannot be morally accountable unless each one has ultimate self-determination — which is usually called “free will,” but “[ultimate self-determination” is the crucial definition. The text that most often is appealed to for this view (which is not my view, I’m not in favor of this) is 1 Timothy 2:4, which Josh specifically asked about. It says God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Then the inference by those who read it is drawn from this verse that God cannot choose only some to be saved because he desires all to be saved.

Now the problem is this: both interpretations admit that God prioritizes something above his desire for all to be saved — because not all are saved. Something restrains God from saving all. And one view says that what restrains God is that he prioritizes ultimate human self-determination above saving all. Better to have some perish than that all should be deprived of ultimate self-determination (usually called “free will”).

The other view (this would be my view) says that what restrains God from saving all is that he prioritizes the glory of the freedom of his sovereign grace above saving all. Better that some perish than that the freedom and greatness of God’s grace be diminished.

God Grants Repentance

So the question is, Which of these two explanations is the biblical explanation of why God doesn’t save everybody? Is it God’s commitment to ultimate human self-determination? Or is it God’s commitment to his own freedom and the glory of his predestining grace?

Now, that’s a massive question. But let me give one pointer from inside Paul’s letters to Timothy. I’m very, very jealous here not to be controlled by a system. I know that whatever view you have, it is very easy to be controlled by other truths besides the text you’re dealing with, rather than looking in the context to see what it really means. So, I want to stick with these — what are called the Pastoral Letters of Paul. Let’s just take 1 and 2 Timothy and show how close the language is between 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Timothy 2:25.

So in 2 Timothy 2:24–25, Paul uses language like this. And what’s close about it is the phrase “coming to a knowledge of the truth” in both texts. But here’s what he says:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.

That’s the same phrase as in 1 Timothy 2:4. Now, what seems clear to me from this verse is that Paul does not believe in ultimate human self-determination when it comes to the all-important act of repentance. In this verse, repentance does not ultimately depend on human self-determination; it depends on the free gift of God to a person in the bondage of sin and Satan. “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).

“Human beings are morally accountable, even though they do not have ultimate self-determination.”

Therefore, within these two letters of Paul to Timothy, he shows that what keeps God from doing what he at one level desires to do — namely, save all — is not his commitment to ultimate human self-determination. No one is saved unless God grants repentance. Repentance is not the product of ultimate human self-determination. It’s a gift of God.

Predestined and Accountable

Here’s the paradox — not a contradiction, a paradox. Lots of people try to make this out to be a logical contradiction. It’s not. It runs through the whole Bible. Human beings are morally accountable, even though they do not have ultimate self-determination. There is no injustice with God (Romans 9:14). No one is punished who does not truly deserve to be punished. And the measure of the punishment is always in righteous proportion to the measure of the evil. Though God predestines who will be saved and who will not be saved, no one comes into judgment who does not deserve judgment.

This is not a logical contradiction, which so many try to make it out to be. It is a mystery. I don’t think the Bible makes plain how both of these truths — God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability — are in perfect compatibility. But the whole Bible testifies to both truths. They are compatible. The Bible teaches the truth of both. And they are profoundly important to embrace for the good of our souls, and for the integrity of God’s word, and for the health of the church, and for the advancement of God’s mission, and for the glory of God’s grace.