PREDESTINATION to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
Predestination is a curious doctrine, because it seems to sit so awkwardly with that of Free Will. It seems that we can either have one or the other, but not both. Predestination brings with it the phantom of a puppet master God who pulls our strings, and though we have the illusion of free will, we will eventually go along the path already prepared for us.
Perhaps even more worryingly, if God can predestine us for ever-lasting life and chooses not to, what kind of God are they?
Such were my thoughts as I was preparing to write this reflection – and then along with that week’s Wednesday Low Mass homily – everything ground to a halt in the face of a bout of laryngitis. And swirling about in my mind these two reflections began to make connections. The reading for Low Mass was the parable of the Sower, and I saw the generous farmer throwing the seed far and wide. The farmer is not careful about where the seed is sown – no doubt to Jesus’ audience it was a hilarious story of bad farming practice. How wasteful! How ridiculous to throw the seed on the path and on the rocks!
Yet, here we are shown the enormous generosity of God, of the desire for the seed to have every opportunity to grow. If there is the slightest chance that the seed might take root and sprout, then the farmer gives it a go.
If we think of predestination in the terms of the parable of the Sower, is the farmer setting the seed up to fail when he throws it upon the rocky ground? Or is he giving the ground the gift of the seed and giving it the freedom to grow or not? If the seed is never thrown upon the rocky ground at all, then it can never have the potential to grow. Even against the difficulties of thorny weeds, and rocks, and birds, some seed will still sprout. Any gardener knows that this is the case – seeds spread and grow to places where in theory they should not survive.
I also think that we narrow this parable too much when we think we are only one type of soil. Each of our lives is more like the whole field – some areas we accept God’s word more readily, others it will struggle against the worldly weeds that strangle our desire for holiness. If we thought more about this, then we might yearn more for God to be at work in us improving those areas of our lives where we disobey Jesus’ commandments, and Article XVII underlines how much we need the Spirit to be at work in us. The Article is simply reiterating that we cannot earn our own salvation; we cannot sow our own seed.
Returning to my first worry, what about people who reject God? Has God predestined them to an end without salvation? Well, with the parable of the Sower in mind, I see God’s grace at work. God gives each and every person an opportunity to come to everlasting life in Christ. Free will means we must take responsibility for our choices – we cannot blame God for the quality of the soil of our soul if we refuse to do anything about it.
Overall, the doctrine of predestination is spoken of in the Articles so sweetly because it speaks of God’s desire to give us everything. The sadness is if we see within it only tyranny because of our personal fear regarding a lack of autonomy. The tragedy is if our obstinate refusal to be given good things means we ultimately reject God’s salvation.
GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech thee,
the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful;
that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee,
may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, Book of Common Prayer
(Picture: Van Gogh’s ‘The Sower’)