26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[a] with sighs too deep for words.27 And God,[b] who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[c] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[d]

28 We know that all things work together for good[e] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 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.[f] 30 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 8:26-30

Sunday, April 26, 2015

“THE CRAZY UNCLE:  PREDESTINATION AND ITS PRESENCE

IN PRESBYTERIAN THOUGHT AND LIFE”

SELECT-A-SERMON:  WEEK II

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

April 26, 2015

Picture, if you will, your family’s Thanksgiving gathering.  Everyone is there and seated for the big meal.  The table is full.  Go ahead and take a look around.  You probably start by seeing those people you most look forward to seeing, your mom or dad, your son or daughter, your grandkids.  You see them and smile, and you might actually, right now, be looking forward to your next family gathering at the thought of seeing them.  But then you keep looking around and you see them.  You know who they are.  They are the black sheep.  The troublemaker.  The one who is always late and leaves early.  Who stirs up trouble.  Every family has what I lovingly refer to as the “crazy uncle.”  The crazy uncle is the one you invite because you have to, because you love him or her.  But this does not mean you like him or her.  The crazy uncle keeps your aunt under his thumb, or shows up to thanksgiving dinner with the flu and a salad that he made that day, without telling everyone that the salad should now be handled with a hazmat suit. The crazy uncle goes off on strange tangents.  At worst the crazy uncle is a divisive force in the family.  And he always is there.  By the way, as an aside, if you don’t know who the crazy uncle is in your family, then I have some bad news for you.  It’s probably you.  But I digress.

Now, I bring all this up because I want us to think about our Presbyterian theological heritage as one of those family gatherings.  We look around the room and we see our favorite parts, the emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  A powerful doctrine of God’s grace.  A keen and informed study of Scripture.  Those parts are all there, in the cocktail that makes us Presbyterian.  But there are others there too, and one of those doctrines, with his chair leaning back, his arms crossed, and his sunglasses pulled down because he was out too late last night, is the crazy uncle of Presbyterian Theology, predestination.

I have done select-a-sermon series three times in my life and there has always been a request for predestination.  Most of us don’t understand it and, to that point, find it a bit alienating.  What is predestination?  Do I have to believe it to be Presbyterian?  Is it even Biblical?  I could end the sermon now by simply saying, “an interesting doctrine.  No.  Yes.”  But then I wouldn’t feel like I was earning my money.  So let me say a few words about it and then we can talk about what it means to us, in the PC(USA) today.

First, some history.  Predestination, as a doctrine, was first popularized by St. Augustine in the late 4th century.  So it’s old.  It was basically considered orthodoxy for around a thousand years.  The great medieval Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, maintained the centrality of Predestination and it simply moved right along up until the Reformation.  There it was taken up by John Calvin, the godfather of Presbyterian theology, and woven into his greater systematic writings.  But then it started to become the crazy uncle, thanks largely to the Puritans and a very strict set of theologians who took it much farther than Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin had been willing to go.

Ok, before you go to sleep, I’m going to move on.  The takeaway from that section is: Predestination is not some fly by night sort of thing.  So if it’s old, what exactly does it mean?  Well, let me tell you what it means starting with Calvin and moving forward.  First, a word of clarification, because this will be much easier if you know this at the outset, predestination has absolutely nothing to do with the details of our lives.  It does not mean that God makes all our decisions or thinks for us.  You chose the color of tie you’d wear today, whether to drink coffee or tea this morning, and the name of your first born child.  Predestination has nothing, zero, nada to do with any of that.  What it has everything to do with is this, you did not choose whether or not you would gain salvation.   God chose that.  Predestination is about salvation.  And the most famous kind of predestination, the kind that Calvin wrote about as a secondary part of his work, and that was then made central by Calvinists.  This kind of predestination is called Double Predestination and it is traditionally Presbyterian.  Double Predestination states that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned, not based on a foreknowledge of who we will be, but based on the mystery of God’s divine will.  So there you have it.  That’s what we mean when we talk about Predestination as a theological doctrine these days.  It is all about salvation and God’s freedom to save whomever God chooses to save.

Now, don’t panic.  Stay calm.  I can see it in some of your eyes.  You want to run.  You are American and you like your freedom and don’t like some crusty old theologian taking it from you.  Nor do you like anything that seems unfair, and to most of us this seems unfair and unjust.  Well, I have good news for you, most Christians these days think its unfair and unjust.  The only gang left that really goes in whole hog on Double Predestination are our friends in the Presbyterian Church of America.  It’s a central tenet for them.  For the rest of us?  Well, one of my professors in Edinburgh summed it up nicely when he looked at fellow classmate of mine who was pushing Double Predestination and said to him, “you are talking about a doctrine that 99% of Christianity has rejected.”  It was a magical moment and I wish all of you could have been there.

So, does that mean we have thrown Predestination out?  Of course not.  Why not, you ask, you just said “we rejected it.”  I know what I just said, you don’t have to remind me all the time.  No.  We would never just toss it out because it is deeply Biblical to believe that God acts with a tremendous amount of freedom in this world.  Think back to what you know of Scripture, go back to the beginning.  Abraham, was he a volunteer or was he plucked from all the nations by God?  Plucked right.  What about when his son, Isaac, had 2 kids, Jacob and Esau.  The birthright should’ve gone to Esau, but who did God want?  Jacob.  What about Moses.  Did he volunteer?  Nope.  Picked.  What about the nation of Israel itself?  Did they all volunteer to be God’s people?  Nope.  They were picked too.  What about the disciples whom Jesus called.  Did they volunteer?  No.  The ones who volunteered got sent away to bury their own dead etc.  Jesus picked them.  Seeing a pattern here?  I could go on and on.  The Bible tells a story of God acting in sovereign freedom and picking some people to do the work, bear the burden, keep the faith.

This culminates in Paul’s writings and nowhere more evidently than in Romans 8, where he talks of God choosing, and then predestining for justification.  There is no human choice here for Paul; if there were, it could only lead to sin.  No, God is the one who is in charge around here.  We can like it or dislike it, but it is difficult to argue it.  So what are we to believe, then?  Well, I am going to simply tell you what I believe and how Predestination fits into my thinking.

I believe faith is a gift from God, and delivered to us from the Holy Spirit.  I believe salvation happens by grace alone and not by anything I do.  I believe salvation is God’s business and I trust in the grace of God as I understand it through my savior Jesus Christ.  And I believe in mystery.  I believe that the passage from this life into the next is marked by holy mysteries.  One of the most profound things Calvin wrote, I think, and one which is all too often ignored, is that we humans shouldn’t reach too far beyond what has been made plainly obvious to us.  God is too big for our little brains to do anything with.  And so I trust that God is at work in this world, that God has a saving plan for creation, and that this plan has been wrought through the ages.  And I will leave you with these words from the Book of Confessions, the Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1993.  These are the best words I can think of to capture what it is that we Presbyterians believe these days:

“God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.  In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all families of the earth.  Hearing their cry, God delivered the children of Israel from the house of bondage.  Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.  Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.”

Amen