Predestined For Freedom

For Catholics, when God “establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace” (CCC 600). Thus, anyone who is finally saved will have been predestined by God because it was God’s predestined plan and God’s grace that went before him and enabled him to be saved.

However, this does not mean that God has predestined anyone for hell. Indeed, the Bible cannot be any plainer than to say God is, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt 3:9). God wills all to be saved. To be damned, a person must willfully reject God’s “predestined plan” for his salvation (cf. CCC 2037): simple enough.

But for a Calvinist, Ephesians 2:1 declares all who are apart from Christ to be “dead in trespasses and sins.” In that view, to say a man could freely choose to accept or reject God’s grace and invitation to salvation would be as ridiculous as saying a corpse could choose to raise itself from the dead. Moreover, for Jesus’ declaration that a man must be “born anew” in John 3:3 to include the freedom to reject the offer would be akin to saying a baby has a say in whether or not he will choose to be born.

Romans 9:18-22 is perhaps the favorite-among-favorites of Calvinists:

Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will; and whom he will, he hardeneth. Thou wilt say therefore to me: Why doth he then find fault? for who resisteth his will? O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why hast thou made me thus? Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction …

Could Paul be clearer? Our salvation is entirely dependent on God’s unchangeable will. The free will of which the Catholic Church speaks is simply unbiblical. Shall we all join the local Calvinist ecclesial community, then? The answer seems—predestined.

Spiritual, Not Literal, Death

In fact, the Catholic Church agrees with the Calvinist in saying those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” do not have the power to “bring themselves back to life.” Man cannot “work up” grace or faith; these are unmerited gifts from a loving God (q.v. Eph 2:8-9). The hundreds of millions of babies the Church has baptized should suffice to make this point obvious. How many good works has a baby done to merit anything from God?

A key area, among others, where Catholics and Calvinists diverge is at the definition of “dead in trespasses and sins” and “born anew.” Calvinists seem not to understand that these are metaphors. Paul is speaking of a spiritual death. Thus, the “dead” man to whom Ephesians 2:1 refers is still a human person complete with a living soul and a functioning intellect and will. No separation of soul and body requiring the reconstitution of personhood has occurred.

Moreover, by “born anew” in John 3:3, Jesus did not mean the sinner’s soul somehow ceased to exist, needing to brought into being from non-being. If this were so, then there would truly be no sense in which the sinner would be able to cooperate with God in the process.

The truth is: The soul of the unregenerate man “dead in sin” remains alive and able to know and to will (assuming we are talking about an adult convert). His soul is spiritually dead. Even though an unregenerate soul cannot merit anything from God, this does not mean he cannot cooperate with God who calls him to salvation. This seems to be what we find in the case of Saul of Tarsus. If ever a man was “dead in sin,” it was Saul. Yet, in Acts 22:16, he was asked to cooperate with the grace of God in the cleansing of his sins when Ananias said to him, “rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

The Choice Is Ours

What the Calvinist misses is clear throughout the Bible. Man is truly free and God calls him to freely choose to serve or not to serve the Lord. From the famous Old Testament charge of Josue to “choose this day … whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” (Josue 24:15) to the very words of Jesus Christ himself, “If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink” (John 7:37), man’s freedom to choose to obey or disobey the will of God for salvation is absolutely central to the teachings of Sacred Scripture.

But doesn’t a statement like “hath not the potter power over the clay” from Romans 9 seem awfully Calvinist? Not when we consider it is actually a reference back to Jeremias 18:6: “Cannot I do with you, as this potter, O house of Israel, saith the Lord? behold as clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

If you were to take this verse out of context you might get a Calvinist interpretation of Jeremias. However, the next four verses are enlightening, to say the least:

I will suddenly speak against a nation, and against a kingdom, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy it. If that nation against which I have spoken, shall repent of their evil, I also will repent of the evil that I have thought to do to them. And I will suddenly speak of a nation and of a kingdom, to build up and plant it. If it shall do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice: I will repent of the good that I have spoken to do unto it. (Jeremias 18:7-10)

Far from denying free will, Jeremiah glaringly affirms it. The same can be said of Paul. Throughout Romans and elsewhere, Paul clearly teaches all men must freely cooperate with God’s grace to be saved. For example, look at Romans 2:6-8: “[God] will render to every man according to his works. To them indeed, who according to patience in good work, seek glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life: But to them that are contentious, and who obey not the truth, but give credit to iniquity, wrath and indignation.”

Or try Romans 11:22: “See then the goodness and the severity of God: towards them indeed that are fallen, the severity; but towards thee, the goodness of God, if thou abide in goodness, otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”

In Romans 6:16, Paul makes clear that we must continue to obey to attain final justification: Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are whom you obey, whether it be of sin unto death, or of obedience unto justice.” (Greek, justification).

Indeed, Jesus himself could not be any clearer in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?”

As God, Jesus clearly desired to gather his children, Israel, but they would not. If the Calvinist view of predestination were true, God never willed to gather them at all. Jesus got it wrong here. If he truly willed to gather them, they would have been gathered!

Grace Is Sufficient

But what about Romans 9:18-19? “Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will; and whom he will, he hardeneth. Thou wilt say therefore to me: Why doth he then find fault? For who resisteth his will?”

To be sure: there is a certain mystery involved in God’s predestined plan. We could ask many unanswerable questions. For example, why does God give more grace to some than others (q.v., Rom 12:6, 1 Pt 4:10)? Why does God allow someone to be born and live knowing they will eventually choose to reject him and go to hell (q.v., Rom 9:22)? This is precisely what Paul is talking about when he refers to “vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction.”

We could go on. Why doesn’t God give the one rejecting him more grace? It may be true that if God had given more grace to someone in hell, he would have made it to heaven. The only response to questions like these truly is: “But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” However, he errs who takes this to the point of turning God into an unjust God. Even if some are given more grace than others, everyone is given sufficient grace to be saved. That is clear in Scripture, as Titus 2:11 tells us: “the grace of God our Saviour hath appeared to all men.” If God did not give a man sufficient grace to be saved, then God would truly be unjust in condemning him. There is no mystery there at all.

The Price of Freedom

The good news is that St. Paul has already told us precisely who God “hardens” in Romans 1:24-28:

Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness, to dishonour their own bodies among themselves. Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator … For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. … And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient …

God’s will is immutable; therefore, God’s will is always accomplished. The mistake is to reject free will because of this truth. We have already seen that it is God’s will for all to be saved (2 Pt 3:9, cf. 1 Tm 2:4, 1 Jn 2:1-2). But it is also true that some men will not be saved (cf. Mt 7:13, 25:46; Apoc 21:8). This implies the freedom to choose to serve God or not (cf. Dt 28:15, Mt 19:17-22). All of this must be understood within God’s predestined plan. How do we reconcile all of this? We conclude that God’s will has an antecedent and a consequent nature. It is God’s antecedent will that all be saved. However, as a consequence of God’s gift of free will, some reject God’s antecedent will. It then becomes God’s consequent will for that soul to go to hell. God’s will is accomplished and our free will, which is revealed in Scripture, is preserved. It is God’s predestined plan for us to have free will (CCC 600).