Imagine a couple on a beach, just engaged. They sit quietly, watching the sunset, warmed more by the soft glow of the moment. “Why do you love me?” she asks. The young man hesitates. He knows pausing is not good. But she appears to him as though standing distant, across a frozen pond, his feet testing the delicate surface. A few plausible but hollow reasons spill out—
“I love your twinkling eyes, bubbly enthusiasm, and big heart. She gazes at him unchanged as though still waiting for his answer. “What if I am not like that when I’m pregnant, or just older?” she wondered. A Beatles song begins to play in her head: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
In the strain, the young man rallies. Remembering a poem he had to memorize in college he says, “Honestly, I don’t know why I love you, but I can tell you how.”
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight, / For the ends of being and ideal grace./ I love thee to the level of every day’s/ Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. / I love thee freely, as men strive for right. / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43
She gives him a look of unequivocal satisfaction. So he confesses, “I supposed the best I can say is, I love you ‘Just because.’” And they lived happily ever after, mostly.
People hunger for acceptance without conditions. We taste it in life’s best moments; but when experienced as the grace of God, unconditional acceptance transforms people. In order to understand grace, it’s better to start on a personal level as the story above illustrates. Far better to start there than with the word “predestination.”
Most people hear the word predestination as determinism. It suggests that everything is fixed and each moment is just a line in a play already composed by its Author. Determinism is a philosophical category. It brands people as reactors, controlled by their nature and nurture. Viewing God through this lens turns people into puppets with God as Puppeteer. Scripture does characterize God as sovereign over all. But that control is dynamic, not hinging upon every human cause.
A story at the end of Genesis shows the difference between what people cause and what God controls. Joseph, sold as a boy into slavery by his brothers, makes a profound gesture as an elder statesman. Having become one of the most powerful men of his time and reunited with his brothers he says, “What you intended for harm God used for good.” God is not the cause of selfishness and evil along our path but he does set the course of human history. Not all things are good, but “He works all things to the good” (Rom. 8:28).
Meanwhile, in the mix of daily life, each of us is met by God’s gracious overtures through outward circumstance and inward conscience. Why some respond and others do not remains a mystery. In fact, God “…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Many people are uncomfortable with tension between these two truths. In turn many churches choose to emphasize one or the other: human cause (Arminianism) or divine control (Hyper-Calvinism).
C.S. Lewis preserves this biblical tension between God’s control and our responsibility this way:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”
God is in control even as human beings have choice. That’s the biblical view. The grace of God is able to overrule self rule without making people robots. A yielded soul reforms around something besides self alone, becoming the social beings we were intended to be with an identity centered upon relationship.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).