Acts 13:48: Not As "Predestination" As It Sounds

(Part of the "Predestination vs. Free-Will" series)

Calvinists often point to Acts 13:48 as an ultimate predestination verse.  "... and all who were appointed (ordained) for eternal life believed".  They say, "See, God appointed them, predestined them, chose them to go to heaven.  And because He chose them, they were predestined to believe.  And those who weren't chosen can't believe."

But look it up online and you'll see that it's not that cut-and-dried.  It's not as "predestination" as it sounds.

First off, it's important to not take it out of context or separate it from the rest of Scripture.  If you do, then it could definitely sound like God predetermined that only certain people would obtain eternal life.  But we need to look at it in context and in relation to the rest of Scripture.

Look first at who Paul is referring to when he talks about the Gentiles "appointed for eternal life".  They were people who were willing to believe Paul's message, who were eager to hear it.  Contrast them with the Jews referred to in verse 46 who rejected the message and who didn't consider themselves worthy of eternal life.

The word "reject" in verse 46, according to the concordance, means that the people thrust the message away from themselves.  They deliberately chose to refuse the Truth.  And because of that, God opened the door of salvation up to the Gentiles instead, granting them the right to obtain eternal life.  He appointed eternal life for the Gentiles too (in general), not just for the Jews.

Next, according to online sources and the concordance, "appointed/ordained" could also basically mean being "in position for eternal life" or "disposed for eternal life" (which some say is the best translation).

"Disposed" would mean "positioned for eternal life ... inclined to it ... resolved to it ... settled on it ... etc.".  But this doesn't have to mean that God positioned them, as in predestination.  It could mean that they positioned themselves for eternal life, by their eagerness to hear the Gospel and their willingness to accept it (as seen in previous verses).  They were "inclined" to eternal life, leaning towards it, settled on it.  This is the other side of the coin to the Jews who deliberately refused the Truth.  The Gentiles were eager for it and convinced of it, and this puts them in a position to accept the offer of eternal life, to believe.

It wouldn't make sense to say that the Jews deliberately refused the truth but the Gentiles had no control over accepting it.  Acts 13:26-52 is showing the contrast between the resistant Jews and the willing Gentiles.  And so both of these should be read in a way that places the responsibility for believing on the people, that the people positioned themselves either for eternal life by accepting the truth or for eternal death by rejecting it.

But ... If "ordained/appointed" doesn't mean that they positioned themselves but instead means that God positioned them, it could simply be that the Gentiles were in a position to obtain eternal life because God opened the door of salvation up to them, that all the Gentiles who were given the opportunity to be saved (who were willing to be saved) chose to believe.  Or that all the Gentiles in the audience that day believed.  (Not being willing to believe - being resistant - closes the door of salvation to you.  Those not willing to believe are not in a position for eternal life.  But those willing to believe are.)  But this still wouldn't have to mean that God "predestined" them for eternal life, just for the possibility of eternal life, for the right to obtain eternal life.

Or it could be that they were "ordained" for eternal life because God foreknew their willingness to believe in Him.  From the beginning, God knew who would come to Him.  So in a way, we have been "marked" out as His people, on the path to eternal life.  But this doesn't mean that He overrides our free-will, just that He knew from the beginning who would choose Him.  It might just be that God looked at that group of Gentiles and said, "These are Mine, the ones who I know will choose to believe in Me".  And then, of course, they did choose to believe, following the path He knew they would take.

Let's also look at some other Scriptural uses of the Greek word for "ordained/appointed" and see what we learn.

It's also used in Matthew 28:16 when Jesus "appoints" a place to meet with the disciples.  Jesus arranged the meeting place, but the disciples had to show up.  Could this not also be similar to God arranging eternal life for us, but we have to "show up"?

It's used in 1 Corinthians 16:15 to say that some of the first converts in Achaia had "devoted" ("addicted") themselves to the service of the saints.  This is clearly a self-chosen devotion.  They were not predetermined to be devoted or "forced" to be devoted.  They chose to be devoted.  They addicted themselves to the saints.  Like the Gentiles positioning themselves for eternal life?

And another use is in Romans 13:1 where it says that we are to obey the governing authorities because God has established (instituted/ordained) them.  Of all the uses of this word, this one could sound the most like "predestined," that God predestined/pre-planned all governing authorities, that He chose the leaders and "forced" those whom He wanted to be the leaders.

BUT ...

I don't think it means that He has prechosen, pre-planned, or "forced" all leadership, but that whoever gets into leadership is because He at least allowed it.  Predestination-believers say that "sovereignty" means that God actively causes everything.  But I agree with Tony Evans who says that there are two ways God works sovereignly: one way is by causing things and the other is by allowing what we do.  There are times He prechoses and forces leaders, and there are times He simply allows those we pick.

But, you might wonder, does the Bible support this idea?

Hosea 8:4 says "They [Israel] set up kings without my [God's] consent; they choose princes without my approval."

If "ordains" means that He has prechosen all leaders and that He always picks the guy He wants, how can He say that Israel has chosen leaders without His consent or approval?

The only way both these verses can be true (that God ordains the authorities and that Israel chose leaders without God's consent or approval) is if "ordains" doesn't necessarily mean "predetermined" or "God-caused" - if it's that sometimes God causes and that sometimes He just allows.  This supports the idea that God has given us the right (and responsibility) to make decisions for ourselves.  And that He only allows ("ordains") what He chooses to allow for whatever reasons, even if we choose to do something He didn't want or plan.  He allows bad things to happen.  But it doesn't mean He causes them. 

Whatever "ordains" means, Hosea shows us that it can't mean "predestined" or "forced by God" because the Israelites made decisions He didn't approve of, which wouldn't be possible if God "predetermined" or "caused" everything.

(You know what's interesting?  Just yesterday I was praying that God would help me understand this "ordained for eternal life" thing.  I went to bed with it circling around in my head.  Did it really mean "predestined"?  And does "ordaining leaders" mean "predestining" them?  Because if so, then "ordaining" people for eternal life would mean "predestining" them for eternal life, right? 

And then this morning, my normal, daily, straight-through-the-Bible reading happened to be that passage in Hosea, where I found the verse about leaders that God didn't choose ... which made it clear that "ordains" doesn't necessarily mean "predestined" or "predetermined" or "prechosen".  Of all the chapters in the Bible, the next one happened to be Hosea 8.  I thought that was pretty cool!  Thank You, Lord!)

[Calvinists will say "People have a hard time accepting that God predestines us to heaven or hell, but that we are still responsible for our choices.  Because it seems contradictory.  But two truths cannot be contradictory.  So if I see in one place in the Bible that God says He ordains all things (by this Calvinists mean "God preplans and causes all things") and if I see in another place that He says we are responsible for our choices, then we have to believe them both, even if it's confusing and doesn't make sense to us.  If we don't understand it, there is a problem with our understanding, not with the biblical truths.  But someday, in eternity, it will all be clear and make sense."

I agree that two biblical truths can't be contradictory.  But ... these aren't two biblical truths.  This is someone with a misunderstanding of one of those truths.  And if someone misunderstands a biblical truth, it will indeed contradict the other biblical truth.  And that's what's going on here.

Calvinists call these two things "truths": God ordains all things and yet man is still responsible.  But they misunderstand "ordains" (and sovereignty and predestination and election and grace and faith and salvation, etc.).  And that's where the problem is.

As we just saw, Romans 13:1 says God "ordains" all leaders, which is why we are to obey them.  But Hosea 8:4 says Israel chose leaders without God's approval.  This shows that "ordaining" can't necessarily mean "God preplans and causes everything that happens."  Sometimes, it simply means that God gives the people what they want or allows them to do what they are going to do (and He lets them face the consequences of it).

Likewise, Calvinists view "God's sovereignty" as "He causes everything that happens, for His purposes."  But "sovereignty" - as seen in the Bible - is sometimes God causing things and sometimes God just allowing things, but knowing how to work everything into His plans, for His purposes.  (But He never causes sin or unbelief or the things He commands us not to do.)  

And Calvinists believe all predestination verses have to do with God predestining whether we go to heaven or hell.  But there are many different kinds of "predestination" in the Bible: God predestined Jesus's death as the means of salvation, He predestined Israel's role in His plans, He predestined mankind in general to know Him and have a relationship with Him (but we can choose to resist Him), He predestined the path a believer takes after salvation (to grow to be more like Christ and to bring God glory and to do good works), He predestined the generation that would be the first to have Jesus and the Holy Spirit, He predestined the two eternal destinies of heaven or hell (but we choose which one we end up in), etc.  

But He does not predestine whether we go to heaven or go to hell, without giving us a choice.  That is not a biblical way to understand predestination.  

The Bible does not contradict itself.  Regarding this issue, it's a Calvinist's misunderstanding of the Bible that causes the contradictions and confusion.  

And of course Calvinists have to say that we can't understand it all right now but that it will all be clear in eternity.  They have to say that we just have to "humbly" accept it all in faith, even if it doesn't make sense.  They have to say that because they know that what they believe doesn't make sense, that's it's illogical and contradictory and reflects badly on God.  

And it will continue to do so until they correct their misunderstanding of "ordains" and "sovereignty" and "predestination," etc.  (Also see "What Does 'God Is Sovereign' Mean?")]

While "ordained for eternal life" might be confusing, it makes far more sense and fits more cleanly with all of Scripture to NOT interpret it as a "predestination" verse.  There is far too much in the Bible about our responsibility to obey and to believe and to accept the Word - far too much to simply conclude that "appointed/ordained for eternal life" must mean "predestined by God for eternal life with no influence from us and no response required."

[However, if it does mean some sort of "predestined," it wouldn't necessarily mean that this is how God always works or that salvation wasn't available to the rest of the people there or that God overrode the people's right to choose.  It could simply mean that God had singled out and decided to pursue the willing people more strongly than the rest, that He called to their hearts more than He did others in order to ensure that they chose Him.  He did this to Paul, too.  He pursued Paul by blinding him, speaking to him audibly, and sending a prophet to him.  All to get Paul to believe in Him.  BUT... He did not override Paul's right to choose; He just made Himself so convincingly clear that Paul so clearly saw the Truth that he choose to believe it.]

Also of note is the fact that the Greek word for "ordains/appointed" in this verse is NOT the word used when the writer means "predestined" or "predetermined".  There is a word for that ... but the writer did not use that word in Acts 13:48.  

Why not?  

Because it's not a verse about God predetermining our eternal destinies.

What does Acts 17:30 say?  That God "commands all people everywhere to repent".  This wouldn't make sense if God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.  If the majority of people are destined for hell then there is no chance that they can repent and, therefore, there is no point in commanding them to repent.  And if the "chosen" people are predestined for heaven without any responsibility on their parts, it's going to happen no matter what and, once again, there is no need to command them to repent.

Repentance, according to Calvinism, is not something we have control over.  It's something God controls.   He does it for us.  He determines if we believe or don't believe.  And if this is the case, then there are many unnecessary and impossible verses in the Bible. 
In fact, if predestination is true, you could sum the whole Gospel message up in this: "God has already decided if you're going to heaven or hell.  And there's nothing you can do about it.  The End!"  

But instead He calls us over and over again in the Word to repent, to choose Him, to believe, to obey.  Why would He do this (wasting valuable Bible space) if we had no ability to decide, no control over our thoughts and actions and decisions?  It wouldn't make sense.

But it does make sense if we have the responsibility to choose between believing in Him or not believing, between obeying or disobeying, between repentance or resistance.

Want more biblical proof that it's not predestination?

If predestination is true then Matthew 11:20-24 doesn't make sense and wouldn't be true.  In this passage, Jesus says that if the miracles He did in the cities had been done in Tyre and Sidon and Sodom then they would have repented.  But if unbelief is predetermined by God then Jesus is lying by saying that those cities would have repented had they seen the miracles He performed.  They would have never been able to repent if God had already determined their destiny and if they had no ability to decide.

And here's a verse that shows us that God lets us makes decisions.  Acts 14:16:  "In the past, [God] let all nations go their own way."  How could this verse be true if He predetermines and causes everything we do?  God allowed the people to go their own ways.  He allowed them to choose their own paths and beliefs and behaviors.  This would never happen if God predestined everything and caused everything.  

To further emphasize our responsibility when it comes to salvation, notice that Acts 13:48 says they "believed".  And verse 39 also talks about believing - "Through him everyone who believes is justified ..."

Strong's concordance shows us that "believe" is active, not passive.  It's allowing yourself to be persuaded by something (by the Truth) and, consequently, putting your confidence in it.  This is not a passive thing, as though God causes you to believe.  The responsibility is on you to let yourself be persuaded by the Truth ... or to remain resistant to it.  It is our choice.  God does not make the choice for us.

Also of great importance:  When it comes to Scriptural words related to obtaining salvation, we can see in the concordance that they are all active, that they are all done by us, not to us ...

"Believing" is letting ourselves be persuaded by the Truth.  

"Rejecting" is deliberately pushing away the Truth.  

A "hardened" heart is retribution from God for first hardening your own heart, for resisting God even after He has patiently and lovingly tolerated your resistance for a long time.  

"Receiving" (as in receiving "grace and apostleship" in Romans 1:5 and "God's abundant provision of grace" in Romans 5:17 and "reconciliation" in Romans 5:11) is intentionally reaching out and grabbing ahold of what is offered to us, not just passively acquiring it as though someone puts it into our hands.  

The "disobedient" (in Ephesians 2:1-2, 5:6) are those who refused to be persuaded by the Truth, who refused to believe it.  

"Unbelief" (Romans 11:20, 23) is disbelieving something, knowing about it but deliberately refusing to believe it, being unfaithful to it.  

"Ignorance" (Ephesians 4:18-19) is a deliberate, willful decision to be blind to something, refusing to see it.  

And Romans 9:22-23 talks about those "prepared for destruction" ... and according to the concordance, "prepared" denotes a strong correlation between someone's character and their destiny, the idea that they prepared themselves for destruction by how they lived and who they chose to be.  (And Phil. 3:18-19 further clarifies those whose "destiny is destruction": those who live as enemies of the cross, whose god is their stomach, whose glory is in their shame, whose mind is on earthly things.  All of this relates to their behavior, their choices.  They destine themselves for destruction by the way they choose to live and believe.) 

Given how all these things related to salvation and faith are done by us and are our responsibility, I would say that Acts 13:48 is either about positioning ourselves for eternal life by our willingness to accept the Truth or it's simply about being "foreknown by God to become a believer."  

But it's not about predestination.

The door of salvation is open to all of us!  Eternal life has been ordained, granted, to all of us.  We all have a place saved for us in heaven because of Jesus' sacrifice.  But we have to accept the Truth and obey the Word.  We have to believe!

[Oh, and there's one more verse I just found.  If I could, I would ask my Calvinist pastor how he would explain it, along with the Hosea verse, because he adamantly believes that everything that happens is because God made it happen.  That "being sovereign" means that God causes everything that happens, even sin, rebellion, and the Fall.

Isaiah 30:1:  " 'Woe to the obstinate children,' declares the Lord, 'to those who carry out plans that are not mine ...'".

If God causes everything, how could He say here that plans happened that weren't His?

My pastor might not be able to answer this, but I can.  

The Lord can say it because ... He hasn't predestined everything that happens, nor does He cause everything that happens.  Sovereignty doesn't mean controlling or causing everything.  It's not micromanaging.  

Sovereignty means that God knows everything that will happen, that He ultimately holds all things in His hands and is never "out of control" or caught by surprise, that everything that happens does so because He either allowed it or caused it, that He allows or causes things (but He never causes sin) because He knows how He can work it into His plans, and that He will work all things out for good.    

Like the Hosea verse, the Lord Himself is saying in the Isaiah verse that there are things that happen that He did not cause or desire or approve of.  But He allowed it to happen anyway.  And He will redeem it in the end and use it for His purposes.  

My pastor's stance on "God causes everything" is so dogmatic and forceful that he basically shames anyone who believes in free-will, painting them as less-than-humble Christians who don't honor God or the Bible.  And he is such a dogmatic Calvinist that he says God causes every heartache in your life, even childhood abuse, and that these tragedies are God's plan A for your life, for your good and for His glory, and that you just have to trust God's reasons for causing it.

Do you see why I am so frickin' angry about this?  Why I have researched this topic so deeply and written so much on it?  

Our view of God's sovereignty will deeply affect our view of God's love and mercy and grace and justice and the circumstances of our lives and Jesus's sacrifice and our chance for salvation (and how we get salvation), etc.

If we believe that God is a God who causes childhood abuse or causes people to sin and go to hell, then what does that say about God's love and forgiveness and grace and justice, etc.?  And how can we trust a God like that?  And how can we mesh that with all the verses that talk about how He loves everyone and wants all people to be saved, how He calls us to obey and believe, how Jesus died for all, how He is a God of healing, how He is good and righteous, etc?

If you believe God causes everything, predestines everything, then you have a lot of explaining to do, which will require a lot of Scripture-twisting and a lot of "We can't understand it but we just have to accept it" (which is how my pastor explains away all the problems with and contradictions of his view).

But once again, I agree with Tony Evans who says that God works sovereignly in two ways: He either causes things to happen or He allows things to happen, even things He doesn't want, because He knows how to work it for good.

This explains how sin happens, how plans that are not God's happen, how we end up in hell.  God allows us to rebel and sin and disbelieve.  Yet He still loves us all and wants us all to be saved.  And so He calls us to obey, to believe in Him.  Jesus died for all and salvation is available for all.  But God does not cause our sin and disbelief.  If we sin or rebel, it is our fault.  Not His.  But He is always willing to help us out of our mess, if we will turn toward Him.  And He can work every bad thing, even things He didn't cause, into something good.

This view meshes with all of Scripture and makes sense and fits with God's character.  This is a God I can believe in and trust.

My husband and I are so sickened and disheartened by our pastor's dogmatic hammering on "God predestined everything and causes everything" that we have been wanting to leave that church for a couple years now.  But since we have been there for 19 years and have good friends there and our kids grew up in that church and they want to keep going to the kids' church, we don't feel like we can leave yet (the pastor is relatively new, about 5 years).  And so we go, but we sit in the hallway during the sermon, reading Christian books or watching sermons from other churches on the tablet.

And that has to be good enough for now.  Because both my husband and I just get too upset for days every time the pastor slips his predestination view into everything, how he shames those who believe differently, and how he constantly tries to strong-arm people into agreeing with him, into not questioning him.  As he basically says, "If you disagree me, you are disagreeing with the Bible." 

(Actually, what he says is, "This is what the Bible says.  And you don't have to like it, but you do have to accept it.  You only have three options when it comes to what I am saying.  You can ignore it, you can get angry about it, or you can accept it."  But I say ... "Umm, no.  There is a fourth option.  We can disagree with your view and find Scripture to back us up.")

But I guess the good that came from all of this is that instead of just getting angry, I got educated.  (And angry some more!  Angry and educated!)  I researched this topic thoroughly and finally figured out what I really believe about it all, making sure my view tied all of Scripture together and made sense and fit with God's character and the way He acts in the Bible.  And I put it all online for other people to read.  So that's been good.

It's just too bad that it cost me my enjoyment of my home church.  It truly breaks my heart.  

Update: We did end up finally leaving our church after we wrote a letter to the elders about our concerns but realized that they were going to do absolutely nothing about it.  In fact, I now believe that almost all of the elders and pastors at our church are Calvinists, so of course they won't disagree with the pastor or try to reign him in.  In fact, I believe he made sure that all the elders and pastors and prominent men would be Calvinists by taking them all through Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology.  Washing one brain at a time!  Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated into our Calvinist cult!]

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