One of the major controversies among Christians is the extent to which predestination and free will are attributed to the salvation of man. At the extremes are those who claim that God uses only one to the exclusion of the other. In my view, either extreme is wrong as the Bible clearly indicates that both predestination and free will play an equally important role in our salvation.
St. Augustine formulated this classical definition of predestination from various scripture passages: “Predestination is the foreknowledge and preparedness on God’s part to bestow the favours by which all those are saved who are to be saved.” St. Augustine is still more explicit on this point when he writes: “God already knew, when He predestined, what He must do to bring His elect infallibly to eternal life.”
There were many heresies in the early church regarding predestination. To sum up the teaching of the Church: Against Semipelagianism, we must say that the Church affirms particularly three things: (a) The cause of predestination to grace is not the foreknowledge of naturally good works performed, nor is it due to any preliminary acts of the natural order that are supposed to prepare for salvation. (b) Predestination to glory is not due to foreseen supernatural merits that would continue to be effective apart from the special gift of final perseverance. (c) Complete predestination, which comprises the whole series of graces, is gratuitous or previous to foreseen merits. And St. Thomas understands this to mean that “whatsoever is in man disposing him towards salvation is all included under the effect of predestination.”(Suma theol.) In a word: “that some are saved is the gift of Him who saves.”( Denz., no. 318)
Against predestinarianism and the doctrines of Protestantism and Jansenism that revive it, the Church teaches: (a) God wills in a certain way to save all men and He makes the fulfilment of His precepts possible for all; (b) There is no predestination to evil, but God has decreed from all eternity to inflict eternal punishment for the sin of final impenitence which He foresaw, He being by no means the cause of it but merely permitting it.
We see that the teaching of the Church against these conflicting heresies may be summed up in these profound words of St. Prosper, which the Council of Quierzy makes its own. Against Pelagianism and Semipelagianism the council says: “That some are saved, is the gift of Him who saves.” Against predestinarianism it says: “That some perish, is the fault of those who perish.” Holy Scripture expressed the same thought in these words: “Destruction is thy own, O Israel; thy help is only in Me.“(Hose 13:9)
Now let us take a look at what free will has to do with our salvation. Man is truly free and God calls him to freely choose to serve or not to serve Him. From the famous Old Testament charge of Joshua to “choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” (Jo 24:15) to the very words of Jesus Christ himself, “If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink” (Jn 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.
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 those who by patience in well-doing [good works] seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life, but for those who . . . do not obey the truth . . . there will be wrath and fury.” Also consider Romans 11:22: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.” In Romans 6:16, Paul makes it clear that we must continue to obey God to attain final justification: “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
Indeed, Jesus himself could not be any clearer in Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” As God, Jesus clearly desired to gather his children, Israel, but they would not let him. He even wept for them in Luke 19:41. Based on the choice they made and the foreknowledge he had, Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-2) which happed in 70 AD when the Roman legions conquered the city.
What about Romans 9:18-19? “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”
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 (see 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 (see Rom 9:22)? This is precisely what Paul is talking about when he refers to “vessels of wrath made for destruction” (Rom 9:22).
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 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 has appeared for the salvation of 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.
God’s will is immutable; therefore, God’s will is always accomplished. The mistake is to reject free will because of this truth. It is God’s will for all to be saved (Jn 3:16; 2 Pt 3:9; cf. 1 Tm 2:4; 1 Jn 2:1-2; Ti 2:11; 1 Cor 15:22). But it is also true that some men will not be saved (cf. Mt 7:13, 25:46; Rv 21:8). This implies the freedom to choose to serve God or not (cf. Dt 28:15, 30:19; Jo 24:15; Jn 7:37; 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).
Here are some quotations from the Councils and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on predestination and free will:
All men are called to this catholic [universal] unity of the People of God…. And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 836
We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.
Council of Orange (529 AD)
If anyone saith, that it is not in man’s power to make his ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of Himself, in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon VI of the Decrees on Justification
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1037
To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination’, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: ‘In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place [Acts 4:27-28]. For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 600
If anyone saith, that the grace of Justification is only attained to by those who are predestined unto life; but that all others who are called, are called indeed, but receive not grace, as being, by the divine power, predestined unto evil; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon XVII of the Decrees on Justification
Let us praise God with the song Your Grace Is Enough by Matt Maher: