Are our lives determined by God from the time we are born?

Q. Do you think our lives were determined by God the day we were born? Is it a fixed destiny regardless of the twists and turns? Or is changes from time to time?

I think the discussion in this earlier post will largely address your concern:

Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

That post responds to a question asked from the perspective of God, rather than from the perspective of human experience, as your question is but the answer is really the same either way. As I say in that post, God is not the only free moral agent in existence, but God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish His purposes.

So I would say that our lives are not determined the day we are born; God has built a beautiful but terrible freedom into the moral universe that allows us to make choices by which we might bring joy and blessing to ourselves and to others, or by which we might cause great suffering. But God hasn’t left us alone to make those choices and to deal with their consequences; rather, God is an active free moral agent right in the mix, and with His infinite wisdom and power, He is constantly at work to help us make our choices work out, if we will live in fellowship with Him and depend on Him. So we should pray for wisdom and strive to develop godly character, so that we can cooperate with God in his plans for the created universe.

As I say at the end of that post, I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next. I’m sure I can do something with it.” We should respond, “Please do, and let me know how I can help!”

If we have freedom of choice, how can God be all-knowing?

Q. I was taught that God is all-forgiving.When Judas was born his only reason for being here was to carry out the part that God made him to do. Now some people say you have freedom of choice, however, if you believe that God knows all things, then he knows what you are going to choose. People think they have a choice but if you really think about it, you really don’t. If you say yes you do, then you don’t believe God knows all things. We may think we have a choice, but he knows what you are gonna choose. Yes or No. Peace to you. Oh, by the way, back in the ’60s when I asked this question I was slapped in the face.

First of all, let me say how sorry I am about the experience you had when you asked this question before. Though it was probably fifty years ago, I’ll bet it still hurts, physically and emotionally. I call this blog Good Question for a reason. I honestly believe that questions like yours are good. They allow us to probe more deeply into what we believe, to see what we can understand better, and to recognize that there are maybe some other things we just won’t understand in this life. But there’s no such thing as a bad question, if it’s asked out of a genuine desire to learn and understand. May God give you grace and peace to deal with the memory of that slap. It should never have happened.

Your question is one that has actually been asked before on this blog, from a number of different angles. For example, one person asked how God could ever have created Satan. Even though he began as a glorious angel (Lucifer), didn’t God know that he would disobey, fall, and turn into a monster who would wreak havoc on the earth for all of human history? In my response, I rephrase the issues this way:

“How do we explain the creation and continuing existence of Satan?  Is God not all-knowing?  (He didn’t realize Satan would rebel?)  Or is God not all-powerful?  (He thought he could stop Satan but then wasn’t able to?)  Or is God simply not all-good?  (He doesn’t care whether his creatures are destroyed?)”

I think you’re getting at some of these same issues in your question. So here’s what I say in that other post:

“I think the solution to this problem lies in appreciating the radical nature of the freedom that God has endowed each of His intelligent creatures with.  It’s hard for us to understand this because we are created and finite, but an eternal and infinite God can make creatures who are so free that their moral choices are not predetermined and so cannot be known in advance.

But isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and know everything, even the choices that we’re going to make?  No, it is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.  And the freedom God has given us is so radical and profound that the essential moral choices we will make cannot be known in advance.”

I develop these thoughts further in that post, and in a follow-up that deals in more detail with the issue of how our freedom can be reconciled with God being all-knowing. At the end of the first post there are links to some other related posts as well. (As you can see, many people have this same question!)

As for Judas, whether he didn’t have free will because God made him just so that he would betray Jesus, I deal with that question quite extensively, in a series of eight posts, which begin here. Once again you’re asking a question that other people of faith also wonder about.

I hope that this blog will always be a place where you and others feel comfortable and safe asking any questions you want.

Are names written in the Book of Life, or blotted out of it?

Q. I’m reading a book that says names are not added to the Book of Life, they are blotted out.  The book refers to the place in Exodus where Moses prays, “But now please forgive their sin, but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written,” and God replies, “Everyone who has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”

I’d always thought our names were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life when we accept Christ as our Savior (as in the hymn, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory”).  However, if our names are already there, it seems to make more sense.  After all, it is not God’s will that any should perish.  Names would only be blotted out if a person refused forgiveness of their sins.  This would explain why infants who die and the mentally handicapped are able to enter heaven: they have not attained the capacity for accountability, therefore their names have not been removed.  It also explains why the whole human race is the beneficiary of what Jesus did.  Salvation is provided for all, but only becomes an individual reality when a person asks Him for it.

A. I find the idea very appealing that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life when they are born (or conceived), in the hopes that they will embrace salvation, and only blots people’s names out of the book if they definitively reject salvation.  Since none of us humans can ever really tell whether another person has done that, we can keep hoping and praying and reaching out friends and loved ones, patiently inviting them to embrace the love God has shown to them through Jesus.

In addition to the Scripture passage you mention in Exodus, the letter to Sardis in the book of Revelation seems to support the idea of names being blotted out, rather than written in, based on a person’s response. Speaking of those who do not deny Him in order to save their lives in this world, Jesus says, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

Moreover, in Psalm 69, speaking of those who are his “enemies without cause,” David prays, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”  Interestingly, a couple of passages from this psalm are treated as Messianic in the New Testament.  John says that when Jesus cleansed the temple, “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” And John later says, “So that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty,'” and he was given vinegar to drink.  This seems to be an allusion to another statement in Psalm 69, “They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”  All four gospels actually record this incident, and Luke specifies that the vinegar was given mockingly.  So if we see David as a type of the Messiah, then the enemies whose names he asks to be blotted out of the book of life can be associated with those who definitively choose to reject Jesus, to mock rather than accept the salvation he accomplished for us on the cross.

I would observe, however, that the case is not entirely clear-cut.  Some other Scriptures seem to suggest that names may be written into rather than blotted out of the Book of Life.  For example, there are a couple of different ways we might interpret Paul’s comment in Philippians about the co-workers whocontended at [his] side in the cause of the gospel,” that their “names are in the book of life.”  On the one hand, it doesn’t seem necessary for him to describe their genuineness this way if being written in were the default, and that nothing short of a definitive rejection of Christ would blot someone out.  On the other hand, he may be contrasting them with the people he has just described, who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and whose “destiny is destruction.”  In that case, Paul would be saying that his co-workers, by contrast, have not been blotted out like these people.

One more reference to consider is the one in Revelation that says the beast from the abyss will impress and terrify “the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world.”  This seems to suggest that not everyone’s name is written in from the start.

So how we might resolve this difference?  We should admit that it’s unlikely that there’s an actual physical book somewhere in the spiritual realm into which names are entered in ink, or blotted out with ink. Instead, we should perhaps understand the Book of Life as a metaphor that biblical writers use for salvation, speaking either of names blotted out (most commonly) or written in (in a few apparent cases).

Nevertheless, this metaphor represents a genuine spiritual reality.  As Paul put it in his second letter to Timothy, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.'”  In other words, the Book of Life, however physically or spiritually we understand it, exists somewhere, somehow, as a representation of God’s sure knowledge of those who are His.

That may be one good takeaway from this investigation:  If we have genuinely trusted in Jesus, we never have to wonder whether He knows that and will honor it.  As He said to the people of Sardis, “I will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

And I do have to say that I personally come down on the side of your statement, “Salvation is provided for all.”  If pressed to choose one understanding or the other of the Book of Life, I’d say that all names were written in first, and they would only be blotted out in cases where a person understood but definitively rejected God’s offer of salvation through Jesus.

This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God's offer of salvation through Jesus, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?
This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God’s offer of salvation, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”? (Part 2)

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

In my previous post I began to respond to this question by talking about prayer and faith.  Let me now address these two passages from Romans, starting with the one about Pharaoh.

It’s very important to realize that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not determine his eternal destiny—that is, it did not cause him to be “lost.”  Rather, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart with respect to one specific thing: his response to the order given through Moses, “Let my people go.”  (God says to Moses, anticipating in advance the entire sequence I’ll describe in the next paragraph, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.“)

After some of the earlier plagues, Pharaoh promised to do this, but once he was delivered from these plagues, he “hardened his heart.”  Moses even warned him, as the plagues progressed, not to do this again, not to “act deceitfully,” but he continued to break his promises and “harden his heart.”  After a while, God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart himself, in order to fulfill a larger purpose: “The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.”  (Pharaoh had first greeted the order to “let my people go” with scoffing, asking, “Who is Yahweh?”  He would find out!)

Not just the Egyptians, but all the surrounding peoples, learned of Yahweh’s reality and supreme power through the plagues that came because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart, and then God hardened it for him.  When the Israelites finally entered Canaan, for example, Rahab told the spies Joshua had sent in that everyone there had heard of what God had done to the Egyptians, and “our hearts melted in fear . . . for Yahweh your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” 

This awareness helped fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that through him “all people on earth” would be blessed.  Rahab herself came over to Yahweh’s side, and according to the gospel of Matthew, she apparently married an Israelite and through her son Boaz—who brought another foreigner, Ruth, “under the wings” of the God of Israel—Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus the Messiah!

So the purpose of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not so that he would be lost, but so that many would be saved, from many nations.  (Conceivably Pharaoh himself could have still come to faith in the God of Israel, though we don’t know whether this happened.)

Paul appeals to this episode as an analogy in the course of a long and complex discussion in Romans to argue that something similar is happening in his own day.  God is once again hardening the hearts of some people in response to one specific thing, not so that they will be lost, but so that many will be saved.  Paul explains that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  That is, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.”  God, Paul says, has been restraining the response of Jesus’ Israelite contemporaries to the proclamation of his Messiahship so that this proclamation will be redirected to the Gentiles.  Then, seeing the blessings the Gentiles receive from welcoming Jesus as their Savior will make the Israelites want to do the same.

It is true that permanently rejecting Jesus as Messiah would keep someone from being saved.  But Paul says very clearly that this is not God’s purpose here. God wants “all Israel to be saved” and is hardening some of their hearts in order to bring this about.  Paul makes the statement “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” in order to argue that hardening hearts is a means God may legitimately use to reach such ends.  Hardening is not an end in itself, designed to keep anyone from salvation.  I’m not aware of anywhere in the Bible where God is said to harden someone’s heart in order to keep them from being saved.

I believe this includes the other statement in Romans you asked about, which says that God predestined those He foreknew.  It’s important to realize that this statement comes not in the first part of the epistle, where Paul is talking about how we are saved, but in the next part, where he is discussing how we are sanctified, conformed to the image of his Son.”  Note what leads immediately into the statement:  “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Paul is talking here about how God works in the lives of people who have already been restored to relationship with Him. 

Amazingly, God has been able to experience that restored relationship with us from before all time—He “foreknew” us in the sense of already knowing relationally those who would ultimately embrace his offered love. And in light of this, He has planned all along to bring us into His family, “that [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  Once again the goal is to bring people in, not to keep them out.

To state the matter as simply as possible, in this other statement in Romans, Paul is discussing predestination to sanctification, not predestination to salvation.  Once we become part of God’s family, He then works to bring about a family resemblance between us and Jesus.

So once again I would encourage you to pray with faith and perseverance for the salvation of your children.  You cannot be going counter to God’s purposes when you do.

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”?

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

To go right to the bottom line first, I don’t think that any of us should conclude, if our prayers for the salvation of loved ones haven’t been answered yet, that God has not predestined them to be saved, but has hardened their hearts instead, so our prayers are of no use.

I’ll address those two statements by Paul in my next post.  They come within a long, complex argument about which there is much disagreement among interpreters. I want to say here that I think we do much better to draw our conclusions about the value and efficacy of our prayers for loved ones from biblical statements that are much clearer and more straightforward, such as what Peter writes in his second letter:  “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  In Psalm 103, David presents a similar picture of God graciously extending salvation:  “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He . . . does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”

So I would encourage you to keep solidly in mind a picture of God as a loving heavenly Father who wants to fold your children in His arms and welcome them back into His family.  Thank you so much for your prayers for your children!  They’re accomplishing far more than you realize.

And don’t be concerned about how much faith you have.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  So take the faith that you do have and put it to use in continuing to pray for your children, keeping a picture of our loving God in mind.  You can even thank God by faith for the work He’s doing your children’s lives, even before you’re able to see it. 

It’s been aptly said that faith is like a muscle.  The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.  And I can’t think of a better way to put our faith to work than by using it in prayer for those we love, asking that they will understand and accept God’s own love for them.


Was Jesus’ selection of Judas an answer to prayer? (And other follow-up questions)

A reader has asked some follow-up questions to my recent series about Judas.  Here are those questions and my reflections in response.

Q. If the disciples knew that Judas was a thief and stole from their common money bag, wouldn’t Jesus have known also?  And wouldn’t he have reproved Judas and given the money bag to a different disciple to carry?  Wouldn’t he try to teach Judas instead of ignoring a sin everyone else could see? 

It may have been discovered only after the fact that Judas was stealing from the common purse.  John may be speaking in retrospect, with the advantage of hindsight, when he reports, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”  So his theft was not necessarily known to all the disciples, and Jesus not correcting him would not have been regarded as toleration of sin.  But perhaps Jesus had already discerned it, in the way he also figured out beforehand that Judas was planning to betray him.  In that case he may have been giving Judas an opportunity to repent, confess his sin privately, and make restitution, on the principle stated later in the New Testament by his brother James: “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  It seems that when possible, God wants sin to be corrected and confessed privately, so that there are not scandals, and for the sake of the offending person’s more effective future restoration.

Q. Jesus telling Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” shows that Jesus knew his intentions, but it still left room for Judas to repent.  Judas did repent, return the silver, and say he had done wrong.  Why he killed himself instead of seeking forgiveness is another question. 

In my first post in the series about Judas, I agree with you that “Judas did repent, return the silver, and say he had done wrong.”  In that post I observe, “There is open and specific confession of sin, and there is restitution—what John the Baptist once called “fruit worthy of repentance.”  But then I go on to say:  “Unfortunately, the chief priests and elders, whose appointed role was to help shepherd repentant sinners like him back into the fold, turned him away, saying, ‘So what? That’s your problem.’ In order to accept Judas’s confession, they would have had to admit that it was just as wrong for them to have conspired to put Jesus to death, but their pride and vested interests did not allow them to do this. When Judas did not receive the spiritual counsel and restoration that he was seeking and desperately needed, in despair he went out and hanged himself.”  So I think some of the blame truly rests with the chief priests and elders.

Q.  Jesus prayed all night before choosing the  Twelve.  Certainly he was directed by his Father to choose those twelve.  Yet one of them was Judas, who betrayed him.  It is puzzling. 

You’re right, Jesus chose Judas after praying for, and no doubt receiving, guidance from God about which disciples to pick.  That’s why I say in my final post, about whether Jesus “betrayed” Judas, “I think we have to conclude that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers.”  I think it’s much harder to believe, for reasons I’ve already explained in the series, that God would have  guided Jesus to chose someone specifically so that Jesus would be betrayed by that person.  To me that makes a travesty of the whole process of calling and being set apart for special service—some parts of the Christian church even consider this a sacrament.

In his commentary on Luke, Alfred McBride says this about Jesus’ choice of all the disciples:  “He did not pick perfect candidates, but people with a mixture of talents, flaws, gifts and frailties. They were pilgrims, not saints. They represented a range of human foolishness: vanity, ambition, jealousy, cowardice, doubt, bravado, betrayal, and overreaching. . . . Still, in the end, they proved to be made of the stuff of saints. The Holy Spirit led them to be loving, truthful, brave, loyal, assured, humble, and saintly. Most of them witnessed Christ even to the point of martyrdom. Only one of them failed Christ’s expectations.”  So maybe this is how Jesus’ prayer for guidance before picking his disciples was answered, not with a “perfect candidate” in any individual case, but in every case with people who had genuine kingdom potential.


Did Jesus betray Judas?

So here’s the script.  Jesus needs to die for the sins of the world, but to do that, he needs to be betrayed.  So God chooses someone, Judas Iscariot, before all time to be the betrayer.  In the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility, Judas is somehow also personally culpable for this, so he pays for the deed (and all his other sins) by going to hell forever.  Not that he ever had a chance of salvation; he was a “son of perdition” and so “doomed to destruction” anyway (as some English versions translate this phrase).  Jesus himself knew, from an early point in his public ministry, that Judas would betray him. “I chose the twelve of you,” he says, long in advance of the betrayal, “but one is a devil.”  John explains that “he was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him.”  And by this John means not that the “devil” Jesus refers to here would eventually be recognized as Judas; already at this time it was known, at least to Jesus, that Judas was the betrayer.

I’m not buying it.  Why not?  Because there’s absolutely no way that Jesus could have recruited Judas to be his disciple on this basis.  “Come and follow me, because I need you in my inner circle to betray me at just the right time, though for performing this necessary service you’ll burn in hell forever.”  Nobody would take that offer.  Instead, Jesus would have had to make Judas think he was inviting him to join in announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming liberty to captives, healing the sick, helping the poor, while all along he was actually setting him up.  In other words, the only way for Jesus to get Judas to sign on as a disciple, so that he would then be the betrayer, would have been to deceive him.  And when true reason for his “calling” came to light, we could not blame Judas for feeling that Jesus had betrayed him.

But such a course of action is simply not consistent with the character of Jesus as it is clearly and consistently portrayed in all four gospels.  I think we have to conclude instead that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers, but that he knew at the same time that one of them would betray him. How can this be?

Jesus told the disciples themselves, when he sent them out to announce the good news of the kingdom, that when his followers went out in the same way, they would face opposition, persecution, and betrayal themselves.  Specifically, “A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed.”  But even though Jesus knew that this would be the inevitable result of the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God to a hostile world, this didn’t mean that he could tell a given disciple, for example, “Now you have four brothers, and this particular one, specifically, is the one who is going to betray you.”  Or, “This specific one of your children will turn you over to the authorities.”  The statement is based on a general knowledge of human nature, and so, I believe, is the statement, “I chose the twelve of you, but one is a devil.”  I think John’s explanation that “he was speaking of Judas” is retrospective, describing what became clear in light of later events.

This series of eight posts has been written in response to the original question, “Did Jesus forgive Judas?”  In my first post I answered, “Yes, when he said of everyone who put him on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them.'”  But then the question became whether Judas received Jesus’ forgiveness, and I observed that there is good evidence in the gospels, especially Matthew, to suggest that he did—unless the Bible says explicitly that Judas was doomed to destruction from the start.  All the rest of these posts have been devoted to showing what the implications are of that view.  I’ve gone into considerable detail in discussing the notion of Scriptural fulfillment and its specific application to the case of Judas.  But at this point, I believe we can state the case for Judas’s possible repentance and salvation much more simply:  Jesus didn’t betray him.

A medieval depiction of the calling of Peter and Andrew after the miraculous catch of fishes. The calling of a disciple was a sacred moment. Would Jesus really have exploited such a moment instead and “called” Judas only as his betrayer?