Jeremiah and Predestination

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Jeremiah and Predestination
from Jeremiah and Lamentations: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching
by Duane Garrett & Calvin F. Pearson

Jeremiah and Predestination The concept of predestination is difficult and divisive, but it is not a topic to avoid. Many interpreters, to be sure, take extreme views on the doctrine. This is true of almost every biblical idea, and especially of those that are hard to comprehend (2 Peter 3:16). For some, the doctrine implies strict determinism, so that we are simply lines of code in God’s computer program, and we passively act out our assigned roles and respond to preordained events in precisely the manner the heavenly encoding dictated. As such, “free will” is pure illusion. Others believe that the doctrine only means that God passively knew what decisions we would make, and that he chose us in accordance with what we would freely choose. As such, God does not really predestine anything; we make all the important decisions ourselves.

Neither extreme is biblical. God desires all people to repent and come to him (2 Peter 3:9). It is difficult to see how this is compatible with a hard determinism, in which God has in effect made the decisions for us. The apostle Paul, out of a fear of God, sought to persuade people to believe (2 Cor. 5:11). This implies both that he knew that God wanted him to urge people to believe and also that people have minds and wills; they can be persuaded to come to God, and they can also refuse to be persuaded. On the other hand, he says that God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified the true members of his church (Rom. 8:29). This claim loses all meaning if it is a passive activity—that God “predestined” those whom he passively knew would believe. To the contrary, the Christian’s experience of salvation is that God is active and we are passive. We were dead in sin and blind to the truth, but God gave us life and sight so that our believing was almost inevitable (Isa. 42:6–16; Eph. 2:1–9).

We should not maintain one great truth by jettisoning the other. God desires all to repent, and he commissions preachers to appeal to the wills, hearts, and minds of all people. Those people may stubbornly resist or may repent and believe. On the other hand, the true church is made up of people whom God predestined, called, and justified—people who in their blindness could do nothing for their own salvation, but whose hearts were strangely warmed by the grace of God.

In reality, many of the great doctrines of the faith are paradoxical and beyond human understanding. This is true, for example, of the most fundamental of all Christian teachings, that God is the Holy Trinity. There is one God in three persons. This is beyond all earthly analogy and explanation. God is not one person who takes on three roles, nor is he divided into three parts; there is but one God, not three. “One God in three persons” is a truth we can affirm, and we can grasp the meaning of the words, but we can never truly comprehend God’s nature. It is beyond our experience and mental capacity. This may seem to be a great offense to reason, but it should give us comfort. God, by definition, is so far above us that we are no more able to understand his true nature than a toad is able to understand calculus. If we were inventing a religion, we would make a god that we can wrap our minds around. We would either say that there are many gods (as in polytheism), or we would say that there is a single, unitarian God (as in Islam). We can understand the “one God in one person” of Islam; this has no mystery to it at all. But the God of the Bible is a being that no human mind could invent; this is a mark of its authenticity.

Paradox is even a feature of the great truths of nature, to say nothing of God. Light is both a wave and a particle. Here too, we can grasp the meaning of the words, but we cannot truly comprehend light itself. The ideas of light being a wave and light being a particle are for the human mind irreconcilable, and yet both statements are true. Indeed, the higher physics of relativity and quantum mechanics are heavily populated with ideas that only a few among us are able to grasp the essential concepts, but that no one fully understands or can integrate them into a unified, nonparadoxical framework. If this is true of the natural world, is it not likely that God’s being and God’s mind (as in the Trinity and in predestination) are beyond our grasp?

We Christians live with paradox about God all the time. We pray. We do this, seeking to persuade God to a course of action but believing that if we do not pray, God may not act. But even as we seek to persuade God to do certain things, we do not think that this invalidates God’s omniscience or sovereignty. We pray for someone to repent and turn to Christ, but we do it believing both that the person has free will and that God can somehow change that person’s heart. As such, we should not be offended at these truths: God has chosen some for salvation, and God wants every single person to repent and come to the truth. People are dead in sin and insensitive to the call of the gospel apart from the quickening work of the Spirit, and people have minds and free will. They come to Christ because God drew them to himself, not because they decided to choose God. And they can be influenced by arguments and examples either toward belief or unbelief, but in the end, they make up their own minds and are responsible for their decisions. These truths are paradoxical, but they reflect both our doctrine and our experience. We need to accept them even if we cannot integrate them into a single, nonparadoxical theology.

Jeremiah himself reflected the paradoxical nature of God’s election. On the one hand, he was set apart for his prophetic task before he was born or made any decision on his own. And he could not escape his calling, even though it gave him great pain. He was almost a prophet against his will. On the other hand, he was fully committed to YHWH and to Israel’s covenant with YHWH; and yet he was bewildered, disheartened, and angered by Israel’s unbelief. His love for God and his embrace of his prophetic calling were wholeheartedly and freely given. We humans are not as unsearchably profound as the mind of God, but we too, it turns out, are complex beings.

This post is adapted from the newest addition to our Kerux Commentaries series Jeremiah and Lamentations: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching, written by Duane Garrett & Calvin F. Pearson. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Kerux Commentaries enable pastors and teachers to understand and effectively present the main message in a biblical text

Each volume uniquely combines the insights of an experienced Bible exegete (trained in interpretation) and a homiletician (trained in preaching). These two authors work together to explain the essential message for the original listeners or readers, unpack its timeless truth, and then provide a contemporary restatement and communication insights for the key biblical concept.

Each volume uniquely combines the insights of an experienced Bible exegete (trained in interpretation) and a homiletician (trained in preaching). These two authors work together to explain the essential message for the original listeners or readers, unpack its timeless truth, and then provide a contemporary restatement and communication insights for the key biblical concept.

Based on the Big Idea preaching model, Kerux enhances the reader’s ability to deliver a message that is biblical, cohesive, and dynamic.

Jeremiah and Lamentations approaches two historically related yet literarily distinct books of the Old Testament, carefully attending to their composition and application. Garrett and Pearson draw out the crucial themes and structures of Jeremiah: the hope of eschatological salvation nestled in the center of an expertly crafted exploration of human sin in all its blindness, perversity, and persistence. Lamentations wrestles with the unanswered questions of a community in exile, sobered by judgment and wondering whether God intends to abandon Israel entirely. Garrett and Pearson examine both Old Testament texts through the lens of Jesus, clarifying the parallels and fulfillments essential for Christian preaching.


Duane A. Garrett (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has previously taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Bethel Seminary and served as pastor and missionary in a variety of contexts. Garret has also written A Modern Grammar for Biblical HebrewAuthority and Interpretation, and The Problem of the Old Testament.
Calvin F. Pearson (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is a recently retired pastor and still serves the Lord through writing, teaching, and sermon coaching. His ministry experience includes pastoring in Texas and Michigan, and teaching homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University, and Grace School of Theology.

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