“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 29–31
Eldon R. Taylor, retired administrative assistant, Church Educational System; and Gospel Essentials teacher, Mapleton Third Ward, Mapleton Utah Stake. Romans 8:29–30 states: “Whom [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate, … them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
This passage has disturbed many students of the New Testament—and rightly so. It seems to teach that an all-powerful God has predetermined the destinies of every individual. Perhaps the most well-known advocate of this idea was John Calvin, a sixteenth-century French minister. On the subject, he wrote, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he determined within himself what he willed to become of each man. … Eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.”1
Calvinists claimed that once a person’s destiny was divinely decreed, it was irrevocable: “Angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.”2
To Latter-day Saints, the idea of predestination is unscriptural. Not only does it deny what Paul and other prophets taught about agency, but it also limits God’s love to only a select few. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith stated emphatically that “no person is ever predestined to salvation or damnation. Every person has free agency.”3 Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught that “one being is as precious in [God’s] sight as the other.” (Jacob 2:21.)
The problem with the idea of predestination, as C. H. Dodd put it, is that it “sets the ground of a man’s hope of salvation entirely outside himself.”4 Elder James E. Talmage also denounced the concept of predestination, saying that it makes us merely “automatons,”5 acting out a predetermined destiny decreed by God.
The problem is one of definition and interpretation. Many Christian churches regard the words predestine and foreordain as synonymous.6 However, our modern-day Church leaders have distinguished between them. Predestination is not a part of Latter-day Saint doctrine; foreordination is.
The Prophet Joseph Smith clearly taught that individuals were foreordained in premortality to certain missions in mortality. “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council in Heaven before this world was,”7 he wrote.
Several scriptures refer to foreordination; they tell us that Abraham was “chosen” before he was born (Abr. 3:23) and that Jeremiah was “ordained … a prophet unto the nations” before his birth. (Jer. 1:5.) The Book of Mormon says that others were also “called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works.” (Alma 13:3.)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the Lord foreordained chosen spirit children in pre-existence and assigned them to come to earth at particular times and places so that they might aid in furthering his divine will. These pre-existence appointments, made ‘according to the foreknowledge of God the Father’ (1 Pet. 1:2), simply designated certain individuals to perform missions which the Lord in his wisdom knew they had the talent and capacities to do.”8
Foreordination is thus different from predestination. There is no divine compulsion to ensure that a person who is foreordained to a particular calling will fulfill his or her tasks.
Why, then, does Paul speak of predestination? Could he possibly have meant foreordination, and could his original words have been translated incorrectly?
To discover what Paul meant in Romans 8:29–30 [Rom. 8:29–30], we must study his other writings. In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4; italics added.)9
Paul’s lifelong labor among the Gentiles is evidence that he believed that God loved all people and that salvation was available to all who would come unto Christ, repent, be baptized, and keep the commandments. Paul wrote that “the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, … and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6) and that “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles” (1 Cor. 12:13.)
Paul told the Galatians, “As many of you as have been baptized unto Christ have put on Christ. … And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:27–29.)10
In the same letter, Paul told the Romans that their conduct would determine their eternal reward: “Know ye not … his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16.)
Paul’s letters also make it clear that “the elect” can fall from grace and thus lose their reward. (See Rom. 11:17–21.) In fact, Paul claimed no guarantee of his own salvation; one of his favorite themes was the necessity of holding “stedfast unto the end.” (Heb. 3:14; see also 1 Cor. 9:27.) Such constant exhortations to righteousness would hardly seem necessary if he had believed that human beings did not help determine their own eternal destinies by their conduct during mortality.
From these scriptures, it seems clear that Paul did not believe in predestination—at least as a Calvinist defines the term. But then, we might ask, did Paul believe in and teach the doctrine of foreordination—as we define the term?
Again, to find out, we need to study Paul’s writings. He himself said that he had been set apart “before [he] was born.” (Gal. 1:15, Revised Standard Version.)12 He wrote to Timothy of their “holy calling” given “before the world began.” (2 Tim. 1:9.) To the Ephesians, he said that the Lord “hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world” to receive the gospel and its blessings. (Eph. 1:3–5.)13 He told the Thessalonian members that “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” (2 Thes. 2:13.) Indeed, all people are foreordained to salvation and exaltation, but to fulfill that foreordination they must accept the ordinances of the gospel, keep the commandments, and endure to the end.
But if Paul did not believe in predestination, why does the passage in Hebrews refer to it? Could those who translated the King James Version have erred in using the English word predestinate to convey the meaning of foreordain?
Possibly. The problem arises because the Greek word proorizo, which is made up of the prefix pro (meaning “before or in front of; beforehand, or earlier”)14 and the verb orizo (meaning “to determine, mark out, designate, destine, ordain, or appoint,” or “to divide or separate from … to pre-appoint or pre-ordain)”15 can be translated a number of different ways. In fact, various combinations of words have been used to translate the term over a period covering hundreds of years.16 The examples on page 31 come from various translations of Romans 8:29–30. Note how the same idea is translated in a number of different ways.
decreed of old
has thus decreed
J. B. Phillips
chose them long ago
Wm. F. Beck
appointed long ago
appointed long ago
New Testament in Today’s English
had also set apart
had already set apart
In addition to these translations, the Greek word proorizo can be translated several other ways—for example, with such English words as allotted, planned, and fore-approved. Obviously, the most correct way to translate the word cannot be determined by simply referring to a dictionary. And the word chosen may not fully or accurately convey the original author’s intent. The accuracy of any translation depends on the translator’s ability to determine what the original author had in mind and then to convey that idea to the reader in another language.
Determining what the original author meant is not a simple matter, especially when the writing was produced under inspiration. As Peter warns, “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20–21.) Just as the authors of the scriptures sought the Spirit as they wrote, so must we as we study the scriptures if we are to understand them.
From the tenor of Paul’s letter, we may determine that the English word predestinate does not accurately convey what Paul meant in Romans 8:29–30. What, then, did he mean? To understand that, we need to look at the verses in context. In verses 4 through 6, Paul tells members to “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. … For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”17 In verses 14 through 17 [Rom. 8:14–17], he explains, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. … We are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” In verse 24 [Rom. 8:24], Paul explains the need for hope in order to attain promised blessings,18 and in verse 28 [Rom. 8:28], he says that “all things work together for good to them that love God” and who are foreordained to accept the gospel and become like Christ.
Further, those who are thus foreordained are “justified,” “sanctified,” and “glorified” (see Rom. 8:30) through receiving the saving ordinances of the gospel and obeying the commandments—which is Paul’s theme throughout his epistles.19
Overall, Paul’s teachings cannot be reconciled with the concept of Calvinistic predestination, and to translate proorizo as predestinate does not accurately convey the Apostle’s intended meaning.
This point raises another question. If the word predestinate does not accurately convey Paul’s original meaning, why didn’t the Prophet Joseph Smith correct the passage when he worked on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible?
Perhaps he was concerned with other things and he simply bypassed it. Nephi tells us that Lehi overlooked a significant element in his vision of the tree of life because his mind was “swallowed up in other things.” (1 Ne. 15:27.) Or perhaps the Prophet defined the word predestinate in his own mind as we define foreordain. The Prophet once spent more than two hours discussing the question of election and said that “unconditional election of individuals to eternal life was not taught by the Apostles. God did elect or predestinate, that all those who would be saved, should be saved in Christ Jesus, and through obedience to the Gospel; but He passes over no man’s sins, … and if His children will not repent of their sins He will discard them.”20
In summary, Paul did not believe in predestination as Calvinists have defined the word. It has been his interpreters who have confused the doctrine. Paul himself taught that God loves all his children and has offered salvation to all who come unto Christ and are justified and sanctified through obedience to the covenants they make with him.