A friend of mine recently emailed me regarding predestination and free will, with questions arising out of a small group Bible study on the subject focused on Romans 8:30. He asked: "Is there no free will in choosing God? Has he already chosen us?" Below was my attempt at a (non-systematic, non-publishable, purely personal) response.
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There are, of course, a host of issues surrounding predestination and free will. Two foundational issues, prior to any discussion of the actual question, are the nature of salvation and the character of Scripture.
Regarding salvation, often "being saved" is assumed from the outset as a particular thing, when there are various understandings of it: What are we saved from? What are we saved for? Does salvation mean not going to hell? Does it mean going to heaven? Does it mean God's act of saving me? Do I have any agency in that act, or am I merely passive in the process? Is salvation purely metaphysical or "future," about where I "go" when I die? Does it impinge or relate to or involve the self in the present? What is hell, damnation, or lost-ness? Will all be saved? All those questions, among others, determine the course of the predestination question.
Regarding Scripture, there are similarly contested issues: Is it infallible? Is it a coherent whole? Is there tension in the canon? Can Paul and Jesus disagree with each other? Can Paul and James? Do we find one voice there, or a chorus of voices? Do we automatically believe a portion of Scripture that doesn't seem to make sense? Do some portions "win out" over others? What if a doctrine seems to be "there," yet is repulsive or distasteful? And so on.
In many ways, the church has been relatively unanimous in affirming God's "prior" eternal act of "choosing" the elect who will be saved, though there have always been minority voices. What has been the issue is how that "choosing" relates to free will or human agency (as you noted in your question). Usually, at bottom, the issue comes down to: If God saves, and only God can save, then there is nothing we can do to "get ourselves" saved, even to "choose" God, because to be able to "choose" God implies the rightly ordered will that was precisely the thing distorted by sin in the Fall. Thus only God can move toward us, can save us, and any movement or agency involving our will is simply a response to God's action, and a choice enabled by God's prior grace given to us.
In many ways this answer makes logical sense, but I also don't think it can be the final answer.
First, Scripture seems to take human moral agency with enormous seriousness -- and while, to be sure, we can do nothing "apart from" God, God also seems to take seriously that we can and must act by our own wills, however he is involved.
Second, the notion that from all eternity God mysteriously and arbitrarily predestined each and every individual who would either enjoy eternal bliss or suffer eternal torment is repugnant to me, and seems foreign to the love of God revealed in a crucified man of sorrows. I'm just not happy to worship that sort of God.
Third, the "individual" part raises an important point: Scripture does not belong to the post-Enlightenment West, in which individualism reigns. Rather, Scripture assumes and speaks to and narrates the priority of the community. Furthermore, "chosenness" and "being elect" for both Israel and the church is always about mission: being sent into the world, having been "chosen" and "elected" for the sake of the world. Thus, in this perspective the community as a whole is predestined precisely to be God's people of witness to a world of suffering. Here we step more fittingly into the biblical worldview: chosen not for some metaphysical escape hatch, or radically individual reward program, but for mission, the extension of the mission of Jesus, to witness to the coming of God's kingdom. That is salvation, and that is what we are chosen and called and equipped for.
In this case, salvation is not about going to heaven or hell when we die, but about being caught up into God's kingdom as disciples of Jesus, cleansed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses in a violent world to God's peace come near in Christ. To be sure, Jesus will come back, but when Jesus comes back we won't be transported into incorporeal cloud-in-the-sky by-and-by, but instead, God's kingdom, God's world, God's holy rule will come here, come to earth, establish itself fully and finally, completing what was begun in the cross and resurrection. And what was glimpsed and inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus' body, and what began to move across the globe by the power of the Spirit, will be consummated as the glory of God fills the earth like the waters cover the seas.
And that, I believe, is not only what the church, as a people, is predestined for, but what the whole world's destiny is, and therefore what the church is called to witness to in its very chosenness and sent-ness.