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I had someone ask me this question recently. My short answer is: in popular usage, not a lot.

The terms election and predestination are often used interchangeably, both referring to God's gracious decree whereby he chooses some for eternal life. In Romans 8:30 Paul speaks of those whom God has predestined, called, justified, and (in the end) glorified. In 8:33 Paul references "the elect," apparently a synonym for the predestined ones described a few verses earlier.

A sharp distinction between the two words is not warranted from Scripture, but if there is a distinction to be made, predestination is the general term for God's sovereign ordaining, while election is the specific term for God choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world. That is, predestination is the broader category of which election is the smaller subset. Calvin defined predestination as "God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man...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" (Inst. III.xxi.5). For Calvin, predestination encompasses the entire eternal decree. Election and reprobation, then, represent two different aspects of the decree. The Canons of Dort Article 1 makes the same distinctions.

This delineation is not without merit. The "elect" is always a positive designation in Scripture (e.g., Matt. 24:31; Titus 1:1), suggesting that election implies eternal life (though Rom 9:11 may be an exception to this rule). Predestination, on the other hand, can be used more broadly. Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and people of Israel, did to Jesus what God's "plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:27-28). Indeed, all of our days are written in God's book before one of them comes to pass (Psalm 139:16 ). Every form of prosperity and affliction comes to us not by chance, but from God's fatherly hand (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27). Or as Augustine put it, "The will of God is the necessity of all things."

Does this mean we are "predestined" to marry so-and-so or take a certain job? In one sense, looking back at God's providential care, we can say "Yes, that's was God's plan for my life." And yet this notion of divine superintendence is not meant to undercut personal initiative and responsibility. Everything happens after the counsel of God’s will (Eph. 1:11), but this is no excuse to neglect the use of means, nor is it a reason to think every decision we make is automatically pleasing to God. God's sovereign unalterable will of decree is not be confused with his violable will of desire.

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25 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between Election and Predestination?”

  1. Jeff says:

    Isn’t it true that 99.99% of people are NOT elect, and are going to hell, and that you are just one of the 0.01% that is elect and is God’s chosen?

  2. Michael says:

    Jeff, where do you come up with these numbers, are you privy to the knowledge of God? Last I checked no one was walking around with an “E” on their forehead.

    I always want to ask people who makes these smart remarks if they are denying the 27 times that the word “elect” is mentioned in the NT?

  3. John says:

    Hi Kevin…so I hope your final sentence of this post leads to your next post. I would love to hear more. I’m grateful for your faithfulness to Scripture.

  4. Leslie Jebaraj says:


    What makes you come up those numbers??


  5. Joel says:

    The last paragraph is what has always given me difficulty with the emphasis on predestination/election. One one hand you say that God has predestined/elected people to do certain things, and at the same time say that statement is not meant to undercut personal responsibility. On a face value reading those statements seem very close to being contradictory. If God is omniscient, then of course he knows (knew?) every decision that every human would make before he created them, including whether they would be saved (elect) or not. That doesn’t mean that he forces any person to make any decision,(except in the sense that he created us to be decision-making beings), correct? He made Adam knowing that he would sin, but God didn’t cause Adam to sin. God made a creation that was capable of sin, and we did. Does God then make a way for us to be saved, and cause us to be saved? Or is predestination simply saying that God made a way for us to be saved and knew beforehand which of us would take that salvation? Maybe it’s that the meaning of words has changed over time, but when I hear predestination talked about in Reformed circles I will have this frighting thought of “I believe through faith that Christ has saved me from sin and death, but what if I’m not one of the ‘elect?'” It passes, of course, and I’m not discounting all the scriptural references to election, but it seems like predestination gets emphasized to the point of precluding our need (and capability) of choosing faith in Christ. This is my first post on a Reformed message board, so go easy on me.

  6. JCH says:

    Joel, one evidence that someone is elect is that they believe on the Lord Jesus to save them from their sins. So rather than fretting if you’re elect or not, look at your faith as evidence of your election. God’s sovereignty in salvation is meant to be a balm to our soul.

  7. John Thomson says:

    Re election and predestination, old preachers I knew used to say ‘election is the people, predestination is the purpose’. By this they meant we were chosen in Christ (people) that we may be holy and without blame (the purpose). I think this is largely the distinction Kevin is allowing.

    Re Decree and providence sometimes people spoke about the purpose of God and the ways of God. The purpose was his intention to accomplish his eternal decree of salvation while ways referred to the providential working that would carry this purpose out. This is by no means a perfect distinction but it does keep biblical distinctions clear while using simple and biblical language to do so. However, ‘ways’ is also used to refer to the Lord’s revealed will. All words depend of course on the translation.

    Can we work out satisfactorily the relationship between sovereignty and responsibility? I suspect not. A good exposition of compatabilism (say Carson’s) is well worth reading. However, it can, I think take us so far and no further. I also understand how some truths can be frightening and cause real distress to some believers. I think a great degree of grace and wisdom is needed in dealing with each other on these matters.

  8. Jordan says:

    John (comment #3): I would recommend that you read “Just Do Something,” which is by Bro. Kevin. It deals a lot with what he spoke of in that last paragraph. (It’s a helpful book besides; I’ve read through it a good 3 times in the one year I’ve owned it!)

    Joel: JCH’s reply to you is excellent. And please do not forget that foreknowledge is not a mere “knowing” of what will happen but a foreordination, of “decreeing” what will happen. All while we humans are responsible for our actions. John 1:12-13 and Philippians 2:12-13 present these seeming incompatible truths side by side, indeed, in their proper view. It is God at work in us, and because He is at work in us, we “work” so that He will be praised (Matthew 5:16). Hope this helps, grace to you.

  9. Jeff says:

    Where do I get my statistic that 99.99% of people will go to hell? All I have to do is combine your theology with simple demographics. You presumably believe at minimum every non-Christian goes to hell. If it were the case that every person who called himself a Christian, (Mormons, Emergents, Gnostics, Catholics, etc) went to heaven and every one else went to hell, you would still have the vast majority of people who ever lived going to hell. Now, add into the mix that you believe only your small strain of Christianity is valid, and you understand my statistic.

  10. Bob says:

    @Joel, re: the last paragraph…

    Have you read Kevin’s book “Just Do Something”?

    It nailed it for me.

  11. Alex Jordan says:

    Dear Jeff,

    Are you worried that many are going to hell? Then you should preach the gospel to as many people as you can. This is the means God has given to save people from that terrible fate.

    If you are not yet saved yourself, consider that God makes it possible for you to be reconciled to Him through the gift of His own Son, who came to Earth as a man and gave His life to save sinners.

    Everyone sins continually and sin brings separation from God. Yet only Christ bridges this separation, His sacrifice for us completely blotting out all of our sins from the record as He gives us His own righteousness. Our sins– past, present and future– are forgiven, and no longer keep us separated from God.

    If you believe this gospel of Christ, you will be saved and you will know that you are one of the elect. God owes salvation to no one because we sin continually against Him. This makes all guilty of condemnation. But He has in love and mercy made a way for people to be reconciled to Him

  12. John Thomson says:

    Luke 13:23-24 (ESV)
    And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.

    Jesus doesn’t answer the question as such (though he does say the door is narrow and hard to get through) rather he advises the querstioner to make sure he gets through.

    Rev 7:9-14 (ESV)
    After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

    Yet heaven will be populated with ‘a multitude that no one can number.’

  13. Rick Weiss says:

    Gee, you guys are swell, thanks for the great Thoughts. :)

  14. Paul says:

    The problem, as Joel says, is the last paragraph.

    Either God knows everything that will happen in the future or he doesn’t. If he does (which is what Kevin believes) then people have no free will in the sense that we can’t choose to do anything differently. What we think we choose from a menu in a restaurant was actually fixed from before the beginning of time. A criminal can’t choose to not rob the bank. A rapist can’t choose to not rape: the rape was fixed from before the beginning of time.

    Besides the fact that (contra Kevin) it makes no sense to punish someone for something they couldn’t avoid doing, this belief means either that there’s no real evil in the world or God is responsible for all the evil in the world. Kevin selects the former option: Kevin believes (see his book: The Good News We Almost Forgot: answer to Q 27) that we really do live in the best of all possible worlds and every murder, every rape, every act of child abuse and every genocide makes the world a better place.

    Personally, I find Kevin’s beliefs about this incoherent and offensive. If Kevin’s God were the only one offered by Christianity, I’d be an atheist.

    I’d be delighted if Kevin were to reply to this by saying that I’d completely misunderstood him, that he doesn’t think we live in the best of all possible worlds and that murder, rape, child abuse and genocide are things God hates and in no sense does God want them to happen. Unfortunately, I don’t think Kevin will say any of that but I’d love it if Kevin chose to prove me wrong.

  15. John Thomson says:


    Is not the problem our over-confidence in human logic.

    ‘Either God knows everything that will happen in the future or he doesn’t. If he does (which is what Kevin believes) then people have no free will in the sense that we can’t choose to do anything differently… it makes no sense to punish someone for something they couldn’t avoid doing, this belief means either that there’s no real evil in the world or God is responsible for all the evil in the world.’

    Neither Kevin (I feel sure), nor the Bible (I am sure) teach that God’s sovereignty undermines and negates human responsibility. Human logic is not in this instance biblical and divine logic.

    The Bible asserts both God’s absolute sovereignty (all things happen according to the counsel of his will) and at the same time our total responsibility for all we do. Our first response as Christians is to believe both even if we do not fully understand how this can be. How, after all, can God become man? How can the infinite become finite?

    Human hearts (and minds) need to be humble before God. When an imaginary interogator says ‘who then can resist your will’ (essentially your point) in Roms 9, Paul doesn’t say, ‘You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that… ‘ rather he says, ‘Who are you O man to question God’. Paul was putting us in our place and reminding us as God reminds Job (Job 38-41) that our understanding is infantile compared to his. We are not God, we are men.

    In the final analysis the issue isn’t whether Kevin’s views are incoherent and offensive but whether they are biblical.

    Your instinct is surely right (and biblical) to protect God from any accusation of being responsible for evil. However, the Bible absolves God of any collusion in evil while quite unabashedly declaring his sovereignty.

    I understand that the implications of a completely sovereign God can arouse strong emotions in Christians (…If Kevin’s God… I’d be an athiest). I think this is ultimately so because of our attempts to logically square the circle rather than accepting our creaturely limitations compared to God as Job finally did (after long days of questioning God) in a slightly different but not so far removed context when he said

    Job 42:1-6 (ESV)
    Then Job answered the Lord and said: ​​​​​​​​“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ​​​​​​​​‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ​​​​​​​​‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ ​​​​​​​​I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; ​​​​​​​​therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

    Here is a reference to an article that is little more than a list of Bible texts that assert God’s sovereignty. It may help in showing just how pervasive and foundational a truth this is in Scripture.

  16. Excellent answer, John.

    If men had made up the Bible, it is likely that truths such as God’s absolute sovereignty co-existing with genuine human choice and responsibility would not show up, since from our human perspective it may appear that truths such as these cannot co-exist.

    But Kevin De Young, like those who have advocated these truths throughout the history of the reformation, are not making them up. We find these truths expressed in Scripture, and though they challenge our minds and indeed leave us unable to explain them fully, we receive and accept them because they are in the revealed Word.

    To relieve God of responsibility for evil by saying He doesn’t actually know the future, is to also deny His divinity. A god that doesn’t know the future would be just like me; in other words, no god at all.

    Are we as creatures to tell God He must do things the way we deem logical and coherent, otherwise we will not worship Him? Do we deny His revealed sovereignty so that we can fit Him into our humanly reasoned systems of justice?

    God is fair, God is good, God is just, God is holy and God is love. But He acts in ways that are often incomprehensible to us– the book of Job reveals that He is not obliged to give man an accounting of His actions.

    But we ought to be comforted in the fact that God knows all things, is sovereign over them and works them out to the good of those who love Him. The alternative, it seems to me, is a God who is scrambling to react to all the things happening in the world that catch Him by surprise, and continually revising His plans to make everything turn out right. But if God is not in control, who is?

    In the final analysis, our understanding of God and His ways must be derived from the revelation of Scripture– and this God does not approve of all that happens in this fallen universe but nonetheless has a plan for it all and is taking the world where He determined it to go. I would not have the confidence that He is working all things out to the good if I did not believe that He is in reality as sovereign as the Scriptures portray Him to be. Jesus Himself repeatedly taught God’s sovereignty and His loving concern for His children as the basis of our comfort and confidence in trusting Him.

    Matthew 10:29-31 ESV
    29] Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. [30] But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. [31] Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

  17. Paul Janssen says:

    All this talk about election as though it were a secret decree of God apart from Christ? I guess (hope) I missed an earlier post regarding this what seems to be a significant gap in this discussion of election and predestination. And we haven’t even begun to say anything about the church. This discussion seems rather narrowly focused on election/predestination as referring primarily to an individual’s eternal “destination.”

  18. I won’t speak for others in the discussion, but I understand the Bible to teach that election involves God choosing individuals to salvation (Rom 9:9-13). This election doesn’t happen apart from Christ (Eph 1:3-6), because God only receives and accepts anyone through Christ (John 14:6). There is an aspect of election that is “secret”– we don’t know who the elect are. It is not for us to know (Deut 29:11).

    Regarding the church, the elect are called to unity since it is one body, with Christ its Head (Eph 2, 1 Cor 12) and fulfills its role as it works together by the power of God.

    I think the article made a distinction between predestination as being God’s overarching plan for everything and election as an aspect of that plan, by which He calls specific individuals to salvation.

  19. Oops! In my last comment I meant to refer to Deut 29:29, not 29:11.

  20. DAVE STURKEY says:

    There is a real difference in how we are defining “free will” in these follow-up comments to Kevin’s article. Calvinists believe in “free agency.” At anytime, we can choose whatever we want to choose. This is our understanding of “free will.” The problem is not in the opportunity to choose, but rather, in something deeper. We always choose, both non-Christians and Christians, that which we want and desire and think and believe. Calvinists and non-Calvinists both believe in free agency, but it is important to note, Calvinists really do believe this also. We don’t believe that God ever “forces” our will or makes a decision for us.

    The deeper problem is our nature. Our nature, our knowledge, and our abilities all limit our choices, but at any moment, we can choose how we desire because we are free agents. The reason that a non-Christian doesn’t choose God, is because by nature we are at enmity with God, and not because they have no free agency to make that decision. As Romans 3 clearly teaches, there is “None is righteous; no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11). God has not forced the non-Christian into continued unbelief. God’s election has not “determined” his will and neither does God force the will of the person who becomes a Christian. We are, from beginning to end, free agents.

    Think about this: Why doesn’t a wild mountain lion live within city limits? There is no fence forcing him to live outside the city. It is rather his nature and his knowledge and his abilities which prevent him. He has free agency. He could choose to live within a crowded city, but he does not. He does not know that people would feed him and that he would become popular and probably eat better in a modern American city than in the wild. His nature is also cautious and is the nature of a predator and not of a pet. His ability to beg for food is also limited since he has no natural capacity to do so. The reason that the wild mountain lion doesn’t live within the city has nothing to do with whether there is an opportunity for him to live there, it has to do with his nature.

    When God predestines someone to become a Christian, he doesn’t force his will and make him believe in Christ, nor does he force the will of the non-Christian and prevent him from choosing God. In the case of the predestined future Christian, God works to open his eyes to spiritual realities and to know his own sorry status before God and the hopefulness of the gospel for him. God opens his heart (we call this regeneration). If God were simply to give everyone the knowledge of what hell is really going to be like, who would choose to go there?

    In the case of the non-Christian whom God has decided to not regenerate, he simply let’s man’s rebellion take its natural course. He does not prevent the non-Christian from believing the gospel, it is always there for him as it is for anyone else. Rather, God simply does not do any special work to open the eyes of the lost that he has determined to show his justice towards.

    This is the doctrine of predestination.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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