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Predestination and Mormon "Agency"

Latter-day Saints, from temple Mormons to jack Mormons, virtually all reject the idea that God predestines some people to be saved, and not others. They reject the idea that God controls our lives so decisively that no one can tie God’s hands, back God into a corner, or veto or frustrate God’s plans. To put it in fancy language, the LDS God is not a sovereign God, but must always yield to human free will, or what the LDS tradition calls “agency.”

Today’s LDS theology teaches that this life is a proving ground, where people are tested to see what choices they will make, to see if they are worthy to become gods. Their placement here is determined by choices they made in the Preexistence before they were born on earth. It’s all about worthiness and performance. It’s all about exercising your agency.

Only recently did I come to recognize how important “agency” is to LDS practice. While eating at Chuck-a-Rama (Utah’s popular buffet), I overheard someone saying they were trying to exercise their “agency” (probably to curb their appetite). A Lutheran evangelist in Idaho tells of overhearing a conversation where three LDS women were discussing whether someone’s daughter should marry a man they disapproved of, and one of the women said, “She needs to exercise her agency!”

A 1987 article in the official LDS Sunday School paper The Ensign states that “Free agency…is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force.” Here we see why LDS opposition to the idea of predestination runs so deep. Yes, it is based on a mischaracterization thereof, but logically, any religion where salvation must be earned by good works will oppose the idea that God chooses anyone irrespective of merit.

And yet, that is exactly what the true Biblical God does. In Romans 9:11-24, Paul speaks of God choosing between Jacob and Esau when they were “not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.” Paul then goes on to quote what God says to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then,” Paul argues, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” Paul then argues that God made Pharaoh stubborn, “that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”

Paul then voices the LDS question: “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Precisely the point of Jeremiah 18!)

The Greek terms for “destine” and “predestine” (orizō and pro-orizō) convey more than signaling intention. They refer to determining or locking-in what will happen. In the Greek translation of Numbers 30, orizō is used for being “bound” by a vow. The Bible refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as such a “locked-in” event: Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (pro-orizō – Acts 2:23). “The Son of Man goeth, as it was determined” (pro-orizō – Luke 22:22). Peter preaches that Jesus’ enemies joined together “to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (pro-orizō – Acts 4:28). Peter says Jesus is the one “ordained of God to be the judge the quick and dead” (orizō – Acts 10:42).

Ephesians 1:5 says that God has “predestinated (pro-orizō) us unto adoption as children.” The “us” to whom Paul refers is the Ephesian Christians, not the whole human race. Paul goes on in verse 11 to state that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated (pro-orizō) according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Paul writes to the Romans, “For whom he (God) did foreknow, he also did predestinate (pro-orizō) to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

Alas, the LDS claim that God makes these advance decisions based on our performance in the Preexistence, like being destined to go to Harvard versus Podunk Community College, based on how well we did in high school. Biblical Christians reject the Preexistence, which shoots down this explanation (see my “Pre-Existence: Is It Biblical?”).

The LDS will quote 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "wants/wishes/wills [the verb theleō can mean any of these] all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth." Yes, but we see from the scriptures that I just cited that God does not choose or predestine all to be saved. Predestination versus free will is not a Biblical contradiction, but a place where we need to use all the puzzle parts to get the picture right. The same John who writes “whosover will” in John 3:16-17 also reports that Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). (See my “Drag Versus Draw".)

The LDS will argue that “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) They argue that God is picking favorites by choosing without regard to worthiness. But Romans 9 (see above) teaches that God plays no favorites precisely by choosing us without regard to any externals, including merit. And while the LDS argue that God chose people like Abraham or David because of their merit, Biblical Christians focus on why Abraham and David did not merit being chosen, but God chose them anyway. Calvinists like me are profoundly grateful that God overrules our free agency, like God did with Saul of Tarsus, or like Lot (dragging him out of Sodom against his will), with no reason why God should do this for us and not for others.

Those of us who believe that God can, does, and must overrule our agency when necessary, believe this because we are totally pessimistic about our human ability to do what is right when necessary. To me, it is a comfort that God does what I never could have made myself do: open my eyes to God’s truth, and empower me to obey. The Book of Mormon agrees that we are born destined to become devils (2 Nephi 9:9, Jacob 3:11, Ether 3:2), but it teaches that the atonement of Christ takes away that total depravity (to use Calvin’s term) for the whole human race. Biblical Christians object that the cross of Christ does no such thing; rather than empowering us to earn our salvation, it takes away our sin and puts us right with God apart from any good works (Galatians 2:16,21).

Predestination is not an essential of faith; it is a logical conclusion that you may or may not be persuaded to draw. More important is for you to believe that God is a sovereign God who exercises indisputable rule over all, a God whom we cannot arm-twist or checkmate. Any other God is unworthy of the title. But what is all-important is for us to stop believing that we can earn our way to heaven. Grace – salvation that can never be earned – is the heart of the Gospel. We are lost without it.