“Ordained to Eternal Life”

by Glenn Conjurske

We read in the English Bible, at Acts 13:48, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This text, as it thus stands, is one of the strongholds of the Calvinistic doctrine that none will or can believe unto eternal life except those who have been fore-ordained to it by God’s decree of predestination. And no doubt, as thus translated, the text certainly seems to be a strong argument for that doctrine. But we deny that this is its proper sense. Only let the word “ordained” be rendered “determined,” and all is changed. The same Greek word (though not in the same tense and voice) is in fact rendered “determined” in its next appearance in the New Testament, in Acts 15:2: “They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them should go up to Jerusalem.”

If we read, then, “As many as were determined for eternal life believed,” we leave it at any rate ambiguous. This might mean that they were so determined by an eternal decree of God, but it might also mean that they were so determined in their own hearts at that time, by the working of God’s Spirit through his word and his preachers. That this latter sense is the most consistent with the meaning of the Greek word, and the immediate context, as well as common sense and reason, I shall endeavor to prove. That it is also most consistent with sound doctrine I most surely believe, but that point I shall leave alone.

But first, if “ordained to eternal life” gives a wrong sense, why does it stand thus in the English Bible? To go back to the beginning, the New Testament was first translated from Greek to English by William Tyndale, in 1525. Tyndale was a disciple of Martin Luther in doctrine. Luther was a Calvinist, though it would be more correct to say that Calvin was a Lutheran, for Luther came first. The real author of Calvinistic doctrine, however, was neither Calvin nor Luther, but Augustine, and there are certain knowledgeable men who do not call it Calvinism, but Augustinianism. Luther had been an Augustinian monk, and always regarded Augustine as the best of the fathers of the church. “Augustin was the ablest and purest of all the doctors,” he says, and again, “Saint Augustine pleases me more than all the others. He has taught a pure doctrine.” It was Augustine’s controversy with Pelagius that made him what would now be called a Calvinist. Prior to that he had written in favor of the free will of man. As for Luther, his controversy with the papists over human merit confirmed him in Augustine’s doctrine, and he wrote very forcefully against the free will of man in his Bondage of the Will. Tyndale was influenced by Luther from the beginning, and Tyndale’s viewpoint was also Calvinistic.

How far this Calvinistic prejudice influenced his rendering of this verse it is impossible to say, but at any rate Tyndale’s first New Testament, printed in 1526, read “and beleved even as many as wer ordened vnto eternall lyfe.” This was followed verbatim in the revisions of Coverdale, Matthew, Taverner, the Great Bible, and the Geneva New Testament of 1557. The Geneva Bible of 1560 altered the word order, but retained the words: “as manie as were ordeined vnto eternal life, beleued.” This was followed by the Bishops’ Bible and the King James Version.

Besides the Calvinistic bias of most of the earliest Reformers and Bible translators, the Latin Vulgate exercised also an undoubted influence upon the translation of the English Bible, and the Vulgate here reads quotquot erant praeordinati ad vitam aeternam, “as many as were pre-ordained to life eternal.” Suffice it to say, there is neither reason nor excuse for thrusting in the prefix “pre,” and the Greek word certainly will not bear such a sense. Even Theodore Beza, Calvinist of the Calvinists though he was, could not accept this, but reads quotquot erant ordinati ad vitam aeternam in his Latin translation. Even granting that the meaning is that these folks were ordered, determined, arranged, or ordained to eternal life by God, there is not the slightest reason to apply this to anything other than his present working in them, by the preaching of the word. Indeed, it is possible that Jerome meant no more than this by his praeordinati in the Vulgate, for I do not suppose that praeordinare need have any reference whatsoever to an eternal decree, but might refer to nothing more than a drill sergeant setting the troops in order before the inspector arrives.

On this point Christopher Wordsworth well says, “The Vulgate has `quotquot erant præordinati’ here, whence the English Version, `as many as were ordained.’ In like manner in the cognate text, ii.47, touV” swzomevnou”, the Vulgate has `qui salvi fierent,’ whence the English Version, `such as should be saved.’

“It would be interesting to inquire, What influence these renderings in the Vulgate Version had on the minds of some, like St. Augustine and his followers in the Western Church, in treating the great questions of Free-Will, Election, Reprobation, and Final Perseverance?

“What, also, was the result of that influence on the minds of some writers of the Reformed Churches, who rejected the authority of Rome, which almost canonized that Version; and yet in these two important texts (Acts ii.47; xiii.48) were swayed away by it from the sense of the Original?

“The tendency of the Eastern Fathers, who read the original Greek, was in a different direction from that of the Western School [who read only the Latin]; and Calvinism can receive no support from these two texts as they stand in the original words of Inspiration, and as they were expounded in the primitive Church.”

Nevertheless, at this time of day, whether we read “ordain,” or “pre-ordain,” or “ordain beforehand,” minds with a Calvinistic bias will think one and the same thing. Yet there is nothing in the Greek word (tavssw) to suggest predestination. Its ordinary meaning is to order, arrange, or establish, and so to appoint, assign, or determine. The word is used but few times in the Greek New Testament, but it is used often in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), from which I cull a few examples. I give the references according to the English Bible, but the translations are from the Septuagint, and will not always agree with the English.

It is used in Song of Solomon 6:4 and 10 (and elsewhere) of an army set in array (“with banners” in the English version).

In II Kings 12:17 “Hazael set his face to go up against Jerusalem.” And in Dan. 11:17, “He shall set his face to enter in.” In these instances we may see a clue to the sense of Acts 13:48.

Jer. 2:15, “lions, which made his land into a desolation.” This is not something determined concerning the land, but something actually done in it.

Jer. 5:22, “who have set the sand as the bound of the sea.” If anyone wishes to translate this “ordained the sand as the bound of the sea,” I have no objection. Only let it be understood that the reference is to the actual placing and establishing of that bound, and not to a purpose or foreordination of it.

Jer. 7:30, “they have established their abominations in the house of which my name is called upon it.”

Isaiah 38:l, “Set in order concerning your house” (English, “Set your house in order”).

I Chron. 17:10, “from the days in which I established judges over my people Israel.” Again, translate it “ordained judges” if you please; still it refers to the actual setting up of those judges, not to predestinating them.

II Chron. 31:2, “Hezekiah appointed the courses of the priests and Levites.” This was not a mere purpose in his mind. He actually established those courses, set them up.

Micah 5:1, “He has laid a siege against us.”

Hab. 2:9, “to set his nest on high.”

Hab. 3:19, “He will establish my feet unto the end,” or “unto perfection.”

Zech. 7:12, “Their heart they made disobedient, that they might not heed my law.”

The word is also used of such things as setting a time, in both the Septuagint and the New Testament. Now in most of these instances it is perfectly clear that the word relates to a work actually accomplished, a thing actually set, established, ordered, placed, arranged, or done, and this is its common usage. Who would ever dream of predestination when the centurion says to the Lord, “I am a man set under authority” in Luke 7:8? Nay, who would think it in Romans 13:1, where we are told, “The powers that be are ordained of God”? They are set up, or established, by God. “The existing authorities are established by God”—-the italicized words being, in the Greek, a present verb of being, and a present participle of the verb of being. This has to do with what now is, and not with any decree of predestination.

Now it is worthy of note that Romans 13:l is the only other place in the New Testament where the same form of the word is used as is found in Acts 13:48. In both places we have a perfect passive participle. Yet observe that on Romans 13:l the hyper-Calvinistic John Gill so weakens its force as to exclude any reference even to particular persons, and to make the ordination of God ineffectual. He says, “The powers that be are ordained of God. The order of magistracy is of God; it is of his ordination and appointment, and of his ordering, disposing, and fixing in its proper bounds and limits. The several forms of government are of human will and pleasure; but government itself is an order of God. There may be men in power who assume it of themselves, and are of themselves, and not of God; and others that abuse the power that is lodged in them; who, though they are by divine permission, yet not of God’s approbation and good will. And it is observable, that the apostle speaks of powers, and not persons, at least, not of persons, but under the name of powers, to shew that he means not this, or the other particular prince or magistrate, but the thing itself, the office and dignity of magistracy itself; for there may be some persons, who may of themselves usurp this office, or exercise it in a very illegal way, who are not of God, nor to be subject to by men.” I remark in passing that Gill’s interpretation here is certainly mistaken, for Paul says first, “There is no power but of God”—-that is the authority or magistracy as such—-and then, “the powers that be are ordained of God”—-that is, the particular magistrates which now exist. According to Gill’s explanation, Paul is only saying the same thing twice.

Now observe, when this word is used in Romans 13:1, Gill says that the magistracy itself is of God’s ordination and appointment, that it is ordered and disposed by him, and its bounds and limits fixed by him, and yet that man is perfectly free to violate those bounds and limits, and set aside all of that ordering and disposing, taking the office upon himself, and using it against God’s ordination. Yet when the same form of the same word occurs in Acts 13:48, the same man informs us that it “designs no other than predestination or election, which is God’s act, and is an eternal one; is sovereign, irrespective, and unconditional; relates to particular persons, and is sure and certain in its effect.” Amazing!!

The fact is, the word means a good deal more than Gill will admit in Romans 13:1, and a good deal less than he contends in Acts 13:48. It is to be observed further that Romans 13:1 ascribes this ordaining, establishing, or setting in order, to God, where no such thing is said in Acts 13:48. Not that we would dream of denying that it was God’s work in Acts 13:48, but neither does the text require us to ascribe it exclusively to him. On this point John Fletcher well says, “It is remarkable that the word tetagmeno” occurs but in one other place in the New Testament, Rom xiii,1. `The powers that are, are tetagmenoi, ordained or placed.’ And I grant that there it signifies a Divine, `extrinsic’ appointment only. But why? Truly because the apostle immediately adds, upo tou qeou, `They are ordained or placed OF GOD.’ Now, if the word tetagmeno” alone necessarily signified `ordained, disposed, or placed OF GOD,’ as Mr. Madan’s scheme requires; the apostle would have given himself a needless trouble in adding the words `OF GOD,’ when he wrote to the Romans; and as St. Luke adds them not in our text, it is a proof that he leaves us at liberty to think, according to the doctrine of the Gospel axioms, that the Gentiles, who believed, were `disposed’ to it by the concurrence of free grace and free will—-of GOD and THEMSELVES. God `worked,’ to use St. Paul’s words, and they `worked out.”’

In an excellent discussion on the meaning of the word (too long and too technical to quote here), Bloomfield says, “Now tavssesqai eij” sometimes signifies to be thoroughly disposed for, or purposed for, bent on (like the expression eu[qeto” ei\nai eij”) where the middle or reciprocal force is very apparent, as often in Josephus.” He cites several examples, including this one from Plato: fuvsi” eij” ajrethVn tetagmevnh, “a nature bent to virtue.”

The context is next to be considered, and it speaks very decisively for the sense for which we contend. I give the whole paragraph:

“And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord, and as many as were disposed to eternal life believed.”

This is all clear enough. The Jews put the word of God from them. The Gentiles glorified the word of the Lord. The Jews judged themselves unworthy of eternal life. Though this was no doubt said in sarcasm (for they judged themselves above God’s way of life, not beneath it), it is nevertheless to this statement that the record draws the contrast in affirming that the Gentiles were set for eternal life, as the Jews were set against it. There is not the slightest intimation in the text concerning anything beyond their present state and disposition.

On this Henry Alford writes, “as many as were disposed to eternal life] The meaning of this word disposed must be determined by the context. The Jews had judged themselves unworthy of eternal life: the Gentiles, as many as were disposed to eternal life, believed. By whom so disposed, is not here declared: nor need the word be in this place further particularized. We know, that it is GOD who worketh in us the will to believe, and that the preparation of the heart is of Him: but to find in this text pre-ordination to life asserted, is to force both the word and the context to a meaning which they do not contain. The word in the original is the same as in 1 Cor. xvi.15, where it is said that the house of Stephanas `have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,’ and in Rom. xiii.1, where it is said that `the powers that be are ordained of God:’ in both which places the agents are expressed, whereas here the word is used absolutely, without an agent expressed.”

Though it ought to be obvious enough, it is really needless to inquire how they came to be so disposed or purposed. The perfect passive participle merely states the existing condition, without reference to how, or by whose agency, that condition came about. That may or may not be stated in other words in the sentence, but nothing is to be gathered concerning it from the participle. The fact is, these Gentiles were determined to, set for, or bent to, eternal life, and the verse itself says nothing about how they came to be so. Christopher Wordsworth writes on the passage, “…and as many as were ordered, i. e. were set in order (by God’s grace, and by His Word preached by St. Paul, and by their own will concurring therewith, see v. 43), to eternal life, believed.”

But supposing men will persist in finding a Calvinistic decree in this text, see to what absurdities it will take us. Bear in mind that “almost the whole city” was gathered together on this occasion to hear the word of God. And among those thus gathered we are told that “as many as” were ordained to eternal life believed, all under that one sermon. Every soul then present, who had been elected by God to eternal life before the foundation of the world, believed under that one sermon. And since almost the whole city was then present, the consequence of this marvellous thing must be that there could have been but little use to preach the gospel any more in that city, at least during that generation. All who had been predestined to life were already saved. “As many as” could be saved in that company were saved under that one sermon. We grant that such a thing is possible, but it is so far-fetched that it is a wonder that any sober man would countenance it. Can anyone suppose that this is what Luke meant by his words? Even assuming that Luke believed in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, how could he have made such a statement? How could he have known any such thing? He could not have had the slightest pretense to the knowledge which would have been necessary to make such a statement. Supposing now that Luke is known to be a genuine Calvinist, believing assuredly that God had before the foundation of the world ordained certain men, and no others, to eternal life, let us pose to him a few questions:

Querist: Do you believe that all those who were saved on that day in Antioch in Pisidia were ordained by God to eternal life from before the foundation of the world?

Luke: Assuredly I do.

Querist: But do you suppose that there were others then present, who were also ordained to eternal life, who were not saved on that day, but will be at some future day?

Luke: Of that I know nothing, though it is certainly reasonable to suppose it, for whoever heard of all the elect in a town believing at once?

Querist: But is not such a thing possible?

Luke: Possible, yes, but extremely unlikely, especially if you consider that there were likely elect infants present, who had no capacity to believe.

Querist: But leaving infants out of the question, would you be prepared to affirm that all, “as many as were ordained to eternal life,” might have been saved on that one occasion?

Luke: Might have been, yes.

Querist: But would you be prepared to affirm that they all were saved on that one occasion?

Luke: That I would not dare to affirm, nor would any man in his senses.

And yet this is exactly what we are asked to believe that Luke did affirm, in spite of extreme unlikelihood of the thing happening in the first place, and in spite of the impossibility of Luke having any knowledge of the fact, if it were a fact. For Luke wrote as a historian, setting forth the facts of history, not as a revelator divulging the secrets of the Godhead.

To conclude, to find Calvinistic predestination in this text is as much against common sense as it is against the common meaning and usage of the Greek word employed. “As many as were disposed to eternal life” is perfectly consistent with the meaning of the Greek word, with the context, with common sense and reason, and, as I surely believe, with the doctrine of the rest of the Bible.

Glenn  Conjurske