There’s a verse in Acts which is extremely well known to five-point Calvinists. It reads, “And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
It seems to say that only those appointed to eternal life are able to believe in Jesus and gain eternal life. Hence all others are doomed to hell no matter what they do.
Some use this verse to prove what is called double predestination. That is the idea that God predestined some to the kingdom and the rest to hell.
Others use this verse to prove single predestination. In this view all are doomed due to Adam’s sin. That God in His mercy chooses to deliver anyone at all from this fate is purely a matter of grace. He was not obligated to save anyone. Thus when He elects some and predestines them to the kingdom, that is grace. The ones not chosen are said to be passed over. God doesn’t actively predestine them to hell, He just passes them over and doesn’t elect them. But the net effect is that they go to hell because that is the destiny of all sinners who aren’t vessels of God’s mercy.
To me that second view is really logically identical to the first. For if those passed over are doomed, then they are logically predestined to hell.
Let’s consider another interpretation of Acts 13:48 in hopes of better understanding this issue of the capability to believe.
Inability to Believe Is Not Implied
A simple verse like John 5:40 contradicts the idea that any adult with full mental faculties is unable to believe. Jesus said, “And you are not willing to come to Me in order that you might have life.” That He is speaking of eternal life is clear in light of the preceding verse where Jesus specifically mentioned eternal life. And that the issue is believing in Jesus is clear from v. 38, “Him you do not believe.”
Jesus would never say “You are not willing to come to Me” unless that were possible. If that were impossible, then this statement would make no sense. It would be like talking to a grasshopper and saying that it could have been President of the United States, but it was not willing and so it won’t be President. The issue of the will has nothing to do with a grasshopper becoming President.
Well, some might say, you’ve run from the passage at hand to some other verse to try to divert attention from a verse you can’t handle. No, I’ve shown a clear verse that contradicts an alleged implication. But in addition, the immediate context of Acts 13:48 has something quite similar to the point Jesus made in John 5:40.
The text says that these people “believed.” It doesn’t say they were regenerated so they could believe. It doesn’t say they were given faith. It says they believed. If the extreme Calvinist view were correct we would expect to read, “As many as had been elected were regenerated and then given the gift of faith.” But we don’t find that or anything close to that. Additionally, as we shall now see, the larger context itself shows that those who didn’t believe were capable of doing so.
The Willful Unbelief of the Jews Versus
The Devotion of the Gentiles
Acts 13–14 chronicles the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. Pisidian Antioch is one of the places they evangelized and made disciples (13:14-51). They preached in the Jewish synagogue there and Paul’s sermon is recorded in vv. 15-41. Then, in v. 42, Luke says that “when the Jews went out of the synagogue the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath.” There is an implied contrast between the negative response of the Jews and the positive response of the Gentiles to Paul’s message. What is implied at this point is explicit one week later.
The Gentiles were hungry for the Word. So, “on the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (v. 44). However, when the Jews saw the crowd “they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul” (v. 45). Paul’s words to them are startling: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (v. 46, italics added). Notice that the Jews were culpable for rejecting the gospel. Indeed they judged themselves unworthy of eternal life.
Those who hear the good news and reject it are condemned not because they were unable to believe, but because they rejected the saving message and hence in effect judged themselves unworthy of eternal life!
There are two main options in understanding v. 48. We begin with the more common.
Election May Be in View
Most translations read, “And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Many commentators thus see this as an allusion to unconditional election. If that is true, and I don’t think it is, then as we have just seen it still in no way indicates that the non-elect are unable to believe. It would simply be a statement that the elect believed.
The Greek verb used here is not the one which means to choose or to elect. If Luke were making a point about election, why didn’t he use that verb? Nowhere else in the entire Bible is this word used of election! In fact, not only does the word not refer to election, it is even possible if not probable that it doesn’t mean appointed here either.
Personal Devotion May Be in View
This verse uses the verb tassõ in the passive voice. According to the leading lexicon of NT Greek in Acts 13:48 it means “to belong to, to be classed among those possessing” (BAGD, p. 806). Additionally it points out that the passive can also mean “to devote oneself to a service.”
Tassõ is used in Acts 13:48 in a type of Greek construction (perfect periphrastic) which suggests that the verbal action occurred prior to the believing. The question is, what meaning should we assign to tassõ here? It could mean, “As many as had belonged to eternal life believed,” or “as many as had been classed among those possessing eternal life believed” or “as many as had been devoted to eternal life believed.” The context is helpful here.
In v. 42 the Gentiles “begged [Paul and Barnabas] that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath.” Begging suggests devotion. They were devoted to learning about the good news of eternal life. This makes good sense in the context and it also makes a nice parallel. The Jews in Pisidian Antioch rejected the teachings of Paul and Barnabas and judged themselves unworthy of eternal life. The Gentiles, oppositely, accepted the teachings of the apostles. However, instead of saying “they judged themselves worthy of eternal life,” Luke chose to say instead that the Gentiles believed, as many as had been devoted to eternal life. (Note: the Greek puts “they believed” before the words “as many as…”) They first devoted themselves to searching out the way to eternal life and then having discovered the message (Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him) they believed it.
God Will Remove the Veil for Anyone Willing
This passage clearly teaches that the unbeliever is not without spiritual sensitivity. Here we have unregenerate people begging the apostles to come preach the Word of God to them. Like Cornelius in Acts 10, they were actively responding to God’s drawing by seeking Him.
It is true that certain verses teach that Satan blinds the eyes of unbelievers so that they can’t see the gospel clearly and hence believe it (Luke 8:12; 2 Cor 4:4). But remember that in Acts 16:14 we are told that “God opened Lydia’s heart that she might heed the things spoken by Paul and Silas.”
Lydia, like the Gentiles of Pisidian Antioch reported in Acts 13, was a God-fearing Gentile. She was at the place of prayer by the riverside outside of Philippi. She was seeking the truth and God rewarded her search (just as He rewards all who seek Him, Acts 17:27; Heb 11:6) by opening her eyes to the truth.
Clearly the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch were capable of responding positively to the preaching of the apostles. They begged to hear more, and as a result, God opened their eyes and they believed.
Everyone is capable of responding and when they do, God will ultimately open their hearts to believe.
Note that the ability to believe was there all along. God doesn’t have to create that in a person.
This verse doesn’t teach Christian fatalism. There is, in fact, no such thing as biblical fatalism. God so loved the entire world that He gave His only begotten Son to die on the cross in our place and rise from the dead so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. As the old Baptist hymn puts it, “Whosoever surely meaneth me!”
So, how should we apply this verse? If you have not yet believed the saving message—that all who believe in Jesus for eternal life have it—ask God to show you the truth. It is already clear that you are devoted to learning the Word; otherwise you probably wouldn’t be taking the time to read this article. So, if you ask God to open your eyes so that you can know what you must do to have eternal life, He will answer that prayer.
If you have already believed in Jesus for eternal life, spread the good news and pay special attention to fertile ground. If you meet people that are interested in eternal life, tell them the saving message! It’s great to be God’s vehicle in helping someone devoted to eternal life believe in Jesus.