How do you respond to Acts 13:48?
“When the Gentiles heard this [preaching], they were glad and praised the word of the Lord, and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.”
Luke does not specify when the Gentiles who believed were “destined for eternal life.” Calvinists rightfully point out that the Gentiles’ faith followed their being “destined for eternal life” but mistakenly assume that this “destiny” was decided by God from before creation. The text only requires us to believe that the Spirit of God had been at work preparing the hearts of all who did not resist him to accept the Gospel when they heard it.
God knows our heart before we express it through our words or through our decisions (Ps. 139:2–4). On this basis the Lord could assure Paul before his missionary endeavor at Corinth that “there are many in this city who are my people” (viz. whose hearts have been opened and who will therefore believe your message) (Acts 18:10).
So too, Lydia listened intently to Paul’s Gospel because the Lord had already “opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). Those Gentiles who did not resist the Spirit’s work in their life were “ripe” for the message of Paul and Barnabas. They were already “destined for eternal life” and thus accepted the Good News when it was preached to them.
In my opinion, this is also how we ought to interpret Jesus’ words when he tells certain Jews, “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:26–27). Jesus isn’t implying that God unilaterally decides who will and will not be sheep, as Calvinists teach. And he certainly isn’t suggesting that this matter was decided before any of these people were born.
Jesus’ words only imply that at the time of his speaking some people were sheep and therefore believed while others were not and therefore did not believe. We create impossible problems for ourselves—such as how God can love all and want all to be saved while predestining many to hell—when we go beyond what Scripture teaches.