The apostle Paul told the saints who lived in Thessalonia, "God hath from the beginning, chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessalonians. 2:13-14.)
When we take the time to study this verse of scripture carefully, we find that Paul has made a rather remarkable statement. If we are to take his words literally, then it sounds as though he is preaching the doctrine of predestination - that is, some are chosen to be saved, while others are not, and that this determination was made from the very beginning of time.
To the saints who lived in Rome, Paul said, "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." (Romans 8:29,30)
Paul likewise told the saints who lived in Epheses that God "hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will... In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Ephesians 1:4,5,11).
Paul told Timothy that God "hath saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Timothy 1:9).
To summarize Paul's comments, because of God's foreknowledge of each of us, He predestined some people to be saved (i.e. to conform to the image of His Son, adopted as children of Christ) before the earth was even created. Those who have been predestined to be saved, or gain eternal life, are then called to accept the gospel in this life. Since he and Timothy and the saints at Thessalonia, Rome and Epheses had accepted the gospel, this is evidence that they have been predestined from the very beginning to receive salvation. The reverse of this situation also seems to be implied. If you haven't been predestined to be saved you won't be called to accept the gospel and thus be denied eternal life.
And what is the determining factor of who is to be saved and who isn't? According to Paul, it's all based on God's own will. It's whatever pleases God. He listens to no one's counsel but His own. He makes that decision solely according to His own purpose.
Can this be what Paul really meant?
The apostle Peter explained that Christ was foreordained to be the Savior before the foundation of the earth was laid (2 Peter 1:20). As Christians we believe that Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jews thousands of years before He was born in Bethlehem. He was the anticipated redeemer which all the ancient prophets declared would some day come. In fact, Isaiah gave a detailed account of the life of Christ, even down to the wounds He would suffer and the kind of grave He would inherit (Isaiah 53). Does this not sound as though Christ was predestined to be the kind of person and live the kind of life that He did?
Since Peter declares that Christ's destiny was foreordained from the very beginning, and Paul preached that the salvation of Christians was predestined from before the earth's creation, then it seems the Bible clearly teaches that the destiny of everyone's life has been decided upon long before the world began.
But is this really true? And if so, how can this be if we have the free agency to make our own choices?
To better understand this doctrine, we must first look at the meaning of several words. The word "chosen" simply means "to be selected". The word "called" is another way of saying "assigned". The prefix "pre" is an abbreviation for the word "previous". Similarly, the prefix "fore" is an abbreviation for the word "before". Since the words "before" and "previous" are synonymous, they can be used interchangeably.
Peter tells us that Jesus was foreordained to become the Savior of mankind. That means He was ordained or decreed or appointed before or previous to the time when He was born into mortality, and even before the earth was created. We could also say that Jesus was predestined, or previously designated to become the Savior. To put it in more modern language, we could say that Jesus was pre-selected or previously assigned to become the Christ.
But if all of this was done prior to or before the earth was created, that means Jesus must have existed before the beginning of time. And, indeed, the apostle John has said as much (John 1:1).
Therefore, it is a fact that, before Jesus was born into mortality, it had been previously determined that He would perform the role of a Savior. But how was this determination made? Did God, our Father, point His finger at Jesus and authoritatively command, "You will be the savior"? Not at all. As Latter-day Saints, we believe there was a grand council convened in heaven, where our Father called all of His children together and presented a plan for their sustaining vote that detailed how we could further progress in our spiritual development. That plan called for someone to take the responsibility of atoning for the sins of everyone present in that council. Two people stepped forward and offered themselves for the position - Jehovah and Lucifer. Our Father chose Jehovah and that decision was subsequently put to a sustaining vote, where all of us who have since come to earth accepted and approved of our Father's choice.
Suppose some lowly child by the name of Ron Cappelli stood up and blurted out, "Father, I'd like to be the Savior"? I'm sure our Father would have looked at me with a smile and said, "Thank you very much, my son, but I don't think you're quite up to the task." Nor do I think the rest of my brothers and sisters in that council would have raised their hand to sustain me in such a calling. So it was determined by all of us, prior to the creation of the earth, that Jehovah be allowed to accept the assignment of performing the duties of a Savior, because He was worthy and capable of fulfilling such a calling. At that point, it was His destiny to become the promised Messiah, because that's what we all agreed upon. That's no different than someone being called into the Stake President's office and asked to become a bishop. Once that person accepts the calling, their destiny is to become and perform the duties of a bishop.
But there was tremendously more to our Father's plan of salvation than just providing a Savior. His plan was very extensive and extremely complex, because there were a innumerable amount of things that needed to be accomplished. As an example, the church is not made up entirely of just the Prophet. There also needs to be Apostles, General Authorities, Stake Presidents, Bishops, Priesthood and Relief Society leaders, along with teachers and workers to serve in all the various auxiliaries. Without these diverse positions, the church could not be what it is. If that's true of only one small organization, what about the establishing of seven thousand years of gospel work? There were several dispensations to design, there were laws to be given and administered, there were numerous races of people to teach all over the globe who had no contact with one another. The plan which our Father presented to us in that council was enormous! It contained millions of details that had to be considered. And those details included a large number of people needed to fill a wide variety of positions and perform a multitude of duties.
After the plan had been accepted, our Father then stood among many of the great and noble children of His and said, with great satisfaction, "These I will make my rulers" (Abraham 3:22-23). I can imagine Him saying to one of them, "Moses, my dear son, I have a great work for you to perform when you get to earth, and I know you have the ability to perform it well. I'm calling you to lead my people out of bondage. Will you accept this assignment?" I can picture Moses replying, "But Father, I am slow of speech. I am despised among my brethren. I'm flattered that you think I can do this work, but I'm not so confident in my abilities." To which our Father could have said, "My son, I know you much better than you know yourself. If I didn't think you could do this work, I wouldn't have called you. Furthermore, I will be with you at all times. Now, I'm asking you again; will you accept this assignment?" At the point when Moses accepted it, he became predestined to become the leader of the Israelite nation. In other words, it had been previously designated or determined that this is what his job, or duty, or obligation would be when he came to earth.
I can imagine some poor little child by the name of Ron Cappelli waving his hands in the air, shouting, "Father, what about me? I'd like to be a great leader. Can I, huh?" I can then picture our Father coming to me and saying with a warm, gentle smile, "My son, I think such a task is more than you can handle, and I don't want to see you fail. But, be of good cheer. I have just the perfect job for you. I need someone to teach the Primary children in my church. Will you accept that wonderful and noble calling?" The moment I accepted my Father's offer in that pre-mortal world, it became my destiny to become a Primary teacher at some point during my mortal life. So when the call finally came through my bishop, I had already previously agreed to do it. Furthermore, my Father in heaven was expecting me to live up to that previously designated assignment. It is in this way that each of us has been predestined to perform certain tasks in this life, whether they relate to the church or not.
But what if we don't accept these callings, either in our previous life or in this existence? Are we then forced to accomplish an assignment? Not at all. And even if we have agreed to a calling prior to our earth life, we still have the right and the ability to choose a destiny different from that which our kind and wise Father in heaven knows is best for us. But wouldn't it be wonderful that when we gave our word to do something we would voluntarily choose to do what we have already agreed upon, and to do it to the best of our abilities?
But, the sad reality is that many people don't follow their destiny. Too many people decide that they must make a different choice than the one they've already agreed upon in a previous life. Jesus taught us to pray, saying, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." But, too often, people live their lives in a way that says, "My will be done on earth, regardless of what I promised in heaven." And so, the destiny that could have been theirs sometimes never occurs.
But notice that Peter used the word "foreordained" instead of the word "predestined" when referring to Christ's assignment. And in so doing, has shown us another aspect of receiving our destiny. This word can be interpreted to mean that such an assignment was ordained, or directed or appointed before the beginning of time. But it also implies the act of an ordination being performed in that pre-earthly period. Those who have been called to fulfill certain priesthood positions prior to their earthly life were no doubt also ordained to that position in the pre-mortal world. By that I mean, hands were laid on their heads and they were set apart and officially ordained to the calling they would someday fulfill in mortality. We see examples of this kind of prior ordination in the scriptures when Moses ordained Joshua long before he took over as the leader of the Israelite nation (Numbers 27:22,23), or David being anointed King of Israel many years before he finally wore the crown (1 Samuel 16:13).
More than that, it seems to me that this kind of ordination was also performed in connection with non-church assignments. In these cases, such ordinations do not necessarily involve the priesthood. Instead, they may have been more on the order of a Father's blessing, which would include the giving of counsel, gifts, talents and other blessings that would be needed in accomplishing the work they had agreed to perform at some future date. It would be like a father giving his child a blessing before going off to college, yet it could still be classified as a "before ordination."
Although that may explain people's assignments in this life, what does Paul mean when he states, "God hath from the beginning, chosen you to salvation... to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians. 2:13-14)? Does this mean that in the pre-existence some were chosen or called, or assigned to be saved and to obtain the glory of Jesus Christ, while others weren't?
The answer is both yes and no. In the universal sense, the answer is definitely "no". Our Father in heaven wants all of His children to be saved. And, in fact, all but the sons of perdition will be. But there are many billions of God's children who have not lived at a time or in a place where the gospel of Jesus Christ, in its purity, has been available to them. Even in today's world, with all the marvels of communication that presently exist, and the tremendous efforts of the Church to spread the word, there are still millions of people who don't have access to the truth.
The question can be asked, "Why is this so if our Father in heaven wants us all to be saved?"
There are several answers. First, the Lord has told us that "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:21). Although each of us who has lived on this earth accepted Jehovah's assignment as Savior in that pre-mortal world, not all of us were equally as valiant or enthusiastic about the plan as others. No doubt there were fence-sitters in the war that erupted in heaven over Jehovah's appointment. Some fought with zeal and conviction while others sat on the side and went with the winner. And of course, there is a wide variety of attitudes and commitment between these two extremes.
Having the gospel in one's life is a great blessing. To be born into the church and to have it's teachings influence us from the very moment of our birth, particularly if our parents have already been sealed together in a temple of the Lord, is an especially wonderful blessings. But we know that all blessings are a result of our obedience to the law which governs the giving of such blessings. Therefore, it is certain that those who have received the blessing of having the gospel in their life obtained it through their diligence, valiancy and obedience to the law of righteousness in their previous life. Hence, it had been previous determined, prior to the foundation of the earth, that these valiant spirits had qualified themselves for the right to such a blessing when they entered mortality.
The same can be said of those who are converts and have accepted the gospel when it was preached to them. It had been previously decided that they would be sent to the earth at a time and in a place where they would have the opportunity to hear the gospel. Since they were in full agreement with the plan of salvation prior to their earth life, they would naturally accept it when it was presented to them again during their time in mortality. Thus, in this way, they were "chosen to salvation" and "predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son."
Does that mean that everyone who has not lived at a time or in a place when the gospel has been missing from the earth were not valiant or faithful spirits in the pre-existence? Not necessarily. There were strong, righteous spirits needed during times of apostasy and spiritual darkness. The Book of Mormon tells us of a man who was led by the Spirit of God to cross the Atlantic ocean and discover the land we now call America (1 Nephi 13:12). Although he was performing God's work, yet it was necessary for him to live his life without having the opportunity to hear about the true gospel.
We believe that the founding fathers of our country were all great spiritual giants whom the Lord used to prepare this land for the reestablishing of His church (D&C 101:80). That means, these valiant, faithful spirits accepted earthly assignments which placed them in times and places where they could not receive the blessings of the gospel in their lives. In other words, they willingly sacrificed their rightful blessings to the gospel so that they might perform other needed work necessary for forthcoming generations.
But there is another reason why all righteous spirits of our Father have not had the opportunity to receive the gospel in mortality. Having the gospel in one's life is not only a blessing, but it is also a great responsibility. And the greater the responsibility, the greater the risk of failure. Those whom the Lord has chosen to accept the gospel during their life have also been chosen to perform great assignments. The duty of parents to train up a child in the way they should walk becomes even more profound when the true gospel is vouchsafed to them. The responsibility to accept and magnify callings is much greater in Christ's true church than it is in most other churches which one could choose to associate with. The responsibility for seeking out the genealogy and performing the needed temple work for our deceased relatives is not one that can be taken lightly. The level of commitment and the degree to which one's actions are held accountable is far greater with a knowledge of the gospel than without it.
If people are faithful in serving the Lord, then their eternal glory will be much greater than it might be otherwise. And because of their former valiancy and faithfulness to our Father's plan, they have earned the opportunity to strive for a greater reward. On the other hand, unfortunately, too often we see people who have been so richly blessed, failing to live up to their inheritance. There are far too many examples of people born in the church who are living lives of unrighteousness and have squandered away their birthright. Too many converts have drifted into lives of church inactivity and have wasted the opportunities available to them and have neglected the assignments which they had previously made in their former estate.
Therefore, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to speculate that some spirits, rather than take such a gamble, opted for a less riskier route by coming to earth when the demands of the gospel were not so great. Even though their eternal glory might be a little lower than what they could have otherwise obtained, yet they were willing to settle for something that was more assured.
But we also know that these are the last days, which means that Christ is soon coming to reclaim His right to rule over the earth. From the days of Adam and Eve's expulsion, Satan has usurped that role and will stop at nothing to deny Christ the victory over him. As such, Christ has held in reserve His most righteous spirits until the last days. And it is no coincidence that the church was reestablished in the last days. These spirits have been selected to have the gospel in their lives because they need all the blessings necessary to endure the spiritual warfare they have been called upon to fight in. And even at that, many of them are dropping like flies in the battle. Perhaps it was essential to have the church taken off the earth for awhile to hold back the more faithful spirits until the end times.
Whatever the reasons, Paul was absolutely correct when he declared that "God hath from the beginning, chosen [selected] you to salvation...Whereunto he called [assigned] you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." And for what reason has He selected and assigned people to the gospel? Peter explained, "ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; [so] that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9).