Presbyterianism has its roots in the teachings of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Central to Calvin’s theology is the concept of predestination, essentially the belief that God has foreordained salvation for some people, known as the “elect.” Calvin did not see predestination as absolving Christians of responsibility; instead, he taught that this status was a form of grace, explains Rev. Jane Dempsey Douglass in an interview for "Presbyterians Today." The extent to which modern-day Presbyterians follow the "Confession" and Calvinism, however, depends on which sect they belong to; the largest group, for instance, embraces a range of beliefs about predestination, while the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church affirm it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

A foundational document for Presbyterians, the "Westminster Confession of Faith," clearly asserts the doctrine of predestination. Some souls God has “elected” to receive the salvation available through Jesus Christ, but others are passed over. The "Confession" affirms that humans do have free will, reconciling it with predestination by assuring believers that their state of grace will call them to choose godly lives. It is grace that saves people, not their virtuous acts; this distinction between salvation by grace and salvation by deeds lay at the heart of the Reformation’s break with the Catholic Church.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

This largest branch of Presbyterianism views predestination as a foundational belief, but it does not force followers to adhere to it, according to Douglass, a professor emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary and former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The doctrine was controversial as early as the 17th century, she notes, and she believes that most Presbyterians do not focus on it; she hastens to add, however, that the belief can be a powerful assertion of God’s primacy and grace.

The Presbyterian Church in America

With roots similar to those of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church in America more explicitly affirms the importance of the "Westminster Confession." Rev. G. Aiken Taylor, then editor of "The Presbyterian Journal," set out a confession of the faith’s convictions in an essay that has been reprinted on its own as a popular pamphlet. In this essay, Taylor asserts that salvation via faith is essential and preordained and that those not among the elect are “eternally lost.” The crux of this doctrine is that Christians, inherently sinful beings, cannot find Christ; instead, Taylor believes, Christ finds them. Predestination is a more basic belief for members of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Other Presbyterian Traditions

Another smaller sect of the church, named for its founding in the days when the Cumberland Plateau was America’s frontier, is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Unlike the mainstream Presbyterian groups then and now, Cumberland Presbyterian clergy were not required to swear to uphold the "Westminster Confession of Faith." In fact, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church has its own revised "Confession," written in 1984. That document does not discuss election or predestination, although it does affirm the Reformed tenet that salvation is available to Christians solely through grace. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, on the contrary, specifically reaffirms the doctrine of predestination as stated in the "Westminster Confession of Faith."