- Do you believe that you have free will? Why/why not?
God’s Sovereignty & Man’s Responsibility
The topic of free will is one that polarises many Bible-believing Christians. Often a subject of late-night theological debate and speculation, two different viewpoints have emerged (with minor variations in each).
At the heart of the different views are different understandings of how God’s sovereignty inter-relates with human free will and responsibility. Most people, on both sides of the debate, would affirm that God is sovereign, and that humans are responsible for our actions, and the divergence of views concerns how these two truths hold together, particularly on the issue of salvation.
There are favourite Bible verses for each position, and care must be taken to not only focus on those Scriptures that affirm a pre-existing belief. The objective of studying the issue is not to force every verse into a clear system, but to allow each verse to speak and to feel the weight of its truth, reconstructing our systems around the text.
In this regard, the words of Charles Spurgeon provide a helpful perspective to approach this (and any other) question:
“My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.” (Charles Spurgeon)
It is sometimes argued that belief in God’s sovereignty is inconsistent with human free will. This claim is not a Biblical one. God’s sovereignty is affirmed and the topic of human freedom is frequently discussed.
Humans are not, by default, free. However, this is not due to the sovereignty of God but rather to sin. When Jesus was debating with the Jews, he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). Paul develops this theme in Romans 6, describing our old self as ‘enslaved to sin’ and he describes how this dynamic works in the following chapter: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do not do what I want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me… I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:19-23)
Having highlighted the slavery, Paul asks “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) and proceeds to answer his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 7:25-8:2)
Free will exists, but that freedom is found in Christ. Apart from Christ we are slaves to sin. Rather than being a threat to free will, the sovereignty of God actually brings about our freedom, as he breaks the chains that compel us to obey our sinful desires, and gives us the status of children rather than servants.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Read Romans 6 and pick out every time the themes of freedom and slavery are mentioned.
- What do you think Paul means in this chapter when he talks about ‘slaves of righteousness’? In what ways does this differ from slavery to sin?
Slaves, Lost & Dead
The Bible is vivid in the imagery it uses to describe our status in sin. We have looked at a few verses that show how, outside Christ, we are slaves. This is not the only Biblical picture for our predicament.
Another common description of life outside Christ is ‘lost’. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of three parables; in each case someone or something had been lost and is then found, causing great rejoicing. Each time, the idea of moving from being lost to being found is a picture of salvation, and it is capped off in parable of the Prodigal Son as the Father exhorts his eldest son to join the celebration, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:32).
This father picks up the image of the boy being lost and then found and he couples it with another New Testament picture of salvation, being dead and made alive. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…” (Ephesians 2:1).
These three images of being slaves, lost and dead are important for understanding salvation. The illustrations share the common theme of helplessness. When somebody is a slave, they are in a situation over which they have no control. They are not able to simply decide they will be free, nor (in most forms of slavery) are they able to store up money to buy their release. They are dependent on the intervention of another to set them free, either finding mercy in their owner to release them, or an outside beneficiary paying the price for their release. Similarly, if somebody is lost they cannot simply decide to be found (as this would involve knowing where they are in the first place). Again, it is a helpless position outside one’s control, particularly when lost in an unfamiliar place, and forces reliance on the help of another to point in the right direction.
The image of ‘death’ is the starkest of all. Like Lazarus in the tomb, those dead in sin cannot become alive by their own choice. They cannot ask another to help, nor are they even aware that they are dead. For the dead to come to life, it takes the unrequested and miraculous intervention of one who has the power of life and death.
All this is to say that we are reliant upon God for salvation. We are unable to do it ourselves. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death… for the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” (Romans 8:6-7). We often use the word grace to describe the idea that salvation is given as a free gift of God, even as we were both unable to do it ourselves and undeserving of it.
Another way of describing the same truth would be that salvation is an act of God’s sovereignty. When we were in a state of bondage, lostness and death, God unilaterally intervened on our behalf, bringing freedom from our chains, finding us as we were lost, and making us alive in Christ. Our salvation is utterly dependent on the sovereignty of God. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
- Can you remember a time before you knew Jesus? If so, so the images of ‘slaves to sin’, ‘lost’ and ‘dead’ ring true to your experience? If you cannot remember a time before knowing Jesus, can you see these things in non-Christians that you know?
- Read Ephesians 1:1-14. List everything in these verses that God has done that contributes to our salvation. List everything that we have done.
We Chose God
The emphasis in Ephesians 1 is on what God has done for us in our salvation. He has blessed us, chosen us, predestined us, adopted us, redeemed us, forgiven us and sealed us. This emphasis is continued into Ephesians 2 where it stated explicitly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no-one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Paul also gives mention to our part in salvation. Ephesians 1:12 tells of how we ‘hope in Christ’, and the following verse says, “You heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him.” (Ephesians 1:13)
This is the faith that was mentioned in Ephesians 2. It is not a ground for boasting, as it is a gift from God. Nevertheless, part of the process of salvation is the moment that we make a choice to come to God. It is a real choice, just as in the parable mentioned above the Prodigal Son made a conscious decision to turn around and return to the Father.
In other Scriptures, God calls people to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the regions beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) In the New Testament, this choice that God invites is often cast in terms of a call to repentance, literally meaning a change of direction that asks people to turn from their sin and turn to God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
There is a real choice to be made, and to talk about salvation in terms of ‘choosing God’ is good, true and Biblical.
God Chose Us
As good, true and Biblical as it is to speak of salvation as ‘choosing God’, it is not complete.
We have already seen that, apart from God, we are described as enslaved, lost and dead. How is it possible for someone who is ‘dead’ to choose God? When we are ‘lost’, how is that we can find our way home to God?
To understand this, we need to see that God chose us, and that it is God’s choosing of us first that enables us to choose to follow him. The fact that God chooses us is often referred to in Scripture as ‘election’ or ‘predestination’, and it is clearly taught in passages such as Ephesians 1, “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5) and John 15, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16)
Jesus is not denying that his disciples made a conscious decision to drop their nets and follow him, yet he is emphasising that the ultimate choice was his, that allowed them to come at all. This idea is extended in Revelation 13, which speaks of those whose name have been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
Before creation, God foreknew and chose people to salvation, life and conformity to Christ, and their names were written in the Lamb’s book of life. This set into motion a process that is outlined in Romans 8 that brings about our salvation and eternal glory. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed into the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)
It is true that we choose God, but we are only able to make that choice because God has first chosen and predestined us, and has given us the gift of faith that we may believe.
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:25-26)
- When you share your testimony, do you tend to emphasise how you chose God or how God chose you?
- Try to outline a version of your testimony with the other emphasis.
Why Isn’t Everybody Saved?
The Bible is clear that there is an offer of mercy and salvation for anybody who will come to Christ. “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The fact remains that not everybody comes. When great mercy is on offer, but one chooses not to embrace it, then the responsibility lies with the individual in question. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40) and “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)
This is illustrated as Jesus told a story of many being invited to a great wedding banquet and refusing to come, so the host sent his servants out into the main roads to invite in others and fill the hall with guests. Jesus ended the story by explaining that, “Many are called but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) In doing so, he highlights both the personal responsibility of those who opted out and the sovereign hand of God in bringing others in.
THINK IT THROUGH
- If God elects some people to be saved, is he responsible for also ‘electing’ others to hell?
God does not delight in death. He desires repentance and life. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). Not only is God stating his desire for them not to perish, but he is pleading with them to turn back. God doesn’t want anybody to perish. “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9; see also 1 Timothy 2:4).
It could be argued that by electing some, God has not elected others. This follows from the idea of election, but it is not the same as saying that God has chosen people for hell, nor that God is responsible for their state. Paul explores the reasons why God would choose some and not others in Romans 9-11.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Romans 9-11.
- How would you respond to somebody who claims that God choosing some people and not others is unfair?
- If God has elected people for salvation, what place is there for evangelism?
Because God is sovereign in salvation, we evangelise. Without God’s sovereignty, evangelism would have the futility of a man walking into a graveyard yelling at corpses to awaken. He is powerless in his efforts. People away from Christ are dead and sin, and what is necessary is a spiritual resurrection, not simply a persuasive argument. If God were not sovereign in salvation there would be no hope.
But God is sovereign in salvation.
When Paul faced opposition in Corinth, Christ appeared to him in a vision and told him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you or harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:10). The awareness of God’s election of people in Corinth spurred Paul on for another eighteen months of ministry there.
In fact, even Paul’s suffering for the gospel was motivated by bringing the Gospel message to God’s elect people, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10)
It is not that God has elected people, leaving no need for us to put ourselves out sharing the gospel. Rather, God has elected people and commissioned us to preach the gospel to the whole creation, so we endure all things to do so, knowing God will use it to establish the kingdom and draw his people to himself.
The Gospel is for all people. God extends an invitation for any that would come to him to find mercy. In John 3:16, Jesus explains, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) and on another occasion, he extends his arms wide as he says, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
The good news of the gospel is for whosoever will come. In the same verse that Jesus explains that all who the Father gives him will come, he adds, “and whoever comes, I will never cast out.” (John 6:37)
Nobody who comes to Jesus will be turned away. Nobody who cries out to God will be rejected. The promise of the Bible is, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
The passage goes on, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And who are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Romans 10:14-16)
God is sovereign, people are responsible, and we are sent.
Let’s go, for the sake of the elect, and for the whosoever.
- In what ways has your understanding of God’s sovereignty in your salvation changed over the course of your walk with Jesus?
- Does God’s sovereignty affect your motivation to evangelise? In what ways?
- How do you hold together the truths of God electing some for salvation and the gospel being for the whosoever? Is it possible to emphasise both truths as you share the gospel?