There are some things about God that we will never understand about Him from a finite, human perspective. We are simply unable to separate ourselves from what makes sense to us logically. This is why obedience must first come as a response to faith, not understanding. This quote by Fred Malone of Founders Ministry perfectly sums up our dilemma:
“How can one explain the mystery of the absolute sovereignty of God over all things in His decree yet harmonize it with the biblical truth of the unforced will of spiritually dead men freely to respond to the gospel when they are regenerated? To harmonize the sovereignty of God and full human responsibility to repent and believe is like trying to explain the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. It is wholly inspired by God yet written through the minds of fallible men. Such mysteries humble us and call teachers to use prudence (wisdom applied) and care (careful teaching with care for the hearer) in their teaching of the ‘high mystery of predestination.’ We must neither ignore nor speculate about God’s revelation to make it more palatable to ourselves or others.”
The fact that we wrestle with deep truths, however, does not mean that we should not pursue understanding. What we believe about salvation, grace, and free will directly impacts how we continue to live in obedience to God, and how we carry out the Great Commission of spreading the gospel to all the nations. For that reason alone, we should be willing to stretch our spiritual muscles, employ our God-given intellect, and dive into the pool of theology, all the while, of course, asking God for the wisdom He promises to give to those with a humble, believing heart (James 1:5-8).
The primary place where believers tend to part ways on God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is the area of how men are saved. One camp says, “it is all God, and man has no choice in the matter.” The other camp says, “God desires all men, and man chooses whether or not to believe in God.” (Those are characterizations of the extreme viewpoints.) Both camps quote a multitude of Scripture to support their viewpoint. How are we to respond?
I once had a boss who taught me a great lesson. When called to decide between two seemingly opposite choices, we ought to consider if we should perhaps set aside the “either” and the “or” and instead embrace “the beauty of the and.” Our topic at hand fits this advice perfectly.
The Two Viewpoints: Calvinism and Arminianism
If someone calls you a “Calvinist” they are most likely referring to the five-point set of beliefs credited to John Calvin, a French theologian (1509-1564). The five points can be remembered by the acronym TULIP:
Total Depravity of Man
Perseverance of the Saints
Arminianism, an opposing viewpoint, is credited to Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch theologian (1560-1609), and its followers disagree with each of these points in varying degrees. The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry explains it this way:
“The system of Calvinism adheres to a very high view of scripture and seeks to derive its theological formulations based solely on God’s word. It focuses on God’s sovereignty – stating that God is able and willing by virtue of his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence to do whatever He desires with His creation. … Arminianism, on the other hand, maintains that God predestined but not in an absolute sense. Rather, He looked into the future to see who would pick him, and then He chose them. Jesus died for all peoples’ sins who have ever lived and ever will live – not just the Christians. Each person is the one who decides if he wants to be saved or not.”
What Does Scripture Say?
Is salvation completely dependent on God’s sovereign, predestined choosing of the elect? Is atonement limited to the “elect” or available for all? Can man resist God’s grace?
There are many scriptures which clearly teach man’s spiritual condition is broken from birth. Romans 1:18-32 gives a striking picture of what happens when God allows the human heart to pursue its natural course. Because of the fall (Genesis 3), Adam and Eve lost their innocence and their holy position before God, and their children inherited their fallen image and likeness (Genesis 5:3).
Adam’s sin brought death to all men, and made all men sinners (Romans 5:12, 19). Men cannot understand spiritual things with their natural mind (1 Corinthians 2:14). We are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:5).
This does not mean that all men are as depraved as they could be, or that we cannot do good things (according to man’s definition of “good”). Many people who do not believe in Jesus still have compassion and mercy for others, live a moral life and understand the difference between right and wrong. God gives all men a moral conscience, and the environment and experiences of our lives directly impact how that conscience operates.
2 Corinthians 4:3-4, 6 describes the need for God to act on us before we can ever come to salvation.
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us that salvation is a gift of grace by faith, and that faith is also a gift. Titus 2:25 teaches us to correct those opposed to the gospel, “if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus Himself taught that no one can come to God unless it has been granted him from the Father, and the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65).
Clearly, God’s sovereignty is at work in salvation. God must act before we can respond to Him.
What Is Man’s Responsibility? Does He Have Free Will?
A.W. Tozer gives us a good picture of man’s free will in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, where he says:
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. … Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”
In John 5:40, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” In Luke 7:30, we are told “the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose [Greek word boule, meaning counsel or will] for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” John preached a baptism of repentance. God’s purpose for the Pharisees (as it is for all of us) was that they would confess and repent of their sin.
These verses indicate that man has a will that must be submitted when faced with the truth about God. Acts 17:26-31 is the perfect picture of God’s sovereignty acting, and man’s free will responding. God determines when and where we live so “that [we] would seek God, if perhaps [we] might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us,” and He is “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.”
Jesus words in John 6:63-65 also give us a clue about the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will in coming to salvation.
“’It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’”
Jesus is speaking to a group of His disciples, giving further insight to the challenging words that those who have eternal life will “eat His flesh and drink His blood” (John 6:52-58). He tells them He is speaking on a spiritual level; He is not talking about eating His literal, physical flesh. I believe this illustrates a great truth, that unless God grants it, we will never understand Jesus.
When He does open our eyes, we are given a choice in how we respond: believe or reject. Later in this same passage, many “professing” disciples walked away from Him, unwilling to accept His words. When asked if they, too, would leave, Peter declares, “To whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” The eleven disciples exercised their free will, accepted what God had revealed to them, and were granted faith to believe. Judas, on the other hand, chose to reject what had been revealed to him, and perished (John 6:70-71).
God’s sovereign actions in calling us and drawing us to salvation and our God-given free will (and responsibility) to respond by faith and believe, surrendering our will to His, are two sides of the same coin.
It’s not either God is sovereign, or man has free-will, but God is sovereign, and man has free will.
I picture salvation as standing before a door, God’s convicting Spirit speaking to our heart, calling us to repent and believe. From our perspective on this side of the door, we must lift our hand, turn the knob, and step over the threshold of repentance into faith and eternal life. But as we turn back from the other side of salvation and look behind us, we see that without the sovereign actions of God, we would never have even found the door, and that any strength or power or knowledge to open the door was all a result of what God did in our heart and mind.
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 1:12 – “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This article was written by me as an assignment for the Bible Study Tools website. Read the original here.