And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 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 8:28-30
In the bible, some scriptures clearly speak of God’s sovereignty, choosing or “electing” those for salvation, such as Romans 8:28-30 above and the verses below:
- Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. . . 1 Peter 1:1-2
- Because 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
- According as he 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, Ephesians 1:4-5
- Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. 1 Thessalonians 1:4
- No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:44
Also, in the bible, some scriptures clearly speak of God’s offer of salvation being to all men and of man’s responsibility to accept that offer or perish:
- For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. John 3:16-17
- . . . but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9
- Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4
So, which is it – Do we choose God or does God choose us?
This is such a profound and perplexing conundrum that it has divided the church. For hundreds of years, man has attempted to resolve this mystery, squinting at words in the text, trying to rationalize definitions and reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility. This has been a hot, emotional topic in the church since the 1500s.
Those who believe man is chosen, elected, and predestined by God and then irresistibly pulled into saving faith by him identify with Calvinism (after John Calvin 1509-1564) or Reformed Theory. They hold that man, being spiritually dead, is unable to believe and that there is absolutely nothing that he can do to receive God’s saving grace; it is God’s work alone. They hold that Christ died only for those chosen souls and not for all the world.
Others believe it is man’s responsibility to accept God’s gift, which is offered to all, a gift that is resistible and can be rejected. These identify with the beliefs of Arminianism (after Jacobus Aminius 1560 – 1609), a counterpoint to Calvinism. They believe a man needs the prodding of the Holy Spirit but that God’s offer is something that can and is often rejected. They hold that Christ died for all, but only those who believe will be saved.
But, we need not pick and follow either of these positions nor any doctrine devised by man. Instead, we should follow what the bible says, and then we will have the right balance. There is truth in both positions and consider that both come from men who were sincere disciples of Jesus Christ. Man has an inherent discomfort with ambiguity in the word of God, and our instinct and intellect desire a complete, logical understanding of God and how he operates. It gives us comfort to believe in and defend doctrine in the scripture-based more on reason and fact than on trust and faith. So, man tends to dissect this issue to draw a conclusion as to who picks who.
The bible tells us of the nature of God but also that it is futile, and even arrogant, to think that we can comprehend the ways of God. Isaiah 55:8-9 Here, Paul beautifully describes our inability to do so.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36
But, if we look to the scriptures, we find the following points of truth clearly laid out to guide us.
- God’s desire is for all men to repent and come to saving faith in His Son.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:3-4
- Jesus died for the entire world’s sins, and anyone who believes in him will be saved. Many scriptures speak to this – John 1:29, John 3:15, John 3:16, Romans 10:9-13, 1 John 4:14 – and plenty more. I like the simple clarity of this one:
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2
The blood of Christ on the cross is sufficient for all but only effective for those who believe.
- A man comes to saving faith by the work of God. The Holy Spirit’s prodding of a man’s heart draws him to Christ.
No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:44
The question then becomes, does God prod and draw all men with the same intensity, or some more than others, or does he pass some by? Could there be someone with a receptive heart that God does not seek? Certainly not, as he wants all men to come to salvation. But God does not coerce anyone to saving faith; he allows man to do as he pleases. And when man’s heart is hardened against the gospel and dismisses God to pursue his own pleasure, God lets him go and gives him up to his depraved mind. Romans 1:28
- Man is responsible for accepting God’s gift of salvation, and he can also reject that gift.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Romans 10:13
- God is sovereign and is in control of all things. He can and does make choices.
Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Romans 9:18.
These five truths can be distilled down to this 3-point statement of belief:
- Any man will be saved if he believes and trusts in Jesus Christ.
- Any man can come to saving faith, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit and the condition of the man’s heart that gets him there.
- The extent, consistency, and intensity of the influence on a man by the Holy Spirit are beyond our comprehension.
So, do we choose God, or does God choose us? The answer is yes.
The crux of the conundrum is man’s desire and attempt, with his mortal intellect, to analyze, rationalize and conclude how God operates. I like what W.H Griffith Thomas says, “The reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is beyond our power. The bible states and emphasizes both and then leaves them. We would be wise if we did the same”
If you are saved, rejoice that you are one of the few who found, or was led to, the narrow gate! Matthew 7:13-14 Pray for the lost that their hearts will soften and turn to Christ and that the Holy Spirit of God will do miraculous work in their souls.
If we acknowledge that God has a hand in man’s ability to believe, then three serious questions arise.
- Is God unfair if he powerfully draws some to the faith and others not so much?
Each person is unique, and God’s prerogative is to deal with each soul as he deems appropriate. The extent and whys of how God works are presented in Ephesians . . .
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 1:11
God makes decisions as he sees fit to accomplish his will. A great example of this is Saul of Tarsus. A terrible church persecutor, an enemy of Christ, who was confronted by Christ, struck down blind, dramatically converted to belief, and became the great evangelist, apostle Paul. God’s will was to draw Paul into the faith to accomplish his plan. Remember who God is, and that man has not the intellect nor status to dispute or debate his actions. God is a just and fair God, but that does not mean that all are handled the same.
2. If God does choose those for salvation, then does he predestine other people for eternal damnation in Hell?
The answer is that God created all of us to be his, but man believed the lie that it was desirable and preferable to live without God. This sentenced the entire human race to an eternity separated from Him in Hell. Everyone who ends up in Hell deserves to be there. The more relevant question is, why does he save anyone at all? If God moves a person to saving faith, that is his mercy (not giving the punishment deserved) and his grace (unmerited favor). This is clearly presented in the book of Romans: all are guilty Romans 3:10-12 and the penalty of sin is death, Romans 6:23 but God paid a costly price demonstrating his mercy and grace for the undeserving . . .
But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. Romans 5:8-10
God does not predestine people to perish. People who reject Christ have chosen to do so, and those who are saved have chosen to be saved. Thank God every day for your salvation! Pray for the lost that they may be found!
3. Does God’s hand in our ability to believe contradict or negate human responsibility?
God’s sovereignty and power in our lives go hand in hand with our responsibilities. Our salvation is a gift from God in ways that are incomprehensible to us. He works in our lives to draw us to him, but that does not mean we sit idle, and salvation happens. It is our responsibility to accept his gift of salvation. To do that, we must repent (to have a change of mind and heart resulting in a change in how we think and behave) and believe, trust and follow Jesus Christ. That is our free will to choose to receive this wonderful gift from God or not.
Once we come to Christ, we have the responsibility to obey his commands. This is big; this means a changed life. For us to resist sin, live as his word instructs, and “deny ourselves and take up our cross” (to place our devotion to Jesus above our desires and even our own life here on earth), Matthew 16:24-27 requires the work of God. The power of Jesus Christ in our lives gives us the ability to do this; it cannot be done without him.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. John 15:4-8
God may lead us, but it is our decision, our free will to accept or reject, to obey or not obey. That is our choice. Becoming a Christian is easy, then to live as a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ is difficult. This can only be accomplished by the power of God in our lives. The sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility are complementary, not contradictory.