Free Will Vs. God’s Sovereign Choice
A friend recently asked me how I would defend the doctrine of election (that is, the idea the God sovereignly chooses who will obtain eternal life) to someone who holds to a "free will view" (which is the view that God lays out the conditions for each of us to choose eternal life, and leaves the choice completely up to us). These arguments, of course, are not new, and this matter will not be settled from a simple blog post written by a simpleton! However, sometimes it is helpful to hear how others have organized their arguments, and perhaps to hear new arguments which you had not previously considered. So, here goes...
First, let's look at some key Scriptures:
John 6:65—“No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
John 6:44- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
John 1:12-13—“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Roman 9:10-12—“when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Romans 9:14-16—“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Romans 8:7-8—“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Ephesians 2:-5—“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the 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.”
Romans 3:10-12—“as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’”
Ephesians 1:4-6—“even as 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, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
What is the difference between the “free will” point of view and the belief in God’s sovereign election?
-The “free will” point of view sees man as fully able to cooperate with God in attaining salvation. God lays out the conditions for salvation, according to this view, and leaves it up to man to take the deciding step. Man, in this view, is not spiritually dead, but only sick, and fully capable of choosing for God in his unregenerate state.
-The other view is that God is sovereign in choosing who will be saved. In this view, man is completely unable to save himself. He is spiritually dead, and therefore unable to respond to God (Romans 3:10-12, Ephesians 2:5, John 6:44, John 6:65, Romans 8:7-8). The only hope for man, therefore, is for God to actually bring him to life.
Questions to Consider:
-R.C. Sproul makes this argument: If salvation is ultimately left up to my decision, then why did I respond to the gospel and not my neighbor? Is it because I was more moral than he? Because I’m a better decision-maker? Because I am smarter? If so, then you have God only saving people who come in contact with better evangelists, or the most moral people, or the best decision-makers, or the smartest people. This actually makes God to discriminate more than the “Sovereign election” view, because it has God choosing people based on what they do or who they are, rather than because of His own sovereign choice.
-John Piper points out another difficulty with the “free will” view: If the decision to be saved is ultimately up to the choice of an unregenerate person, then why pray for them? What are we exactly asking God to do when we pray for an unsaved friend or family member? We may be asking to try to persuade, influence, cajole, but ultimately we are asking him to do something that He is powerless to actually accomplish, if man cannot be saved apart from his own decision.
-An old Baptist preacher from the 1700s, John Leland, made this excellent point: “When God sent Christ to redeem mankind, did he only “re-Adam” man, and do nothing more for him?” In other words, before the fall, Adam was capable of choosing for God, or choosing sin. He chose sin, and fellowship with God was lost. If the “free will” view is correct, then Christ’s death has only restored man to the same position Adam was in—to choose God or choose sin. According to the Scriptures above, and according to personal experience, which do you think unregenerate man will choose? Considering Adam’s choice, what makes you think that we would make a better choice than Adam did?
Why Does It Matter?
1. God’s glory is at stake. God is very passionate about His own glory. The Scriptural texts are too numerous to list, but a good list is found by clicking here. This website points to such texts as 1 Corinthians 10:31, Ezekiel 36:22-23 and 32, Isaiah 43:6-7, Ephesians 1:4-6 and 12-14, and Isaiah 48:9-11.
God’s glory is at stake in this way: If my salvation ultimately depends on my decision, who gets the glory? The evangelist, because he was so persuasive? Me, because I made a really good decision? By contrast, the Scriptural view of salvation indicates that God designed it specifically so that He, not man, gets full credit for saving man. “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Romans 3:27; see also Ephesians 1:4-6).
2. The “free will” view (in my opinion) contains dual problems: first, a lower view of God, and second, a higher view of man.
It has a lower view of God because it does not view God as completely sovereign in the salvation of men, and renders Him ultimately unable to decisively bring someone to Himself. He lays aside His sovereignty so that man may be the decisive agent in salvation.
It also has a higher view of man, in that it presents man as not quite as bad as all that. He is negatively affected by the fall, but only sick, and not spiritually dead. There is an “island of righteousness” preserved in man from the fall which allows him to be capable of making good spiritual decisions—to allow him to be inclined to love God and trust Christ for salvation without God’s intervention.
3. The view that God was completely Sovereign and decisive in my salvation has a more humbling effect on my soul. It is true that there are those in both camps who are “proud” of their doctrines, who love to be right rather than demonstrating Christ-like humility. However, this does not negate the fact that when I see myself as completely (not partially) dependent on God for my salvation, then I have no grounds to boast. I can only raise my hands and say, “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). If, however, I cast the deciding vote in my salvation, then don’t I deserve a little credit?
4. If salvation depends on man’s decision, then ultimately the evangelist must trust his own powers of persuasion. If a man is lost, then was it because I failed to persuade him? It is true that we should use the most persuasive arguments possible. Acts 19:8 says of Paul that “he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God .” However, we must never trust in our ability to persuade, but rest in God’s power to use our feeble words to bring men to Christ: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17).