(October 11, 2021) Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, shares in-depth on what can be a distracting issue…
Here is a topic that has often distracted Christians and divided home Bible study groups – Did God select in advance those who would be saved or is the exercise of our free will to accept Jesus as our Saviour the deciding factor? How many fruitless hours have been wasted in argument that has often been dogmatic, hostile and divisive!
The ‘Big Question’ which often stirs people is this: Is our salvation determined by God’s decision or by ours? The problem is finding an unambiguous and unequivocal answer because there is an apparent conflict between the biblical concepts of God’s sovereignty and human free will. Does God decide in advance who will be saved and who will be lost?
This is a massive theological issue that has been addressed in multiple books by many profound theologians so I admit that my comments here are most inadequate. However I hope that they may be of some help.
1. God’s Sovereignty
God’s sovereignty is a theme that is undeniably found throughout the Bible. It means that God has absolute authority over all things and nothing that happens in the universe lies outside his will and authority. Nothing can prevent the working out of his purposes.
- God makes this clear in Isaiah 46:10 where we read his declaration, ‘I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
- Job fully acknowledged that when he said to God, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted’ (Job 42:2).
- The psalmist also affirmed, ‘The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all’ (Psalm 103:19).
- In 1 Timothy 1:17, Paul too ascribed praise to the Sovereign God whom he described as the ‘King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.’
2. Predestination and Election
Closely associated with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty are the related concepts of ‘predestination’ and ‘election’ which are often used in the Bible to refer to God’s predetermination and choice. For example we read in Deuteronomy 14:2 that God told Israel, ‘You are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.’
Paul further declared, ‘In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’(Ephesians 1:11). And in Romans 8:30 he wrote,‘Those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’
That seems to settle the issue and the basic conclusion at which one may therefore arrive is that God predestines some for salvation (the elect) while he predestines others for damnation (the lost).
That clearly is the theme of Robbie Burns’ satirical poem Holy Willie’s Prayer which is about an appalling religious hypocrite who smugly counts himself among the righteous whom God has chosen while rejoicing in the eternal doom of those who have not been ‘chosen.’ Despite the nauseating tenor of the poem, it nevertheless does raise a biblical point that has been debated for centuries – does God favour some people over others? And does God do all the choosing and our wills are not truly free to make the decision to accept Jesus as our Saviour? Have we any say in the matter of salvation or is it wholly dependent on God’s selection?
3. Free Will
If we are saved on the basis of God’s predetermined choice, do our wills have no role to play regarding his offer of salvation? That may appear to be the conclusion based on the verses previously quoted.
So, do we have free will? That is a more profound question than it seems but let’s establish the fact that humankind does actually have significant freedom in making decisions. This is evident in the early chapters of Genesis where we read that, despite God’s strict instruction to Adam, ‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:17), Adam and Eve chose to disobey that clear instruction – Eve ‘took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it’ (Genesis 3:6).
When God made humankind, he did not make us robots or puppets! Rather, he gave us the ability, and accompanying responsibility, to make choices. And both the Bible and secular history records that humans have the potential of making some honourable as well as some horrendous decisions.
The Bible appears to indicate that our personal response to God’s invitation is significantly critical in determining our place in the kingdom. For example, Jesus often spoke about personal responsibility in relation to salvation – ‘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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3:16-17). These two verses, in which the word ‘world’ is used three times, indicate the universality of God’s love with no limitations and that Jesus stated that eternal life is God’s offer to ‘whoever’ put their faith in him. Note that the word ‘whoever’ in Greek is ‘pas’ which means ‘all.’
Jesus also proclaimed, ‘Father’s will is that everyone (pas) who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:40).
Also, on the day of Pentecost, when Peter preached the first gospel sermon, he declared the same message when he quoted Joel 2, ‘Everyone (pas) who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Acts 2:21).
And the apostle Paul declared God’s righteousness and his plan for salvation, when he wrote, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone (pas) who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (Romans 1:16).
It appears therefore that, on the one hand, a strong biblical case may be argued that our salvation depends wholly on God’s predetermined choice of certain individuals while on the other hand it may also be argued that our salvation depends on our free will in choosing Jesus as our Saviour. Yet the two positions appear to be irreconcilable!
Is there a means of reconciling two seemingly differing positions?
4. Reconciling two opposing positions?
Some theologians have attempted to reconcile those apparently contradictory positions by appealing to the concept of God’s foreknowledge. A key verse to this argument is Romans 8:29, ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.’
(i) Does God know the future? Let’s consider this in terms of some of God’s characteristics that are revealed to us in the Bible.
(a) One is his omniscience
That is, God has total knowledge of everything – and that includes everything in what we describe as the past, present and future. John stated it simply: ‘God … knows everything’(1 John 3:20).
And in Isaiah 46:9-10 we read, ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
On the basis of the God’s omniscience it is argued that he knows in advance who would be saved and who would be lost. This does not mean that God predicts what will happen in the future or who will respond to the gospel and who will not – he truly knows! God knows all things!
(b) Another is God’s eternal nature
In Psalm 90:2 we read, ‘Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’
Consequently, as God is eternal, he exists outside the classifications of ‘time’ – past, present, and future. Indeed his very name ‘Yahweh,’ which he revealed to Moses, means ‘I am who I am.’ ‘Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:13-14).
The words express the unchanging and eternal nature of his being. The word Yahweh – which appears more than 6500 times in the Old Testament – affirms him as the self-existent, eternally present God. While we are confined within the limitations of time, he is not limited by what we classify as the past, the present or the future. He does not exist at any temporal location. Yahweh transcends time!
(c) Where does divine ‘foreknowledge’ fit into this?
Paul stated in Romans 8:29, ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.’ Many have argued that on the basis of his ‘foreknowledge’ God has known from eternity who would respond to the gospel and place their faith in Jesus Christ and who would not. It is also maintained that those whom God foreknew would trust in Christ are therefore described in the New Testament as the ‘chosen.’
In Ephesians 1:4,11, Paul wrote, ‘He (God) chose us in him (that is, Jesus) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight… In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.’
The conclusion therefore is that the term ‘chosen’ applies only to those whom God knew in advance would respond to the gospel. This conclusion has however been vigorously opposed by others.
(d) Is there a possible answer to be found in Anthropomorphism?
An anthropomorphism is a human characteristic that we ascribe to God – or which is ascribed by God to himself – to enable us to grasp some understanding of his character.
If the all-knowing, eternal God exists outside the boundaries that we identify as ‘time’, perhaps we should understand the concept of ‘foreknowledge’ (that is, knowing something that will definitely take place in the future) as an anthropomorphism. There are many anthropomorphisms in the Bible in which we find references to God’s hands, feet, eyes and ears. Conceivably we could consider that his ‘foreknowledge’ may also fall into this category.
Therefore when Paul commented that ‘those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’ (Romans 8:29), possibly he was using a term that we can understand to explain that in his omniscience God knows in advance from our perspective (but not from his) who will be saved and who will be lost.
- As you see from the above, there are many complexities when we consider this subject.
(ii) Personal testimony
When I was 15 years old, to please my parents I still attended Sunday school in the afternoon but was quite bored with it and had little interest in the lessons the elderly teacher shared. I was on the brink of ‘packing it in’ and finding more interesting ways to spend those afternoons.
However, one Sunday, as the elderly teacher was explaining the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25), I experienced an unexpected conviction that I needed God in my life. I did nothing about it that Sunday but throughout the week I could not step away from that conviction, rather, it intensified. I could hardly wait until the following Sunday when I could speak to the teacher. When the lesson for that Sunday was concluded, I said to him with a sense of urgency, ‘How do I become a Christian?’ With great joy that gracious man led me to Christ.
That was the most significant turning point in my life! Unknown to me the direction of my life was determined that day. I realise now that during that week of deep conviction God was inviting me into his family. I had not been seeking him but he sought me and called me to himself and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour. On reflection I see two dynamics were at work (i) God chose me, and (ii) I responded to him. He sovereignly called me to himself and I freely said, ‘Yes’ to him.
That, of course, does not explain everything. Perhaps you may find the following illustration helpful despite its inadequacies.
(iii) Slave maket analogy
Imagine you are in an ancient market where all kinds of things are sold – including slaves. A rich man enters that market and when he arrives at the place where 12 slaves are up for sale, he stops to watch. The slave owner begins by inviting people to bid for the slaves.
The rich man calls out, ‘I am willing to buy all of them.’
‘What will you do with them?’ asks the slave owner.
‘I will set them free,’ is the reply. ‘But I have one condition.’
‘And what is your condition?’ asks the slave owner.
‘Simply this’, replies the rich man. ‘Each of them has to want to come with me.’
As each slave is asked, ‘Do you want to go with this man?’ Five of them say. ‘Yes,’ but seven say, ‘No.’ Those who refuse the offer of freedom give various reasons. Some say that the proposal is ‘too good to be true.’ Others say that they have only ever known the life of a slave and therefore would not know how to live with such freedom. Others give even more reasons.
The rich man leaves the market with the five former slaves. He wanted to rescue all of them but seven chose to continue in slavery.
5. Two great men with two different opinions
In the early 18th century England was morally and socially decadent and spiritually weak, corrupt and ineffective. The churches failed miserably to preach the gospel. Life was miserable and very brief for many and people lived without hope in poverty, fear and violence.
In the midst of this social and spiritual chaos in 1737 God called an Anglican minister named George Whitefield to proclaim the gospel to the poor. He did not limit his preaching to the pulpit but travelled widely as he took the gospel to where the people were – to the streets and paddocks. Soon crowds gathered to hear his message of salvation and hope and many were saved.
In 1738 another Anglican minister, John Wesley, was convicted of his need of salvation and he was soundly converted. Writing about that turning point in his life and ministry he commented, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins.’ Shortly after that George Whitefield encouraged him to take his preaching into the ‘open air’ and Wesley too began his travelling ministry.
Under the preaching of Whitefield and Wesley many thousands of people were converted and their lives were turned around as they discovered the love and forgiveness of God.
But it was not only individual lives that were spiritually and morally turned around – society also was radically changed and many social changes that improved the lives of the people were introduced.
Whitefield and Wesley travelled many hundreds of thousands of miles throughout England preaching the good news about Jesus Christ, and thousands of people turned to Jesus and were saved.
However, Whitefield and Wesley held different opinions regarding predestination and free will. Despite their theological differences (over which they often disagreed) both men were incredibly used by God to preach the gospel and save many thousands of men and women.
This suggests to me that God is often less concerned about our theological disagreements than we are!
I want to finish with a simple illustration which has been quoted often as it contains such truth.
Picture a large crowd of people who, burdened by the weight of their sins, are travelling down a broad road. They arrive at a door over which is written the text, ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life’ (Revelation 22:17). Many refused to enter through the door but those who did found another text on the other side, ‘He chose us in Christ before the creation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4).
One day we will discover the answer to this issue. In the meantime we can agree on this ‘By grace we are saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
His helpful book, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, is offered free, all of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Grace Revisited, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com