Wrestling with God
God often does His best work in us by pulling the rug out from under us, theologically speaking. Just when we begin to feel secure and confident standing on our preconceived ideas about God and His program, the Lord will bring us someone or something to intrude upon our blissful ignorance and disrupt our thinking. The effect can be disorienting and even painful.
Nevertheless, disruption is the Lord's favorite tactic for growing us spiritually and bringing us to a greater understanding of Himself and of who we are in Christ. Recently, Verse By Verse Ministry had the privilege to assist in one of these disrupting moments for one of our readers concerning the topic of God's sovereignty in salvation.
Few doctrines cause more angst and argument within the Body of Christ than those of election and predestination, and in my experience, such debates usually become a battle of wits among unarmed men, as the saying goes.
Our ministry strives to handle these exchanges with grace and truth, and we work hard to present a logical and Biblically-based perspective on serious matters like election without resorting to clichés or recycling unhelpful arguments from various "camps" of thought. In this particular conversation with a reader (I will call "Sally"), we experienced a particularly fruitful outcome. I wanted to share the exchange in the hope others might benefit from it.
Part One of our discussion follows below:
I was reading your answer to Is there an age of accountability in the Bible. I liked your explanation of the verses and the final answer to the question, however, I am confused and worried about some of the scriptures and explanations that you gave about being saved! You are saying that God decides who gets saved and who doesn't? God gets to decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell? Why don't we have free will? I thought that we were able to decide for ourselves if we wanted to follow, accept and love God? If God chooses Who is saved and who isn't, why would there be judgment and what's the point of living life on this earth if our lives are already decided before we were even born?
We recognize the challenge of understanding the important and foundational truth of election (i.e., the Biblical truth of God's appointing some to salvation while passing over others). This core Biblical doctrine has been pushed aside in modern times, but it is the testimony of Scripture.
Your surprise at learning of this Biblical truth is not uncommon. Because many churches and pastors have rejected this truth or simply neglect to teach it properly, the doctrine of election (among other difficult truths of Scripture) has become unknown to many Christians, though it was the teaching of the Apostles and the accepted understanding of the church for many centuries.
In more recent times, false teachings concerning the nature and cause of salvation have supplanted the Biblical truth of election, most notably the claim that all men have "free will" to accept or reject the Gospel. To our untaught ears, such teaching sounds sensible, and so we accept it without questioning. Our false understanding will then be reinforced (and our hearts hardened to the truth) as we seek Biblical instruction only from those who reinforce our preferred views, perhaps preventing us from ever discovering the truth.
Paul taught that during later times we should expect to see a movement within the Church away from Biblical truth and toward preferred false teachings:
2Tim. 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,
2Tim. 4:4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
Rather than reinforcing such myths, our ministry is committed to teaching the truths of Scripture (even if they are unpopular), and the Biblical truth concerning salvation is that God chooses who will be saved. While men do have free will to make many decisions in life, when it comes to accepting the Gospel message, the Bible says there is no such thing as a man who willfully chooses to follow God or receive the Gospel.
In fact, the term "free will" never appears in the Bible nor is there any such teaching in Scripture concerning salvation. On the contrary, Paul says in Romans:
Rom. 3:11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
Rom. 3:12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”
The Scriptures teach that because of Adam's fall in the Garden, all men are born spiritually dead and unable to obey a call to believe the Gospel. Our fallen spiritual nature is incapable of accepting "the things of the Spirit," as Paul describes the Gospel. We are literally deaf to the Gospel message, as Paul teaches:
1Cor. 2:14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
Like all spiritual truth, the Gospel message can only be "spiritually appraised," which means it can only be accepted as true by a living spirit. The fallen nature of man is incapable of understanding spiritual truth. Therefore, if God were to wait for men to choose Him, He would never receive a single convert! Paul says no man (or woman) seeks God, so no one would ever be saved. The barrier to belief in the Gospel is the dead spirit all men inherit at birth that cannot accept the things of God.
Simply put, God MUST act first to give a person His living Spirit in order for the person to gain the capacity to respond to the Gospel and demonstrate saving faith, as Jesus taught:
John 6:65 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.”
This is the very definition of grace: God acting on our behalf because we were incapable of acting for ourselves. As Paul taught in Ephesians:
Eph. 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
Eph. 2:5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ ( by grace you have been saved),
Eph. 2:6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
Eph. 2:7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Our prideful, sinful nature prefers to believe that we are in control of every aspect of our lives, including over our decision to believe, but God desires to confront our pride and transform our understanding. By His word the Lord makes clear we were not a participant in our own salvation, even in the process of believing:
Eph. 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
Eph. 2:9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
The Bible teaches that even our faith itself was not something "of ourselves" but rather "it is the gift of God." This truth offends our pride because it removes our opportunity to boast (even a little) that we were acting sensibly when we "chose" to accept Christ.
Moreover, we prefer to think that the one who refuses to accept the Gospel is simply "getting what they deserve" for their failure to believe the Gospel. By assigning responsibility for belief to each person (rather than to God), we comfort ourselves at the prospect that some spend eternity in Heaven while others spend eternity in punishment. We rationalize that this outcome is not God's "fault" since each person made a choice.
This viewpoint is not what Scripture teaches. Paul says this concerning the "sensibility" of believing the Gospel:
1Cor. 1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
1Cor. 1:22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom;
1Cor. 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,
1Cor. 1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1Cor. 1:25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1Cor. 1:26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;
1Cor. 1:27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
1Cor. 1:28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,
1Cor. 1:29 so that no man may boast before God.
Paul says that by God's design the message of the cross (i.e., of the Gospel) is not sensible. It is foolishness to the natural man. God has designed the message of grace so that natural man will be shamed by reliance on wisdom to discover the truth about God. Paul says that by their "wisdom," mankind will be shown to be fools and will not come to know God (v.21).
Instead, those God calls (i.e., elects to faith) will accept the foolish message of the Gospel as their salvation by the power of God (v.24). The "power of God" is a reference to God's Spirit leading a man to agree with the foolish message of the Gospel. Therefore, God calls or elects some to salvation while leaving others to remain in their ignorance and sin. Though we prefer to think we chose Christ as our Savior, the truth is our Savior chose us before the foundations of the world.
Naturally, we rebel at the notion that God is in control of every person's eternal destiny, and we assume (wrongly) that such a conclusion will make God to be unjust and unfair. We dismiss the possibility out of hand and then search for verses that will confirm our preferred view. Nevertheless, Scripture stands ready to debunk our false assumptions by presenting the truth concerning God's sovereignty.
The Bible teaches that God made His decision concerning our salvation long ago:
Eph. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
Eph. 1:4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love
Eph. 1:5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,
Eph. 1:6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
Even before the foundations of the Earth, the Lord had already chosen who would be "in Him," meaning who would receive His grace. He determined that His elect would receive His mercy before they were ever born. He made this decision before the foundations of the earth so that His children could never claim that God's offer of mercy arrived on the basis of merit. We could never say we "deserved" or "earned" God's grace – or even that we were clever enough to believe in the Gospel.
Paul uses the story of Jacob and Esau to explain that this principle has always been God's way:
Rom. 9:10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;
Rom. 9:11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,
Rom. 9:12 it was said to her, “ THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.”
Rom. 9:13 Just as it is written, “ JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.”
Before these two children were even born and before either had done anything good or bad, God's choice had been made, so that the world couldn't conclude that Jacob deserved or earned God's favor. Instead, Paul says God made His choice to love (i.e., chose) Jacob and hate (i.e., reject) Esau before they were born.
Every Christian should contemplate this example carefully. Jacob's "free will" had nothing to do with God's choosing of him. Before the twins were born, God told Rebekah that He would choose Jacob (the younger) over Esau (the older). and Paul says God did this so men would later recognize that God assigned each son to his respective outcome apart from human decisions or merit.
David gives a similar testimony concerning his own salvation:
Psa. 22:9 Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb;
You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts.
Psa. 22:10 Upon You I was cast from birth;
You have been my God from my mother’s womb.
David declares that God "made" him to trust God even as David was still nursing as an infant. In v.10 he repeats this truth: David was "cast upon" God from birth and that his relationship with God preceded even David's physical birth! How can we attribute David's salvation to a "free will" that chose God if his salvation occurred in the womb? Similarly, Luke 1 tells the story of John the Baptist having been chosen by God while still in Elizabeth's womb.
These examples prove the testimony of Scripture: God creates faith in our hearts by His sovereign choice, not through our intellectual understanding and agreement with the Gospel message. Whatever intellectual understanding we eventually obtain concerning our salvation and the grace of God (and some will gain a greater understanding of it than others), our understanding of the Gospel will always follow the manifestation of God's grace in our life; it does not produce it.
Regarding your question on why God has purposed this plan and not something else, remember that all creation exists for one purpose: to give glory to God. Therefore, God's design of the universe and His plan for salvation must be - by definition - the best possible way to glorify God. We can begin to understand how this is so when we consider God's possible alternatives.
For example, instead of saving some men, God could have chosen to save no one. Obviously, this option would not bring as much glory to God, since there would have been no one in eternity to praise the Lord for His mercy and grace.
On the other hand, God could have chosen to save all men by grace and send no one to Hell. We naturally assume this would have been a better option, but though it may not make sense to us immediately, Paul teaches that this option actually brings God LESS glory. God would receive less glory in eternity had He have saved ALL men then if He saved only SOME men while passing over the rest and permitting them to perish justly in their sin.
Paul explains why this is true:
Rom. 9:22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?
Rom. 9:23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,
Rom. 9:24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
Paul says that even though God was willing to condemn all men to Hell (justly), for the sake of His glory He chose to appoint some men to salvation while assigning the rest to the destruction they deserve for their sin. By allowing both the elect and the nonelect to coexist into eternity, God furnished for His elect an essential contrast that allows us to understand and appreciate God's grace and give Him glory for it.
In other words, if God had chosen to save everyone, how could men ever fully appreciate what it means to receive His mercy? Naturally, men would have taken God's mercy for granted, since everyone received it. Men could never appreciate what it means to be saved if they lack an understanding of God's judgment.
How could we write or sing the hymn "Amazing Grace" if not for our understanding of what it means to be saved from the penalty of sin? How would God receive praise for His Son's death in our place if we never stopped to consider that we might have received God's wrath instead? How could men appreciate that their sin deserves wrath from a holy and just God if no one was ever under the threat of such a judgment?
If God elected to save everyone, the effect would have been to cheapen mankind's appreciation of grace while diminishing the value of God's mercy. God would have appeared to have less glory in our eyes because we would have known only part of God. We would have only known some aspects of God's character and nature rather than appreciating all of Who God is.
Instead, God's plan of election ensures men know God fully, and by this plan, God receives the greatest glory.