The issue of man’s responsibility for his part in faith and salvation is a hotly debated topic. For hundreds of years, there have been people who argue for the free will of man, the ability to believe or reject the good news of the gospel or that man has no part in anything related to the reception of God’s grace.
First, I want to address the position of some who state that man has absolutely no part in the process of being saved. There are labels used today - Calvinist,
Reformed... No matter what the title, the meaning is the same. For those who hold this view, man has no part in whether they go to heaven or go to Sheol or Hell.
The opposite of this view is the Arminian or Free Will view. That man can and does have a responsibility to respond to the invitation of God and repent of sin, trust in the Lord, and accept the gift of God’s grace.
The contrast in the two positions is great and I tried to simplify it to make the rest of this article easier to understand.
In looking at the first position I am going to examine the verses GotQuestions.org* used to support and defend the position that man has no free will. I will follow each of the references with a response.
GQ - Jeremiah 17.9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?
While reading this verse on its own we can conclude that the heart of mankind is deceitful and wicked. The GQ article states:
“In our natural, unregenerate state, we are carnally minded, not spiritually minded. “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace because the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can it be”
Response: Just because someone wrote: “for it (the unregenerate state) is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can it be”, it does not speak to the issue of those who are convicted over sin and follow the Lord through that conviction turn toward repentance and surrender to God’s laws.
In fact, the context of the verse must be considered in whole to grasp that man does have a responsibility to turn to the Lord.
7“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, And whose hope is the Lord. 8For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, Which spreads out its roots by the river, And will not fear when heat comes; But its leaf will be green, And will not be anxious in the year of drought, Nor will cease from yielding fruit. 9“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? 10I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give every man according to his ways, According to the fruit of his doings. Jeremiah 17.7-10.
One keyword and an instrumental concept in man’s place in the process of salvation is (v.7) “trust” ( xjb batach, baw-takh'). The meaning is:
to be confident in or sure of; be secure in. To rush to take refuge.
The call on man to place trust not only indicates or hints at man’s ability to do so, but it’s also explicit in that we have that ability and to ignore it is going to be held against us. Trust in the Lord is a very significant aspect of our receiving the gift of God’s grace. Some references concerning this trust: Psalm 2.12; 34:8; 125:1; 146:5; Proverbs 16.20; Isaiah 30.18.
GQ - Romans 8.6,7: 6For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.
The GQ response to these two verses is that: “before we are saved, we are at enmity (war) with God, we do not submit to God and His law, neither can we.
The Bible is clear that, in his natural, man is incapable of choosing that which is good and holy. In other words, he does not have the “free will” to choose God because his will is not free. It is constrained by his nature, just as the prisoner is constrained by his cell.”
Response: The jail cell is a great analogy however it misses the mark as being of the world and does not address the merciful aspect of God’s love and grace for those who are born into sin and do not ever deserve salvation yet He grants this as the sovereign over all creation. (My use of sovereign here is in the very strictest of sense as in the biblical definition meaning: to reign; to ascend the throne; to induct into royalty; hence to take counsel: consult, be or make, set a, set up as a kingdom, begin to reign, to rule.)
(It is good to note that the word sovereign(ty) is only used in the Word when addressing Saul’s establishment of his kingdom and not used of the Lord.)
I take issue with the statement: “we are at enmity (war) with God, we do not submit to God and His law, neither can we.” The reason I take issue with this is that the Bible never states that man is incapable of responding to God through faith and trust and submitting to Him, but does say we are at war. We are at war when carnally minded but because of a great many verses speaking of man’s faith and that we have the ability to believe or reject, we can submit by choice and have the conviction to do so.
In the case of not having a will, there would be no issue, no struggle to do what is right or wrong. Man, if incapable, would only do the wrong and never be at war - There would be no struggle.
Romans 8.5 tells us: For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.
A key to understanding that man has the ability to accept or reject the Lord is in the phrase: “set their minds on...” they give into things of human carnality.
It is a deliberate act of reaching out and accepting the sinful things in spite of what the Lord offers.
It is here, because we are in the book of Romans, that we ought to look at Romans chapter 1, a very important aspect of understanding the will of man.
First, Romans 1.18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
The word, suppress, is an undeniable element in this complex formula.
The word is: katecw katecho, kat-ekh'-o - to hold down or hold fast, to have, to keep in memory, let, make advance, to possess, to retain, seize on, stay, take, withhold from.
In simple terms, man is deliberate in his choices. If it were not so, the wording in the Bible, in my opinion, would specifically tell us that man has no choice or responsibility in responding to the invitation by God to believe in Him.
Now, because of the presentation of Romans 1.18 into this thesis by GQ we are to take in the greater context of this and consider the verses around it.
Romans 1.18-32: (words underlined that I believe demonstrates man’s responsibility to act and place their faith in the Lord or reject Him.)
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
19because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
24Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
26For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. 28And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; 32who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
This portion of Scripture, I believe, demonstrates an unwillingness on the part of fallen man to accept and react the plan of God for man to be reconciled to himself through His Son, Jesus. An unwillingness also indicates the ability for willingness.
We must remember that God created man and woman in His image and that He said it was good. (Gen. 1.26-31) I do not believe that original goodness was removed (we are still made in the image of God who is good) but the goodness is made corrupt and, because of sin, man born separated from God, tempted to live according to the dictates of sin and give into temptation until and unless man is willing to give into the calling of God.
God has revealed Himself to this fallen world (v.18) and as such the world is obligated to respond to Him. My position is that because of this evident obligation the Lord has allowed man to respond. There would be no need for God to be revealed to man unless it was to draw people to Christ. (John 12.32)
What is known of God is (v.19) is evident (manifest) to all the world because God has shown it to all. If it were true that man has no will to exercise in the process of receiving God’s grace, what would be the reason for God to make Himself known? It would be a tease to man who then are “unable” to respond.
I believe God makes Himself known, as well as making all of His truth known to the world so that the world might, through belief, be saved. (John 3.16,17)
In v.20 we find, in my opinion, the most compelling reason for the free-will argument. God has made Himself known to all the world from the very foundation of the world and that all the world understands that by following Him they can have eternal life. If salvation was only by God’s independent selection of some and the rejection of others (I am not rejecting the thought that God has that right, but that He does not exercise it in this way) there would be absolutely no need for belief or faith to be part of the mix.
The issue of man being without excuse is then made null because to leave out man’s obligation for responding to the call of God to believe would then be an excuse. (V.20) And a person who has not placed his faith in Christ yet does believe that God is real - they believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (and many of the fundamental elements of faith) they can say they simply have not been selected by God for salvation.
This also refutes the very will of God that plainly states:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3.9
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,
1 Timothy 2.3-5
Please note here that it is God’s will that no one perishes and go to eternal condemnation and that all should repent of sin. If this truly is God’s will - and it truly is, by the testimony and authority of Scripture - then there has to be some other answer otherwise all would be saved. The answer is that man can and does exercise a free will to either place their faith in the Lord or reject Him. This is the same free will that Adam and Eve exercised in the garden when they ate of the tree God forbade them to eat of. I do not believe this freedom of choice has been taken away from man, for in doing so, it would mean that God creates people He knows will not be saved and that there’s not chance for them for be saved. This would make God the maker of sin (people who have no ability to place faith in Him) and thus a murderer by sending them to eternal death.
The Bible teaches the exact opposite. Romans 1 continues to demonstrate that man does know who God is and that many reject Him. Many, if not most of mankind, gives into fleshly desires and the foolishness of their hearts and deliberately change (make different - a deliberate action to ignore the truth and present another idea) the glory of God for something else. It is an exchange of God’s truth for the lie that man knows better than God and it is deliberate.
The exchange of God’s truth for the lie that man has a better way is known to man (v.32) and I believe it's because sin has allowed people to give in to the temptation of the immediate gratification of their sexual impulses as well as all other forms of lust and greed. People know there’s a better way through faith in the Lord, but like Adam and Eve, are lured away for what seems to be more attractive to a now fallen and carnal people, namely to feed the desires of the flesh rather than the spirit and soul.
In Ephesians 2.1, the GQ writer has begun to describe the process of salvation but has not used the full context of the Book of Ephesians, and unfortunately does not even quote verse one properly. This is most likely unintentional on the writer’s part but must be addressed.
In looking at Ephesians chapter 1 and then 2 for a further explanation of how man’s will comes into play we can see a great blessing from the Lord.
Back in chapter 1 of Ephesians we find in vv.3,4 that there is a very specific in the fact that it is “in Christ” that the Lord has chosen anyone for the gift of His grace.
Please look at Ephesians 1.1-13: (Again, I have made bold 10 instances where the Lord speaks to our position in the Savior. I have also underlined areas of importance that demonstrate an ability for man to decide to follow the Savior)
1Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
4just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,
5having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
7In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him.
11In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
12that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
13In Him you also trusted, after* you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.
Please look at v.13* - “it reads that “you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth...you were sealed...” It is only after one acknowledges the truth of God and places their trust in Christ that they are saved.
There is an order by which the Lord makes possible the gift of grace applicable to a soul and that is people are exposed to His truth, the place their faith in Christ and are saved.
Also, the blessing of Ephesians 2.8,9 becomes more clear:
8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9not of works, lest anyone should boast.
We are saved “through faith” in Christ and by His grace, we are granted that which we do not deserve but for the reason that God has initiated the plan of salvation at all: that we repent and come back to Him in humility, asking for forgiveness of sin. God’s grace, salvation, is the gift we obtain through faith.
Faith is not a “work” but a deliberate response to the conviction of sin and separation from the Lord. Faith is a response in true humility.
This goes to the mechanics of Romans 8.29,30: 29For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
What would the Lord need to emphasize in v.29 concerning His foreknowledge?
Those who would be saved. Salvation is what we are most concerned with for those who are perishing and so we must understand the details of how the Lord works it out. I believe that it is the foreknowledge of those who would place their faith in Christ that God “predestined” a path to His eternal kingdom.
The important element of salvation that the Word of God emphasizes is faith.
Faith is a key element in understanding the issue of free-will. Without faith, the ability to believe or reject, we are mere puppets guided by only our carnal instincts. And because all man has sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and that there is none righteous, no not one, that would mean that no one ever should have grace applied because God is no respecter of people - meaning He sees us all the same: Sinful, fallen, carnal and undeserving of grace and forgiveness.
Certainly, His love is unconditional, but there is one condition set by God that anyone may have eternal life and that is by faith alone in Christ.
17So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. 18But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world.” Romans 10.17,18
The GQ article noted, as the source of my contention, an illustration is used of a man in a prison cell. Yes, we are born into a prison cell of iniquity. We are slaves of sin and as such the penalty of sin is eternal death. But it is through our faith that we can be set free from the bondage of our prison.
31Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8.31,32.
It's important to note that those who believed and live in Him would be set free.
The Lord does not simply set free just anyone. Only those who believe and abide in Him.
In John 11 the article tries to demonstrate that those who are dead cannot raise themselves and makes a comparison with Ephesians 2.1.
In taking a look at the two words for dead we find they can both be used literally or figuratively.
From Eph. 2.1: nekrov nekros, nek-ros' - from an apparently primary nekus (a corpse); dead (literally or figuratively; also as noun):--dead.
From John 11.14: apoynhskw apothnesko, ap-oth-nace'-ko - to die off (literally or figuratively):--be dead, death, die, lie a-dying, be slain (X with).
So, in light of that being a conflict we must find a way to understand the difference between physical death and spiritual death.
The best illustration I know that demonstrates a major difference is found in Luke 16.19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
In this great illustration, we find that both the rich man and Lazarus experienced physical death. But what of their spiritual condition? The Word of God teaches us that the rich man went on to suffer in Hades and that Lazarus was being comforted by Abraham. In fact, neither one of them were unable to speak or make decisions. The rich man made the decision to ask for help. He wanted something cool to drink because he was tormented by the flames.
When told he would not be able to receive what he asked for he made another request - to send Lazarus to his father’s house to reach his brothers with the testimony of truth. I believe it's important to see that being physically dead is not necessarily the same as being spiritually dead.
Lazarus was physically dead yet he experienced living for a time with Abraham.
To state: “ We are spiritually dead, unable to rise” is unfair to the reader of the article and, unfortunately, does a great injustice to the whole counsel of God by avoiding many verses that refute that statement.
Yes, we are all spiritually dead and the meaning of that is that we are separated from the Lord. But spiritual life comes by grace through faith in Christ and when we believe in Him He raises us from the grave.
The writer of the article references 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ*, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new, and states: “He calls us out of our spiritual graves and gives us a completely new nature, one undefiled by sin as the old nature was.”
But this reference does not support that statement, in my opinion, and ought not to be in the article unless backed by another Scripture. I have often said in my preaching that stating something with conviction does not make it true.
(*emphasis on being “in Christ”, once again, is very important)
It is the position of being “in Christ” that makes us a new creation. Being “in Christ” means the grace of God is applied and it is applied by and through faith in the Savior. (Eph. 2.8,9)
We are not given a new nature for no reason but because we have placed our faith in the Savior.
The article then goes on to reference Ephesians 1:4-6 but again does not consider the entire context of chapter 1 and the rest of the book of Ephesians.
Because without tying Ephesians 1.4-6 to Ephesians 2.8,9 the writer ignores the very important element of man’s faith that he can exercise and believe “in Christ” or reject with truth and believe a lie. (Romans 1)
Isaiah 48:11 seems so out of place in the article without showing it in a bit larger context: vv.9-11: 9“For My name’s sake I will defer My anger, And for My praise I will restrain it from you, So that I do not cut you off. 10Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. 11For My own sake, for My own sake, I will do it; For how should My name be profaned? And I will not give My glory to another.
This portion of Scripture is specific to the redemption of Israel and may not really mean what the writer wishes it to mean. While one may want to apply it to the salvation found in Christ, I believe it to be yet one more unfair treatment of the Word by the writer who, while being well-intentioned, might want to see things in the light of all of God’s Word.
Also referenced in the article: 2 Corinthians 5:20: Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.
The meaning is that we who are saved plead with the lost to make a choice and repent of sin. The question is posed: “how do we know who has been saved “from the foundation of the world”?” Of course, no one knows who will be saved.
But to ask who has been saved from the “foundation of the world” is very misleading. Yes, we are chosen “in Christ” from the foundation of the world but by the foreknowledge of God based upon those will place their faith in Him and have grace applied and we who first trusted in Him are to be to the praise of His glory. But there is absolutely no need for us to plead for someone to “be reconciled” to God unless they can make that choice.
To be “reconciled” means: katallassw katallasso, kat-al-las'-so -
to change mutually. Really, to go against and make a change.
This is related to the act of repentance - to make that 180o turn to the Lord away from the path of unrighteousness. It is deliberate on the part of the individual and I can state from my own experience that this can in no way make a person who is genuine in their faith want to brag about doing anything to save themselves but to be completely humbled at the truth that God allows any of us to come to Him and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
The acts of repentance and reconciliation do nothing for the soul who is brought out of the prison of sin that can make us feel as though we accomplished anything at all. It is because we recognize our brokenness and surrender to the Lord in and by faith that we are healed and raised up.
John 6:37 is referenced at the end of the article but once again I want to expand the context here.
John 6.35-40: 35And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. 36But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. 37All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing but should raise it up at the last day. 40And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
A grave injustice is done when we ignore the context of the verse referenced.
In vv.35 and 40 that important element of faith comes, once again, to the front of the testimony of Scripture.
We find that here: 1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. Hebrews 11.1-3
I would like to add one more set of verses to the conversation
8Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, 9who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel...
2 Timothy 1.8-10
It is my position that God invested the purpose and plan for grace in and through Christ before time began. I do not believe that we are called before time began or the Word would state that we are saved before time began making it unnecessary for Christ to come and die for our sin.
To understand faith is to understand free will. Our free will is both a curse and a blessing. For we can exercise our will to believe in the Lord and have eternal life or reject the message of truth and exchange it for a wide variety of lies.
It is my desire for people to know the truth of God’s Word and not have them pass off the idea that those who do not believe are not “chosen”.
There is a biblical balance to maintain in the doctrine of election.
I believe it lies in the will of God who grants man the will to trust or reject Him.