FREEDOM OF CHOICE VS. GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IN SALVATION
In the following study of man’s free will vs. God’s Sovereignty, it is absolutely essential to remember that this subject is a peripheral issue (an issue not essential to be saved). That means that you can be a Christian and not believe what I believe, and that I can be a Christian and not believe what you believe. This does not mean that these issues are not important, but that we can be brothers in Christ and disagree agreeably. In all peripheral issues we are warned to not break fellowship with one another or not to stumble one another with our liberty. Paul said, “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
A.) First, we must answer the question; does man have any choice in his own salvation?
1. If man has absolutely no choice in his salvation, how can God command men to repent? This would be a contradiction of terms. “...But now commands all men everywhere to repent...” (Acts 17:30). Jesus said, “but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Yes it does say that repentance is a gift of God, but that in no way negates the fact that man must still obey the command to repent (2 Tim. 2:25). God gives this gift of repentance to those who are willing to obey the command. Men are also commanded to believe. The first words out of the mouth of Jesus were, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
2. If man has absolutely no choice in his salvation, how can God justly condemn men for refusing to repent or believe? Jesus placed the full responsibility upon the Pharisee’s for their not coming to Him to receive eternal life. Jesus said, “but you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:40). They were not willing because they had a choice. Men must willingly choose to receive the gift of repentance and the gift of salvation. God doesn't save any unwilling individuals.
3. A non-believer can make a choice to repent of their sin and turn to God. Notice how God promises restoration to any who will humble themselves and accept their guilt. The Lord promised, “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me, and that I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt--then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land. The land also shall be left empty by them, and will enjoy its Sabbaths while it lies desolate without them; they will accept their guilt, because they despised My judgments and because their soul abhorred My statutes” (Lev. 26:40-43). Therefore, men must accept their guilt and make a choice to confess their sins and God will remember His covenant and forgive.
In addition, Paul in the New Testament taught that when we were dead in our sin and slaves to our passions it was then that we obeyed from the heart to turn and follow Christ. Notice how he put it: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered” (Rom. 6:17). Therefore, the choice of man is not removed from the process of salvation, but is clearly revealed in Scripture as essential for someone to be delivered from their sin. If this is not the case then human beings are just robots and not free moral agents.
B.) Now consider the verses of Scripture that deal with this issue of choice.
These verses clearly reveal that God has created you with the ability and responsibility to make moral choices before and after you have been saved.
1. (Deut. 30:19) Moses said to the Children of Israel, "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live”. It was their choice.
2. (Josh. 24:15) Joshua told the Jews to make a choice whom they would serve, "And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." This is still our choice today.
3. (1 Chron. 21:11) In this verse the Prophet asks David to specifically make a choice, "Thus says the LORD: Choose for yourself...” In this case it was to choose the punishment he would receive for the sin of numbering the people contrary to God’s law.
4. (Prov. 1:29) Here Solomon teaches why men make the wrong choices, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD”.
5. (Prov. 3:31) Solomon warns his son and all young men. “Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways”. This is our responsibility daily.
6. (Prov. 12:26) Another example of how men must make good choices is “The righteous should choose his friends carefully, For the way of the wicked leads them astray”.
7. (Isa. 7:15) Isaiah reveals in this verse that people at some point know when to refuse evil and choose good. "Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.
8. (Isa. 56:4) Here God declares blessing on those who choose to please the Lord. “For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant”.
9. Eighteen times God used the word freewill when He spoke of the offerings people could bring to Him. (Ex. 35:29) “The children of Israel brought a freewill offering to the Lord, all the men and women whose hearts were willing to bring material for all kinds of work which the Lord, by the hand of Moses, had commanded to be done.”
C. Man’s choosing vs. God’s choosing.
* One of the best examples to see how these two aspects work together is when God chose the disciples. He chose them, came to them, called them to follow Him, yet they had to respond to this call. They had to choose to follow Him. Christ did not force them, handcuff them or coerce them in any way. The command to follow naturally denotes a choice on their part. When Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me”. In Matt. 16:24, the word “desires” in Greek means to determine or choose. To say they had no choice in the matter, because they were foreordained to salvation, would make them robots and negate every verse where men are commanded to choose. God’s foreknowledge is just that, His foreknowledge of events before they come to pass. He foreordains and chooses on the basis of this foreknowledge. See the following verses.
1. (1 Peter 1:2) “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ:”
2. (Rom. 8:29) “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
However, God also determines His choices based on the moral choices men make. Notice in the following passage God’s declaration of His choice of judgment upon His people specifically because of their choice to reject His voice. (Isaiah 66:4) “So will I choose their delusions, and bring their fears on them; because, when I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not hear; but they did evil before My eyes, and chose that in which I do not delight.”
D. Can a believer choose to turn away from the way of truth?
Those who declare that a person cannot choose to reject his or her salvation must see the glaring contradiction here. How can a person have the choice to become a Christian and then not have the choice to reject their salvation? We must admit that a person has the choice in both circumstances. Examine these verses.
1. Notice here that brethren can wander from the truth. (James 5:19) “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
2. In this text, one who has escaped the world through faith in Christ can turn from God’s holy commandment. (2 Peter 2:20,21) “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollution’s of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.” The Greek word for “knowledge” here is not a superficial knowledge, but the full knowledge of Christ.
3. Here again a righteous man can turn from his righteousness. (Eze. 18:24) "But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.”
4. Notice, these women cast off their first faith. (1 Tim. 5:11,12) “But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith.”
5. (Eze. 3:20) "Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand.”
6. A Christian is seen here as having the ability of straying from his or her faith. (1 Tim. 6:10) “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
7. Here, these Christian brothers departed from the living God. (Heb. 3:12) “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
8. Jesus said a believer can leave his or her first love. “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp stand from its place--unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). This church made the choice to leave their first love and they must make the choice to repent and do something to change their relationship with God.
* It’s clear from these verses that righteous men have the choice to depart and turn from their faith.
E. What is God’s response to those who turn from the way of truth?
* Does he excuse them because they have been chosen or does He hold them accountable and responsible for their decisions and choices? See these verses.
1. Notice here that God is faithful to His Word, He must deny those who deny Him. He would be unrighteous and unfaithful if He blessed unbelief, disobedience, and denial. Notice, Paul also includes himself when he says “we” in this text. (2 Tim. 2:11-13) “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”
2. Here we are warned not to cast away our faith and confidence in His Word which is our choice. (Heb. 10:35-39) “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” To those who draw back He has no pleasure in them.
3. (Eze. 44:10,12) “And the Levites who went far from Me, when Israel went astray, who strayed away from Me after their idols, they shall bear their iniquity. (Vs. 12) ‘Because they ministered to them before their idols and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity, therefore I have raised My hand in an oath against them,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘that they shall bear their iniquity’.”
4. (Jer. 18:8) “If that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. (Vs. 10) "If it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.” God will definitely change what He has promised based upon the action of His people.
5. Note here how the church in Galatia became estranged from Christ. (Gal. 5:1-4) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” From the context of the entire letter this estrangement was the result of these people refusing to continue in the faith that Jesus was the complete sacrifice for sin. They had “turned away...from Him...”, and “the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6).
6. Jesus said He would take a very specific action toward those of His servants who would go back into their old lifestyle. “But if that servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:45). Notice that these Jesus refers to were once “His servants” and they have returned to beating and drunkenness. He declares that He counts them as an unbeliever.
7. Salvation is eternal only to those who obey Him. (Heb. 5:9) “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him...”. Obedience is the proof and the demonstration that you love Him. See John 14:15-21.
8. Notice here the ability of God to save to the uttermost connected with the requirement to continually come to Him. (Heb. 7:25) “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come (present tense) to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”
9. God gives a warning to the Christians in Rome who were very haughty in their hearts about the Jewish people who turned away from the Lord. He explains to them, “Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:20-23). God will be very severe toward those who turn away from Him in unbelief, and He will be very gracious toward those who turn from their unbelief, otherwise they will be cut off. The important part of these verses is the clear warning to the Christians in Rome that if they did not continue in faith they would be cut off too. Continue in faith and His goodness will follow you all the days of your life (Ps. 23:6).
10. Daniel the Prophet recognized the balance and justice of God in His dealings with man when He prayed, “And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession, and said, "O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments...” (Dan. 9:4). Daniel is acknowledging the righteousness of God’s judgment in sending the people into captivity, because God only keeps His covenant to bless and show mercy with those who keep His commandments.
11. Jeremiah the Prophet was also instructed by concerning the balance of God’s sovereign choosing and man’s choice. God took Jeremiah to the potter’s house and instructed him by showing him the power of the potter’s hand to remake the vessel anyway he chose. Then God declares, “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
F. Reconciling other passages.
* There are many passages that seemingly contradict this premise. Let’s look at some of these.
1. (John 10:27-29) “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand.” This is absolutely true; no one is able to snatch you out of the Father’s or the Son’s hand. The word “snatch” means to seize or to take by force. None can take you by force from His hand because He is keeping you. But, this does not mean that you can’t reject and turn from the truth yourself. If you can’t reject the truth - that would remove your free will, make you a robot, and negate all of the previous verses that teach that you have a choice. If you believe in God you would never consciously or willfully reject and turn from the truth. I do not believe anyone “loses” his or her salvation, as though one day you turn around and your salvation disappeared into thin air. No one loses his or her salvation, but men can forsake, reject, or turn from their commitment to Christ which is clearly illustrated in the above Scripture. This is a conscious and willful choice on the part of any man.
However, when you read verses such as: “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the LORD upholds him with His hand… Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell forevermore. For the LORD loves justice, and does not forsake His saints; they are preserved forever, but the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off” (Ps. 37:23-28). This passage deals with God’s responsibility to uphold you and not give up on His saints, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you. God spoke to King Asa after he failed to trust God: “The LORD is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chron. 15:2). All Scripture must be balanced and not ever taken out of the context of the Bible as a whole.
2. God’s keeping vs. your keeping yourself. “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh. Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy...” (Jude 21-24). Notice, the connection between your keeping yourself and His keeping you, these two truths must always go together. In addition, Peter you are “kept by the power of God through faith” (1 Peter 1:5). God’s part of salvation is to keep you from falling, but this is always through your faith.
3. (Rom. 8:35-39) “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This text declares the total blessing of the commitment God has made to each of us that He will never stop loving us, and that nothing in this world or the world to come can change His mind about loving us. But, this passage in no way implies that you cannot separate yourself from Him, and refuse by a choice of your will, to love and obey Him. In Ezekiel 14:7, God declared that were those among His people, “Who separates himself from Me.” God revealed in this same verse that the separation occurred because the people had set up idols in their own heart. Throughout the Scripture we are warned and commanded to “keep ourselves in the love of God”, “abide in His love” and many other passages implying our tendency to separate ourselves from His love. We must choose daily to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul and to refuse anything or allow anyone or anything to take the position of our first love. If we choose to sin or live independent from God we are separating ourselves from His love and fellowship. Isaiah said, “Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Is. 59:1-2). Note that the responsibility for separation is placed upon man’s choice to sin, not God’s desire to reject us. However, even when our sin separates us, God still loves us and will attempt to do all in His power to draw us back to Himself. This is the confidence of Romans 8:35-39. His love endures!
4. Consider the balance of the Bible’s teaching on God’s forsaking of an individual. Most know the very familiar passage: “For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Therefore, the question is does God ever forsake someone, and if so why? Note that the Scripture declares that men can choose to forsake the Lord for other gods. God proclaimed to the Jews, “You have forsaken Me and served other gods. Therefore I will deliver you no more” (Judges 10:13). Just before the nation was destroyed He said, “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns--broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Therefore, if a nation or individual persists in forsaking God, He will ultimately forsake them. At the end of the nation Israel God spoke to His people: “Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, who stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God: ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, He also has forsaken you.' " (2 Chron. 24:20). “I have forsaken My house, I have left My heritage; I have given the dearly beloved of My soul into the hand of her enemies” (Jeremiah 12:7).
However, God will never forsake those who seek His face. The testimony of Scripture is clear: “Those who know Your name will put their trust in You; For You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You” (Psalm 9:10). The prophet spoke to King Asa: “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin. The Lord is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chron. 15:2). But, the balance of Scripture reveals that even though God forsakes His people when they sin, He will not forget them or stop loving them, but will have mercy upon them if they will humble themselves and seek His face. Note what the Lord said to His rebellious people: “ ‘For the Lord has called you like a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a youthful wife when you were refused,’ Says your God. ‘For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Isaiah 54:6-10). “ ‘Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me’ ” (Isaiah 49:14-16).
G. God’s choice.
* God’s choosing is preeminent.
1. God has made a sovereign and independent decision and choice to reveal Himself to mankind. Paul declared, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Man cannot know God by his own effort apart from God’s choice to reveal Himself.
2. God has made a sovereign and independent decision and choice to save you. Jesus taught, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16). Man cannot save himself by his own choosing apart from God’s choosing.
3. God has made a sovereign and independent decision and choice to bestow His salvation and gifts upon those who believe. The Apostle John said, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Paul said that God distributes His gifts, “to each one individually as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). Man cannot experience God’s salvation or gifts by the determination of his own will. God’s will and choosing is preeminent.