ephesians chosen

Sovereign Salvation

Man’s Free Will vs. God’s Sovereign Election

How are we saved? Through our free-will acceptance of the Gospel and God’s ratification, or through God’s sovereign appointment?


Before we begin, it’s important to acknowledge Isaiah 55:8-9:

“Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans.”

God’s ways do not rest on the analysis of human logic. His ways are well beyond our ways and we need to understand that not all doctrinal issues fit into a tidy little box entitled “approved by man’s logic.”

In a similar vein, this is not a discussion of personal opinion but all propositions need to be backed by scripture. As 2 Timothy 3:16 states:

“Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,…”

Finally, I can’t overemphasize the importance of not relying on the misinterpretation of one or two scripture verses, as many false religions have been based on misunderstanding and misapplying one or two verses.  True doctrinal positions in scripture are supported multiple times.

A case in point is Matthew 16:18 “…thou are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church…” From this one verse, the entire papacy and Catholic church have evolved.

How capable is free will?

If God commands us to “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved… (Acts 16:31,) but we are not able, by our very nature, to respond that His command, is this just?

In fact, this was exactly the position of an Irish/British ascetic known as Pelagius (360-418.) Pelagius believed a man could be saved through his own free will.

Conversely, the Christian theologian Augustine (354 – 430,) posited that God’s law, which condemns a man, is righteous as Romans 7:12 states “…the law is holy…and just and good.” That before the sin of Adam, humanity could obey God’s commands. Genesis 1:31 says “…God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”

However, sin so affected the very nature of Adam and Eve, and all those who are in Adam (mankind,) that man was rendered unable to carry out the commands of God. Finally, had not God intervened, all men were destined to eternal damnation.

In 418, the church met at the Council of Carthage and condemned Pelagius’ position as heresy.

So we have this conflict – all men are condemned by the law (Romans 3:10) “…there is no one righteous, not even one,” and “by nature, ‘we are’ children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3.) Yet, God wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4.)

Since we know God wants all to be saved, and we know not all are saved, how do we reconcile these two polar positions?

God’s sovereignty or man’s will?

One century later, enter two more players into this controversy.

One position, known as Arminianism, after Jacob Arminius (1560-1609,) states essentially that God looks into the future, and through his power of omniscience, sees who, through their own free will, makes a decision of salvation, and then ratifies that decision by writing that person’s name in the Lamb’s Book of LIfe.

This certainly satisfies our human nature. I once had an individual explain that he was saved because “he was smart.” Is this comment boasting? Does it appear to be his works? You can determine that yourself but you should review Ephesians 2:8-9 (emphasis mine) – “…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Additionally, it’s safe to assume that we all have free will. Right?

Another position, known as Calvinism, after John Calvin (1509-1564,) states that God the Father sovereignty chooses those who would be saved before time began and that the Holy Spirit prompts those chosen unto salvation – this is known as predestination or election. You can read more about Calvinism in the article – What is a 5 point Calvinist?

Now, this is a much harder position to accept. If God chooses some, it must follow that some are not chosen. So, if they are eternally damned, whose fault it is, God’s or the one not chosen?

So this free will vs. election controversy has existed throughout church history.

Does God simply look ahead and ratify man’s free will decision, or does He impart his grace by specifically choosing some for salvation and through the Holy Spirit, completing His choice?

Do we not have free will?

No one would deny that man has free will.

If, however, the truth of salvation is a spiritual truth, how can an unbeliever even understand it, and won’t they simply perceive it as foolishness?

1 Corinthians 2:14 states “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Would you accept something that you didn’t understand and thought was “foolish” just because you possessed free will?

Are we not by nature “children of wrath” as Ephesians 2:3 states, and did not Christ come into the world not to condemn for “the one who does not believe has been condemned already…” John 3:16?

Further Romans 8:7-8 state “… the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be. So then they, that are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Free will then, is not the issue. Free can never open up the gift of salvation if we are blinded to the opportunity and can do nothing to please God.

In the song Amazing Grace we sing …” was blind, but now I see”

How do we get unblinded to the truth of God’s salvation?

We’ve already established that we can’t do it alone. Even our free will is not powerful enough to see through the blindness and foolishness of spiritual truths as an unbeliever.

Certainly, Satan is not interested in doing this for us for 1 Peter 5:8 says “…your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour.”  An enemy wishing to devour us would only want to see that our blindness to the truth continued. In fact, that is what Satan does, he blinds the unbeliever to the truth of salvation – Revelation 20:10 “and the devil who deceived them…”

We only have one other power who could do this – God. We know that Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins and that the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth as John 16:13 states “…the Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth…

So, does God the Father elect or ratify?

What other option do you have? He would have to choose. We certainly can’t and there are no other options. Additionally, scripture states that God elects and chooses, over and over and over again.

Why is it that our sinful nature wants to deny this?

Do we think God is evil because out of His grace and mercy, he chooses to save some?. Does God have that right or are our ways of what we perceive as justice to rule. As Paul said, “may it never be.”

Let look at what scripture says.

Romans 9:16 “So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” The KJV states “…it is not of him that willeth…”

The bible explicitly states that salvation is not by human free will. We know it can’t be, for we are blinded and the truth is foolishness.

Romans 9:18 “So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden.”

Is this not God’s sovereignty?  Does it not say God chooses.  Even further, he hardens. This is certainly a departure from what we might perceive as justice but God is holy and whatever he does is holy.

We may not fully understand it, but who are we to question God?

Romans 9:19-22 “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory—”

This further emphasizes God’s sovereign election role. If God wants to elect some to salvation that is entirely His prerogative.

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

What does “that” refer to, we know that it refers to grace as Acts 15:11 states “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved…”  But, it also refers to faith. Both faith and grace are gifts from God. See my article on deconstructing Ephesians 2:8 which breaks out the gifts of both grace and faith.

John 6:44 states clearly “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John 6:65 also reiterates this “…no man can come unto me, except it was given unto him by my Father.”

God even states why he chooses in Ephesians 1:4-5 – (hint – for his good pleasure.)

“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love. Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will…, “

God the Father is the one who elects.

Sinners are intellectually able to understand the basic content of the gospel, but they lack the moral ability to believe the gospel. That is, they are wholly unwilling to turn from their sin and rest in Christ alone until the Spirit changes their hearts and enables them to heed the preaching of the gospel of God (Acts 13:13–52). (from Ligonier Ministries – the teachings of R.C. Sproul.)

Acts 13:48 “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”

Regardless of a multitude of verses proving predestination, two verses are often used to justify Arminianism, Romans 8:29-30 and 1 Peter 1:1.

“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”

Clearly, the bible states that “those whom God did predestinate, them he also called…justified…and glorified.”

1 Peter 1:1 “Peter…to those…who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God…”

So what’s the hangup?

The use of the word foreknow in “for whom he did foreknow,” and the word foreknowledge. The claim is that God through His omniscience looked into the future and saw that someone became a believer. To which God, accepts that person’s salvation or the ratification concept.

Certainly an English understanding of the word “foreknow” and “foreknowledge” would be to look into the future. But the bible wasn’t written in English and the Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament (Second Edition) from Mounce, defines “foreknow” as “to appoint as the subject of future privileges,” and “foreknowledge” as “a previous determination, purpose.

Are we saying God looked into the future “according to the good pleasure of His will?” (Ephesians 1:5) Certainly not!

How can the interpretation of this one word, overshadow all the other verses which clearly state God chooses out of His own divine sovereignty?

It is insidious to cast God’s sovereign election to save some who are already condemned as simply looking forward and agreeing with man’s self-determined effort to become saved. It denies man’s depravity, his blindness, his need for spiritual discernment, and most of all, it denies God’s sovereignty.

To summarize?

  1. The bible does not deny man’s free will. Because of our depravity, however, we are not able to accept spiritual truths, are enemies with God and cannot please Him in our unregenerate bodies. We simply cannot on our own, be saved.
  2. God chooses whom He wants to be saved out of His mercy and through His Sovereign will.
  3. At the same time, God wants all men to be saved (1Tim 2:4 “who desires all men to be saved“), yet man is responsible for his own refusal to accept Christ (Rom 1:20 …so that they are without excuse”).
  4. Although point 2 and 3 seem to contradict one another, God’s ways are above our ways and we need to accept this as truth.
  5. We do nothing to deserve it as Ephesians 2:8 and 9 “and not of yourselves” and “not of works.”
  6. Matthew 28:19 commands us to “Go…and teach all nations.” We know not who is elect or not and we are to assume all should hear the truth of salvation.
  7. Our salvation is assured eternally as John 6:37 states “Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away.”
  8. To believe God simply looks into the future and ratifies man’s salvation decisions is to deny the Sovereignty of God and presents a different gospel.

Matthew 22:14 “For many are called, but few choose  are chosen.”

"It wasn't a potential atonement actuated by the sinner, it was an actual atonement initiated by the savior."

John MacArthur