On “Sovereign Grace”
James R. Aist
“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” (Romans 9:16)
In this article, I will address two questions: 1) Why do some people believe and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and 2) Which is sovereign over our eternal destiny, the free will of men or the sovereign will of God? As you read, please be patient, as this topic requires several pages to address it adequately.
Some of what I have to say on this topic I have already published in an article entitled “Who Goes to Heaven, Who goes to Hell” (click HERE). The God of the Bible is often referred to as “God Most High” or “Most High God” (e.g., Genesis 14:22 and Hebrews 7:1). Psalm 97:9 declares, “For You, O Lord, are Most High above all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” Thus we derive the Christian doctrine of the “sovereignty” of God, His absolute rule and reign over all of His creation, including the affairs of men. Nothing happens that He did not either do Himself or allow to be done. There is no higher authority than the God of the Bible, and nothing is impossible for Him (Luke 1:37). But, does this sovereignty of God extend to the process of salvation, and what role, if any, does our free will play in it? Paul pointed out that “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8), and “…who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not by our works, but by His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began…” (2 Timothy 1:9). These and other Scriptures make it clear that both saving faith and salvation are gifts given to us by the grace of God.
In our natural, fallen state, there is no one who seeks after God (Romans 3:11). So, here is the crux of the matter: Do we, by our natural, misaligned (fallen) will, choose to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and choose to obey God instead of Satan, or, does God choose us to be among the saved and then work to realign our will to the point that it becomes our will to both believe the Gospel and to obey God instead of Satan? Following are thirteen of the most direct and to-the-point Scriptures that I believe, when taken in context, provide an answer to this question, followed by my commentary on each:
2 Thessalonians 2:13 “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth…”
Commentary: From the beginning, God chose you and me for salvation. Not only did God chose you and me for salvation, but He did so before the sixth day of creation. At that time, God had not yet created even Adam and Eve, so how could you or I have possibly chosen ourselves to be saved at that time? Paul could not have made it any more clear than this, that it is God who does the choosing, not us.
Matthew 22:14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Commentary: This is the concluding statement in the parable of the wedding banquet found in Matthew 22:1-14, where Jesus is talking about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In that parable, the King cast out of the wedding hall the “many” who came but did not have on the proper wedding attire. Everyone, “both bad and good”, had been invited and brought to the wedding banquet, but these had not been “chosen.” Only the “few” who had been chosen were properly attired and allowed to stay and participate in the festivities. And what was the fate of the others? “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’, vs. 13. So, who did the choosing, the King or the guests? You decide.
Luke 10:22 “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father. And no one knows who the Son is but the Father, and who the Father is but the Son and he to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.”
Commentary: Jesus reveals the Father to only those to whom He desires to reveal Him. Obviously, then, He does not desire to reveal Him to the others. It is Jesus who chooses, not the chosen.
John 1:12 “Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed 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.”
Commentary: Here, John is speaking about those who have been “born again” (from above), the true believers. He says that they were born (again) not of the will of man, but of the will of God. And, who is it that gave them the power to become sons of God? It was God, of course. So, who did the choosing, the born-again person or God? You decide.
John 6:44-45, 65 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and has learned of the Father comes to Me.” Then He said, “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it were given him by My Father.”
Commentary: This is, perhaps, the single most instructive passage on this topic in the Bible. Jesus states clearly that no one can be saved unless God the Father draw (literally, drag) him to Jesus, giving him saving faith. And He says that everyone who is taught by God and learns from the Father, and is, thus, drawn to Jesus, will be saved, everyone. So, whose will is being exercised here, the man’s natural, misaligned (fallen) will or God’s sovereign will? You decide.
John 10:26-27 “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
Commentary: Here, Jesus is referring to those given to Him by the Father (John 10:29; John 18:9) as “My sheep.” And, He states clearly that the reason the others (i.e., “the Jews”) do not believe is not because they heard what He said and chose not to believe it, but because they are not among those (already) given to Him by the Father, who hear His voice and follow Him. So, who is it who believes the Gospel, the one who chooses of his own, misaligned will to believe it, or the one whom God has chosen to be among those given to Jesus as His sheep? You decide.
Acts 2:38-39 “Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
Commentary: How many will be saved? Not all, but only as many as the Lord our God will call. And who will decide which ones will be called? The Lord our God. Note that it does not say, “As many as call themselves will be saved.” God does the calling; we do not call ourselves.
Acts 13:48 “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And all who were ordained to eternal life believed.”
Commentary: Note the order of things here. All of those who were (already) “ordained to eternal life” (i.e., chosen to be saved) believed. They did not qualify themselves for salvation by using their misaligned (fallen), will to choose to believe the Gospel, but God had already chosen them for salvation before they believed it. Note that it does not say, “And all who chose to believe were thereby ordained to eternal life”, as many today believe it happens. So, who did the choosing, the Gentiles or God? You decide.
Acts 18:27 “When Apollos intended to pass into Achaia, the brothers wrote to encourage the disciples to welcome him. On arriving, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace.”
Commentary: How had the Achaians believed? It was through grace (a gift from God), not through a choice made by their misaligned (fallen) will. You decide.
Romans 9:16 “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”
Commentary: Paul is speaking here of the purpose of God according to “election” (i.e., His choosing) of whom He will save, using God’s election of Israel as an illustration of His election. Read on past vs. 16 and you will see that personal salvation is the main topic here. So, he is saying here that one does not choose himself to be saved, but, rather, that God is the one who chooses on whom He will have mercy by saving them. You decide.
Ephesians 1:11-12 “In Him also we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His own will, that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, should live for the praise of His glory.”
Commentary: Here again, Paul is speaking of personal salvation. He says that we were predestined for salvation according to the purpose of His own will, not our natural, misaligned (fallen) will. I must conclude, then, that it is not we who decide of our own misaligned will to be saved, but that we are saved because God asserts His own will to save us. You decide.
Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one should boast.”
Commentary: This verse speaks of grace and faith in relation to salvation. Now, if salvation is a gift of God, then the means of obtaining it, grace and faith, must also be gifts of God. Otherwise, salvation would be of ourselves, and this verse states clearly that it “is not of yourselves.” So, we cannot, in effect, save ourselves by exercising our misaligned will. If we could, then salvation would no longer be a gift to us, but a prize for making the right choice. You decide.
Philippians 2:13 “For God is the One working in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure.”
Commentary: The relevance of this verse to the matter at hand is that it speaks of God working to influence our misaligned (fallen) will in order to realign it with His will. This is the same process that Jesus was referring to when He said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). God first works outside of us to realign our will so that we finally come all the way to Jesus willingly, and then He works within us to keep our realigned will fixed on persevering in our faith to the “end” (Matthew 10:22). You decide.
I find it instructive to note that, in all of my searching the Scriptures, I did not find even one instance where the Bible says, unequivocally, that anyone chose or chooses to believe in Jesus. The actual wording used almost always is “believe”, “believes” or “believed”, not “chose” or “chooses” to believe. Even in Revelation 22:17, where the Bible says, “Let him who desires take the water of life freely”, no mention is made of how he got to the point where it is his desire (or, will) to partake of the water of life, whereas, as we have seen elsewhere, that was not his will to begin with. To my knowledge, wherever the Bible speaks clearly and directly to this point, it is always God, not man, who does the choosing. You decide.
My Conclusions: I found the biblical evidence presented above to be sufficiently persuasive to conclude that God chooses whom He will save, and that, in order to save us, He influences our fallen, natural will to bring it into alignment with His sovereign will to save us (John 6:39-40). Moreover, in exerting His influence to realign our will to agree with His will regarding our response to the Gospel, we apparently retain our freedom to make decisions in accordance with our realigned will. God does not save us against our will. To what extent, then, that our free will is really free throughout this process is probably a matter of perception. Personally, I am deeply grateful that God did not leave me languishing without God and without hope in this world, due to the fallen, natural, misaligned will that I inherited from Adam. During this investigation, I became convinced that, without sovereign grace, there would be no grace at all for me!
Is God being unfair? When I first came to believe that it is God, not us, who decides who will be saved, I, like many before me, found it difficult to believe that the God of the Bible would do the choosing, because that seemed unthinkably unfair to the ones not chosen. In fact, a friend of mine once declared, “I’m not sure I could believe in such a God!” So, let’s step back for a moment or two and consider whether or not the God of the Bible is, in fact, the kind of God who would do such a seemingly unfair thing. Let’s recall that the God of the Bible is the God who 1) drowned the entire human race, save eight, with a flood, 2) ordered all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land slain so that God’s chosen people, the Israelites, could take their land away from them, 3) sacrificed the life of His only begotten, innocent Son on a cruel cross so that we, the ones who deserved to die, could have eternal life, 4) struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying about a free-will offering, and 5) made no provision whatsoever for salvation for anyone (past, present or future) who lives and dies without any opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Does any of that seem fair to you, from a purely human perspective? You see, the problem here is that we try to understand God from a human perspective rather than a heavenly perspective, and doing that will, more often than not, lead us to false assumptions and conclusions about God, such as “That would be cruel and unfair!” The God of the Bible operates in each and every way that the Bible says He does, and it is not ours to pass judgment on those divine operations. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34). And, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Furthermore, anyone who finds it too difficult to believe that the God of the Bible would do the choosing of whom He will save – because that seems unthinkably unfair to the ones not chosen – must, in all truth, deal honestly with Romans 9:6-18, which speaks plainly, directly and decisively to this very issue: “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel, nor are they all children because they are descendants of Abraham, but “In Isaac shall your descendants be called.” So those who are the children of the flesh are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.” From a human perspective, this is indeed a hard saying, but from God’s perspective, it is the “Gospel truth.” So, I had to decide whether or not I would take God at His word or try to find a way to explain this passage away. I chose to take God at His word and believe it.
So, let’s not forget that He is God and we are not! He can work His plan of salvation any way He chooses; after all, “Salvation belongs to the Lord. Your blessing is on Your people. Selah” (Psalm 3:8). Ours is only to read the Word, understand what it says, and believe it, even if we would not choose to do it His way. That’s how I see it, anyway. Besides, if God were to treat us all with fairness, instead of grace, then all would perish, because “…all have sinned…” (Romans 3:23) and “…the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). No one deserves to be saved; it is a gift of God, who declares, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
Is Free Will Sovereign? Finally, I want to address a presently popular, contrary view of the mechanics of salvation, one to which I formerly subscribed. The argument goes something like this: God knows all things, including “the end from the beginning.” Therefore, God knows in advance who will and who won’t believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved. So, where the Bible speaks of God “choosing” who will be saved, it really means that God has agreed in advance to include in the company of His “elect” (i.e., His “chosen”) those who freely chose, of their own volition, to believe the Gospel. In other words, God “chooses” only those who have first chosen Him, making “free will”, rather than God’s will, the deciding factor. This view also posits that, just as a man is saved by virtue of a “free will” choice to accept the Gospel, one may also, using that same “free will”, choose to deny Christ and lose his salvation. Such a view of the mechanics of salvation, if true, would preserve, uncompromised and undiminished, the gift of “free will” granted to all mankind from the beginning and would exonerate God from any wrongdoing in condemning to hell those who reject the Gospel; they would simply be suffering the consequences of their own wrong choice, for which they alone are responsible. Moreover, this view would put a man in charge of his own eternal destiny, an idea that can have immense appeal to one whose fallen nature is to rebel against God and to be in charge of his own destiny, both temporal and eternal.
I have rejected this view of the mechanics of salvation for several reasons: 1) it postulates a view of fallen man that does not square with the overwhelming weight of the direct and to-the-point biblical witness; 2) it does not explain what it is that influences the will of one man to choose to accept the Gospel, while another is not influenced similarly and rejects it (to invoke “free will” here explains nothing, because both men had the same “free will;” 3) there is little or no direct, objective, biblical evidence supporting it; 4) the Bible makes it very clear that it is God, not man, who does both the choosing and the keeping; and 5) the Bible says very clearly what it means and means what it clearly says about the mechanics of salvation (I do not believe the Holy Spirit would leave the wrong impression about such an important issue). I strongly suspect that this view has gained so much in popularity because, if true, it would preserve, uncompromised and undiminished, the gift of “free will” granted to all mankind from the beginning (thus appealing to the pride and ego of fallen man), and because it would exonerate God from any appearance of wrongdoing (from a human perspective) in condemning to hell those who reject the Gospel (thus making it easier to believe). In my opinion, this view is essentially a well-meaning, human invention that attempts to perform an end run around the clear biblical witness to make the Gospel seem more attractive and easier to believe.
That said, let me draw your attention to a passage of Scripture that speaks directly and definitively to this creative, but erroneous in my opinion, view of the mechanics of salvation. You can find it in Romans 9:1-18. Paul is speaking here of the purpose of God according to “election” (i.e., His choosing) of whom He will save, using God’s election of Israel as an illustration of His election. Read on past vs. 16 and you will see that personal salvation is the main topic. Now consider specifically Romans 9:16, where Paul states the key point that he is making about who does the choosing, Man or God (Keep in mind here that, in context, “it” refers to “election”, the choosing of who will be saved): “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” Did you catch it? The choosing of who will be saved does not depend on “him who wills” (i.e., the one who is to be saved), but on God, according to His choice of whom He will show mercy. So, this one verse, by itself, destroys the notion that God simply “chooses” to save only those who He already knows will choose Him, when it says that “…it is not of him who wills…” But, Paul didn’t stop there. So that no one can claim that this mechanism of “election” applies only to the Jews, he declared that it applies to, “…even us, whom He has called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:24).” Paul could not have made it any more clear than this!
Who Gets the Glory?
Finally, let’s compare the doctrines of “sovereign grace” and of “sovereign free will” with respect to who gets the glory (i.e., the credit) for our salvation. If God’s grace is sovereign, then God gets all of the glory, and we get none of it. But, if our free will is sovereign, then we can claim some of the glory, because it was, after all, our decision to believe in Jesus that determined our eternal destiny. To my way of thinking, the latter is just another way of saying that we are saved by faith and by works (i.e., our choosing to believe). And, herein lies the primary reason that it matters what you believe in this regard: If you believe that you are saved because you made the right decision, are you really giving God all the glory that belongs to Him, or are you, in reality, claiming some of that glory for yourself? Keep in mind that God has said “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8). You decide.
(To read more of my articles on biblical topics, click HERE.)