Free Will, Sovereign Grace, and Assurance
James R. Aist
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” This is the word of faith that we preach: that if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:8-10)
“For now we see as through a glass, dimly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know, even as I also am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
I first became interested in investigating these controversial matters thoroughly in 2006. It soon became apparent to me that, in order to get out of my studies the kind of careful analysis and informed conclusions that I wanted, I would have to keep a private diary to assist me. This article is essentially an abridged and condensed version of relevant portions of that diary. It represents a partial, biblical documentation of one of my several spiritual journeys over the past 30+ years, and it should not be construed to be anything more or other than that. So, as you read on, please keep in mind that you are reading an account of my personal journey, and please, if need be, indulge me for the sake of discussion, if it comes to that!
During the course of this investigation, I explored both sides of the issues fairly intensively and found that my understanding of the mechanics of salvation was changing from “mostly free will” to “mostly sovereign grace.” This was not because of any pre-conceived assumptions I began with, but because it became evident to me that the preponderance of clear, direct and to-the-point biblical evidence pointed me unmistakably to sovereign grace. Whether or not you agree with my conclusions is, of course, your free-will choice to make, and I have no problem at all with that, because I am convinced that what one believes about the mechanics of salvation has nothing to do with whether or not one is saved. The Bible is very clear on this point: “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” This is the word of faith that we preach: that if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:8-10).
Just so you’ll know, almost all of the Bible passages I have reproduce here are from the Modern English Version (MEV). This is a relatively recent, word-for-word translation directly from the very same ancient manuscripts (both the Old and the New Testaments) that were used for the King James Version (KJV). As such, it follows along very closely with the KJV, but without any need to translate the archaic English of the KJV into modern English; the translators have already done that for us.
My approach to Bible study is fairly simple: I begin with the firm conviction that the Bible really is what it claims to be: the inspired (i.e., God-breathed), accurate and reliable, written word of the only true God. Next, I purpose in my heart to approach the topic with an open mind and no preconceived assumptions or conclusions that may interfere with accepting what the Bible itself is actually saying. I refer to such an attitude as a “teachable spirit.” Then I do my best to find out all that the Bible says about the topic, taking into account what some respected, evangelical, Bible scholars have written about it. When I am satisfied that I have understood adequately all that the Bible says about the topic, I believe the Bible, even if it is difficult to accept. And then I move on. That was my approach throughout this study, regardless of where I may have missed the mark. So, if I haven’t scared you off already, then let’s get started.
I begin this abbreviated report of my findings with the enormously instructive and powerfully insightful words of Jesus in John 6:44-45 and 65, where He actually explains the mechanics of salvation for us: verse 44, “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”; verse 45, “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”, and verse 65, “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it were given him by My Father.” Please note that there are several, interrelated facts that Jesus reveals here: 1) the Father teaches everyone about Jesus, not just those who will accept His teaching; 2) no one can come to Jesus unless God the Father draws (literally, drags) him. Thus, it is not possible for a man to come to faith in Jesus by his own volition (i.e., the faculty or power of using one’s will); 3) only those who have actually heard and have learned from the Father (i.e., accepted His teaching) about Jesus will come to Jesus; 4) the Father then gives him the gift of saving faith; and 5) Jesus will raise up all of these believers on the last day. It follows, therefore, that only those, and all of those, who are drawn to Jesus by the Father will be saved, and that they will all, in fact, remain saved to the end (i.e., the last day). In my estimation, that pretty well sums it up.
But, does the Bible offer any specific and direct confirmation that this really is how one comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? Indeed it does, and here are three examples, from the Bible, of God communicating directly with men to teach them who Jesus is: Matthew 16:13-17; Luke 24:13-31; and Acts 9:1-6.
Moreover, Paul, speaking of “saving faith” in Romans 10:11-17, says “For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We can see this essential role of hearing the Gospel preached also in Acts 17:1-4, “When they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. According to his custom, Paul went in, and on three Sabbaths he lectured to them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I preach to you, is the Christ. Some of them were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas, including a great crowd of devout Greeks and many leading women.” (See also Peter’s sermon, followed by a harvest of 3,000 souls, in Acts 2:14-41.) These are just a few of many examples in the New Testament of the Father drawing unbelievers to Jesus by teaching them, directly or indirectly, about Jesus.
Finally, the wording of God’s commissioning of Paul as the Apostle to the gentiles is very revealing in this regard: “I will deliver you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I now send you, to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’” (Acts 26:17-18). God will use Paul to open the eyes of the Gentile unbelievers, turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may be saved. This is the Father drawing unbelievers to saving faith in Jesus, through Paul’s ministry. (For a more complete discussion of the role of “ears to hear” and “eyes to see” in the mechanics of salvation, click HERE.)
Taken together, these several, interrelated portions of Scripture alone would probably be sufficient to convince me that salvation comes and stays by sovereign grace and not by the natural, fallen, misaligned will of man (i.e., “free will”), but there is plenty of additional, confirming biblical evidence, as we will see in the following sections, including much more on who it is that keeps a man saved.
Now, I believe there can be no reasonable doubt that God created mankind with the authority and the capacity to make certain decisions by exercising what is commonly referred to as “free will.” This fact can be verified adequately from the creation account in Genesis 1:26-3:24. From this same passage of Scripture we can conclude also that God holds mankind accountable for the decisions made using “free will.” But, just how free is this “free will” in practice? In Genesis 3:1-7, we see that the will of Adam and Eve was originally aligned with the will of God to be obedient to Him until the serpent (Satan) sufficiently influenced their original will to obey God as to misalign it into a will to disobey God. So, we see that, while they were still free to choose, the choice they made was so greatly modified by an outside influence (i.e., lies of the devil) as to turn it 180 degrees.
And so it is today concerning our exercise of “free will” in making the myriad of choices we make on a daily basis: we are still free (allowed) to make choices, but the choices we make are largely determined by outside influences, rather than by innate characteristics of our will. This modification of our will that determines the choices we make is eminently obvious in the making of moral choices today, just as it was with Adam and Eve “in the beginning.” The mere fact that we are allowed to make choices does not mean that the choices we make are “free” of outside influences. In fact, quite the contrary is true; every choice we make is heavily influenced by outside factors of one kind or another. In other words, there’s a reason why we make every decision we make, but that reason is never “free will.” In reality, “free will” refers only to our God-given authority and capacity to make decisions, but it says nothing about what it is that has led us to choose one alternative over another. So, it is critical to recognize and understand this important distinction before attempting to discover the role of “free will” in the mechanics of salvation. I have discussed “free will” more thoroughly in another article (click HERE).
Why Most Reject the Gospel
In the spiritual world – of which, we are all a part – the influences of God (the lover of our souls) and of Satan (the enemy of our souls) are constantly at war, with our minds as the battlefields. And our eternal destiny is the spoils of this great battle, the outcome of which will be determined largely by who is able to exert the greatest, and final, influence on our will to either accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Adam and Eve chose, of their own “free” will, to believe Satan instead of God, they took on a “sin nature” (Colossians 3:8-10), or a predisposition to sin, that has been passed down to all subsequent generations, including ours. We have inherited, so to speak, from Adam a “sin nature”, an inborn desire to reject God’s provision and follow our own path in life. This sin nature can also be aptly described as an ever present readiness to do evil (i.e., disobey God).
This predisposition to sin is so pervasive as to render us, in our “natural-born” state, in rebellion against, and at enmity with, God. Paul described our natural-born, fallen, spiritual condition like this, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the age of this world and according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among them we all also once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Ephesians 2:1-3), and “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In fact, our natural-born, spiritual condition is so depraved that Paul declared “…there is no one who seeks after God” (Romans 3:11) and “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). Moreover, the Bible clearly says that men reject the Gospel because God hardens them (Isaiah 63:17; John 12:40; Romans 9:18), and because Satan blinds their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4) and takes away the word from their hearts (Luke 8:12). And when God said, “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for Me” (Isaiah 65:1; quoted by Paul in Romans 10:20), He was making a statement about the mechanics of salvation, saying in effect, that because men do not seek Me or ask for Me, I will take the initiative and reveal Myself to them. That’s why Jesus declared, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him.” (John 6:44). In other words, in his natural-born, fallen, spiritual condition, a man is so spiritually depraved, hardened and blinded that he cannot, of his own volition, believe and accept the Gospel. He must have God’s help (i.e., intervention) to be able to make that choice.
Thus, according to the Bible, we start out in life with a will that is already misaligned and predisposed to obey Satan and disobey God (Acts 26:17-19); there is something terribly wrong with our “heart.” And this is why, without the supernatural intervention of God in our lives, we are “without hope” in the world. Somehow, our natural-born, misaligned will has to be realigned to be obedient to God and disobedient to Satan, if we are to be transformed from “children of wrath” into children of God, and if we are to remain transformed. But, how does the Bible say that God intervenes to save us and to keep us?
Why Some Accept the Gospel: Sovereign Grace
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.
We have seen already that, in our natural, fallen state, there is no one who seeks after God and that both saving faith and salvation are gifts given to us by the grace of God. So, here is the crux of the matter: Do we, by our natural, misaligned 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 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? 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, 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 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. 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 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 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 back 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).
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 can 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 just begs the question; see above, under Free Will); 3) there is little or no 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, 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!
“This is the will of the Father who has sent Me, that of all whom He has given Me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)
The Christian doctrine of “assurance” refers to the absolute certainty that whoever God saves will remain saved and will inherit eternal life. The question then arises, “Upon whom does this absolute certainty depend, the one whom God saved or the God who saved him?” Many Christians believe that, because God never cancels our natural-born, misaligned, will to make choices, a born-again Christian can exercise that same free will to abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. And, they believe that many choose to do just that. Other Christians believe, instead, that the God who saved them is the same God who will keep them, while not cancelling their freedom to use their realigned will. And they believe that no one who is truly saved (i.e., born again) will abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. So, which, if either, of these two opposing views is better supported by the biblical witness, and which offers genuine assurance? Following are 21 of the most direct and to-the-point Scriptures that I believe, when taken together and in context, provide an answer to this question, followed by my commentary on each:
Ezekiel 36:26-27 “Also, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
Commentary: God is describing here some of the awesome details of the “born-again” experience that true believers in His promised Messiah (Jesus Christ) will undergo (click HERE for details). Note that God says that He will “cause” them to obey His statutes and that they “will” keep His judgments. In other words, the born-again believer will obey, and continue to obey, God, because God will cause him to do so, not because they will choose, of their own volition, to do so. Surely God’s statutes and judgments include salvation (cf., John 6:39-40); thus, God himself will keep them saved.
John 6:44 “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.”
Commentary: Since Jesus will (not just can or may, but will) raise him up on the last day, he will not, even if he could, abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his claim to eternal life with God in heaven.
Philippians 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but so much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the One working in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure.”
Commentary: Once you are saved, God himself works inside you to will to remain saved; that would certainly qualify as “His good pleasure”, would it not? Your will remains free to decide, but because your will is now realigned, you have only one desirable choice and you’re “good” with that. So, “free will” becomes, in effect, a moot point, because you won’t ever want to abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven.
John 6:39-40 “This is the will of the Father who has sent Me, that of all whom He has given Me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Commentary: The Father’s will is that none (not some or most, but none) will be lost. Jesus will (not just can or may, but will) raise him up on the last day, because he will not abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. Moreover, “everyone” whom God saves will stay saved, every one, and Jesus will raise all of them up on the Last Day…all of them.
John 10:28 “I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, nor shall anyone snatch them from My hand.”
Commentary: Never means never, and nor means nor, period! All who are saved will persevere to the end.
John 17:11b-12a, 20 “Holy Father, through Your name keep those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are one. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. I have kept those whom You have given Me. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word…”
Commentary. Jesus is the one who “kept” the disciples saved while He was still alive in the world; they did not keep themselves saved. Here, Jesus asks the Father to keep them saved after He returns to heaven. So, who keeps us saved? Jesus’ Father, that’s who; we do not keep ourselves saved.
1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, and He will not permit you to be tempted above what you can endure, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
Commentary: God is faithful, and He has promised (elsewhere) to keep you saved. He will do that by limiting the temptations that you may experience and providing a way of escape, if necessary. Thus, God will control the influences that might otherwise convince you to abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with Him in heaven.
1 Corinthians 1:8 “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Commentary: God himself will strengthen you until the day of our Lord (i.e., to the end), so that you will not abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 “May the very God of peace sanctify you completely. And I pray to God that your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it.”
Commentary: Simply put, the same God who saved you is the One who will also preserve (i.e., keep) you until the second coming of Jesus Christ.
John 8:31 “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you remain in My word, then you are truly My disciples.”
Commentary: This verse is often passed over lightly, without really seeing the full implication of it. Jesus is implying that, of those “who believed Him”, those who truly accepted the Gospel are the ones who will remain saved (i.e., “in My word”). In other words, a true disciple will remain a disciple, and those who do not remain in His word are not truly disciples of His, but only appear to be. A parallel point was made more explicitly by John himself in 1 John 2:19, next.
1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us. But they went out, revealing that none of them were of us.”
Commentary: Here, John is speaking of “antichrists”, those who denied Christ and left the fellowship of true believers. These folks appeared to be true believers, but they showed that they were not by denying Christ and walking away. True believers, on the other hand, will not deny Christ and walk away.
Romans 11:29 “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
Commentary: This is a general truth, and Paul is applying it here to make the point that the Jews will, someday, also put their faith in the Messiah (Jesus) and be saved. Since this is a general truth, it also applies to the calling of all people to God and the gifts (i.e., grace, saving faith and salvation) given to them when they are converted; thus, salvation is not revocable, but permanent.
Philippians 1:4-6 “In every prayer of mine for you all, I have always made requests with joy, due to your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Commentary: The God who saved you is the One who will keep you saved until the day of Jesus Christ (i.e., the end). God will finish what He started!
Romans 8:34-39 “Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes, who is risen, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers, neither things present nor things to come, neither 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.”
Commentary: Paul says that there is no outside influence whatsoever that can take our salvation from us (separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord). But what about our misaligned will; can’t we use that to separate us? Paul said “No”, when he included “any other created thing” in the list, because we are created things! So, nothing and no one – not even we, ourselves – can cause ourselves to revoke our salvation. Besides, the will of the saved has been realigned to agree with the will of God, and there will no longer be any incentive to disobey God.
Ephesians 1:13-14 “In Him you also, after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and after believing in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”
Ephesians 4:30 “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you are sealed for the day of redemption.”
1 Corinthians 1:21-22 “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and established the guarantee with the Spirit in our hearts.”
Commentary: Taken together, these last three passages say that the Holy Spirit, dwelling in every true believer, seals our salvation and guarantees that we will not lose it, ever, and certainly not by an act of our realigned will.
1 Peter 1:3-5 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that does not fade away, kept in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Commentary: The power of God protects us, through faith, from denying Christ and losing our eternal inheritance. The God who saved us is the One who will keep us, by His power.
Hebrews 10:38-39 “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the saving of the soul.”
Commentary: Here, the writer is making it clear that those who shrink back do not have saving faith, whereas, those who do not shrink back have saving faith. He is not saying that true believers can or will shrink back or fall away. (Compare this to 1 John 2:19, above.)
Jude 24 “Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with rejoicing…”
Commentary: God is able to keep you from “falling” (i.e., denying Jesus and revoking your salvation). So, if God is able to keep you saved, then would He not, in fact, do it? After all, it is His will that you remain saved (John 6:39-40). God both saves you and keeps you saved.
My Conclusions: In view of the considerable, clear and direct biblical evidence presented above, I conclude that it is, ultimately, God who keeps us saved, and that it is not primarily by the power of our own efforts that we will endure to the end, but by the power and the will of God working in us and for us. In other words, once God has saved us, He so re-enforces our will to remain saved that we will, in fact, remain saved. The God who conforms our will to His will in order to save us, is the God who keeps our conformed will conformed to His will in order for us to remain saved. He does this through various means, including the work and witness of the Holy Spirit in us, the continued preaching of His word to us, the witness of other believers to us and continued warnings to us to not “fall away.”
Genuine Assurance: So, which version of assurance offers absolute certainty for the true believer? If the saved person is able to renounce his faith in the divinity of Jesus and lose his salvation, then his is only a hope of assurance, a hope that is contingent upon his own power and strength to retain his saving faith. His eternal security is only as secure as his faith is. I liken this, somewhat, to a letter in the mail that says on the outside of the envelope, “Congratulations, you are the winner of $5,000 a week for life!” But, when you read the letter inside, it says “…if yours is the lucky number to be drawn soon.” You have to wait until the drawing to find out whether or not you have won, and you cannot guarantee that you will win anything! What kind of a God would go to such lengths and pay such a price to draw us and save us, only to leave it entirely up to us to keep ourselves saved? On the other hand, if, as the Bible says, the saved person is protected by the power of God and given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will never renounce his faith in the divinity of Jesus and lose his salvation, then his is an absolute certainty – that is to say, real assurance – from the day of his salvation right on into eternity. His eternal security is as secure as God is faithful. Put another way, “Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” (J.I Packer in “Knowing God”). Now, I don’t know about you, but I would much rather have God in charge of my assurance than me; He is far more trustworthy, faithful and able to keep me saved than I am!
Benefits and Potential Pitfalls: I have found that a right understanding and acceptance of this doctrine of assurance confers true peace with God and guaranteed security in my right standing with Him from the moment God saves me right into eternity. Such peace and security are true blessings of immense value to the born-again believer. But, this same doctrine can easily be misconstrued to, seemingly, give us license to sin all the more, because of God’s abounding grace (Romans 5:20). To this erroneous manner of wrong thinking the Apostle Paul declares emphatically, “God forbid!” (Romans 6:2, 15). How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? And in Galatians 6:7-8, he issues this warning, “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” The fact that this doctrine can be misunderstood and abused does not diminish, in any way, either its validity or its blessings to the one who understands and practices it rightly.
Falling Away: To “rightly divide the word of God” on this matter, I believe that we must first understand that the apparent make-up of the “church” includes both those who are truly born again and those who only appear (to us) to be born again. This was true of the New Testament church as well: Jesus used the Parable of the Sower to teach that some who heard and received the Gospel would later “fall away” when persecution came (Matthew 13:21 and Mark 4:17). With this in mind, we can begin to understand why so many “churchgoers” today seem to be born again and on their way to heaven, only to, later on, deny Christ and forfeit their salvation? I believe that the Bible provides us the answer to this question, if we are willing and able to accept it.
Jesus said, “I know My sheep…” (John 10:27) and also “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonderful works in Your name?’ But then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice evil’” (Matthew 7:22-23). In other words, these churchgoers were not among His “sheep” (i.e., those whom the Father had given to Him), and so, He never knew them (i.e., they were not really born again). John declared a similar condition of the “antichrists” that left their fellowship when he wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us. But they went out, revealing that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). The writer of Hebrews also expresses this same understanding of the two categories of “churchgoers”: “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:38-39). He is speaking here of those among the churchgoers who have saving faith and persevere as opposed to those who do not have saving faith and draw back (i.e., fall away). Only those who are born again have saving faith and endure to the end. Finally, in His parable about the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus is talking about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In that parable, the King cast out of the wedding hall the “many” that 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. Once again, we see two categories of people – those who had been chosen (born again) and those who had not – all attending the same “church gathering.” Taken together, these passages all point to the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., the churchgoers) as being comprised of both truly saved, born-again believers and unsaved, non-believers who are not born again though they may appear to be. We cannot know, with certainty, the one from the other unless they “fall away.” Then we can know for sure that they were not truly one of us and that they were not really born again, because, if they had been, then they would not have left us (1 John 2:19). Thus, those who only appear to be born again will seem to fall away and, thereby, they will appear to have forfeited their salvation. However, people cannot forfeit what they never really had, can they?
There is another scenario in which one may appear to have “fallen away” when, in fact they may not have. (This is an important distinction that merits our serious consideration.) This scenario is what we usually refer to these days as “backsliding.” When a truly born-again Christian stops attending church and begins to live as though he is not a believer, we may say that he has “backslidden”, because of the blatant disobedience to God that has become evident in his life style. And we would be accurate in saying that. But a backslidden person has not necessarily also denied Christ in his heart and thus revoked his salvation. Perhaps he has become, just for a season, a “carnal Christian,” and will soon begin living like a believer once again, having never denied Christ in his heart. Such a person would be like the one sheep who went astray out of 100 in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-6); this one sheep still belonged to the man, even while he was astray for a while. Furthermore, we must not forget that even born-again believers still sin, and God has given us the remedy: confession with repentance (1 John 1:8-10).
Finally, there are several Scriptures that warn against “falling away”, and many people have taken them to imply that a born-again believer can, in fact, reject and abandon his saving faith and lose his salvation. At first glance, there may seem to be no other way to explain why such warnings appear in the New Testament. But, in my view, those who reach such a conclusion are asking the wrong question. I doubt that anyone denies that the one who perseveres in the faith to “the end” will be saved. The telling question, however is, “Who keeps him in the faith to the end, the saved person or the God who saved him?: When one takes into account what the Bible teaches about how God draws unbelievers to Jesus to save them in the first place (John 6:44), a more biblically consistent and entirely plausible explanation then comes to light. As we know, God uses the preaching and teaching of the Gospel (including both the “bad news” about the wages of sin being an eternity of torment in hell and the “good news” about forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ) to bring unbelievers to saving faith (Romans 10:14-15). That being so, why, then, would He not use similar preaching and teaching as helps to preserve their saving faith “to the end”? I submit that it should, therefore, come as no surprise that there are several Scriptures that warn against “falling away.” In fact, I would be surprised if the New Testament did not include such warnings, because, as we have seen, God goes to great lengths to keep us saved.
Who Gets the Glory?
Let’s now 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? God has said “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8). You decide.
The Mechanics of Salvation
“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.” – John 6:44-45, 65
Here, I will attempt to piece together, from beginning to end, my present understanding of the bare-bones mechanics of salvation as I have gleaned it from the Bible.
We begin with the initial condition of man at birth. Because of Adam’s original sin, this condition is one of rebellion and enmity toward God that is so depraved that there is no one who seeks after God and no one who has any hope of ever changing by exercising their natural, misaligned will. God stands more than willing to reconcile with anyone who will chose freely to do so, and He even provided a Savior to qualify them for heaven, but, alas and alack, no one, in their fallen, natural-born condition, is willing; their will is misaligned. That’s why God took the initiative and chose, in advance, a remnant of people whom He would draw to the Savior (making of them “seekers”, in modern parlance) and to whom He would give grace and (saving) faith to believe in Him and be saved. In drawing this remnant to Jesus, the Father first gives them “ears to hear” the Gospel and “eyes to see” the light of its glory, and then He so influences their will that it becomes realigned with God’s will and they become eager to, by virtue of their realigned will, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. As a result, they become “born again” (i.e., born from above), receiving a newly regenerated human spirit (i.e., their “heart of stone” is replaced with a “heart of flesh”, Ezekiel 36:26). The new believer then exercises his realigned will and chooses to, henceforth, obey God and not Satan.
But, God doesn’t stop there; He makes sure that the redeemed person will never change his mind, deny Jesus and lose his salvation, by protecting him by His power and giving him the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will never change his mind. This ensures that Jesus will, in fact, raise him up on the Last Day, ushering him into his eternal inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the absolutely certain assurance that we, the chosen and redeemed of God, have. The entire process is carried out by God according to His sovereign will and purpose, by realigning, not cancelling, our will.
Therefore, based on what I consider to be the preponderance of direct and clear biblical evidence, I understand the mechanics of salvation to be the operation of God’s “sovereign grace” interacting with our ever-present, albeit realigned, will, to save and to keep for eternity those He has chosen for glory. In a nutshell, God first chooses us to be saved, and then works in us to realign our will so that we finally come all the way to Jesus willingly. Then, He continues to work within us to keep our realigned will fixed on persevering in our faith “to the end.” As a result, we will not deny Jesus and lose our salvation, even if we (theoretically) could. “Free will” has become a moot point.
Finally, please remember, as I pointed out in the Preface, that what one believes about the mechanics of salvation has nothing to do with whether or not one is saved. We can disagree on these matters and still be brothers and sisters in Christ, in both this life and the next.
(To read more of my biblical teachings, click HERE)