On “Sovereign Grace”

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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!

(To read more of my articles on biblical topics, click HERE.)

Why Did God Create Us?

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Why Did God Create Us?

James R. Aist

 “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” – The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647)

Jesus is the perfect image and likeness of God the Father, reflecting His glory back to Him perfectly (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). Jesus, however, was not created, having been with the Father, and one with the Father, for all eternity past (John 1: 1-2). God’s creative acts began with the angels, who shouted for joy when the earth was created (Job 38:4-7). Angels, like God, are spirit beings, and they surround the throne of God, constantly worshipping Him and proclaiming His glory (Revelation 5:11-2 and 7:11-12). Next, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in it (Genesis 1-2). This was the first ever creation of material, physical objects, including living, biological beings, with mankind being uniquely created in the image and likeness of God.

From this biblical, historical background, we can now consider the important question of why God created mankind. After all, He already had Jesus and the angels reflecting His glory back to Him. The rest of His physical, material creation was already reflecting His glory (Psalm 19:1). Wasn’t that enough, or is The Westminster Shorter Catechism correct in saying that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever”?

The Genesis account of the creation of mankind only tells us that God decided to create mankind; it doesn’t tell us why. What was God’s motive in creating mankind? In other words, what was His end game? To answer that question, we have to search the Scriptures more thoroughly. The first thing that comes to mind is that, until God created mankind, there was none in all of the created, physical universe capable of knowing God and reflecting His glory intentionally. This fact suggests that, perhaps, God created mankind because He wanted a created, physical being who would reflect His glory like no other can: not the angels, because they are spiritual, not physical, beings; and not the rest of creation, because these inanimate objects and living things are not capable of knowing God and reflecting His glory intentionally. Can it be that God created mankind to reflect His glory back to Him in such a new and unique way? Let’s open the Bible and find out:

Created for His glory

Isaiah 43:7 — “…even everyone who is called by My name…I have created him for My glory

Ephesians 1:12 – “…that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, should live for the praise of His glory.”

Ephesians 3:21 – “…to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.”

Declare His Glory

Isaiah 43:21 – “This people I have formed for Myself; they shall declare My praise.”

1 Chronicles 16:24 –Declare His glory among the nations”

Psalm 29:2 – “Give to the Lord the glory of His name

Psalm 96:3 – “Proclaim His glory among the nations”

Philippians 2:11 – “…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Exhibit His glory

Ecclesiastes 12:13 – “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

Micah 6:8 – “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

As you can see from these Scriptures, we can conclude that God did, in fact, create mankind to declare with our mouths and exhibit with our actions, His glory. And, in doing so, we reflect His glory back to Him in a unique way that pleases Him.

Having this understanding of why God created mankind, we can now contemplate a very important implication of this understanding: namely, that our universal and supreme purpose for existing – our God given destiny — is to glorify God as only we can. The Bible says, “…whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and “…that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:11). All of our good works – e.g., praise, worship, obedience, generosity, compassion, mercy, praying, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, making disciples – have one thing in common: they all ultimately reflect and magnify God’s glory. The Bible says that God has prepared – in advance – work for each one of us to do, and that, in doing these things, we are fulfilling the purpose for which God created us (Ephesians 2:10). And, it is within the work that God has prepared for each of us that we can find God’s specific calling to serve and glorify Him in particular ways while we are in the world, such as apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28).

But, what about the unbelievers; does God have a supreme purpose for their existence too? It is my assumption that it was God’s original purpose in creating mankind that He would receive praise and glory from all of them, not just His elect. But, because sin entered the world through Adam’s disobedience, only the chosen ones, those whom He saves, actually give Him praise and glory. The others give praise and glory to anyone or anything except God. And, in doing so, they have, sadly, missed their supreme purpose for existing. Paul even went so far as to strongly imply that God’s purpose for creating unbelievers is to make known the riches of His glory in the abundant mercy extended to those He will save, His elect (Romans 9:22-23).

Finally, when Jesus comes again to renew all things, only His elect will remain on the earth to rule and reign with Him there for eternity. And so, God will accomplish His original purpose, His end game, in creating mankind, as all of His elect will joyfully give to God all the praise and glory due him, forever. “God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” (Psalm 115:3).

(To read other biblical teachings on my website, click HERE.)

Free Will: What It Is and Is Not

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Free Will: What It Is and Is Not

James R. Aist

“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

Unfortunately, “free will” is commonly misunderstood and inadvertently misrepresented in Christian circles today. So, I will discuss in this article the true nature and limitations of “free will”, primarily as they pertain to our relationships with God, including the mechanics of salvation. I do not believe that one can rightly understand the mechanics of salvation, as correctly represented in the Bible, without a clear understanding of what “free will” is and is not and what it can and cannot do.

What Free Will Is

There are four components of “free will” that must be present for it to be exercised. These same four components of “free will” are also present and operative in the numerous choices we make every day, whether or not they have any moral implications or ramifications. First, there must be an ability to choose. In mankind, this ability resides mainly in the soul, or mind. God gave Adam and Eve the ability to choose which trees to eat from. Second, there must be a license to choose. God gave Adam and Eve permission to choose which trees to eat from. Third, there must be two or more options from which to choose. God gave Adam and Eve the option to either obey or disobey His instructions concerning which trees to eat from. And, fourth, in order for “free will” to be exercised, there must be a desire to make a choice. Satan gave Adam and Eve the desire to disobey God, and they did; Satan’s influence outweighed God’s influence in this case. We may conclude, therefore, that “free will”, much like language, is nothing more than a God-given ability that we possess, with the God-given permission to use it.

What Free Will Is Not

Free will is not an inalienable right. I can illustrate this fact very easily: 1) none of the people who have lived and died without any opportunity to even hear of the God of the Bible or of His Son, Jesus Christ, were given the right to believe or not believe the Gospel; and 2) in the end times, “…every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Romans 14:11), and yet all of those who have not already accepted the Gospel will not have the right to do so at that time, but will be permanently assigned to hell no matter how strenuously they may object.

Free will is not a guarantee of options. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, “…at the east of the Garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned in every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life.” Although they we capable of choosing to return to the garden, God forced them to live elsewhere; they had no option.

Free will is not irrevocable. When Adam and Eve sinned, their God-given right to eat freely of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was rescinded. Although they were still capable of eating of that tree, their license to do so was revoked.

Free will is not sovereign. Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” When we “deny ourselves” and “follow Jesus”, we freely and willfully forfeit our right to make choices that are not in accordance with “…the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2); we substitute God’s will for our “free will.” Otherwise, we do not really become His disciples. According to John 6:44-45 (see above), the Father himself has so influenced our will that we have become eager to hear and to accept His invitation to be saved. And so, we are born again. Moreover, in Ezekiel 36:27, God says that after we are born again, God will cause us to walk in obedience to His will, not ours: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”

Free will is not an explanation. A man can invoke “free will” to assert that he can, in fact, make a choice to either accept or reject the Gospel. But, to claim that “free will” is all there is to it is to “beg the question”, because “free will” only asserts that you can choose, not why you chose “this” option over “that” option. The question of “why”, therefore, remains unanswered. The primary ramification of this failure of “free will” to actually explain why one makes the particular choice they make in response to the Gospel is that it compels us to search the Scriptures for the identity and source of the influences that do, in fact, cause us to accept or reject the Gospel. And, the Bible is far from silent on this point, as we will see in the following section.

Why Most People Reject the Gospel

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.” As I pointed out above, “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.

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 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 keep us? I have addressed this question elsewhere and invite you to check it out for yourself (click HERE).

Conclusions

Where our relationships with God are concerned, “free will” certainly seems to play a vital role in enabling Christians to please God by choosing to obey His will instead of their own. But, “free will”, while almost always present, can also be limited, conditional, mutable and even revocable when it conflicts with God’s sovereign will. Moreover, one cannot invoke “free will” to explain why some do and some do not accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To explain that, one must invoke the manner and extent of the Father’s influence on the one who accepts the Gospel, because, as Jesus said, “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). One simply cannot come to Jesus of one’s own volition. The ones who are not so drawn by the Father will simply, and sadly, continue to be “…strangers to the covenants of promise, without God and without hope in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). And they will perish because all have sinned, and because the wages of sin is death. Finally, God not only causes us to want to be saved, but He also causes us to live in obedience to His will after we are saved (Ezekiel 36:27). So, our salvation and our subsequent life of obedience to God’s will are both the result of God’s will, not ours, being asserted.

(To read more of my articles on biblical teachings, click HERE)

Who Goes to Heaven, Who Goes to Hell?

Image result for hell free images

Who Goes to Heaven, Who Goes to Hell?

James R. Aist

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” in the flesh by human hands, were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:11-12

Introduction

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” This quotation from C. S. Lewis is a good synopsis of what this article is about. Jesus Christ made it clear that He is the only way to God/heaven (John 14:6), and this claim is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament. But, is this true only of those who actually hear or read about Jesus and believe in Him? Lewis, making use of a rhetorical question, declares that such a limited scope of salvation would be a “frightfully unfair” thing for God to do, clearly implying that He must not have done it. He then postulates that God must have made secret arrangements for the others, because to exclude them without giving them a chance to accept Christ’s offer of salvation would be unfair. Finally, to complete his hypothetical scenario, Lewis posits that people can be saved through Christ without even knowing of Him, by means of His presumed, secret “arrangements about the other people.”

To most evangelical Christians, such claims may seem like wishful thinking at best, but the fact is that some mainline Christian denominations and several popular TV preachers and evangelists agree with Lewis on these points. For this reason, I will attempt to break this teaching down into its component parts and then test each part against the biblical witness. Is Lewis’s view a sound, biblical teaching about salvation, or is it nothing more than a transparent attempt to explain away something sobering about God that he cannot bring himself to believe?

What Does the Bible Say?

In order to discover what the Bible says about these things, we must first understand that when the Bible speaks of “God” or “Lord”, it is speaking of the one true God, the one God who created the entire universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and Him alone. This is “the God of the Bible.” There is no other God, only false gods. And we must also understand that, although the New Testament books were becoming available to be read to the people, word of mouth was the only widely available method of communication in New Testament times. Nowadays, reading the Gospel and believing it is the functional equivalent of hearing the Gospel preached and believing it; both result in salvation.

That said, let’s take a look at a few New Testament Scriptures that speak most directly about this matter, beginning with John 3:16-18: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Here, Jesus says that those who do not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God will go to hell, whereas those who do believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God will go to heaven. Jesus made it very clear that He was speaking specifically of the God of the Bible and of himself. This passage, then, sets the stage for the issue in question: Is it possible for a person to believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God without ever having heard of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ? Certainly, there is not even a hint in this passage to suggest such a thing; it’s about actually hearing and believing.

Next, let’s consider 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10: “It is a righteous matter with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at by all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.” Here, the Apostle Paul identifies two conditions of people who go to hell: 1) they do not know the God of the Bible; and 2) they do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Note that these same two conditions of those who go to hell were implied in John 3:16-18, as discussed above. And Paul adds that those who believed did so precisely because of their spoken testimony directly to them. This brings us closer to the “proof passages”, which I consider next.

First, let’s take a look at Romans 2:12-16: “As many as have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law,  for the hearers of the law are not justified before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, not having the law, are a law unto themselves,  who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, while their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them,  in the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ.” Here, Paul is explaining that Gentiles will have no excuse on judgment day for their sinful ways, because, even without the Judaic Law, they show the work of that Law written in their hearts and are a law unto themselves, which law they do not obey.  Furthermore, such Gentiles are “…apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).” They are “without hope” because they are “apart from Christ.” Therefore, it is only through faith in Jesus Christ that such men can be saved. Next, let’s consider how one may obtain this faith in Jesus Christ.

In Romans 10:13-15, Paul wrote:  “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?” Now, to fully grasp the impact of what Paul is saying here, it is necessary to recognize that this passage is a series of rhetorical questions, designed to make a series of corresponding statements, as follows: They cannot call on Him in whom they have not believed; and they cannot believe in Him of whom they have not heard; and they cannot hear without a preacher; and they cannot preach unless they are sent. In other words, the only way that a person can believe in the God of the Bible and in His Son, Jesus Christ, is by hearing the Gospel preached to them. And so Paul concludes, in Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Think about it for a moment. These are exclusionary conclusions, not leaving any “wiggle room” for any other means by which saving faith in Jesus Christ may be obtained. It comes only by actually and literally hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached.

Paul again addresses this issue directly and, here, in considerable detail. In Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13, Paul writes “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…Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” in the flesh by human hands, were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” In other words, Gentiles (everyone except Jews) are without the God of the Bible, without Jesus Christ, and, when taken in context, without hope of any means of escaping hell unless and until someone tells them about God and His salvation through Jesus Christ, as Paul did for the (Gentile) Ephesians. Again, this leaves no “wiggle room” for any other means by which saving faith in Jesus Christ may be obtained. It comes only by actually and literally hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached. Thus, Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13 is the key passage proving, biblically, that the only way for anyone to be saved is to literally hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe it; all others are “without hope.” Now, we do “know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him”, and that God did not make any special “arrangements about the other people.”

And finally, in John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death into life.” Jesus could have simply said “Whoever believes in Him who sent me…”, as in John 3:16. But here, Jesus adds more detail to the process by adding “…whoever hears my words and believes in Him who sent me…” Clearly, then, Jesus Himself taught that one must hear (or read) the Gospel in order to believe in Him  and have eternal life; there is no other way for anyone to be saved, no special accommodation for the “others” who never hear of or believe in the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus. How do we know for sure? Both Paul and Jesus said so.

To summarize, the Bible clearly teaches us that only those who actually and literally hear (or read) the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe it, will spend their eternity in heaven with God. More specifically, the Bible teaches that there is no other way for Jesus to save anyone, including any and all – past, present and future – who never even hear of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ. And where will all of these “other people” spend their eternity? According to the Bible, they are “without hope” of salvation by any other means and “They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day…” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

But What about the Old Testament Saints?

The Old Testament saints (e.g., Adam, Noah, Job, Abraham and David) lived and died before Jesus was even born, so did they, too, go to hell because they didn’t have an opportunity to hear the Gospel preached and believe in Jesus? No, not at all! God made special provision for them to know about Jesus during their lifetime, to hear Him preach to them after their death, to accept Him as their Savior and to be resurrected from their graves. They were saved in the same manner as we are. Let’s take a look at the biblical witness:

1) Because of the Old Testament biblical witness (Messianic prophecies), these saints looked ahead to the time when the Messiah would be revealed in the flesh, and so they already believed in the Coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, when they died (Hebrews 11:24-25 & 39; Galatians 3:8,16 & 29; John 8:56);

2) Jesus, himself, preached the Gospel to these dead saints in Paradise (also referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom”), between His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead (1 Peter 1:10-12; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:5-6; Ephesians 4: 8-10; Hebrews 11:39; Luke 16:22; and Luke 23:43);

3) These dead saints believed Jesus’ preaching and were saved (1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1 Peter 4:5-6);

4) Apparently, these Jewish saints will be resurrected between the end of the battle of Armageddon and the beginning of the One Thousand Year Reign (Daniel 12:1-3 with 11).

Note that God made special provision for the salvation of only these Old Testament saints and not for their contemporaries who did not know of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ. Note also that this special provision involved the actual preaching of the Gospel directly to them and their believing in Jesus the Messiah as a result of it. However, this provision is for only Jews who actually believed, or now believe, that  Jesus is the promised Messiah, and we know that most Jews since Jesus’ time have not believed and were/are not saved. We may conclude, therefore, that the biblical witness indicates clearly  that God did not make any special provision for the “other people”, who were, therefore, without any hope of escaping hell, as Paul clearly taught (Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13).

Does this Mean that God is Unfair?

No, God is not being unfair (Romans 9:18-24)! If God were to treat everyone “fairly”, then all would go to hell, because all have sinned and are condemned already (Romans 3:23; John 3:18). This is the “law of sin and death” (Romans 6:23; Romans 8:2). Not having an opportunity to hear and believe the Gospel merely leaves people on the pathway to hell; it does not put them on the pathway to hell. Furthermore, God does not owe it to anybody to save them; it is only by the grace of God that any are saved. So, we don’t really want to be treated according to what we deserve (i.e., fairly), but according to the grace and mercy of God. In this regard, see also the discussion of Romans 2:12-16, above.

God’s Sovereign Right to Bless and Curse as He Sees Fit

Only God can determine whom He will save and whom he will not save; that’s His sovereign right, as revealed by the biblical witness:

Exodus 33:19.I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Note that the converse is clearly implied: God will not be gracious to and show mercy on whom He will not.); and

In Romans 9:18-24, Paul writes, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.”You will then say to me, “Why does He yet find fault? For who can resist His will?” Rather, O man, who are you to answer back to God? Shall the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does the potter not have power over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He previously prepared for glory, even us, whom He has called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles?” (Note that this passage concludes with another rhetorical question, which, when written as the implied statement, goes something like this: God created, and predestined for hell, some to show His wrath and make known His power, in order to make known to all the extent of the riches of His glory and mercy on those He created and predestined for heaven.)

God blesses whom He chooses to bless, and He curses whom He chooses to curse. Therefore, it’s not ours to judge God because He chooses to let some people die in their sins and go to hell, while choosing others to be forgiven and inherit eternal life. God alone has that prerogative: “Salvation belongs to our Lord” (Psalm 3:8 and Revelation 7:10). In fact, God does not intend to save everyone; if He did, then everyone would be saved, because God does whatever He pleases (Psalms 115:3, Psalms 135:6, Isaiah 46:10, Daniel 4:35, Ephesians 1:11). We can see this fact illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13): in verses 11-12, Jesus said, “Afterward, the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us.’ “But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’” The door to salvation/heaven had been shut, even though there were those begging and pleading at the door to be let in. But the door was not opened for them, because Jesus did not know them [ i.e., they were not of His flock, as in John 10:14, 27 “I know my sheep/them”]. If this seems like a “hard saying” to us, then maybe we need to reassess our understanding of the full nature of the sovereignty of the God of the Bible. When we accuse God of being unfair in this matter, are we not setting ourselves up as God’s judges? That, my friends, is the height of arrogance (Job 40:2; Job 40:8; Romans 11:34), and God will not look kindly on it. God, and God alone, is responsible for how He deals with each individual; He has not delegated that responsibility to us. Ours is only to learn how God deals with sinners, believe it, accept it, and make sure that, insofar as it depends on us, we are not among those who reject the Gospel and die in our sins.

Conclusions:

1. According to the Bible, anyone  (past, present or future) who does not hear or read the Gospel of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior (believe in Him in their heart and confess Him with their mouth) will spend their eternity in hell, without exception (including those who have never had an opportunity to hear, understand and believe the Gospel).

2. According to the Bible, anyone (past, present or future) who does hear or read the Gospel of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior (believe in Him in their heart and confess Him with their mouth) will spend their eternity with God in heaven;

3. According to the Bible, the Old Testament saints looked ahead to the day of Jesus the Messiah, whom they believed was to come, and therefore believed in Him before He actually came to earth bodily. Jesus himself preached directly to them in Paradise, they believed Him, and for this reason, they are saved. The Bible does not record or imply that any such special provision was made for anyone who did not know the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus; and

4. According to the Bible, God blesses whom He chooses to bless, and He curses whom He chooses to curse. Therefore, it’s not ours to judge God because He chooses to let some people die in their sins and go to hell, while choosing others to be forgiven and inherit eternal life. God alone has that prerogative: “Salvation belongs to our Lord” (Psalm 3:8 and Revelation 7:10). Ours is only to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and continually give Him thanks and praise for His abundant grace and mercy toward us.

(To read more of my biblical teachings, click HERE)