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Is Salvation a Matter of Your Free Will… or God’s?

“the commandments are not given inappropriately or
pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud,
blind man may learn the plague of his impotence,
should he try to do as he is commanded.” -Luther

Most people believe in “the free will of man.” Many evangelicals go further and adamantly say it’s found in Scripture. At first glance, “free will theology” gives the impression of being plausible for one main reason: the alternative, God’s sovereignty, seems mechanical. The logic goes something like this: if God made His creatures robotic (without free will and only able to do His predetermined bidding) then relationship with God isn’t relationship at all. It isn’t loving. It isn’t mutual. It’s just automated, impersonal, lifeless, perfunctory, and emotionless.

But as we will see, nothing could be further from the truth. A dynamic relationship with the Creator of the universe is only possible by God’s sovereign, saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ the Lord by the regenerating ministry of the Holy Spirit. IOW, God is sovereign; man’s will is not free; and only grace brings us into eternal relationship with God by the demonstration of His love for us through Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross (Romans 5:8, 8:28-39).

Is Man’s Will Free?

God made the first man, Adam (and his helpmate Eve), peccable – able not to sin. He was created in a state of innocence, yet still was capable of obedience and disobedience. Adam, for a brief time had a will that was free from the bondage of sin. God created man and called it “very good.” Our first parents were in perfect fellowship with God.

But then the great divorce occurred: Adam chose to disobey God. Not only did sin enter Adam’s life, but sin entered the whole world and it effected all of Adam’s posterity to this very day. The Apostle Paul says it this way, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Romans 5:12). “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23a). All die, including babies, because all sin.

Adam was no longer innocent. Adam’s will was no longer free. He was now bound by sin and its effects. Adam was a prisoner and in a fleeting moment went from having unbroken fellowship with God to being at enmity with God.

Consider this:

“Sin strikes at God and says, ‘I don’t care what You said, I’ll do what I want.’ It is God’s would be murderer. Sin would un-God God if it could. Sin defiles the conscience. Sin is irrational and forfeits blessing. Sin is painful—it hurts. Sin is damning. Sin is degrading it mares the image of God and man. Like Samson, it cuts the locks of purity and leaves men morally weak. Sin poisons the springs of love and turns beauty in leprosy. Sin defeats the mind, the heart, the will, the affections and it has made a whole world of people—all of mankind—children wrath by nature; objects of God’s wrath. Sin brings man under the domination of Satan and his sick sin system, which he controls. Man and the world is a slave to sin, open rebellion and defiance to God and a slave to Satan.” (author unknown).

This became Adam’s legacy; and it became yours and mine as well.

Are You God’s Enemy?

Most unsaved people do not think of themselves as enemies of God. Because they have no conscious feelings of hatred for Him and do not actively oppose His work or contradict His Word, they consider themselves, at worst, to be “neutral” about God. But no such neutrality is possible. The mind of every unsaved person is at peace only with the things of the flesh, and therefore by definition is “hostile toward God” and cannot be otherwise (Rom. 8:7).

Not only are all unbelievers enemies of God,
but God is also the enemy of all unbelievers

The Psalmist says that God is “angry with the wicked every day” (cf. Ps. 7:11). God is the enemy of the sinner, and that enmity cannot end unless and until the sinner places his trust in Jesus Christ by God’s sovereign grace (Eph 2:8-9). As Paul declared near the opening of his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). As a result of Adam’s sin, all people are “conceived in sin” (Psalm 51:5) and will not, cannot obey God and keep His law. Jesus said, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).

Fallen man has lost all ability to be right before a holy God; to right the wrong of sin; and restore relationship with on his own terms. Redemption cannot occur through our obedience to God by offering to Him good works to earn or merit eternal life. That would require perfect obedience, perfect works, perfect love toward Him in everything we do. No matter how hard man tries, he can only, in the end, “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Isaiah says it this way, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (filthy rags) (Isaiah 64:6).

Who Gets the Glory?

All glory belongs to God and man may not share in that glory. All that we have in life and salvation is from His sovereign hand; He has accomplished all through Jesus Christ our Lord – not only the atonement on the Cross, but even granting the faith which allows sinful men to be saved. Every aspect of salvation is a grace-gift from God, and thus all praise belongs to Him alone and not to any man.

To those who foolishly think God is too loving to send anyone to hell, Paul declared, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things [the sins listed in v. 5] the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6); “and the Lord does hate all who do iniquity” (Psalm 5:5). Hell is not the absence of God, but the wrathful presence of God poured out for eternity upon Satan and all his minions, and all who have rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ, who do not confess Him as Lord and Savior of their lives in unmitigated fury and gall forever.

But on the cross, Christ took upon Himself all the fury of God’s wrath on behalf of the elect that sinful mankind deserves. And those who trust in Christ are no longer God’s enemies and no longer under His wrath, but are at peace with Him (Roms. 5:1).

Justification then is the heart and soul of the gospel. It is “the Atlas,” as J.I. Packer says, “which bears on its shoulders the weight of all other Christian doctrines.” To be justified means to be declared righteous by God. That the judge of the entire universe declares a man or a woman has right standing before Him. He is no longer under the judgment of God, no longer under the wrath of God, he is now the friend of God; more that that, he is the child of God; he is the son of God. God has fully and completely accepted him as righteous (2 Cor 5:21). That only happens by faith and faith alone – which is God’s gift to us. And that’s, of course, the great reformation truth. That God declares the sinner righteous on the basis of faith and faith alone.

So lets ask these clrifying questions: do we all have wills? Yes. And are we free to do as we want consistent with that will corrupted by sin? Yes. Is our will free to please God? No, it is bound by sin. Man by his very nature is a sinner, conceived in sin, dead in his trespasses and sins. By nature a child of wrath; depraved in his mind and deprived of the truth. He is a sinner, not because he commits acts of sin, but because he is born sinful – with a sin nature. And we will always act according to that nature. We all have PhD’s in sin and in rationalizing our sinful choices because of that sin nature.

God Saved Us

The entire Bible is an account of Paradise lost – Paradise found. The unfaithfulness of man to God and God’s loving patience and grace to man in redemption.

But the Bible is clear, man cannot come to God for salvation unless God first comes to the man. “We love Him, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).

“No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands;
no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”” -Romans 3:9-12

How many people seek for God? Not one. How many people do good? Not one. Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).

So what say ye now? Does man have a free will? For salvation? The answer is a clear resounding no.

God is the Only One with Free Will

As we’ve seen so far, Adam disobeyed God. And that one act of sin effected the entire human race. Since then, every person who has ever lived is on the road to destruction – running as fast as they can straight to hell.

What hope do we have? We can’t save ourselves or even “will” to have salvation. We can’t do anything to merit eternal life. We don’t contribute one thing to redeem ourselves. Not one. When that great 18th century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, was asked, “does man contribute anything to his salvation?” He quipped by answering, “Yes, the sin that makes it necessary!”

Listen to this story of salvation told by Jesus to a great religious leader in His time.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1-8)

What Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus is a simple, but profound truth: “salvation is of The Lord!” You can only be born again by a sovereign act of God’s Holy Spirit to awaken a dead man from sin to new life in Christ. The Bible calls this “regeneration.”

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

God is a loving God, slow to anger, full of mercy and grace for a rebellious people. God sovereignly moves upon the men and women of His choice (Eph 1:3-6) by the riches of His grace to bring them to Himself.

Man’s captive will to sin only responds to the kindness of God’s free will to redeem us in Christ. Man is never the initiator in salvation by a free act of his own volition. Here is the end of the matter: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Prior to regeneration man is incapable of and unwilling to believe. But God, in His mercy, saves His chosen people. He changes their hearts and grants us the saving faith necessary to believe and obey His gospel.

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 19  He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea,” (Micah 7:18-19)

Question: is your salvation conditioned upon your free will or God’s?