What does the Bible say about salvation, God’s sovereignty, and man’s free will?

by Pastor Ron Jones, D.D. © Titus Institute 2003

NOTE: This is a difficult subject dealt with by many godly Bible teachers, this article represents my best effort at explaining what I believe is the Biblical position.

God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Choice

I. God is sovereign over all he has created.

God is the sovereign ruler over all creation as the creator and owner of everything.

1 Chron.29:11-12 God owns all and rules all.

This means that whatever happens must be under God’s rule. God either does it or allows it to happen. When God allows something to happen that does not mean that he condones it just that he has chosen not to stop it from happening.

Ps.115:3 God does whatever he pleases (wills).

Isa. 43:13 No one can reverse or thwart what God chooses to do.

These verses show God’s absolute sovereignty over all his creatures (includes angels, good and evil, and human beings) and what they desire and/or choose to do. They also show that if God makes a choice to do something, no one can stop him and it is done. Everything God chooses to do is accomplished.

II. Under God’s sovereign rule and within his sovereign will, he allows man to make free choices.

In Gen.2:15 Adam is an example of this. Adam was told not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but he could eat freely of the fruit of any of the other trees. Adam had free choice to eat whatever other fruit he wanted and when he wanted to eat it. Adam had many other free choices as well. Adam was created to make free choices under God’s sovereign rule.

Free choice does not mean that God allows us to do whatever we freely choose without him intervening nor does it mean that God allows us to do whatever we choose without consequences.

For example, we may go into someone’s house and we have free choice to knock over a lamp or sit down and read the paper. However, the owner of the house may not choose to allow us to do that. After all, it is his house. If he does not stop us, he can force us to face the consequences in court. After all, it’s his house.

Free choice only means that when we were created, we could freely choose to do something. The reason we could make free choices is that Adam was created with a free will. A free will is a will that is not controlled by anyone, but the person whose will it is. After Adam sinned, his will was enslaved to sin and he was blinded by Satan, yet he still makes free choices. He is not a robot.

III. God has chosen in eternity to prepare a plan where he has determined everything that he is going to do or allow to happen throughout all time in the lives of his creature.

Eph.1:11 God works according to the plan in conformity to the purpose of his will.

Within this plan, which reflects his sovereign will, God allows human beings free choice in many areas. Since he is in eternity and knows all things, he sees everything that we are going to freely choose. He knows all alternatives to our actions if and when he was to intervene. He can move people and things into our paths as he chooses.

God has determined to give to us a lot of room within his sovereign will to make choices such as what we eat, what we wear, what jobs we have, etc.

I think of it like a fenced in yard where the father looks upon a bunch of kids, some his children and others not his children, but all under his care and rule. He gives them free choice to interact and steps in wherever he chooses or deems wise. Sometimes he may let a child hit another child, another time he may prevent it. Everyone in that yard has a certain amount of free choice, yet no one is free to do whatever he wants; only the father is. Those children make many free choices where the father simply allows them to do whatever they want. But when the father determines he may act and he will accomplish what he desires by that action because he is rules and is more powerful than the children.

This is so important to understand. Only God can do whatever he chooses by his free will and choice. Man never can. Nobody in the universe has the free will to do whatever he chooses except God. The biggest mistake human beings make regarding this issue is thinking that “free will” means one can do whatever one wants to do without intervention or consequences by God.

In fact, that has never existed. It doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. Even in America, a “free” country. We are not “free” to do whatever we want whenever we want. That reality has never existed for human beings. The only “free will” human beings have ever had is freedom to choose within the parameters the sovereign God of the universe has determined.

IV. God chooses some to be saved by his sovereign will.

What about salvation, God’s sovereignty and man’s free choice?

The first thing we must realize is that God gave Adam both a free will and the free choice to choose to live within the boundaries that God had set or not to. God did not control Adam’s will. Adam was to free to choose to eat of any of the other trees, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God would not prevent Adam from exercising his freedom to freely follow God or not to follow him.

As said, earlier, Adam had plenty of free choice to eat of any of the trees in the garden except one. There was a lot of freedom there. God simply set a boundary of his will. Those in authority over others always have some boundary that cannot be crossed. Again, no situation has ever existed where there were no boundaries for humans. If two people were completely alone on a desert isle, each would set certain boundaries, the other shouldn’t cross. Each has the free choice to decide if he or she will cross the boundary. If a boundary is crossed, there will be consequences.

Adam chose to defy God’s boundary and disobey. This is how man lost his free will in the sense that he became enslaved to sin. After the fall, human beings were enslaved to sin. His will is a slave of fleshly desires

Rom.6:6-7 Man is enslaved to sin.

Eph.2:1-3 Man follows the world, Satan, and his fleshly desires.

2 Cor.4:4 Man is blinded to Satan.

Because of this he has lost his “free will” in the sense that he is dominated by the world, Satan, and the flesh. Adam was not dominated by these, but all his descendents were and are. Human beings still have free choices in the sense that they can still choose what they will do or not do. They are not robots. But they are dominated by the world, the flesh, and Satan. They are blinded to truth and what is really going on in the spiritual realm. This blindness means they cannot freely choose to believe in Christ. They are blind; they cannot see the true value of and the need to come to him for salvation. They can intellectually understand these truths, but see no value in them.

My best interpretation of these verses is that human beings cannot open their minds and hearts to Christ apart from a sovereign act of God who must open them himself or no one could be saved.

The only way man could be saved is if God lifted the veil of blindness and opened his heart to Jesus Christ.

Jn.6:44 God the Father draws certain people to believe in the Son and the Son raises everyone of those individuals to eternal life on the last day.

Jesus says that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him. The drawing is when the Father opens up one’s heart to Christ. Jesus also says that he will raise him up on the last day.

When God draws someone, he lifts the veil of blindness so that they can see the glory of Christ and believe in him.

2 Cor.5-6 God made the light of Christ shine in our (Christians’) hearts.

God breaks the domination of the world, sin and the flesh in our lives. We are no longer under their domination.

Rom.6:5-14 We are dead to sin, thus we have been freed from the domination of sin

‘Dead to sin” means “separated from sin’s domination.” “Freed,” means “freedom from the domination of sin.” They mean the same thing. Sin no longer dominates the Christian. We know that we still have a sin nature and can still sin (1 Jn.1:8-10). We know that we still have fleshly desires that are strong (Gal.5:17) But we now are new creations, who can turn away from sin and follow God’s moral will (2 Cor.5:17). We have been given new values and beliefs by the Holy Spirit to influence us toward righteousness (Rom.8:9-11).

The “drawing,” the “making the light shine in our hearts,” and the resultant “freedom from the domination of sin” is a sovereign act of God based on nothing a human does. If a human is blind and in unbelief and dominated by the world, Satan, and the flesh, what could he or she do to merit or cause God to want to save that person. All are equally in sin and equally blind.

God must do the choosing. There is no other way a human can be saved.

Yes, God chooses those who will be saved, because everyone is doomed and cannot save themselves, therefore he has to choose some or no one would be saved. Yes, God opens up their hearts to be saved because they cannot open up their own hearts. Yes, everyone whose heart God opens up will be saved.

Can a human being resist God’s drawing or opening up his or her heart?

No. Jesus says in Jn.6:44 that he will raise up everyone the Father draws. That means that everyone the Father draws will come to Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ will bring them to heaven. There are no exceptions. There is no one the Father draws that does not come to heaven with Christ.

This shows that the Bible does not support the idea that God opens up the hearts of people and some reject and some accept. Jn.6:44 shows all accept Christ whom God draws.

The Jesus will raise up everyone the Father draws. That means that everyone the Father draws will come to Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ will bring them to heaven. There are no exceptions. There is no one the Father draws that does not come to heaven with Christ.

V. God does not choose others to be saved, but they choose to rebel against him.

What about those whom God does not choose? They receive the due penalty of their sin. Everyone deserves hell for his or her sin. Because we have been chosen does not mean that those who have not been deserve hell any less.

We were only saved by God’s grace.

Eph.2:8-9 God’s grace is freely giving us what we do not deserve.

Why can’t God save everyone? Because in Gen.2:15 and Gen.3 he said that humans will pay the penalty for their sin and die spiritually forever. If God saved everyone, God would contradict the very curse he gave.

Now where does free choice fit in? Here is the mystery.

Can a just God hold accountable unbelievers who are enslaved to sin? Yes. In fact, he can and does, but does not tell us exactly how he can.

He does tell us:

1. Everyone who rejects Jesus Christ wants to reject him.

Those who reject Christ want to reject him. No one will enter hell saying, “I’m sorry I did it. If I had only known, I would have accepted Christ.”

Jesus said that there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The gnashing of teeth refers to the grinding of teeth in anger against God. The weeping is the sorrow that comes from being punished. Unbelievers enter hell in anger against God.

Matt.13:42-50 In the fiery furnace, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Nowhere does the Bible ever say anyone will even want to repent after they die. That is a false. People who do not accept Christ, have chosen to rebel against God and they continue that rebellion after they die.

No one enters hell with anything less than a prideful rebellious heart. Paul says that what is really amazing is that God doesn’t crush all his rebellious creatures, but instead endures their sin in order to show his mercy to some. Nobody could be saved unless God saved him or her.

Rom.9:19-25

How could God allow one person in heaven who is rebelling against him? He can’t and won’t.

2. Death entered the human race through Adam.

Rom.5:12

Once Adam sinned, the whole human race was lost because all human beings descended from Adam. Paul says that is how sinned entered the human race. God didn’t enslave humans to sin as a result of the fall. Adam and Eve were created to bear children with their nature. Once their nature became enslaved to sin, all the descendents were born enslaved.

Also, Adam represented every human being who ever lived. If you had been Adam would you have chosen to obey God? The reality is no. Adam did what we all would have done. Think about it. The only two pure and innocent human beings God created sinned against him. We would have done the same thing! God knows that.

3. When people come to Christ they do not sense anyone forcing them. They desire to come to Christ. In their perception, they freely chose to do it, but later they find out that God gave them that desire out of his grace and mercy toward them. We all praise him for that!