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Sovereignty and Free Will

Would God hold us accountable for something He had not given us the ability to do?

The people of Israel might have wondered as much when they heard Moses say, in his farewell address, “The Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4 NKJV).

These had to be hard words to hear, especially since Moses was warning about what would happen if they did not keep their part of the covenant God had made with them (Deuteronomy 28). How could they avoid such trouble if God was withholding what they needed to please Him?

Part of the answer seems to be found in the next chapter. Moses went on to foresee a day when God would give His people a heart of understanding, after they acknowledged their wrongs and returned to Him (30:1-6).

This text indicates that only when the people of Israel finally came to their senses would God give them new hearts. Yet the New Testament later tells us that even repentance is a gift of God (2 Timothy 2:25). So if God foreknew that Israel was eventually going to return to Him for a new heart, by whose choice would that happen?

On this point theologians disagree. Calvinists say that fallen humans are dead in sin and cannot ask God to save them unless God causes them to do so. Arminians say that even though fallen humans are separated from God by sin and spiritual death, they still have enough residual conscience and capacity for choice to ask God for mercy.

Both sides find support for their conclusions in the Bible. Calvinists point to statements that say God calls to Himself those who He, on the basis of His own will, graciously chooses for salvation (Ephesians 1:4-5). Arminians counter with texts that say God calls everyone to personally choose to receive the good news of what Christ has done for us (Revelation 22:17).

Both sides see a relationship between God’s foreknowledge and election (Romans 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:2). They part ways, however, over what the Bible means by foreknowledge. To one degree or another, Calvinists link what God foreknows to what He predetermines. Arminians are more likely to say that God sees what will happen and gives humans freedom of choice in responding to His call.

Ever since the days of John Calvin (1509–1564) and Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), many have regarded this ongoing theological debate as a defining issue in understanding the glory and goodness of God.

On the positive side, the provocative nature of this issue has prompted many to carefully study the Scriptures in an attempt to understand which side is right.

Along the way, however, there have been casualties. More than a few have gotten caught in the cross fire between well-meaning people who have considered the other side heretics and enemies.

Others, quite unintentionally, have put their trust in human assumptions and reason in an attempt to resolve the mystery of a Bible that emphasizes both divine foreknowledge and human responsibility.

The result of such theological speculation has been costly for people on both sides. By pressing the logic of either sovereign election or human free will, many have ended up without the assurance of their own salvation. Emphasizing either God’s sovereign election or human choice has caused countless people to wonder whether they have seen enough change in themselves to consider their election sure.

Does this mean that it’s better to not even explore what the Scripture says about God’s election and the human will? No. What it means is that when we begin to say more or less than the Scriptures say, we need to stay in touch with what is foundational to our relationship with God and one another.

Faith—We need to remember that there is authority in no more and no less than what God has revealed about His sovereign grace and the choices for which He holds us accountable (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Hope—Focusing on what we have to do to prove God’s election, or whether or not we have put enough faith in Him, puts a wrong emphasis on our own efforts. Until we rest entirely on what Christ has done for us, we will never find assurance of our salvation.

Love—Without the love of God for those who disagree with us, all of the theology and logic in the world is the kind of noise that will push ourselves and others away from Christ rather than toward Him.

Whether we consider ourselves Calvinists or Arminians doesn’t have to divide us in spirit. Through a common faith in the suffering and death of Christ for us, we can share a unifying gratefulness for a salvation that none of us deserves.

Together we can pray: Father in heaven, please give us a heart to accept as much understanding as You want us to have, enough humility to acknowledge what You alone understand, and enough love to respect the brothers and sisters who have come to different conclusions than we have about why we owe You our grateful love and worship—forever. —Mart De Haan

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