'If what you are saying causes offence then either it is not truth or the truth is offensive, if it is the latter it is still truth and should still be said' - His point was simple, true and Biblical (John 8:31-46).
One of the most common debates I have with Christians relates to man's part in salvation. The common understanding and held position of most I speak to is one where salvation is a cooperative act between man and God (synergism). The general view is this: God offers salvation to man and then man has the option to accept or reject it. If he accepts, he is saved, if he rejects, he isn't. It should be noted here that the vast majority of people holding this view do not look on this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Proponents of this view would say that man is given this opportunity many times, but the principal will always remain, God will not 'force' salvation on anyone, he will only give people the option to accept or reject and then it is their free choice.
The view above, to me, is a nice view logically, it removes lots of uncomfortable questions (see later) by putting a dependence on man, it leaves a little bit of goodness in man (the part to choose God of their own free will) and allows us a bit of control... as man, quite simply, we like control. There is little less comfortable than saying 'there is nothing you can do about it' and having to accept that.
The question, for me, is, is the view above Biblical? It is here that I disagree with those holding this view. I was challenged recently to give Biblical evidence that this view was wrong and this is my attempt to meet that challenge, before we dive into the Biblical evidence it is first important for me to explain where exactly I see the above argument going wrong. The process above is something akin to the following
- Man hears the message of Christianity
- The Holy Spirit convicts man of their sin
- God offers salvation to the person through the sacrifice of Jesus paying for their sins
- The person then has a choice to make, of his own free will, to accept or reject salvation
- The person chooses to accept and is saved or the person chooses to reject and is not saved
- If the person accepts the Holy Spirit comes and lives inside the person
- The Holy Spirit then works, with the persons free will, to make the person more Christ like.
The next thing however, is to answer the question on free will, we in fact need to ask another question, namely 'Is man totally depraved?' or put another way 'Is man (post-fall) capable of choosing good?' Then we have the following, if man is not capable of choosing good then they cannot choose good, only bad, so they do not have the free will to choose God (the good choice) and hence their salvation cannot be dependent on their decision accept or reject (for man will always reject)
So our aims are the following:
- Show Biblically that man is totally depraved
- Use this and other Biblical evidence to deduce that man cannot have free will in terms of salvation (and hence cannot make a choice to accept salvation of his own free will)
Firstly total depravity does not suggest that humans cannot do what are outwardly good works, it does not say that humans will not help one another out, give to the poor, look after the sick or do many other things that look good through human eyes. Total depravity says we cannot do anything, of ourselves, that is good in the sight of God. It is important here to remember that God looks not only on the outward action, but the motive behind the action. Incidentally, we should note here that total depravity is a consequence of the fall back in genesis 3, the Bible does give a clear verse on how our righteous acts look before God (Isaiah 64:6)
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
So we see in the above verse that even our best works are polluted before God, in other words, of ourselves we are indeed incapable of doing something good before God. This shows that our actions are always polluted, what about our will:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
9What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." 13 "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." 14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known." 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
All of the above talk of how the will is enslaved to sin, look at the Romans 8:7 above, it says that the mind is hostile to God and it cannot submit to God's laws. The mind does not, will not and cannot submit to God's laws. Romans 3:9-18 reiterates the message given in Isaiah but in fact takes it further, we have that no-one seeks God and Romans 1:18 talks of how we suppress the truth. I hope by now you can see that the Bible clearly teaches the total depravity of man. Contrary to popular opinion and counter to how we like to look at ourselves, man is not good, as Paul declares 'no-one does good, not even one'. Our mind is in bondage to sin, since the fall, humans have a sinful nature, we will not, do not, indeed cannot choose the things of God without divine intervention.
There are many, many more passages relating to total depravity, also take a look, for example at Jeremiah 17:9, Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 58:3, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Proverbs 14:12, 1 Corinthians 1:18
Man does not have free will in terms of salvation:
The first thing to get clear here is to be precise, I am only considering here free will in terms of salvation. I am at no point here trying to argue that we have no free will in terms of other things, such as what we want to wear, eat, do etc. I am also not considering the free will of a Christian to reject God's grace. I am here looking only at the idea that for salvation Christians of their own free will must choose to accept salvation. My main reasoning here is to cover one question at a time, looking any further than this, gets into philosophical questions on free will and questions on whether salvation can be lost. Whilst these are interesting questions, they are beyond the scope of this post.
So we have looked at the case above of the total depravity of man, from an idea of total depravity it is difficult to not conclude a problem for proponents of free will in terms of salvation. One possible argument one can use however is to say that God puts us in a state where we have the choice. There are a few problems with this argument as follows:
1) God is still changing the will of man without their will, if only to put them in a state where they can choose good or bad. To do this he must still impose on our free will in the first place, he must come in and change our will, without our permission (due to total depravity meaning we would reject given the opportunity).
2) It is very, very difficult to support this view Biblically, I ask anyone holding this view to please feel free to leave verses supportive of this as comments to this article for me to consider.
3) There are lots of passages that rule out such a possibility and point strongly towards this not being the case:
Perhaps the two biggest chapters in the Bible against this are Ephesians 2 and Romans 9. Lets look at an extract from Ephesians 2:
1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The parts I particularly want to focus on here are verses 1, 5 and 8-9. Verse 1 and 5 tell us that we were dead in trespasses and sins, note that isn't dorment, nearly dead, badly wounded, injured, that is dead and we are made alive by Christ. I ask as a simple logical question, can a dead man ask to be brought back to life? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, did Jesus ask him if he could raise him? No, Jesus, simply raised him back to life. The biggest problem however for the view of man's needing to accept however is perhaps verses 8-9. If God offers salvation and I accept it and someone else doesn't as an act of my own choice then I can conclude that I did in fact make a very good decision and they didn't. Put another way, I made a better decision than someone who chose to reject. Suddenly, I do have a reason to boast for I was clever enough to make the right choice. Further one can perhaps also conclude that I am at least in part, saved by works -contrary to what the verse above says- for my work was to make the correct decision, it might be a very small work, but it is still a dependence on me, still something I have to do.
Election is another important concept (Romans 9, briefly mentioned above is a big chapter for this). I am not going to go into election in great detail here but the Bible has numerous passages talking of an elect. Christians in general seem united on the idea of an elect however there view on the elect varies. Those holding the above views on salvation generally view election in relation to foreknowledge. They say that because God is omniscient, he knows who will choose him, when they are given the opportunity and it is to these the elect refers to. I see two main problems with this:
1) It does not remove the idea of God choosing only brings it backwards to when we were created, it leaves the problem that God created, or allowed us to be created in such a way that when the offer came the person would reject. This again leaves many of the problems synergism tries to avoid, such as God choosing some people and not others.
2) The view above is a logical one that again is not Biblically supportable. For a start we have Ephesians 1:4:
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love
This doesn't say God knew what our choice would be, it says the he chose us. Jesus also says in John 15:16 that the disciples did not choose him but he chose them. Is it possible that God chose us based on that he knew we'd choose him?
So we know that God chose us, but was his choice based on his knowing what we'd choose? Biblically the answer to this is no. There is not one place in the Bible that teaches that God's choice of who to save is based on anything at all to do with us - even knowledge of our acceptance. Instead, there is Biblical evidence telling us that we are predestined, according to his will (Ephesians 1:5, Ephesians 1:11) and pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). We are also told outright that it does not depend on mans desire (Romans 9:15-16).
So we have shown many Biblical problems with the idea that salvation is based on the free will of man, most notably, we are totally depraved so will always choose evil over good. The idea of God putting us in a state where we are capable of choosing him and then giving us the free choice is problematic. The reasons for this is it gives us a reason to boast and that Biblically those who are saved are chosen by God. Finally there is no evidence whatsoever (in fact there is evidence to the contrary) that this choice is based on God knowing what choices we will make.
Some Final Thoughts:
I have tried to be careful throughout here to repeatedly say man making a choice totally of his own free will is wrong, I mean this in the sense that God must change their will as an act of God. I should state here that perhaps this should be worded slightly differently for clarity throughout, perhaps if I think carefully I'll come up with a better way of wording it, but for now let me make the following clear:
God does not drag people in to heaven kicking and screaming, no, God changes people's wills so that they desire the things of God, those who believe do so entirely willingly, for prior to their belief their will has already been changed.
If one sits down and thinks there is at least one situation where we did not have free will yet we do not complain, before a knee jerk reaction to the above it is worth thinking about the fact that you were born without your consent, you did not choose it, why then do you believe that you must choose to be born again?
This article is introductory, I aim to next look at the consequences of the above. I plan to look on what affect this has on evangelism and sanctification in particular.
I should note that I have particularly used gotquestions.org in putting this together and recommend checking out their website for lots of questions (Although I am of course not saying I definitely agree with 100% of what they say).
Please do feel free to leave comments, questions etc!