Salvation: Whose choice is it?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'”—Jesus (John 3:7).

Please hearken back to that day just prior to your father and mother coming together to conceive you.  The day when they considered offering you life and you chimed in with your approval.  You helped them decide when and where the conception would take place, the gender you would be, and even helped them pick out names that you wanted to be called.  It was beautiful; one big happy meeting of the minds.

Of course by now you’re also probably wondering, “What is this all about?  I don’t remember any of that?  In fact, I can barely remember anything of my early childhood until I was at least two, maybe three, years old at the earliest.”  If you’re wondering, then you have good reason, because none of it was true.  You did not give your parents permission to conceive you.  You had no idea what was going on, let alone what sex you would turn out to be, much less what you would be called.  In essence, you were totally at the mercy of your parents concerning your physical birth.

It is amazing, though, that as helpless as people were during their physical conception and birth, they become fully capable of making all the decisions when it comes to their second birth (if that ever actually happens).  Or at least so they think. All of the sudden they “find God,” and think that they were instrumental in the search.  Oh, God might have dangled a salvific carrot in front of them to coax them into giving God the big “thumbs up,” but still it was up to them to decide.  Such thinking is as nonsensical, though, as the opening illustration.  For just as the individual had absolutely no clue, nor input, on the matter when his parents decided to bring him into the world, so it is with God when he decides to bear another son or daughter into His heavenly family, spiritually.  The fact of the matter is, no one decides when, where, how, or why they are born spiritually of God, nor do they give Him permission to act.  Being born of God is solely a matter of His sovereign grace.  The following are a few of the main the reasons why.

Spiritually Dead

The Bible makes it perfectly clear that prior to a person being “born again”—literally “from above”—that that person is “dead in trespasses and sins, in which [he currently walks] according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2).  The trespasses are the areas of one’s life whereby he oversteps the commands of God and the overstepping is continuous and habitual as if it was the natural thing to do.  It is the natural inclination to sin habitually that later on the apostle John would say marked a child of the devil: “the one who practices sin is of the devil…By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:8a, 10).

Since God is the living God (Mt. 26:63; Rom. 9:26; 2 Cor. 3:3), those who are dead in trespasses and sins cannot relate to him (Ps. 34:16; 66:18).  In fact, John tells us that, “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing, and does His will, He hears him” (Jn. 9:31). 1 Such a declaration dovetails perfectly with the reality that it is God who does the choosing when it comes time for anyone to experience spiritual regeneration, for prior to anyone stating that they “accept”—a better word would be to “acknowledge”—Jesus as their savior, God has already done a work of regeneration in the sinner’s heart.  God has bore that person into His family above before the saint says a word.  God then hears the person’s prayer or petition, since the living saint has been enabled to converse with the living God.

If one draws a parallel between physical and spiritual birth, prior to physical birth the baby in the womb has no idea what is going on, who he is, or what is about to transpire.  Then after being born by the parent’s choice, the child matures intellectually, emotionally, and physically, and then recognizes who its mother and father are.  With the development of the child it eventually acknowledges and accepts its mother and father, and then through time develops a trusting bond.  The same may be said of those who are born of God.  They have no idea what is going on, and may in fact be living a life of debauchery, perversity, and immorality.  Then they sense that something happens, but they are not quite sure what that something is.  Their life suddenly seems different.  Those old sinful habits, although still seemingly somewhat pleasurable, start to lose their attraction.  Moreover, there is an internal longing for life’s meaning.  At this stage some may be born of God and not even realize it.  Several years may pass before the person finally discovers that it was God who had regenerated his life.  At that point he acknowledges what God has done, and then seeks to refine his life to make it more in accord with how God would have him to live.  This is known as sanctification or the gradually conforming of one’s person to reflect the holiness of God.  “Be ye holy, for I am Holy” is both a positional and eventual reality for the newborn saint.

In Bondage to Sin

As the Bible is clear concerning the spiritual deadness of a person prior to regeneration, it is equally clear that those who habitually practice sin are in bondage to it as well.  In an exchange between Jesus and the Jews, Jesus points out to them that regardless of their attempt to identify God as their Father through the person of Abraham, they were in bondage to sin and their father was actually the devil.  It was because of their dire condition that they needed to be freed from sin—not that they freed themselves—which only Jesus could do.

31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free ‘?”  34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.  35 “And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.  36 “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed (Jn. 8:31-36).

It is interesting in verse 31 where is says that the Jews “believed Him,” they still stood condemned.  Why?  Because as verse 15 points out, they were judging Jesus’ declaration of who he was as the “light of the world” according to a carnal standard: “You judge according to the flesh….”  So, they believed him, but they were not committed to him. 2 This is the condition of many people, as they believe that Jesus is some kind of wonderful prophet, teacher, or sage, but they will not believe in the sense of commitment to him as one’s savior.  The reason for this is that they have not been given the gift of salvific belief, which is totally different than merely believing based on self-serving data.

The apostle Paul would later pick up on the theme of bondage to sin in his letter to the Romans.  In answering the question of whether Christians should sin in order that grace might abound, he explains to them that they are no longer under the law but grace, and that they should not permit their bodily members to be instruments of sin.  He then asks them, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16).  What Paul wants the Roman Christians to do is carefully consider who or what they are choosing to enslave themselves to, either sin or righteousness.  It is only a choice that the Christian can make, and not the sinner, since the sinner cannot know Christian righteousness until after he has been redeemed.  “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 8:22).

Futile Mind

Commensurate with the themes of spiritual deadness and bondage to sin is a futile mind (Eph. 4:17).  From the state of futility of the mind, the person then acts out that which it has focused its thoughts upon.  Again the apostle Paul describes in vivid detail what each sinner’s life is like prior to God’s redemption in his life, starting with the futility of the mind.

17 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness (Eph. 4:17-19). 3

Some have often wondered why they see so many senseless acts of evil carried out in society.  The short answer is that it is not inherent in any human being to act soberly and sensibly.  All human beings are inherently selfish, vain, murderous, greedy, vile, perverse, and deceitful.  Some are better at hiding these tawdry traits than others, and although there does seem to be an inordinate amount of human nonsense perpetrated on the rest of the human race, because of the grace of God and the moving of His Spirit, much of the evil that could occur is restrained.  Nevertheless, the amount on inanity seen in the news on a daily basis stems from the “futility of the mind,” or the vanity which wreaks havoc upon each and every person as they struggle to make sense out of their existence prior to God’s redemption, if God so chooses to redeem.  It is the state of the mind that the apostle Paul would associate with the “natural man,” who cannot discern the things of God because he finds them to be foolish (1 Cor. 2:14).  And since he finds them to be foolish, he rejects them as unreal, and then ironically returns to living his life of vanity or non-reality.

No Desire for God

When Adam and Eve were duped into believing that they could live and think independently of God, they immediately found out that they were naked, and ran out of the Garden of Eden to hide themselves from God.  When God finally caught up with them, figuratively speaking, and asked Adam, “Where are you?” Adam did not make a heartfelt confession of his sin and ask God for His forgiveness.  Instead, what he told God was he was (1) afraid, (2) naked, and (3) hiding.  He did not want anything to do with God.  He knew he had a problem, but took it upon himself to act according to his own standard of righteousness, and not God’s standard.  If God would have not gone looking for Adam and Eve, then they would have further developed their man-made, fig leaf religion, and would have died in abject rebellion against God.  Yet, it is because God seeks the sinner—since the sinner is on the run and thinks he can hide from God—that the sinner can be redeemed if he will simply understand where he is, which only God can make known to him.

Once again the apostle Paul makes it perfectly clear that what Adam and Eve did by running and attempting to hide from God has been passed on to each and every member of their progeny.  It is what is commonly known as “original sin” that motivates every sinner to either deny God or look for some kind of substitute religiosity to replace God.  In a 19-point indictment against the natural man, which includes all Jews and Gentiles, whereby he is condemned as being “under sin,” Paul states: “10 as it is written, There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”  Paul would go on to further explain the sinner’s condemned condition in his speech, actions, and attitudes, with the final damning statement being: “18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  Plumer astutely observes that the lost man is blind, cannot see Jesus as he truly is, and “Without God’s Spirit man has no insight into the real nature of heavenly things and no relish for them.  Accordingly he does not seek after God.  His heart goes not out towards him in love and gratitude, in longings after him, in prayers, or praises, or meditations concerning him.  And how can such a man be otherwise than under sin?” 4

Therefore, for those who falsely assume that before God’s personal interaction with the sinner to redeem him, that they think they have some kind of natural inclination to have anything to do with God in the sinner’s natural state, need to step back and reconsider what the Bible has to say on the subject.  Because man, left to himself, wants nothing to do with God.  Man might want a caricature of God to follow—an idol, if you will—he has created in the sinner’s image, since he is inherently religious; but the true God of the Bible unregenerate man wants no part of, until God regenerates him apart from anything the unregenerate man can do (Titus 3:5).

God Does the Drawing

One of the sad, if not simply pathetic, illusions perpetrated on Sunday mornings after most preachers have finished their sermonettes for the week is that which got its start with the tent revivals and meetings in the mid-1800s, especially under the influence of Charles Grandison Finney.  The illusion is commonly called the “invitation,” whereby the preacher invites the congregation to “come and accept Jesus as your personal savior.”  Sometimes the “invitation” may last for several minutes or hours, depending on how “the Spirit is moving.”  Again this idea received it start with Finney and his “anxious bench.”  According to Noll, “The anxious bench was a specially designated area, usually in front of the auditorium to which Finney called people for prayer or to be admonished about the condition of their souls…The anxious bench led to the modern evangelistic practice of coming to the front at the end of a religious service to indicate a desire for salvation.” 5 Although somewhat emotionally effective, it clearly has nothing to do with Scripture, and certainly has nothing to do with how God redeems a sinner.  In fact, what it really does is take God out of the equation and places salvation in the hands of sinners, and then forces God’s hand to move, which is absurd.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus was addressing those who were complaining about his declaration that he was the bread that had come down out of heaven.  After the Jews griped some more, Jesus asserts, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:44).  Later in the same chapter Jesus makes nearly the same identical declaration: “And [Jesus] was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (Jn. 6:65).  In the first statement the idea of drawing (Gr. helkō) can carry with it the connotations of “attract,” “tug,” “compel,” “drag,” or “lead by force.”  Given the inability of the sinner to willingly come to God on his own, as well as the emphasis Jesus places on “no one”, then it is probably best to see God’s drawing as “compelling” the sinner unto acknowledgment of Jesus.  In the second statement, the word “granted” stems from the Greek word didōmi which basically means “to give.”  It is an act of God’s grace that anyone is given the wherewithal to come to Jesus, mainly because the sinner would not come of his own volition anyway.

The whole idea of drawing and granting follows other biblical concepts whereby God chooses the elect to be His own people.  In the Old Testament God chose Israel to be those who would represent Him (Neh. 9:7; Ezek. 20:5; Acts 13:17), and the same God is still choosing those who will represent Him today (Lk. 12:32; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9).  It could be no other way without placing God in the hands of rebellious of sinners and having them mock his finished work of redemption in the person of Jesus.  Moreover, it would be totally pointless for Jesus to tell his disciples that when he departed this life that he would send the Spirit to convict the world of sin (Jn. 16:8), if the choice was left up to the sinner to decide whether he was to be convicted.

Clearly without God’s drawing of the sinner into a regenerate and redemptive relationship with Him, no one would come on his own.

CONCLUSION

The question of whose choice it is that a person is saved has brewed for centuries.  At times it is almost unbelievable the amount of ignorant vitriol that has been spewed over the subject, given the clarity of what God has to say.  What is interesting is that those claiming that they have some kind of role in giving God permission to redeem them, is that those same persons often bellow how much God is in control of all things.  If those persons would only stop and think about what they’re saying, perhaps they would notice that by them either stealing credit from God for their salvation, or insinuating that the sinner is actually capable of holding God hostage, as He waits to hear back from them concerning their assumed salvific decision, they would detect the hypocrisy in their bellowing.  God obviously cannot be in control of all things if something as important as the salvation is in the control of man.

Therefore, the choice when it comes to salvation is in God’s hands, as he mysteriously works His plan of redemption which He wrought from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).  In fact, it is so mysterious that Jesus likened it to trying to discern the source of the blowing of the wind, as well as where it was going (Jn. 3:8).  Those bristling with anger or pride, as they presumptuously assume that they had a hand in their salvation (if they are truly saved), need to step back and ask God to forgive them for their arrogance; for arrogantly assuming that their works or alleged decision had anything to do with God’s graciously act to redeem them (Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 3:1-5).  Otherwise, the day will come when they will stand before God and give an account of themselves, and they will either be totally ashamed of failing to give God full credit for His redemptive act, or they will be totally surprised when He says, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-22).

Notes:

  1. “As those who are physically dead cannot communicate with the living, so also those who are spiritually dead cannot communicate with the eternal living God, and thus are separated from God.  They are lost and need to be found.  They are dead and need to be made alive.”  Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 308.
  2. See James 2:19 where the demons believe that here is one God, and tremble, but are hardly committed to God in willful submission.
  3. Hoehner suggests that the order of Paul’s construction could just as easily be reversed as well, starting with a hardness of heart which leads to a futility of the mind.  Ephesians, 588-89.
  4. William S. Plumer, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993), 116.
  5. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 176.

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