The following article is an excerpt from "A Book of Bible Study"
by Joseph F. Harwood.
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As we have noted before, many dedicated Christians interpret the Bible as teaching that God’s salvation through faith in Christ is an offer that is open to each and every individual who has ever lived. With this belief and understanding of the Scriptures, the determining factor involved in each person’s salvation is their own decision as to whether they want to believe in Christ.
Other dedicated believers interpret the Bible as teaching that those who come to faith in Christ are those individuals whom God chose before the creation of the world, and that God brings these chosen individuals to faith in Christ apart from any decision of their own will. These come to faith at such time as they are effectually called by God, after which they believe in Christ and find themselves with a heart to obey Him. Their belief in Christ is both a result and evidence of their regeneration.
In the first case, man’s own will and decision is the determining factor in his salvation. In the second case, man’s will and decision have nothing at all to do with his salvation; rather God’s choice is the determining factor. The question that we should ask ourselves as dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ, is which of these two teachings is the scripturally consistent, and therefore the correct teaching.
Salvation – Does God or Man Decide?
In the first case of those who believe the Bible teaches that man’s own will and decision is the determining factor in his salvation, many will agree completely with John 6:44 and 6:65, where Jesus said that no man can come to Him unless the Father draws him, or enables him to come. And then, in order to make the free will doctrine of salvation logically consistent, they must insist that there is a time at least once in every individual’s life when they are drawn by God and enabled to come to Christ, and at that time the individual must decide for themselves whether or not they will accept Christ.
The problem with this interpretation is that the idea or the assertion that there is at least one “enabling” or “drawing” by God in every individual’s life is stated nowhere in the Bible. The assertion that God gives every individual at least one opportunity to choose to believe in Christ is a teaching that is not found in the Scriptures, but it is a necessary assertion for man to make in order to “fill in the gaps” so to speak, in an effort to support the free will doctrine of salvation, at least logically.
Continuing with this line of interpretation, part of which comes from the Scriptures, and the rest which comes from man “filling in the gaps” with his own assertions and reasoning, some will then interpret God’s foreknowledge mentioned in Romans 8:29 and elsewhere as God knowing from before the creation of the world those individuals who would choose to accept Christ when drawn and enabled by God to do so. They will also say that the individual could reject Christ at this time, if they choose to do so.
To make matters even more complicated, in the light John 6:37, 6:44, 6:65, and Romans 8:30, some who adhere to the free will doctrine of salvation feel compelled to acknowledge that there is an effectual calling of God, and that none of those who receive this calling will refuse it. However, because they interpret God’s foreknowledge as God knowing ahead of time those individuals who will make the decision to accept Christ and not reject Him when they are drawn or enabled to do so, they must then assert that God only extends His effectual calling to those whom He knew would accept Christ of their own free will anyway, without an effectual calling.
This idea of God only extending His effectual calling to those whom He knew would accept Christ of their own free will anyway is yet another idea and concept that is stated nowhere in the Bible. And this makes it yet one more attempt by man to “fill in the gaps” by adding his own assertions and reasoning to what is written in the Bible, in an effort to support the free will doctrine of salvation by attempting to explain passages of Scripture that clearly challenge this doctrine.
In the second case of those who believe the Bible teaches that man’s own will or decision has nothing at all to do with his salvation, God’s foreknowledge is understood as follows: God chose before the world began to save certain individuals, and He “knew” these individuals from the beginning. In His time, each of these chosen individuals is born into the world, and again in His time, He calls each of them to faith in Christ. Everyone who receives this calling does indeed come to Christ, and no one who receives this calling rejects Him. This means that the calling of God, which Jesus mentioned in John 6:44, and which Paul mentioned in Romans 8:30, is an effectual calling; it always results in regeneration for those who receive it. This interpretation is supported entirely by the Scriptures themselves, and it requires no additional assertions or reasoning by man in order to make it consistent and cohesive.
God’s Sovereign Choice
Perhaps no other passage in Scripture gets right to the core of the question as to whether or not man’s own will, desire, or decision is involved in his salvation, as does the Apostle Paul’s discussion of God’s sovereign choice of a people for Himself in Romans 9. The reader is encouraged to first review and study prayerfully the entire passage of Romans 9:6-24 before proceeding with the explanations that follow, so that a complete consideration can be given to the context of this passage and the individual verses themselves. We should consider very carefully, verse by verse, what Paul is teaching and exactly what he intended to communicate.
Paul began Romans 9 by lamenting that many of the Jews rejected the message that Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah, and that salvation and the forgiveness of sins comes through Him alone. Paul said that the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises were all given to the Israelites. He then continued to explain in the following verses that it does not mean that God’s word had failed because so many of the people descended from Israel (or Jacob) were rejecting His salvation through His Son Jesus Christ.
As he continued his teaching in verse 6, Paul explained that not all of the people of Israel by birth will be included in spiritual Israel, but only those who are the “children of the promise”. In this passage Paul used the example of God’s sovereign choice of a particular people in the Old Testament in order to demonstrate God’s sovereign choice in His calling of a particular people to faith in Christ, not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles.
Here Paul began his discussion of God’s sovereign choice of His people, even from among the descendants of Israel, by saying that just because they were directly descended from Jacob in the natural way did not mean that they would be included with spiritual Israel. This is what Paul meant when he said: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (Romans 9:6b-7a).
Paul then continued the discussion by quoting Genesis 21:12, saying that it would be through Isaac that Abraham’s true offspring, the children of God, would come. Isaac himself was the child of promise born to Abraham and Sarah. God promised Abraham that he would have a son through Sarah, even though Abraham himself was about a hundred years old and Sarah was known to be barren. Nevertheless, in God’s time, Sarah did conceive even in her advanced age, though she was unable to do so as a young woman, and Abraham did have the son of God’s promise, who was Isaac. God gave life in the dead womb of Sarah, fulfilling His promise of a son to Abraham. And as Paul also taught, God “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Romans 4:17).
As he continued his teaching in Romans 9:10, Paul carried the discussion of God’s sovereign choice of a people for Himself a generation further by considering the twin sons of Isaac and his wife Rebekah, who were Jacob and Esau. Let us look carefully at the following verses where Paul wrote: “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” (Romans 9:11-13).
Paul taught in these verses that God makes His choice or election of His people, just as He had decided to do concerning Jacob and Esau, before they are even born, and before they have done anything at all, either good or bad. The teaching that Paul intended to communicate here becomes very clear in the next verse, because we see that he anticipated objections to what he had just written. Beginning in verse fourteen we read: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” (Romans 9:14-15).
If Paul were teaching that each and every person ever born could be saved if they so desired by deciding for themselves that they would receive Christ and not reject Him, then there would be no reason for him to anticipate any objection at all. After all, if everyone had a chance at salvation, and if their salvation ultimately depended upon their own choice and decision whether to accept Christ or reject Him, then in terms of human ideas of what is fair and what is just, nothing could be fairer and more just than allowing each man to decide for himself.
However, Paul was not teaching that man’s salvation rests ultimately with his own personal decision either to accept Christ or reject Him. On the contrary, what Paul taught in these verses was that the choice of man’s salvation rests with God alone, and that He has mercy and compassion in this respect upon whomever He chooses. Paul understood that in the minds of most men, this concept of God’s salvation will be considered unfair, unjust, and unreasonable, and this is exactly why he anticipated that many would object to what he was teaching.
In verse 14, Paul responded to these anticipated objections and protests by stating emphatically that God is not unjust. All of those whom God leaves in their sins receive justice, in that they pay the just penalty for their sins in an eternity separated from God. Those of us whom God has chosen to bring to faith in Christ, however, receive something far better than justice. We receive God’s mercy, and not the justice due us for our sins, in that the blood of Christ will cleanse us from all of our sins. From Paul’s teaching here we see that some receive mercy from God, while all of the others receive justice, but no one receives injustice from God.
Paul then continued, teaching clearly that a person’s own will or desire or effort has nothing at all to do with their salvation, but their salvation is solely and completely dependent upon God’s decision as to whether He will show mercy to them. This teaching is revealed in verse 16 where Paul wrote: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16, emphasis added).
As we have noted previously, many who say that man ultimately decides for himself whether or not he will receive Christ will freely admit that no man can come to Christ unless the Father draws him, just as Jesus taught in John 6:44. They will then insist that at some point in each and every individual’s life, the Father does draw or enable them to come to Christ. And they will then go on to say that at this point the individual must decide for himself whether he will accept or reject Christ as his Lord and Savior. Those who hold this view are saying that indeed salvation does depend on man’s will, and the decision is his, but the Apostle Paul is saying with clarity and with no ambiguity in Romans 9:16 that salvation does not depend on man’s will, or his effort, but the decision is God’s.
There is clearly a contradiction here between the teaching of those who say that man’s own will is the determining factor in his salvation, and the teaching of the Apostle Paul who said that man’s salvation does not depend upon his own will, or his effort, but it depends upon God, who decides to whom He will show mercy. If we as believers hold the view that each man’s own will and decision to either accept Christ or reject Him is the determining factor in his salvation, then we must ask ourselves how this teaching of Paul’s in Romans 9, and especially in verse 16, can possibly be consistent with our own opinion.
The Holy Bible is the inspired word of God, and it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). If there is ever a contradiction between what the Bible teaches and our present understanding of things, then we should be willing to let the Scriptures themselves be the guide for what we embrace as the truth.
Does God Harden Some People Against Himself?
After Paul’s statement in Romans 9:16 that man’s salvation does not depend upon his own desire, or his own effort, he continued his teaching of election and God’s sovereign choice of a people. Paul emphasized God’s decision to save those individuals to whom He has decided to show mercy, and he also taught that God chooses not to show mercy to others, even hardening them against His will. Paul wrote: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” (Romans 9:17-18).
Here Paul used the example of Pharaoh, whom God hardened against His will and against the request of Moses to let the people of Israel go from their bondage in Egypt. As Paul quoted from Exodus 9:16, God hardened Pharaoh against Himself in order that He might show His power and that His name might be proclaimed in all the earth by the miracles He wrought through His servant Moses when He brought His people out of Egyptian bondage by His own might and power.
God hardened Pharaoh against Himself and accomplished His own purpose through it. One might ask: Why did God harden Pharaoh; why did He not just show mercy to Pharaoh and make him willing to obey Him? God does not reveal His “reasons” why He chooses to harden some, and He chooses to show mercy to others. However, it is revealed to us that God’s mercy shown to those whom He calls to faith in His Son has nothing whatsoever to do with their own works, and therefore no man can boast that he obtained God’s favor by his own actions (Ephesians 2:9-8, 1 Corinthians 4:7). The fact remains, as Paul taught in Romans 9:18, that God has mercy upon whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens those whom He wants to harden.
Continuing with verse 19 we read: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (Romans 9:19-21, emphasis added).
In these verses we see that Paul again expected that some would object to what he was teaching and would question how God could find fault and condemn someone whom He has chosen to harden against His will. The hard truth that Paul is teaching here, is that regarding salvation, no one is able to resist God’s will (Romans 9:19).
Those to whom God shows mercy are called to faith in Christ, and none refuse that call. Whereas those to whom God does not show mercy are not called by Him; they are left in their sins. These are not able to come to faith in Christ by their own innate desire or decision (John 1:13, Romans 8:7, Romans 9:16), because no man has the ability to come to Christ unless God the Father draws him (John 6:44). Paul answered these anticipated objections by saying that it is not for man to question his Maker regarding His sovereign decisions about those whom He has created and how He decides to use them, whether “for honorable use” or “for common use” (Romans 9:21).
Paul concluded his teaching in Romans 9 regarding God’s sovereign choice of a people for Himself when he put forward these questions: “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” (Romans 9:22-24).
We see here in these final verses of Romans 9:6-24, that there are those who are “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”. And in contrast there are those who are “vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called” (emphasis added), and these He called from among the Jews and from among the Gentiles also, Gentiles being categorically all of those who are not Jews. Those who are vessels of His wrath, prepared for destruction, are those to whom God did not want to show mercy. These He hardened, as Paul said in verse 18.
John’s Teaching Agrees with Paul’s
In Romans 9:16, Paul taught that a man’s salvation does not depend upon his own will or choice in the matter, or upon any effort of his own, but upon God’s will and choice as to whether or not He will show mercy to him. The Apostle John also emphasized that man’s own will is not involved in his salvation when he wrote: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 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, emphasis added). For one to assert that man’s own will and decision as to whether or not he will receive Christ is the determining factor in his salvation would contradict not only Paul’s teaching of God’s sovereign choice in Romans 9, but would also contradict John’s teaching here in verse 13 of this passage where he clearly stated that the children of God are not born by way of their own will.
All who come to faith in Christ do receive Him, and they do believe in Him (John 1:12). But the receiving of Christ and the believing in Him are not the means by which unregenerate man avails himself of God’s “offer” of salvation, as some would say. Rather the receiving of Christ and the believing in Him are evidence in an individual’s life that they have already been called by God to faith in Christ; they have already been born again.
In God’s time, His elect are born into the world, and again in His time they are all called by Him to faith in Christ. Those who are called by God, He also justifies, and those whom He justifies, He also glorifies together with Christ in Heaven, all according to the order Paul described in Romans 8:29-30.
God Himself brings about an individual’s salvation from beginning to end, and He does this only for those whom He foreknew from before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). And according to Romans 9:16 and John 1:13 their own will or decision has absolutely nothing to do with their salvation. If we are still not convinced, and we still insist that a man’s own cooperation and willful agreement to believe in Christ is the determining factor in his salvation, then let us once again recall the conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road, which occurred apart from his own will or decision in the matter, and in fact contrary to his own will at the time (Acts 9:1).
Jesus said: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…” (John 6:37). Those whom the Father has given to His Son Jesus Christ are those who were foreknown by God and chosen by Him before the creation of the world to be brought to faith in Christ. In God’s time He calls them to faith in His Son, and none refuse His calling; they all come. God’s word does not return to Him void, but always accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Peter Teaches of Those Destined to Disobey
The Apostle Peter also spoke of those individuals whom Paul described in Romans 9:22 as vessels of God’s wrath, “prepared for destruction”. Peter described them as those who were appointed or destined to the doom which comes to those who are disobedient to the word. Peter wrote:
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve
“The Stone which the builders rejected,
This became the very corner stone
And “A Stone of stumbling and a Rock of offense”;
for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.
But you are chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:7-9, emphasis added)
Peter referred to those who stumble because they are disobedient to the word, saying that they were “appointed” to this doom. As we consider Peter’s teaching about those who were appointed to disobedience, let us also call to mind Acts 13:48 and the fact that others have been appointed to eternal life.
God has chosen these individuals who have been appointed to eternal life as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for His own possession. In contrast, those who were appointed to disobey the word are those whom God has hardened against Himself and His word, and He has willed not to show them mercy (Romans 9:18). So we see that God’s chosen people were predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29), and they are all “called…out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), whereas all of the others did not receive God’s mercy, but were destined to disobey the word, and as Peter said, “to this doom they were also appointed”.