Whose choice is it when a person is saved? Is it the person’s choice, or God’s? Some answer that it’s the person’s choice; others say it’s God’s. Some say that it’s both, but that pushes the question back further: Who chose first? Does God choose those who choose Him first, or the other way around? How does sin affect our ability to choose God? Finally, how about those who don’t get saved? Was it God’s choice that they be lost?
There are many opinions on the topic of free will and predestination. Unfortunately, a lot of them are based on emotions or traditions rather than God’s Word. The Bible, however, exhorts us: “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1, all scripture quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise stated). A balanced, biblical understanding on this topic is the Doctrines of Grace. These doctrines are best known through the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. These tend to be misunderstood by many who hear them, so it’s best to define them carefully and show where the Bible teaches them.
The Bible teaches that humanity fell when Adam sinned in the Garden, because Adam functioned as the federal head of humanity (cf. Romans 5:12). To put it in biblical terms: “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). The result of this is that we are born with a nature that is naturally inclined to sin (Psalm 51:5, 58:3 and Jeremiah 17:9). This is best illustrated in the Psalm where David describes the default condition of all humankind:
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one (Psa 14:2-3, cf. Rom 3:10-18).
As a result, Paul writes that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). This doesn’t mean that we are always as evil as we can be. God often restrains evil, as seen in Genesis when He keeps Abimelech from sinning by committing adultery with Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:6), or when He providentially moved Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, rather than killing him as they originally planned (Genesis 37:18-28, 45:4-8 and 50:20).
We must have a proper understanding of how our sin nature affects our ability to make decisions because it helps to explain why it’s necessary for God to initiate our salvation. Thus, we turn next to unconditional election.
In light of what scripture teaches about humanity’s inability to naturally seek after God, we can now make sense of what Jesus meant when He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44, 6:65). Faith and repentance are gifts from God (Ephesians 2:8-9, Phillippians 1:29, 2 Timothy 2:25). When we come to faith in the Lord Jesus, it is because God takes the initiative to make us born again. This is illustrated by God through the prophet Ezekiel:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. and I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. and I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 35:25-27).
Notice that it is God who is at work in producing the new birth in the believer. In Jesus’ words, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). This is also seen when Paul preaches to the Gentiles for the first time. As scripture says, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). A perfect illustration of this is Note that it is God’s foreordination that leads to men coming to faith, not the other way around. This way, God gains all the glory in salvation.
At this point, it is asked: “does God predestine some to be damned the same way he predestines others to be saved?” The answer to this is that God does not actively cause sinners to be damned because that is already their condition by default. It’s like gravity: Just as physical objects fall downwards by nature, so are sinners by nature hellbound unless God elects them to salvation. However, this does not mean that God does not have a purpose for the non-elect, since scripture says that “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4).
Remember that God is absolutely free to choose those whom He chooses to save. It is like the governor who chooses to pardon a certain group of prisoners on death row out of sheer mercy because he has the sovereign authority to do so. He is not obligated to pardon everybody on death row just because he has chosen to pardon some. This is one of the main messages of the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 9. It is worth taking a look at what he has written in this passage:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. (Rom 9:14-23)
The passage is clear that God is absolutely free with regards to salvation. He is not obligated to save anybody, but does so out of sheer mercy and grace, such that nobody can accuse him of being unfair in what He decrees.
Limited atonement is a misleading term; it would be better to think of this point as “definite atonement” or “particular redemption.” What this doctrine simply states is that God has set out to redeem and purify for Himself “a peculiar people” (Titus 2:14, KJV). Although the atoning work of Christ is sufficient to save every individual who has ever lived, it is efficient only for those who have been elected, since obviously, one must come to Jesus in order to be covered by His blood: “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
As was established in the previous section, it is the Father who draws certain people unto salvation, and as will be established in the next section, it is the Holy Spirit who makes these same people born again, consequently bringing them into faith, since “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). So if the Father elects a certain people and the Holy Spirit causes this same group of people to be born again, it is logical that the Son atoned specifically for this same group of people, because otherwise the Triune Godhead would be at odds with Himself! Simply put: He died for “All that the Father gives [Him]” (John 6:37a), and He does this perfectly; Jesus as the great High Priest perfectly atones for all who have been given to Him, leaving no sin of theirs uncovered.
One may ask at this point, why then does scripture speak of Christ dying for “all,” or for “the world?” The reason for this is that the Bible wishes to correct the false notion that salvation was only for specific ethnic or social groups. Jesus’ death is for all in that He has purchased people from every social class, from both sexes, and “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). To give a poignant example, Jesus is referred to in the Gospel of John as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Yet, we can tell that “the world” in this context does not refer to every single individual who has ever lived because later on, He tells the Jews that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He also tells the Pharisees: “Since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). If Jesus can say these things to them, then clearly their sins were not atoned for, thus refuting the theory of universal atonement.
That these terms allow for exceptions is clear from various passages. For example, it is written that during the time of Jesus’ birth, “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1, KJV). Obviously, this does not mean every individual the world over was taxed, but everyone within the Roman Empire. Similarly, during Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, “the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him’” (John 12:19). This doesn’t mean every single individual, but is a hyperbolic expression meant to convey that a very large crowd was following Jesus. Another example is seen in John the Baptist’s ministry. It is written that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him” (Mark 1:5). Since there were still many unbelievers in Jerusalem, we cannot take this to mean that every single individual in that place was baptized by him. Thus, such phrases must be understood in their proper context, rather than naively assuming that “all” always means “everyone without exception.”
The fourth term, irresistible grace is another misleading one, since it does not mean that God’s work is never resisted. Scripture clearly states, for example, that there are those who resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). For this reason, it is better to refer to this term as “efficacious grace.” What this means is that if God has elected an individual to be saved, that decree of salvation will infallibly come to pass. That God’s decrees always come to pass are plainly declared in scripture. For example, it is written in Isaiah:
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” … For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 46:9-10, 55:10-11)
When it comes to God’s ability to effectively save everyone He has chosen, Jesus said it best when He declared: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Note that He declares with certainty that they will come. He does not just say that they might come or that He hopes they will come, but that they will come. There are going to be times when men will act in resistance against God, but when He has sovereignly decreed one’s salvation, He will ultimately break down that resistance, and He will never fail to save a single one of His elect.
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Since God is able to infallibly bring His elect into saving faith in Christ, it would follow that He is also able to infallibly keep His elect in Christ. Since it has already been shown that Jesus said that all that the Father gives to Him will come to Him, it is also worth noting that afterwards, He also said: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).
God grants those whom He has elected the power to persevere in the faith to the very end, which is why Jesus said that “whoever endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22, KJV). While this may be interpreted as a command to endure, it must be noticed that Jesus is actually making a description of those who are to be saved. Furthermore, they receive this ability to endure from Christ Himself, since apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The upshot of this is that since the Elect can never lose their salvation, those who believe for a while yet turn away, in the end, were never truly saved to begin with. This was John’s message when he warned against apostates who would leave the church:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19).
The doctrines of grace are the key to understanding how God has worked out His plan of salvation from before time began, as well as understanding why it is that God has done things the way He does. Does that mean that we are able to understand everything there is to know about God’s sovereignty? No, because the secret things still belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29). However, what has been revealed to us about the topic is meant to encourage us. One great Bible teacher once said that the sovereignty of God “is a soft pillow for a weary head.” Because God is absolutely sovereign, we can entrust ourselves wholly to Him, knowing that He will never fail a single one of His children, since He “is able to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).