Grace and Freewill

Q – What would you say to someone who said this: “God’s grace is extended to all men, but not all men respond. That is because those who do not are so hardened by their own sin that they choose not to see. But the Spirit makes a call to everyone to come to God.”

Jim – Let’s take this quote in parts, one piece at a time. Firstly,

“God’s grace is extended to all men.”

That is essentially true. It’s what theologians call “common grace.” Lots of lost sinners live very nice lives. They eat well. They have homes and cars. They live under the sun and are refreshed by the rain. Jesus said,

“For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mat. 5:45b)

And, by grace, the Word is available to all men. The airwaves are full of Christian broadcasting, there are churches everywhere, and a Bible in every hotel room. So, the grace of God extends to everyone on earth is some sense. Sinful men, who do not deserve it, live under God’s hand of provision. Fair enough.

However, God’s particular grace that leads to salvation is another matter.

“…but not all men respond.”

Exactly right. Now, to what do we attribute this fact? Is it a failing in some men that causes them not to respond? Is it a failing in God that makes Him incapable of reaching all men? Or, is it a matter of will power? Are some men just so strong that they can resist the grace of God?

I will answer the last question first. Men are fully able to resist the general, “common” grace. But, common grace is not revelatory. For instance, you can stare at the stars, or at a leaf, or at a newborn child, and be convinced that God exists. Even Paul admitted that (Rom. 1:18-20). However, that general knowledge of God’s existence that we can deduce from nature will never reveal the atoning work of Christ, man’s sinful nature, or God’s plan of redemption. You can stare are a shining lake all day, but it will never reveal such truths. You must look to Scripture for that sort of truth. Now, not everyone will respond to the revelatory truths of Scripture. So, we’re back to square one.

Why won’t everyone respond to the revelatory truths of Scripture? Are men that stupid, or weak, or freewheeling, or independent? Or, is God that incapable of revealing Himself to His creatures? Or, is everything working out exactly the way God intends it to?

Scripture – the place of revelatory knowledge – sides with the last answer. God is in control and the people who do not respond to God’s word were never His to begin with. They may live under His sky and eat His food, but that’s only because He is gracious and longsuffering with them. They have no knowledge of His truth, which can only be revealed by God’s saving grace.

“That is because those who do not are so hardened by their own sin that they choose not to see.”

Actually, no. It is not because they choose not to see, it is because they have no ability to see. It is not a matter of will; it is a matter of capability. It is not what they do that holds them back – it’s what they are.

In Christ’s parable of the sower, He said that the seed – which He defined as His word – would go out into the world. Then, he described four kinds of soil. Only one type of soil actually produced any fruit. Three quarters of the soil failed to produce. Notice, it was the same word, the same seed, but the difference was in the type of soil. Bad soil produced no fruit. Good soil produced, some more than others.

The difference was not in the choices the soil made, but in what kind of soil it was – good or bad.

Or, how about this –

“Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Mat. 7:17-20)

The difference between the two trees was not in the choices they made. Trees have no will power. Trees don’t decide whether or not to produce. Good trees produce good fruit. Bad trees produce evil fruit, so they are destroyed and cast into the fire (an obvious allusion to Hell). The difference was in how the trees are, not what they do. What they do is the outgrowth of what they are.

Following me?

More importantly, what this quote is implying is that there are some people who are just so bad, so thick into their sin, that their hearts are permanently hardened against God. The inverse, then, is that the people who do choose God are somehow less sinful and are therefore able to take hold of the offer of grace by their own power and will. You see the subtle ego, here. “They are bad, so God will punish them. We are good, so we will be rewarded.”

But, the element that’s missing is that none of us is good! We are all depraved! We are all born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). We are all so hardened that we would never choose God. Look, if we actually could soften our hearts and choose to draw close to God, that would be a very good thing we’d have done. But —

“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, notone.” (Rom. 3: 11-12 emphasis added)

Or, how about –

“There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. but now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” (Is. 64:7-8)

If these verses mean anything at all – and there are plenty more like them – then noone ever decided to take advantage of God’s offer. We are altogether worthless sinners in need of a Savior, and none of us by nature would seek after God, or stir himself up to take hold of God. By nature, we would never call on His name.

So, the idea that the lost are lost and hardened of their own accord, and the saved are accepted because of their own ability, is a false premise. No one is without sin. No one was born unscathed. We are all born guilty, helpless, and incapable.

“But the Spirit makes a call to everyone to come to God.”

Well, sort of. But, we need to make a vital distinction here. The general call goes out into the world the same way the seed is spread over all the types of ground. The word is openly preached to everyone. But, the open call to believe that is implicit in the preaching of the gospel is not a “particular” call. It is a general call to all men. But, it is not what we term an “effectual call.” In other words, it does not have the power to convert. That power remains with the Spirit. The Word calls out and beckons to men to repent and be converted, but only the Spirit of God can actually bring repentance and conversion.

For example, I preach the word each Sunday morning. I preach to the converted and the unconverted. I preach to the saved and the unsaved. I call men to Christ – all men, every man. But, I don’t have the power to actually convert or save anyone. I call out into the world, showing sinners the way to Christ. But, the only authority my call has is the authority of the word I teach. I have no power; I have no intrinsic authority.

On the other hand, the Spirit of God indwells some of the people I preach to. He calls them to turn from their sins, repent, and call on God for salvation. That’s an effectual, specific, individual call. It works completely independent of me. I have no power over it, nor does anyone else. The Spirit calls the chosen of God.

“But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter [the Spirit] openeth; and the sheep hear his voice; and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And, when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice.” (John 10:2-5)

That’s a specific call to individual sheep. That’s not the general call. Even Jesus made this distinction –

“So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many be called, but few chosen.” (Mat. 20:16)

So, the general call is the word going out into the world. That’s very different from the activity of the Spirit. As I showed at length in my last email, Jesus did not pray for the whole world, nor did He intend that the Holy Spirit would inhabit the whole world. The world did not know the Spirit and could not receive the Spirit.

That’s a crucial difference. The Spirit of God never calls anyone He does not intend to convert. Otherwise, God is sending His Spirit just in case anyone chooses to accept Him. But, we never find such language in Scripture. Read how specific this language is –

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:28-31)

Follow the one group of people through this passage –

They are “them that love God.”

They are “called according to his purpose.”

They are the ones God did “foreknow.” That’s “proginosko” in the Greek. It means, “to have an intimate relationship with, or to love in advance.” Before God called these people, He knew them intimately. That’s why He called them. He loved them, despite their natural state.

Those He foreknew He “predestinated to be conformed” to the image of His Son. In other words, He determined in advance that the people He knew intimately and loved would be the people who became Christians, members of the body of Christ, so that Jesus would be the firstborn of many brethren. (Nothing left to chance, here.)

Having predestinated those that He loved in advance, He “called” them. There’s your effectual call. This was not the call of a weakling hoping someone would take Him up on His offer. This is the call of authority, raising us from our dead spiritual state and drawing us to the things of God.

Those that He called, He “justified.” The people who love God, the ones who were called in accordance with God’s own purpose, those whom He loved in advance and predestined to be conformed to Christ, those are the very people He called and then justified at Calvary. Same people.

But, here’s the topper. Those that He justified, He “glorified” (past tense!). The people who get to glory will be those very same people who God foreknew, predestined, called and justified. Now, that’s an effectual call! There is no chance that these people will slip out from under God’s purpose, because an all-powerful God purposed it.

So, what does Paul say? “If God is for us, who can be against us?!”

Exactly, Paul. Exactly.

So, we must see the difference between the spread of the gospel, the preached message that calls all men to repent, and the call of the Spirit that is the direct action of God to His specific people for the purpose of saving them.

By the way, the idea of this “specific,” or “particular,” or “effectual” call is implicit in the name “church.” It is the Greek word “ekklesia,” made up of the prefix “ek” meaning “out of,” and “klasis” or calling. The form “klasia” has to do with the particular people who are called. So, the word “church” actually means, “out called ones.” It is better translated by the word “assembly” – hence, Grace Christian Assembly.

Q – My point is that scripture does say that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But only the elect will. Right?

Jim – Well, let’s be specific. The verse you are referring to is Acts 2:21, and it is in the middle of Peter’s commentary on the predictions of the prophet Joel.

“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come; And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

So, this verse is speaking very specifically about “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22) who will convert during the tribulation. It is not a discussion of free will or methods of salvation.

The other place we find that phrase is in Romans 10:13 –

“For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In that context, Paul’s version of “whosoever” has to do with racial distinctions and the inclusion of Gentiles into the faith of Christ. But, he doesn’t stop there –

“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed [“pisteou” – have faith, a gift from God]? And, how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard [and have the gift of hearing, as we spoke about before]? And, how shall they hear without a preacher [gift ministries – “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers”]? And, how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:14,15a)

So, Paul agrees with you that absolutely anyone, Jew or Gentile, who calls on the name of the Lord will absolutely be saved. But, that won’t just automatically happen. They must have faith before they will ever call on Him. That’s just the opposite of how most churches teach it. They claim that you call on Christ and then you have faith in Him. But, Paul sees the illogic in such thinking. First, we must believe, have faith, in Christ.

“But without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6)

Faith precedes coming, or calling on the Lord. And, faith is an absolute necessity in order to please God. Faith, however, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8, 1Cor. 12:9). God stirs up faith in His people, causing them to respond to His effectual call, and them that respond will surely be saved because they are reacting to His call. And, in order to have faith, they have to have heard of Christ (specific, not general, revelation).

“Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17)

And, in order for them to hear, there must be someone to preach the gospel. And, in order to preach the true gospel, the preacher himself must be sent from God. So, the whole thing starts back at God. He instigates the whole thing.

Ain’t it funny how that keeps happening?

So, I said all that to say, “Right.” Only the elect will respond. If everyone is dead in trespasses and sins and are incapable of stirring themselves up to seek after God, then God must make those “bad trees” into “good trees” before they can produce good fruit. God must do a definite work of regeneration in a person before they will call on Him. So, it starts with God, who is calling out His foreknown, predestined people, who will certainly respond to the effectual call.

Q – I don’t know how the determining factor could be me yet that not be a work – but she said that she didn’t feel our acceptance or rejection of Christ was a work. I’m just confused by that.

Jim – Don’t be confused. Of course our acceptance or rejection of Christ is considered a work in Paul’s theology, regardless of how your friend feels. This is not about feelings. This is about sound doctrine. If God saves you as the result of anything you do, then He is responding out of obligation. And, that is not grace. Grace must be totally and utterly unmerited.

But, if you perform some formula, or make the mental ascent that Jesus would be a good addition to your life, then you are obligating Him. He provided the means, but you provided the motivation. You are joint participants in the work of salvation. Jesus hung on the tree just in case anyone would accept His work, validate His plan of redemption, and put the whole deal into operation. You are the deciding factor. You have something to glory in.

That’s utterly anti-Scriptural.

Q – But, I’ve heard it a TON in the church, and I would like to know what you say to it.

Jim – And, there’s the problem. Churches teach plenty of errant stuff. It’s hard to unlearn what we believed to be true.

“Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar…” (Rom.3:4)

Again, if men are incapable of stirring themselves up to seek after God, only those men whom God stirs up will ever seek Him. Sinners do not seek the God they hate.

“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Rom. 8:7)

All of these things we’ve discussed today through these three long emails have one thing in common. People end up with confused theology because they begin with a truncated view of man’s depravity and sin. They just keep thinking that we are somehow capable of doing the impossible – turning from ourselves toward God by force of our own will. But, the Bible declares over and over again the impossibility of that happening. If we understood the depth of our problem, it would solve the vast majority of this errant thinking.

Sinful fleshly men cannot choose against their nature and accept Christ. It is not possible. If we began with that premise, we would not be arguing about whether or not accepting or rejecting Christ was a “work,” because we would know that only a gracious act of God on our behalf could ever make us capable of accepting Him.

It’s grace, my sister. Grace, grace, grace.

Q – Just that it was God’s will that we be allowed to choose. It’s not in scripture. I don’t know how much more I need to say. But I wonder what you think.

Jim – Well, you’ve gotten a healthy dose of what I think, today. As I said before, we must decide what our final arbiter of truth is going to be. Is it what seems logical and fair to our mortal minds, or is it the Word of God and His revelation of Himself. If we decide that the Bible is the “final word” in all matters of faith and doctrine, then the simple fact that the notion of God’s allowing us to choose our destinies is not found anywhere in Scripture ought to be enough to keep us from promoting such an idea.

But, as you well know, people believe and preach all sorts of things that are not found anywhere in the Bible. That’s why I pound on Scripture the way I do. Only if we have some working knowledge of what the Word actually says can we develop a consistent theology that is not confused or confusing.

“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1Cor. 14:33)

Q – I HATE that argument, that it’s God’s will for us to be “allowed” to choose.

Jim – Me, too. I hate it because it does damage to the Word, it’s ignorant, it’s illogical, and the people who defend it do so adamantly. Mostly, I hate it because it does damage to the glory of the God who saved me and the Christ who died for me. And, I hate anything that demeans the Lord I love.

Q – I used to believe it was God’s will that we choose, and the only way we could truly be free to love God was if he let us come to Him on our own.

Jim – Yep. Very common, very errant thinking. It serves manmade notions of freedom and fairness. But, it’s utterly unscriptural. The fact is that, given our sinful state, the only real freedom we have is the freedom to sin and rebel. We have no freedom to choose or please God. As Christ said, we cannot do it. We have no ability. We are dead and “desperately wicked.”

One facet of our sinful freedom, however, is the creation of theologies that suit our sinful self-will in opposition to the clear declarations of Scripture. Only when we are truly set free to turn from ourselves and bask in the revelatory knowledge of Christ will we understand the errors of our former beliefs.

Q – But I don’t remember ever hearing anything to dispel that except ‘if that were true it would be in scripture and it’s not.’

Jim – And, wouldn’t it be nice if that were sufficient? But, pet theories and fleshly theologies die hard. Only grace (hey, we’re back to grace again!) can change a person’s view of himself, God, and the gulf in between. Then, when they recognize the distance between them, they will understand how far He came. Then, they will recognize the “pit from which we are digged.” Then, they will cry out for a Savior, and they won’t breathe the first word about what they’ve contributed. They will say, “It’s all of grace.” They will know, as Jonah did, that “salvation is of the Lord.”

Our God reigns, my friend. Don’t let the naysayers and pop philosophers get you down. Keep looking up. Keep your eyes fastened on Jesus and not on the foolishness of the world. You’ll be just fine.

Yours for His sake,
Jim Mc.