Overwhelmed By His Grace: Chapter 7 Questions Concerning Sovereign Grace
By Brian Anderson
Needless to say, when I first began to study the subject of God's sovereign grace in the Scriptures, I had many questions and objections that I had to wrestle with. I have included some of those questions below, as well as some answers I have found from my own study.
1. How Can God Hold Sinners Responsible To Do What They Are Unable To Do?
If what we have said thus far is true (namely that all men are in a state of total inability to repent and believe savingly on Christ), an objection naturally arises. How can God hold sinners responsible to do something they are unable to do? On the surface, this sounds like an unanswerable question. However, we must remember that man's inability to come to Christ is his own fault. In the beginning Adam had the ability to either obey or disobey (Eccl. 7:29). His choice to eat of the forbidden fruit plunged him and all his descendants into a condition of slavery to sin, and thus, a state of inability to savingly respond to God's offer of mercy. Imagine a man who asks for welfare support for his family, because he is not able to take care of their needs. When questioned further, he admits that the reason he is not able to provide for his family is because he has deliberately had his arms amputated, and therefore cannot work. When his situation is looked into even more carefully, it becomes apparent that the reason he has had his arms amputated is because he is lazy and does not want to work. Can this individual justly appeal to the United States government to support him and his family because he is unable to provide for his family? It is his own fault that he cannot provide for his family, because he made the willful and deliberate choice to cut off his arms. Likewise, we are at fault for our inability, for all of us sinned in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). Adam justly represented the entire human race, and God holds all of us responsible for that sin (Rom. 5:18).
Not only is man's inability to come to Christ his own fault, but it results from the fact that he lacks the necessary will to come to Christ. In other words he cannot come to Christ because he will not come to Christ. God does not hold men responsible to do what He has not equipped them to do. For example, God does not hold men responsible to fly, because He has not given them the necessary equipment to fly. However, God does hold men responsible to repent and believe on Christ, because He has given them everything necessary to do that. God has given them a brain that can think, and a will that can choose. However, the sinner will never use his brain and will correctly to repent and believe until God changes his nature, simply because He does not want to. He loves his sin more than Christ. The sinner's inability is not natural, but rather moral and spiritual. It is the kind of inability that Joseph's brothers evidenced. "And his brothers saw that their faither loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms" (Gen.37:4). The inability of Joseph's brothers to speak on friendly terms was not that they were unable to mouth the syllables that would form peaceable words. Rather, they could not speak to Joseph on friendly terms because they hated him. Likewise, the sinner is unable to believe in Christ, love Christ, and repent of sin, not because God hasn't given him a mind, heart, and will to do those things, but because his mind, heart, and will are in rebellion to God.
Iain Murray convincingly explains the futility of this argument in his wonderful book, The Forgotten Spurgeon:
"Man's spiritual inability is due solely to his sin and therefore it in no way lessens his responsibility. That man must be able to believe and repent in order to be responsible for unbelief and impenitency is a philosophical conception nowhere found in Scripture; in fact it is directly contrary to Scripture because, if responsibility were to be measured by ability, then it would mean that the more sinful a man becomes the less he is responsible!" (Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, Banner of Truth, footnotes on p.62.)
Who ever heard of a judge who would not hold a man responsible for his crime of murder merely because he hated his neighbor so much he was unable to keep from pulling the trigger? No, the Bible teaches that the more sinful (and thus, spiritually impotent) a man is, the more responsible he is before God (Rom. 2:5-6).
2. Isn't Election Based On Foreknowledge?
This argument goes something like this: "In Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:2, the Bible declares that election is based on God's foreknowledge. That means that God knew ahead of time who would choose Him, so He chose them. God has not really made any distinguishing choice between who He has determined to save and who He has not; He has merely decided to endorse man's own free choices." This argument is very popular today - in fact, at one time I held it. We desperately want to believe that we are the ones that are calling the shots and in control. But are we? Does this explanation accurately present the truth of God's Word? I believe that this explanation of foreknowledge cannot possibly be correct because of the following reasons:
This Makes Man Sovereign: If God only chose us because He knew ahead of time that we would choose Him, God has not really made a choice at all. He has only approved of our choice of Him. But in contrast with this view, notice Jesus's words in John 15:16, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you." If we are sovereign, then God is not. But if God is not sovereign, then He is not God, because there is someone or something with more authority and power in the universe than Him.
This Gives Man The Credit For His Salvation. If my salvation is based on the right use of my free will, then I will have something to boast about in heaven. I will be able to say to the sinner in hell, "The reason I'm up here, and you're down there is because I made the right choice, and you didn't!" But God has devised salvation in such a way that no one will ever be able to boast (1Cor.1:26-31; Eph. 2:8-9).
This Assumes That Man Seeks After God. However, the Bible explicitly teaches that he does not. Romans 3:11 teaches us, "There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God."
This Makes Salvation A Result Of A Human Work. However, the Bible teaches that faith comes from God as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Pet. 1:1; John 6:65; Phil. 1:29; Acts 18:27), not as our contribution to salvation. Those individuals alone who are given the faith to believe are the ones appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48).
Foreknowledge Is Spoken Of In Connection With A People -- Not In Connection With Any Action Which People Perform. Notice how foreknowledge is spoken of in Romans 8:29 "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son." The text does not say, "For what He foreknew." If foreknowledge was simply the fact that God foreknew our actions, then the verse would have read, "For that which He foreknew." The simple truth is that God's foreknowledge refers to His special, saving love that He has determined to set upon His elect. To "know" in Scripture often has the meaning of to "love" (Amos 3:2; Mt. 7:23; John 10:14; 2 Tim. 1:19). Foreknowledge then, means to forelove. God has determined beforehand to specially love certain people.
3. Doesn't Sovereign Election Make God Unfair?
One of the most often raised objections in regard to divine election is that it is unfair. This objection has two possible meanings. It might imply that election makes God unjust. Justice takes place when God gives a man exactly what he deserves. Now let me ask a question. "Do you really want God to be just?" If God were absolutely just with all men, they would all end up in hell! God's sovereignty is never exercised in condemning men who ought to be saved, but in saving men who ought to be condemned. God does no injustice to those who perish. They receive what they rightly deserve.
The question may be asking, however, if God is fair in the sense of giving all men exactly the same thing. The answer to that question is an emphatic no! God has not chosen to give all men exactly the same privileges. Did we decide where we would be born, when we would be born, what parents we would have, what natural gifts we would possess, or whether or not we would hear the gospel? Why is it that I was born in a middle class family in the United States, while others were born in poverty-stricken third world nations? Why was I born in the last half of the 20th century where the gospel is proclaimed in a multitude of churches, on radio, television, and print, while others were born as Philistines hundreds of years before Christ, and never heard the way of salvation? Only God's incomprehensible sovereignty can explain it. God has never told us in His Word that He gives all men exactly the same thing. We will search our Bibles in vain in an attempt to find that God has declared that He is fair. Yes, He is just, but He is not fair. He reserves the right to do as He pleases with His own (Mt. 20:15). We must remember that God is the Creator, and the Potter, and has the right to do what He pleases with His creatures.
When a wealthy woman decides to adopt two orphans out of an orphanage of one hundred children, no one impugns her character as unfair and cruel because she did not adopt the other ninety-eight. Rather, they commend her for her generosity and kindness. Likewise, when a governor grants a pardon to one man out of ten on death row, it is unthinkable to accuse him of acting wickedly toward the other nine. Those who go on to receive the death penalty, are only getting what they deserve, while the one that is pardoned receives mercy. In like manner, it is the height of human arrogance to shake our fist at God and claim that He is cruel and unfair in not choosing to save every member of the human race. The wonder is not that God should not choose to save everyone. The real wonder is that He would choose to save anyone! Seen in that light, God's sovereign election provides us with material for never-ending praise.
4. What About The Biblical Teaching On Free Will?
Though I cut my spiritual teeth on the doctrine of man's free will, I have searched my Bible in vain to find any clear evidence that a sinner's will is free in the sense that he has the ability to savingly believe in Christ. The "whoever will" passages do not tell us that sinners have the ability to come to Christ. They merely tell us that if they come they shall never perish but have eternal life (John 3:16; Rev.22:17). Many people think that free will is the ability to repent and believe on Christ at any time, but as we have already seen, the Scriptures teach the exact opposite. A man becomes willing in the day of God's power (Ps.110:3). In fact, the phrase "free will" is not found in the Bible, except as a reference to the free will offerings of the Old Testament and to Philemon allowing Onesimus to stay and minister to Paul in jail (Philemon 14). The popular teaching on man's free will is conspicuous by its absence in the pages of our Bible.
An individual will always choose according to his greatest preference. If we gave a pig and a cat a choice between living in a clean house or a mud hole, the pig would choose the mud hole and the cat the clean house every time. Even though the pig is free to choose whatever it wants, it will always want to dwell in a dirty environment over a clean one. This preference is built into the nature of the pig. In order for the pig to prefer to live in a clean house more than a muddy pigpen, it would need to have its "pig nature" replaced with a "cat nature." Likewise, the sinner is free to choose sin or Christ, but as long as he possesses the nature of a sinner, he will always choose sin over Christ. In regeneration, God graciously removes the sinner's heart of stone and gives him a new heart - a heart of flesh (Ezek.36:26). He becomes a "new creature" (2Cor.5:17). When God saves a man he changes his nature so completely that he loves what he once hated, and hates what he once loved. Until God works this change in a man's heart, he cannot choose Christ, because he will not choose Christ. Indeed, Spurgeon once quipped, "Free-will has carried many souls to hell, but never a soul to heaven yet." (Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, p.62.)
5. How Can Sovereign Election Be True When So Few Christians Believe It?
Perhaps it is true that a minority of believers today hold to the doctrine of sovereign election, but it has not always been that way. In fact, for the first two hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, this teaching was included in the creeds and confessions of the Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and Congregational churches. It can be found in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Savoy Declaration, the London Confession of Faith (1689), and the New Hampshire Confession (1833). In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, sovereign election was believed and taught by the majority of evangelical believers.
Furthermore, the truth of sovereign election has been believed and taught by great men of God throughout church history including Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, John Owen, John Bunyan, Matthew Henry, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Carey, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Arthur Pink, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, among others.
6. Doesn't The Bible Say That God Is Not Willing For Any To Perish?
Yes, the Scripture declares in 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." I believe the key to understanding this text is found in those two words "toward you." Who is the "you" God is patient toward? We find in 2 Peter 1:1 that Peter was writing to "those who have obtained a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ." In other words, Peter is saying that God is patient toward His elect, not wishing for any (of them) to perish, but for all (of them) to come to repentance. Peter, in this verse of Scripture, is answering the jeers of the mockers who taunt, "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation" (2Pet.3:3-4). Peter answers these scoffers by replying that God had already done as great and unexpected a thing as sending Christ back to judge and destroy the earth, when He created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (vs.5), and destroyed the old world and all its ungodly inhabitants by a flood (vs.6). Therefore, these scoffers should not think it incredible that He would send Christ back to judge the world and destroy it by fire (vs.7). Peter then instructs these mockers that a long time with us (1,000 years) is but a very short time with God (one day). Therefore, though God has delayed in sending Christ back to destroy the world and judge all men, this is not because He is forgetful of His promise. Rather, His real reason is that He is not willing for any of His elect to perish, but is waiting for all of them to come to repentance. When the final elect soul has been brought into Christ's kingdom, then He will return in judgment.
7. Won't Belief In Sovereign Election Put Out The Fire Of Evangelism?
Many people think that if they believed in sovereign grace they would never witness to a lost person again. Why should they? The elect will be saved whether they witness to them or not. The problem, however, in this kind of thinking is that they have failed to understand that God not only foreordains the end of salvation, but also the means to that end. Not only has God chosen to save particular persons, but He has chosen to save them through the communication of the gospel. Far from causing us to cease evangelizing, this truth gives us the certainty that our efforts will be successful. If there were no such thing as election, there would be no converts. Jesus could say in John 10:16, "And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd." Jesus knew that He had sheep in the world who were not saved yet, but who must be saved because of His Father's eternal decree.
The doctrine of election actually proved to be a great encouragement to the apostle Paul. While in Corinth, the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and said, "Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city" (Acts 18:9-10). In his commentary on this passage John Gill states,
...it is very likely that after the baptism of Crispus and his family, and of many of the Corinthians, that both the Jews and the Gentiles were exasperated against the apostle; and his life might seem to be in danger, and he might be thinking of removing from hence for his preservation and safety; and might be advised to it by his friends, or at least that he should be incognito, and not be seen publicly: wherefore the Lord appears to him, and bids him not indulge any fears, or conceal himself and be silent, but speak, and hold not thy peace; preach freely and boldly the Gospel without fear of men... (Exposition of the Old and New Testament, Baptist Standard Bearer, 8:317.)
The Lord roused Paul to continue speaking by giving him a three-fold encouragement: 1) He would be with him, 2) He would protect Him, and 3) He had many people in that city. By virtue of God's electing grace, He had many people in Corinth that were His, even though they had not come to faith yet. This message so encouraged Paul, that he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 18:11).
To further prove that this truth need not put out the fire of evangelism, simply look at church history to see that some of the most aggressive and effective evangelists, pastors and missionaries who have ever lived have believed this great truth including George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, and Charles Spurgeon.
I can truthfully say that the truth of God's sovereign grace has not put out our zeal for evangelism, but rather has inflamed it. Regularly teams of believers from our fellowship go out and proclaim Christ on lightrail trains, busses, at shopping malls, and outdoor events. Some of our young people have written their own tracts and actively distribute them on college campuses to their classmates. Far from quenching our zeal for evangelism, the truths of sovereign grace have only stoked the fires, because they inform us that Christ has a people that He must bring, and they will come and be brought within His fold (Jn.10:16). As we proclaim the glad tidings of salvation in Christ, we are confident that Christ will save His elect.
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