Free Will and Election

I’ve decided to start posting the papers that I write for school, since that’s where all my time is currently going. Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, or ask questions about anything I write.

Introduction

The attempt to build a case as to the complete certainty of a single side in the debate of free will verses election seems to me to be emotional, and intellectual suicide. The plain fact is that, based on a plain normal, literal, grammatical, historical interpretation of biblical text, no one “side” is completely, exclusively “correct” and no one “side” is completely, exclusively “incorrect.” A wild, speculative, and probably nonsensical attempt to reconcile these two views and build a case for somewhere in the middle will be made at the end of this paper, but I would like to make it clear up front that there really is no entirely conclusive answer to this question on this side of heaven. Nevertheless, we have been asked to take a stab at it, so a stab has been taken. Before reaching the point of defining a new “third view” on the issue, a separate attempt will be made to outline the basics of the two prominent views as they are, and show the biblical support for each. Only after these views— free will and election— have been thoroughly defined will conclusions be drawn, or at least attempted to be drawn. As Geisler puts it, “The mystery of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human free will has challenged the greatest Christian thinkers down through the centuries.”[1] I don’t expect to dive into uncharted waters with my conclusions, merely ride the waves of the wake left by so many others, where no true resolutions on the issue have been made. So without further ado, I present “the sides” as I see them.

Election

Election in short is the belief that God chose ahead of time all those who have been, will be, or are currently, saved by the blood of Christ by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. They did not do anything accept sit around, God pointed at them, and they believed. God did this ahead of time, before time even existed, and the human played no part in actually believing, belief was merely thrust upon them. There are a few essential truths outlined in Chafer’s Systematic Theology that I find to be enlightening when thinking about the doctrine of election. The most important of these essential truths I think is the first one, which states, “God has by election chosen some to salvation, but not all.” This simple statement is undoubtedly true. Whether we like it or not, there is observable evidence to support the fact that not everyone is saved and that God does the saving. There are also a myriad of biblical evidences to support the same conclusion. 1 Peter 1:2 says that we are chosen, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” To my mind this is the clearest passage in support of the doctrine of election. It is inescapably clear that God chooses us ahead of time. A handful of other passages that are equally clear would be Romans 9:23, Ephesians 1:4-5, and Romans 16:13, all of which are equally clear in the statement that God makes some sort of Choice, and our salvation is part of that choice.[2]

Another extremely important verse to consider in determining the extent and definition of election would be John 6:44. In it, Jesus Christ himself says the words, “No one can come to Me unless the father who sent Me draws him.” Often in this debate we forget the very real fact that Jesus himself reinforced the doctrine of election. It cannot be stated more clearly. It is on this verse that C.S. Lewis based an interaction between Jill and Aslan in The Silver Chair. Jill tries to tell Aslan that she and Scrubb had called out to Aslan, and Aslan replies, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”[3] I find this a brilliant yet simple way of putting the difference between human and divine perception, and thus from where our issue comes in grasping the doctrine of election. We would not become Christians if God the Father were not calling us to become Christians. The question then becomes, is he calling everyone?

In Romans 9:21-22, Paul clues us into the answer to this question. As stated above, the very next verse talks of how he prepared certain vessels for glory. Verses 21 and 22 however, indicate that he prepares certain vessels for destruction. This would seem to lend itself to the conclusion that no, God is not calling everyone. This view is further substantiated by 1 Peter 2:8, in which Peter makes the bold claim that those who were not chosen to proclaim the excellencies of Him, were appointed to stumble. Both of these passages, while slightly vague, do paint a fairly clear picture of predetermined destruction. With that vague picture, it can easily be concluded within the doctrine of election that God only calls some to salvation, not all.

However, a compelling rebuttal to this argument can be found in John 12:32, in which, Jesus himself states that, “If [He is] lifted up into heaven, [then he] will draw all men to [Himself].” It’s fairly safe to say that if you believe what the Bible says, then you believe that Jesus was in fact lifted up into heaven, and by that logic you must also believe that everyone, including everyone, is being “drawn” to Jesus. The descriptor, “all men” is pretty non-exclusive. This presents a pretty strong case to oppose the idea that God is calling only some and not others.

Then of course there is the coup de grâce passage for those who what to make an exclusive case for predestined election. The passage in which Paul outlines the whole process of salvation: Romans 8:29-30. “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

Did you notice how many times the pronoun “He” was used? A subscriber to the doctrine of election looks at that passage and says categorically that some people were picked out ahead of time, and those people end up getting saved, and I have to say, they make a pretty strong case.

Free Will or Human Responsibility

First of all, it is necessary to point out that I will be using the terms “free will” and “human responsibility” almost interchangeably throughout this section, but there are subtle differences in the connotations they carry. Most of them simply lie in the assumptions made about the human exercising it. When you think of someone exercising “free will” you think of them doing something bad, and using their freedom as an excuse for that wrongful behavior. When you think of someone exercising “human responsibility” you think of a man paying his taxes. In terms of the free will or human responsibility to choose God, I see very little difference. If you subscribe to the notion that man chooses God, independent of God’s actions, human responsibility and free will mean the same thing.

Now that those terms are defined, we need to discuss the basics of the “free will” view. In its simplest form, free will states that man chooses God. The logic is easy to follow. Since man was given limited free will in the garden, and given the freedom to choose to sin, man since then still has free will and has the freedom to choose not to sin, and ultimately, to choose God. The carnal side of me agrees largely with this view because it seems to make more sense, and is more “fair” from a human perspective. Of course humans can choose to do good, we can choose to do bad can’t we?

There are also many passages in scripture that support the idea that salvation for a human is partially dependent on that human. This doesn’t mean he is responsible for doing the saving, but he is still involved in the process and without his involvement, salvation does not occur for him. This is summed up in the term “synergism” which The Moody Handbook of Theology describes as “’working together’ or a ‘cooperative action’ between man and God with regard to salvation.” It explains that God dispenses grace to all people and, “man may accept or reject the gospel and the grace of God of his own free will.”[4] This again makes a lot of sense to me.

Also, as Dr. Andy Woods so often says, theology is a seamless garment and what you believe in one area will affect what you believe in another. With that in mind, the doctrine of original sin, heavily affects the doctrine of human responsibility. If, by “original sin,” you mean that man is fallen and is capable of any evil, the doctrine of free will and choosing God fits very nicely in your overall theology. If however, you believe that the depravity of man and the effects of original sin implies that man is incapable of good at all, and man will do any evil, you cannot subscribe to the doctrine of human responsibility at all. If you believe that man, left to his own devices will always choose the greater of two evils, then you can’t believe that man would ever have any part in choosing God, because God is the ultimate good.

Some bible verses that support the doctrine of free will are as follows: Acts 16:31, 17:30 and Revelation 22:17. All of these verses tell us that salvation is dependent upon a human being actually believing. The human being has to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he died for their sins, and rose again thus defeating death. There is a lot wrapped up in that belief, but it is up to the human being to actually believe it.

Then of course there is the coup de grâce passage for those who believe in human responsibility: John 3:16. I know that you can say this one backwards in 6 languages, but just incase you miss something in the verse, here it is. ““For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

A subscriber to the doctrine of human responsibility looks at that passage and says that whether you like it or not, the receiving of eternal life is dependent on something that the man does: believe, and I have to say, they make a pretty strong case.

The Marriage

And so now it becomes my job to marry the two. For the sake of time and space I’ve decided to look at the two “coup de grâce” passages of each side, and attempt to show that hints of the other sides viewpoint is present within it, as well as some of their supporting passages. We’ll start with election.

Within the doctrine of election, the “beef” seems to be with the idea that God only calls some. From the human responsibility point of view it just seems unfair that God would not extend the ability to be saved to all humans. With that in mind, I find the “all men” in John 12:32 even more revealing. I’m going to come at this with a wacky left field sort of notion and say that I think when it says “all men” it means “all men.” Looking at the Romans 8:29-30 passage, I would say that at first glance it looks like God only calls those whom he predestined to be saved, but I actually don’t see that upon further examination. It says that all those that he predestined he also called. That doesn’t mean he didn’t call anyone else. It’s like when I invite my friends to play basketball, I know without a doubt that Tyler will come, and I know without a doubt that Sam won’t. I still invite them both every time we play. To mix my metaphors a bit, the text only says that he did invite Tyler, it doesn’t mention that God also invited Sam.

As a disclaimer, this line of logic cannot be taken too far, because you get dangerously close to adding things to the text instead of just noticing things that are absent, but I don’t believe that the above assertions “cross that line” so to speak.

So, I think it’s impossible to deny that Humans play a part in the salvation process, and I think that if you look at the “election verses” they do not dispute this simple fact.

Within the doctrine of free will, the danger is that one might take it too far and say that belief is a work, or that salvation was earned, or even that they chose God which means God is subject to their wishes. That’s simply not true. As for the coup de grâce passage, I find it interesting that an element of election can be found in it. “For God so loved the world, that He Gave, his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

First of all, God gave it. Free will people can’t make the claim that salvation is solely dependent on humans, because without God giving there’s nothing to get. But to follow a similar line of argument as in the election verse, it doesn’t say that God doesn’t foreknow whoever will believe.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m supporting the “God knew you’d pick him, so he picked you” line of reasoning, but I do think there can easily be an element of election in this verse. Just because it says whoever believes, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t know who’s going to do that. That sure sounds like the doctrine of election to me.

So in the end, it’s a both and sort of situation. What seems to be a mutually exclusive scenario sort of resolves itself with proper exegesis. God does foreknow, and does predestine those who will be saved, but humans are responsible for making that salvation a reality.

Conclusion

Whether we like it or not, and whether it makes sense or not, God has decided to use humans in his overall plan to bring himself glory. “The reigning and saving purposes of God are inextricable and mutually dependent. God created man to have dominion, but sin rendered that impossible. God therefore initiated a means of salvation whereby man could be restored to his covenant-keeping capacity.”[5] It doesn’t really make sense to use a fallen imperfect being to glorify a perfect being or to take part in a covenant that he has no business taking part in, by his own merits, but God has chosen to do it that way. Sometimes we can get caught up in the overall perfect sovereignty of God and stick to the line, “God doesn’t NEED us.” While it’s true that, God doesn’t NEED anything, and He, in his triune status, is the only truly self-sufficient being in the universe, he has chosen to put us humans at the center of his plans. For some reason, God wants us there, so we can’t get too caught up in the idea that God doesn’t need us, and thus fall into the trap of thinking that or salvation doesn’t depend on us at all, but we also can’t get sucked into the idea of thinking that because we’re at the center of his plan, he is dependent on us, making ourselves more important than he is.

In the end, I like best the way Charles Ryrie sums up the conflict. He puts it into a question-filled illustration. “Does God know who are elect? Of course, He elected them. Can any of them be lost? No. Then why pray and witness? Because that is how they will be saved. Will any of them fail to believe? No. Then why do they have to believe? Because that is the only way they can be saved, and unless the do believe they will not be saved. Do not let your mind ask the theoretical and useless questions. Let your mind and your life concentrate on doing what is God’s will and making sure you act responsibly.”[6]

Bibliography

Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology (Eight Volumes in Four) Volunes 3 and 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology, Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008.

Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology, Volume Three. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 2004.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair. New York City, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1953.

Merrill, Eugene H. “A Theology of Chronicles.” In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testatment, edited by Roy B. Zuck, 157-188. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1991.

Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999.

[1] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 2004), 137.

[2] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Eight Volumes in Four) Volunes 3 and 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 172.

[3] Clive Staples Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (New York City, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1953), 19.

[4] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Revised and Expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008), 524.

[5] Eugene H Merrill, “A Theology of Chronicles,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testatment, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1991), 167.

[6] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 364.

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