In the ageless quest to understand the nature of both God and Man we struggle to comprehend how God can be in absolute control of all things even though we feel like we are acting freely, apart from divine control. We wonder how God could be completely sovereign and yet hold Man responsible and accountable for his sin, or how God could fully govern Man’s behavior while calling Man to repent and believe. Most conclude that Man’s will must be free, at least in some way, that we operate somewhat independently of God.
Yet our spiritual instincts cause us to pray as if God is in complete control of all, and the Scripture abundantly affirms this. In what sense then is Man’s will free? Does God force Man to make choices? Is God not good, actually causing evil and sin Himself? If God chooses who will be saved, how can God be loving and just and not save everyone?
These questions seem impossible to answer until we more fully understand the nature of Man. Then we see how God is both loving and just, how He precisely controls Man without causing sin, and how God genuinely offers salvation to all yet chooses who will be saved without ever refusing anyone who seeks Him.
In the Bible it is written, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD … he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD.” (Lev 1:2-3) This text is one of two in the Bible that directly mentions the Free Will of Man. This particular text is in a class of biblical texts that indirectly mention the concept of the Free Will of Man, describing a particular kind of sacrifice, the freewill offering, that the people of Israel could offer to God which was not commanded by Him. Such sacrifices were brought optionally, based on how an individual was uniquely motivated: “of his own voluntary will.”
The other sole biblical text which directly mentions free will is Ezra 7:13: “I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee.” Here we have mention of people being invited to do something of their own volition, springing from their own motivation, not commanded or controlled by others but operating freely, without any imposed external compulsion.
The doctrine of the Free Will of Man is the teaching that Man decides and acts independently of God, in at least some fashion, not being directly and/or completely controlled by God or other spiritual beings. Given that the above two biblical texts are the only ones which might be used to support such an idea, and given that they seem to do so in such an inconspicuous manner, one might be curious as to why so many earnest, God-fearing souls believe in Man’s Free Will, and why this belief has always been so common.
It is clear from personal experience that we each have a will and that we are constantly making choices. It is also apparent that we are generally not making choices under any type of compulsion, we are not being forced to make choices in a certain way against our will; we choose what we want based on our motives, interests and desires. By all appearances then our personal experience tells us that we have free will, that we make choices every day freely, independently of any external control. We act and feel as if we are in control, as if God is not controlling us.
However, when most of us pray we instinctively ask God to do things which He could only do if He controls everything, including people. We pray as if God can decide what people think and feel, how they act and what they do. How is it that we instinctively ask God to control people while at the same time believing that our will is free, thinking we are making decisions on our own, uncontrolled by anyone else?
The doctrine of Man’s Free Will tries to answer these kinds of questions in order to help us understand the fundamental nature of both Man and God: in particular, the nature of sin and evil and God’s response to it; and also God’s offer of salvation from sin, and Man’s response to that.
Two core types of questions are evident as we consider these things:  If God is sovereign — in the sense that He is in absolute control of all things, as we instinctively seem to know — then we wonder why Man is able to sin: why doesn’t God stop Man from sinning? Is God actually causing sin?  We also wonder how God can call Man to repentance and salvation if God is in absolute control of Mankind and all that he does. What does it mean for God to command men to turn away from their sin and seek God, and to receive an offer of salvation from their sin — if they are not free to choose to do so of their own free will? How can such an offer from God be authentic, genuine and universal if He has not given Man the freedom to choose?
These questions suggest that Man must be able to act independently of God, that he has “free will” to respond to God as he wishes and that Man is not entirely controlled by God. Indeed, answering these kinds of questions without denying the absolute sovereignty of God is non-trivial … until we understand the nature of Man.
This apparent conflict between the absolute Sovereignty of God and Man’s Free Will has been the topic of endless debate amongst earnest, scholarly men for ages. The Bible claims that God is in absolute control of all things, and also that God does not cause sin and that He holds Man responsible and accountable for all of his sin. It is also plainly evident in the Bible that God genuinely offers salvation to all people and that He commands everyone to repent and receive the Gospel. However, it is also plainly taught in the Bible that God chooses who will be saved and who will not be, and that God made this decision in eternity past based on His own will and not Man’s. Most people find it very difficult, if not impossible to understand how all of these things can be true and struggle to fully accept the full scope of biblical teaching. This is certainly no surprise.
There are three basic ways in which this dilemma is handled. Firstly, many deny the very existence of a good and loving God because of the existence of evil and the apparent contradiction this causes with the nature of God. They reason that if God was good He would not allow so much evil and suffering, so either there is no God or God is not good. This is an extremely persuasive argument, and many people are deceived by it.
A second way in which men commonly try to resolve this, and perhaps this is most common today, is to deny or significantly limit God’s sovereignty and control over Man. They reason from the facts of Creation that God has made Man in His own image, evidently as a creature of reason with a conscience and an independent will, as one who has the innate ability to freely choose to love God or to grieve Him. Since the only other option seems to be that God has made Man to be a mere robot, it is tempting to conclude that God must not be entirely in control of Man. We can then understand how God can hold Man responsible for his sin, and also how God can appeal to Man to repent and respond to His offer of salvation.
There is however, a significant problem with this assumption: it openly contradicts Scripture, as well as our natural instincts in prayer. The Bible clearly teaches the absolute sovereignty of God, that He is in absolute control of all things, over all of Creation and all of Mankind at all times. Absolutely nothing happens without His consent or that is not according to His eternal purposes and plan. And this truth bears witness with our core, native spirituality: it is exactly how we pray — if God is not in absolute control, most of our praying won’t make any sense.
For those who do accept the absolute sovereignty of God, most try to resolve this paradox by either  limiting or denying Man’s responsibility for sin, attributing the ultimate cause of sin to God Himself and concluding that God cannot justly condemn anyone for failing to receive His offer of salvation, or  limiting the scope of God’s offer of salvation, thinking that God cannot be genuinely willing to save all of Mankind. The reasoning here seems obvious on the surface: if God completely controls Man then we cannot see how God can justly hold Man accountable for his sin and we conclude that God must be held accountable for it Himself. It also makes no sense how God can be authentically appealing to all men to repent and receive the gospel unless they have free will, so we are tempted to conclude God is not genuinely offering salvation to everyone. It as if we see God, the master puppeteer, pleading with his puppets to behave, or like a scientist being angry with robots for doing what he programmed them to do; it appears, on the surface, an absurdity.
Search carefully for an explanation which fully resolves this paradox, a teaching which enables us to hold to both the ultimate and absolute sovereignty of God in all things, and also to understand how God can justly hold Man responsible for sin, how Man is the ultimate cause of sin and not God, how God can genuinely offer salvation to all Mankind and condemn anyone who neglects or ignores His offer, and how God can actually choose those who will be saved and who will be lost without being unjust, unreasonable or inappropriate in this process. If such an explanation exists, it is not well known. Our only options to date in common literature seem to be denying one set of truths in favor of the other, or just blindly accepting all of these truths as an unsolvable paradox and mentally checking out, no longer looking to understand how all the pieces fit together. None of these options are acceptable.
We ought to be able to give a reasonable answer to all who seek one here. It is time now to shed some light on this mystery and resolve this paradox by providing an insight which enables us to hold all of these dear truths together at once with understanding, wisdom and integrity.
To lay a biblical foundation, we must first be clear about the nature of God. The Bible teaches without apology that God is absolutely and infinitely sovereign, that He is in absolute control of everything all of the time, including all of the particulars of Nature as well as every thought, motive, feeling and action of Man. Though God does not actually cause everything (e.g. sinful actions), He does control everything. Nothing ever happens without His knowledge and permission. He is never surprised or frustrated. His purposes are always accomplished and His name is always glorified in every circumstance.
The Bible is replete with contexts supporting this general concept from most every imaginable angle. There are explicit direct statements such as, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things,” (Rom 11:36) “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph 1:11) “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (1Co 8:6).
In addition to these explicit statements, there are also indirect statements revealing that God is in absolute control of all things at all times (otherwise, these indirect statements could not be generally true) “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) God commands us to give thanks in everything (1 Thess 5:18) and always for all things (Eph 5:20), implying that absolutely everything is allowed by Him and ultimately designed to both glorify His name and also to perfectly align us with His glorious eternal purposes. He sends and withholds rain (Matt 5:25) and He has His way in the whirlwind (tornado), in the storm, (Nahum 1:3) and in the flood, showing His ultimate control over Nature. (Ge 9:11) God blesses and curses the nations based on their obedience to His laws, entirely independently of the general predictability of both human nature and Creation, further demonstrating His ultimate and precise control of both Men and Nature at all times. (Jer 18:7-10, De 28)
In particular, God’s precise control of Man at all times is implied in texts such as Ge 20:6; 35:5; Ps 19:13-14, 76:10, 119:5, 10, 18, 35-7, 43, etc; Pr 16:7; Php 2:13, James 1:5, Acts 4:27-28, 1 Pet 2:8, Rev 6:4, 17:17. When we understand that God can change our will, cause us to obey Him, give us wisdom, and protect us from our enemies, we are admitting His sovereign control over the hearts of men and that He is able to move anyone and everyone according to His perfect will.
Further, it is clear from Scripture that God ultimately decides, elects or chooses who will be saved and who will not be. Clear references include: “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 8:29-31) “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory.” (Rom 9:22-3) “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph 1:11) “And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” (1 Pe 2:8) “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jud 1:4) “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”(2Th 2:13) “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (Ja 1:18 ) Whether we like the idea or not, the Bible is quite plain about divine election, in scores of places, indicating God’s sovereignty even in our salvation.
Many try to avoid the implications of election, ignoring all of the texts which plainly teach this, claiming that God does not control who will be saved and that He merely chooses us based on the fact that He knows who will choose Him. This effectively places the ultimate choice in salvation back in Man, rejecting and denying the concept of God Himself choosing anyone to be saved entirely of His own accord, apart from their choice of Him. (For what does it really mean, practically, to choose someone after they have already chosen you? This is not actually a choosing at all, but an agreement with another’s choice.) They appeal to texts such as 1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” and Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
If we read these texts carefully, we find that neither text actually supports the proposed claim, that Man is the ultimate chooser in salvation; Peter merely says that God knows something beforehand that His election is according to, but it does not state exactly what this is that God foreknows. In particular, it does not state that God chooses us based on the fact that He knows we will choose Him. God knows everything in advance (Acts 15:18), both what He will do and what Man will do, and the text indicates that God’s pre-election of who will be saved and who will not be is in perfect accordance and harmony with all that He knows.
The text in Romans clearly states that God’s foreknowing relates directly to the elect themselves, but one must still presume what it is God that knows about the elect, or the particular nature of this pre-knowing that relates to His pre-choosing of them. Further, the root word for know in foreknowledge in both texts is the Greek ginosko and is often used in the context of intimate relations, as when Joseph abstained from sexual relations with Mary, he “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son,” (Mat 1:25), and when Christ tells the damned, “I never knew you.” (Matt 7:23). In such contexts knowing is not merely one person being aware of the nature of another person, (for in this sense Christ knows all men, not just the elect) but suggests an intimate relationship and connection with individuals (a sense in which Christ does not know all men).
Both of these texts are very likely referring to this intimate relationship between God and the elect, which evidently existed in God even before the elect themselves existed, and are not referring to God’s actual awareness in the past of what the elect were going to be like and how they were going to choose. Both texts appear to teach that God began intimate relationships with the elect in eternity past, and pre-ordained that these particular souls would be conformed to the image of Christ based on God’s own knowledge of all that He has ever intended and purposed. There is nothing in either text that puts the ultimate choice in salvation in Man rather than in God.
Finally, as we have already seen, and this is perhaps the simplest and most powerful argument for the ultimate sovereignty of God in all things, is the way we are taught to pray by the Spirit of God. The way we generally pray implies absolute divine control of all things at all times. Do you pray for a lost soul to be saved? You acknowledge God’s sovereignty in salvation. Do you pray for people to change in any way, including yourself? You acknowledge God’s control of the human will. Do you pray for health or safety for yourself and your loved ones? You acknowledge God’s complete control over both the physical universe and the will of Man, over absolutely anything and everything that can affect anyone. If God is not sovereign … then what can we pray for?
In whatever matter we bring to God in prayer we acknowledge that God is able to control that which concerns us, whether it be Creation, the spirit realm, or any particular of Man, such as another’s will or behavior. “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Php 4:6-7) Praying like this makes no sense unless God is able to answer, unless God is in control of all things.
To continue to strengthen our foundation we must not only understand that God is totally sovereign over all, but we must also understand and acknowledge that God holds Man responsible for his sin. Scripture is replete with evidence of this. From the Fall and Curse of Man in Genesis through the Great White Throne of Judgment in Revelation, God is openly judging Man for his sin and holding him accountable for it. “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” (Rom 3:19) There are no biblical texts suggesting otherwise: the only motivation to deny Man’s responsibility for his sin lies in our inability to hold this truth along with the Sovereignty of God.
God is also offering salvation to Man, to each and every living soul, and requires everyone to repent, to respond to Him and accept His offer. “God … now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” (Act 17:30 -1) God has made assurance of salvation and eternal life available to all of us, providing a global witness of spiritual reality through the resurrection of Christ, Who has made salvation a possibility for all people: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
God openly invites all men to come to Himself and be saved: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1Ti 2:4) He says to us all, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Mat 7:7-8) God will never turn anyone away who comes to Him to be united with Him and saved from their sin. “He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb 11:6)
Further, Christ lays the blame for failure to receive the Gospel on the individual himself: “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19) All who die without God are damned because of their own stubborn choices and rebellion, not due to a lack of opportunity, or without an open invitation to be saved.
In summary, Man is guilty for his sin, not God. God justly punishes sinners for their sin, and also genuinely calls all people to repent. Man is responsible to repent, to seek God and to believe in Him, to receive His offer of forgiveness and to be fully reconciled to Him. This is true even though God has already decided who will be saved and who will not be.
The Nature of Man
To complete our foundation and come to understand how all of the above can be true, how God can be ultimately sovereign and yet hold Man accountable for his sin while genuinely offering salvation to all, we must come to a more complete understanding the nature of Man. It is here, in understanding ourselves as we really are that we may finally see why the above seems so paradoxical at first, yet how it is in fact no mystery at all.
Depravity: the Key
Reality seems a paradox so long as we falsely assume, consciously or unconsciously, that Man is basically good in some way, that people intrinsically want to do the right thing and be in fellowship with God. God controlling people is only a problem if God is either causing someone to sin, or allowing them to sin in such a way that does not suit some final glorious purpose, and God choosing only some souls to save is a problem only if He turns away someone who wants to be chosen. But what if God’s complete control of people consists only in Him resisting and restraining their sin? And what if God only allows sin that eventually glorifies Himself? And what if God’s choosing which souls to save never excludes anyone who wants to be with Him? Where is the paradox now?
If we stop and consider what we really believe about ourselves and others, we will find that we have become convinced for some reason that the real problem with Man is a lack of information and/or opportunity. We think that Man is naturally inclined to stop sinning and serve God if only given a proper environment and teaching. We see the majority of people as moral, reasonable folk who would rather try and do good as best they can under normal circumstances. We are persuaded that the real problem with most people is how they have been taught or the difficult circumstances they are in. We are sure that if people knew what God is like that they would repent, submit to Him and serve Him, and when people do not respond with good will towards God we assume that they must still not understand, that they must been deceived or hurt in some way. We think this way because it is how we experience ourselves and others most of the time — but it is a deception.
The picture the Bible paints of Man, though hard to digest at first, is really quite simple to state: people will make the most evil choice that God will allow them to make every time they make a choice. We find this hard to believe because we do not generally experience Man like this; on the surface Man’s nature appears to be relatively good most of the time, but this is because God is always restraining Man’s sin. Man appears reasonable and good under this restraining influence or control, though our true inward nature is quite different. God sovereignly limits the amount and degree of sin in Man according to His eternal purposes, and He does this in a way that is generally imperceptible to us.
Perhaps the clearest text in the Bible helping us to see our true nature is Romans 3:10-18: “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, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes.” It is a sweeping generalization of the nature of Mankind, and it leaves no room for partial goodness in anyone apart from the supernatural, enabling grace of God.
This complete universal depravity in Man is more easily seen as God withdraws His hand in restraining Man’s sin in prophetic contexts at the end of the age, as in Rev 6:4a: “And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another.” God gives an angel power to withdraw peace from Mankind so that our innate hatred manifests and we begin to kill each other. God does not actually cause us to do this, he simply “takes peace” from us, or withdraws from us His restraint such that our natural enmity for one another is exposed and we do more fully what we have always been naturally inclined to do.
When God finally comes to judge Mankind for sin, rather than repenting and turning to God for mercy, men choose to pray to the rocks to crush themselves into oblivion. (Rev 5:15-16) And in the end, in the final battle of the ages, we find the inhabitants of Earth gathering together to fight against God. (Re 19:11-21) Mankind is not deceived about Who they are fighting against; our rebellion is fully exposed and manifest. It is not a lack of information that causes Man to rebel: this is who we are, and we must fully understand it in order to reconcile the paradox of God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will.
Man’s inability to do anything good comes from an inability to will to do anything good. God has made Man with an ability to choose and an awareness of what is morally good, so Man has been designed to be able to freely choose the good. Thus, Man’s will is “free” in the sense that God does not force Man to make choices against his will through extortion or external compulsion. However Man is not practically free to choose good apart from God due to his own depraved nature; innately, fallen Man is at enmity with God, at war with Him: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8:7 -8)
This depravity of Man is not of such a nature that we do not know what is righteous, that we cannot recognize moral perfection in itself when we observe it, nor does it cause us to be unable to recognize sin and wickedness. It is not merely a blindness or an ignorance, it is not an inability to understand; depravity is an innate, intrinsic enmity that cannot be reconciled to what is right and submit to what is holy, just and good, even in the face of truth.
The fact that we both have and cultivate this evil nature within ourselves does not excuse our sin; we willingly choose to sin and are therefore guilty and responsible for our choices. The fact that we cannot desire to love and obey God in ourselves does not excuse us, for if it were true that our responsibility and guilt were dependent upon our ability to desire good, then the more wicked we became the less guilty we would be since sin has the power to progressively enslave the will as we continue in it more and more: “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.” (2 Tim 3:13) “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” (2 Tim 2:25-26) As we continue in sin we further entrap and enslave our own will so that sin and rebellion are all the more desirable to us and holiness and righteousness are all the more loathsome. (John 8:32,34, Pr 5:22, Rom 6:16, 2 P2 2:19)
There is nothing about the nature or condition of Man that excuses him or calls for leniency in holding him accountable for his rebellion, as if he were unaware, lacked understanding or was unable to make independent choices. The fact that Man is intrinsically evil in himself, hating God for no reason other than for being God, is not a condition that should arouse pity in God or provide an excuse for Man’s behavior. In this context it is perfectly just for God to demand perfect righteousness from Man, and unjust for God to do otherwise, regardless of the corrupt moral nature of the creatures He commands, utterly unwilling in themselves to love and obey God.
Man’s nature always points his will in a downward direction, toward darkness, lies, rebellion and sin. It is a law, much like gravity, that is entirely predictable. In this state, Man is no more able in himself to love and obey God than an apple can raise itself from the ground after falling from the tree. When left to itself, once it is loosed from the tree, the apple inevitably falls, and the path it takes away from the tree is precise and optimal per its nature. In the same way, Man’s nature moves him apart and away from God at every opportunity. When God lets Man go, Man always leaves, and in precisely the same way every single time. The phenomenon is entirely and precisely predictable, and it is universal.
God’s restraining influence, what theologians call “common grace,” is what is keeping us from seeing the full extent of this depravity in ourselves and others. In fact, it keeps us from ever knowing the depth and ultimate degree of our depravity in this life: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9) No one has ever yet tasted or expressed the full extent of their own depravity or of anyone else’s: it is a mystery preserved for the eternal realms, when God and His enemies are face to face. Until that day, we have only a taste of it.
God’s divine power holding back our sin is evident in texts such as, “And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” (2 Th 2:6-7) The word let in verse 7 is an archaic English term meaning hinder or prevent, and is from the same Greek word katecho, translated withhold in verse 6. God is clearly stating that He is presently restraining iniquity, holding it back, hindering its full expression, hiding it from view.
God’s power here is further demonstrated in a progressive manner in Romans 1:24-28: “God gave them up to uncleanness … God gave them up unto vile affections … God gave them over to a reprobate mind.” As God progressively allows men to sin more and more, men freely choose to sin more and more; it is as predictable as the law of gravity. Our enmity against God drives us to do this: we are not actually “free” to do otherwise because of our inward nature, a nature that we ourselves cause and cultivate.
If, when left to ourselves, all of us will make the most evil choice that God will allow us to make in every choice of life, then our “free will” — that is, our unaided and uninfluenced choice in every matter — is completely and entirely predictable. God can precisely control us merely by resisting our evil impulses according to His own good pleasure, never causing any evil in this process any more that a dam causes the water to push against itself or to rush through any opening given to it and fall into the crags and torrents below. The water has its own nature and the dam is simply governing its flow. In the same way God can precisely control Man without causing any of his sin.
This depraved nature of Man is such that if God were to make an unaided offer of salvation to Mankind and allow us all to make our “free” choice in response, heaven would be empty, not a single human soul would ever darken its streets. God’s universal appeal to all men to accept the Gospel is indeed authentic and genuine, yet by itself, unaided by Him, the call would be entirely fruitless. This is not an indictment of God’s offer of salvation, but rather a testament to our own depravity.
Would God be unjust to let us all have our own stubborn way? Certainly not.
In this context, if God chooses to intervene and violate the “free will” of certain souls, softening our hearts and literally changing our nature from within, moving us so that we are willing to repent, giving us repentance as a free gift that is both completely unmerited and entirely undeserved, (2 Tim 2:25) and thus changes our hearts and minds and wills to be inclined toward Him, to fear Him and to seek Him, (Eph 2:10) how is this unjust? If it were perfectly just for Him to let us all have our own way and be damned, how is it unjust for Him to elect to save some of us and not all of us, of His own eternal will and plan? It is perfectly just, and it perfectly fulfills His eternal purpose.
The truth is that God invites all men to come to Him and to be saved, and He would be pleased for absolutely anyone to respond to Him of their own free will, but it is also true that it is not God’s intent to cause all men to come to Him. It is evidently God’s mysterious pleasure to save a few rather than many. As to how God actually does this, how this process actually works, how the salvation of the elect can be predetermined while salvation is genuinely being offered to all people, Limited Atonement For All may be helpful.
Apart from God’s effectual working, His internal changing of our will to seek Him, no one will come – and, again, this is our own fault, not God’s. No one can boast that they sought God on their own; in fact, no one can ever boast about anything before God. (Eph 2:9, 1 Cor 1:29) Anything good in us is of Him, His free, undeserved gift to us. (Is 26:12, Php 2:13, 1 Cor 15:10)
Some may abuse the fact of God’s sovereignty in salvation as an excuse to continue in sin or to reject God, reasoning, “Why should I bother if I can’t do anything about it anyway?” The foolishness of this hateful reasoning should be obvious; we do not know in advance what God has determined, and it is not so much a matter of who can come as it is a matter of who will come: we can seek Him if we will. God tells us to repent and seek Him: this is all we need. To do less than pursue Him with everything we have, however little that might be, is just inexcusable rebellion, no matter how we slice it.
Rather than abusing this truth to reject God we can actually leverage it to find Him, regardless how lost we feel or what hopeless condition we find our hearts to be in. If we cannot find any desire for God within ourselves we can at least be asking Him to give us this desire. If we do not fear and tremble before Him as we look out into an eternity in Hell without Him, at least we can ask Him to give us this godly fear. And if we do in fact want Him in any way we can thank Him for this precious gift and find hope in it that He will both increase it and also fulfill the desire He has graciously given us. Ultimately, in regard to others who should all be doing the same, we must trust that God is good, and that He saves a few rather than many for good reason, though it may be difficult for us now to understand why. For additional insight here, the article How Long Shall I Suffer? may be helpful.
There must be something about God’s eternal plan that achieves His ultimate objectives most fully, and this objective is evidently not the ultimate pleasure, happiness and convenience of Mankind in general. Perhaps if God did cause all men to come to Him and be saved, then it would not be as apparent to us that we are so depraved and that God is so amazingly sovereign. Romans 9:22-24 helps us to see that God’s ultimate intention and purpose in Creation is to reveal Himself. “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” This strategic text, in the midst of one of the clearest expressions of God’s election and sovereignty in all of Scripture, appears to be the key which opens the door to understanding all that God does: the more that is revealed of God the more God is glorified and exalted. All of the sin that God allows, through both His current and ultimate responses to it, eventually reveals more about His own nature, His mercy and compassion as well as His wrath, power and justice; sin also reveals the nature of all that is apart from God and so further magnifies Him. After all, what would we know about God and Man if God restrained all sin and allowed no rebellion, or if God saved everyone? Evidently, not nearly as much as we may see and know of God now.
While we may not be able to fathom all of the intimate details of how and why God does as He does, we may be confident in this one thing: in the end, God’s eternal plan will provide Him the maximum glory, it will exalt Him the highest of any possible plan; there will be nothing at all that can be changed in the course of all history, no event that could be altered in the slightest way, that would eventually cause God to receive more glory than He does in this particular plan. In this reality we should be exceedingly thankful and joyful, giving thanks to God always … in all things … and for all things.
The key to unlocking the ageless mystery between the Sovereignty of God and the Free Will of Man lies in the Depravity of Man.
God is sovereign: He controls all things at all times, including who will be saved and who will be lost. Man is depraved: all people make the most evil choice God allows them to make every time they make a choice. Any goodness in anyone is grace, the enabling power of God working in them to resist their evil nature and sinful tendencies, and every living soul has some grace from God which hides their complete and total depravity from view for now. God perfectly controls all people merely by resisting their depravity, a nature as predictable as the law of gravity, without causing any sin. All sin that God allows is allowed for a reason and is according to God’s perfect eternal plan to glorify Himself. Even so, God judges all men for their sin and is grieved by it: there is no excuse for our sin.
God genuinely offers salvation to all and turns no one away who is seeking Him, but no one seeks God of their own free will. When left to ourselves, all people resist God and rebel against Him even when they fully know the truth about Him. Rather than letting us all have our own way and perish, God chooses a few souls to be saved, the elect, and changes their hearts and wills, draws them to Himself and saves them. These, and only these, are the souls that seek God; God allows the rest of Mankind to have their own way and be damned. There is nothing unjust or unreasonable about this.
Rather than resisting God in pride and bitterness, wisdom calls us to view the sovereignty of God as an opportunity rather than as an obstacle. God will have His way in all things, so rather than trusting in ourselves we may humbly call on the Father to bring us into fellowship with Himself by giving us a new heart and a godward will, knowing that He will never turn away anyone who truly seeks Him.