You Asked For It #4: Do I Choose God or Does God Choose Me?
Here’s the audio of the message.
This past Sunday, we attempted to “tackle” (or were tackled by… depends upon your perspective) one of the most challenging theological issues in the Christian faith… do I choose God or does God choose me? Church theologians and philosophers, as well as pastors and parishioners, have been attempting to answer this question for some 2000 years. There is a lot behind this question… various “theological” perspectives and systems that we’ll address… various passages that seem to point to both sides of the proverbial coin.
So here’s how we’re going to attempt to answer this big question… by taking a look three things: (1) Perspectives of how people answer the question; (2) Passages from the Bible that we need to look that address both perspectives; and (3) a vital Promise that I believe we need to cling to in our Christian life.
Let me state up front that the two perspectives, these two broad categories that I’ll explain in this section are fully within the bounds of an evangelical theological framework. Godly, Bible-believing theologians, pastors, and lay-people look at the same Bible and come to different conclusions.
A Brief History. John Calvin (1509-1564), a French lawyer turned pastor and theologian, was very much influenced by the writings of Augustine. For Calvin, who came to the conclusion that God chooses us, was primarily interested in a pastoral answer as to why some people trust in Jesus for salvation and others don’t. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian who agreed with much of what Calvin had taught and written, but he took issue with Calvin’s understanding of election and pre-destination. Arminius taught that election was corporate, not individual, and he based it off of the Old Testament teaching of God’s choosing Israel as the “elect” and chosen people of God.
Two Perspectives: Calvinism & Arminianism
Arminianism. Those that follow the teachings on salvation of Jacob Arminius, trace their modern history back to a council that met in 1610 called the Remonstrance, which “protested” the Calvinistic position of predestination (protestants like to protest). And what resulted from that council is what we call the Five Points of Arminianism, which stressed the freedom of human will in salvation. Here are the five points:
1. Free Will – each person possesses a free will, and eternal destiny depends on how each person uses it.
2. Conditional Election – God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world was based and conditioned upon His foreseeing that they would respond to His call
3. Universal (or Unlimited) Atonement – Christ’s redeeming work made it possible for everyone to be saved
4. Resistible Grace – God’s initiating grace and call to salvation through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of non-believers can be resisted
5. Perseverance of Some Saints – Those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith
Calvinism. In response to the Remonstrance of 1610, Calvinist theologians articulated the Five Points of Calvinism at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). The Five Points of Calvinism stressed the sovereign choice of God in human salvation. Here are the five points:
1. Total Depravity – as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and is, apart from the grace of God, utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation
2. Unconditional Election – God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will
3. Limited Atonement – Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save only the elect and actually secured salvation for them
4. Irresistible Grace – God’s grace is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended
5. Perseverance of All Saints – All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved
For a more full explanation of each of the five points of Arminianism & Calvinism, see http://www.the-highway.com/compare.html
For further information on Arminianism see:
For more information on Calvinism see:
For further study on “Double Predestination”
As we look at some passages in the Bible that will help us wrestle through this question, I want to present some passages that Arminians will use to establish their perspective that we choose God and then some passages that Calvinists will use to establish their perspective that God chooses us.
Classic Passages Arminians Use.
1. 1 Timothy 2:3-4. “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God clearly does not take any delight in the death of unrepentant sinners, as His desire is for life and restoration of that life to His creation. Now, don’t interpret this to mean that God is a Universalist whereby all people end up in heaven, because the Scriptures clearly say that this will not be the case (hence the biblical data on hell… which we’ll discuss next week). Both Arminians and Calvinist agree that not all people are saved.
2. John 3:16. “… whoever believes in Him [Jesus] shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Arminians would be whoever means whoever… while still holding that God has to be the first initiator with His grace.
3. Matthew 11:28. “come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden…” From an Arminian perspective, “all” means “all” (much like 1 Timothy 2:3-4).
Classic Passages Calvinists Use.
1. Ephesians 1:3-6. There are a couple of key words that we need to address in this passage:
“Chose” – this word does mean God’s choice… it’s where we get the word “election.” And this choice is according to God’s plan. But the question remains for us… how and why did God choose? Did God choose and “predestine” (more on this word in a moment) us because He looked down the corridors of time (His “omniscience,” all-knowing) and see how people would respond… and then those that responded were the elect, the chosen. Or did God simply choose people individually to be His? Or did God choose the Church (what is known as corporate election)… God choosing the group of those that would be “in Christ” as a corporate community in the same way that He chose Israel as a nation?
Predestined” – this word means, “to decide upon beforehand.” And in v. 5, we see that we are predestined into adoption and relationship.
For a further explanation and study of Ephesians 1:3-6, read Bob Deffinbaugh’s “The Glory of God in Divine Election.”
2. Romans 8:28-30. Let’s take a moment and go to another passage that seems to address some of the same issues. The key question here is how we interpret “foreknew” in “v. 29, “… those He foreknew, He also predestined…” This verb “foreknew” (προγινώσκω) is used five times in the NT… two of them (Acts 26:5 & 2 Peter 3:17) are about humans knowing something beforehand. And two of them (Romans 11:2 – God’s foreknowledge of Israel as His chosen people & 1 Peter 1:20 – about Jesus Christ being foreknown before the foundation of the world) are about God’s sovereign choice beforehand. The key question is whether Romans 8:29 means that God knew who would choose Him beforehand and therefore He predestined them… or whether God sovereignly chose beforehand whom He would predestine. And here’s the honest reality… no one comes to any of these passages with a clean, purely objective interpretation. We all come to these passages and even word studies with our theological biases. It’s interesting, I’ll read commentators on Romans who hold to an Arminian viewpoint, and they’re defining “foreknew” as God looking down the corridors of time and knowing who would choose Him. And then you read commentators with a Calvinistic perspective, and they’re defining “foreknew” as God’s sovereign choice beforehand.
My Personal Vantage Point.
As you can see, going through the two perspectives on how folks attempt to answer this question through an Arminian or Calvinistic perspective and then looking at some passages that seem to force us to wrestle with both sides… here’s where I land. I have learned to live in the tension. There is an infinite mystery in the character, nature, and plan of God at play here. And once again, as I continue to say frequently, I am finite and limited in my understanding. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t attempt to wrestle through the issues and ramifications of my personal perspective. It means that I have learned to peacefully co-exist in the middle of two opposing theological systems.
I do fully believe that God has to be the First Mover in the process of salvation. I believe so strongly in total depravity, theologically, pastorally, and personally, that I do not believe that our will is totally free… because we are conditioned and controlled by the power of sin and our sin nature that very deeply resides within us. You’re not free to jump off a building and fly because it’s not in your “nature” to fly (you’re not a bird). And because of sin, our nature is impaired and impacted in seeing God for who He fully is without His gracious initiative. As we discussed last week, the doctrine of total depravity informs a large part of my personal perspective… and that leads me to believe that God has to be the initiator in me coming to Him. But I also believe that I must have a personal response to His initiative… and that response is faith. One of my former pastors said “faith is the hand of the human heart that reaches out and receives the gracious gift of God.” I like that image, and I think it’s theologically sound. Whether God actually energizes me to reach out to receive the gift seems to take us back to the big question.
I’m not just saying this to keep the peace, but it seems to be a “both/and.” Now I know that some of you are saying that it can’t ultimately be a “both/and.” And some of you really smart folks will site the law of non-contradiction… that two opposing answers can’t be both right at the same time. And I’ll respond back with the reality of human finitude… we will not completely figure it out on this side… and quite possibly not on the next side either (because we’ll still be finite). So I have learned to peacefully exist in the tension… and my response at the mystery and tension (much like the Apostle Paul’s in Ephesians 1) is worship… fully enjoying the mystery of the God who has so lovingly and graciously included us in His huge plan of redemption.
Many of you asked me whether I believe that you can lose your salvation. And here’s my bottom line up front… and then I’ll explain it. If you truly are saved… if you truly are a follower of Jesus Christ… if you truly have embraced the reality that you are sinful and long to be in control… but you have also embraced the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord and you aren’t… and you’ve come to Him to ask His forgiveness for your sin, rebellion, and constant desire for control… and you believe in the reality that His death on the cross removed the penalty for your sin, absorbing God’s wrath that you deserved… and you believe that He was raised from the dead, conquering sin and death… then I believe that the Bible teaches that you are secure in Him… that you cannot lose your salvation. He will hold on to you during the many ups and downs in life, which includes seasons of sin where we turn away from Him and His great grace, and we turn to our desires. Here are two passages (among many) that I could go to that would substantiate this critically important, foundational promise.
Philippians 1:6. Paul is confident (firmly convinced) that since it was Jesus Christ who began and initiated this good work of salvation in us (even with our response of faith), He would be the One who would complete this process of salvation and transformation until the moment when we see Him face to face. We talked about this last fall when we were in our series in the book of Philippians, “Living in the Grip of the Gospel.” I believe that the image that is presented here is that Jesus as the Hero of the story is the One who has reached down and grabbed our hands, hearts, and lives. There are times in our lives when we feel like we’re losing our grip… and perhaps even times when we willingly slacken our grip. There are seasons where we struggle with faith. There are seasons that we struggle with sin. And in those times, I don’t believe that Jesus loses His grip on us… because “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it (i.e., finish) until that day when we see Him face to face.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. We looked at this passage last week when we were talking about the doctrine of sanctification. And Paul seems to be saying the same thing here. Jesus is the One who is sanctifying and transforming us through His Holy Spirit. And v. 24 tells me that He will be faithful to finish what He started… “He will bring it to pass.”
Romans 8:30. “The glorification of the believer is a sure and certain hope. God purposed and promised it. God is sovereign, and He controls each step in His program to assure that it is accomplished. God’s reputation and glory are at stake. All three of the crucial verbs in our text are in the past tense (Greek Aorist): “called,” “justified,” “glorified.” Even though this final step of glorification is still future, it is a certain hope. God is the One who is at work. He is the One who is the subject of all three verbs: He “called,” He “justified,” He “glorified.” Because God is sovereign, in complete control, His purpose of glorifying us will be accomplished. The certainty of our hope of glory is rooted in the sovereignty of God. Just as we have been called and justified, so we shall be glorified. God’s infinite wisdom and power are in control. God’s plan is progressing toward that goal. Some try to motivate Christian service and faithfulness by fear, doubt, and guilt. Paul never does, and neither does any writer of the sacred Scriptures. The security of the believer and the certainty of glory is the basis for faithful service” (Bob Deffinbaugh, “The Glory of God in Romans 8:30”).
Several people asked about Hebrews 6:4-9 where it seems as though a person can lose their salvation. I’ll first explain my take on this passage with this principle: use Scripture to interpret Scripture. This means that I take a difficult passage (of which this is one… and a relatively unique and somewhat obscure passage at that), and I interpret in light of the passages which seem to be much more clear. The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were going through some intense persecution. And some of them were tempted to recant their Christian faith… what we call “apostasy” because of the persecution. In volumes of writings on this passage, scholarly opinion has not concluded whether the people the author of Hebrews is addressing are believers or not. However, if you look at v. 9, the author is confident that the folks he’s addressing aren’t going to be the kinds of folks that are going to recant their faith… so in some sense, the entire conversation is hypothetical. And if someone is going to recant and completely reject their Christian faith and everything about Jesus, I’m going to doubt whether they really were saved to begin with (but I’ll let Jesus sort that out in the end). What I believe that this passage cannot mean is that by simply sinning, you lose your salvation… because the passages says that you could never come back. And that’s clearly not the heart of God throughout the entirety of the Bible.
So let’s go back to the promise. the promise that I think is so very clearly spelled out for us in Philippians 1:6. Jesus is the One who began this good work in you. He is the One who initiated and called You to Himself. He is the One who has all of the power of heaven and earth to keep You safe within His loving arms. He is the One who extends grace and forgiveness when we blow it. He is the One who remains eternally faithful even when it feels like many a day we struggle with faithlessness. So this is a promise that I’m claiming today… this is a promise which I’m praying that you claim today… a promise of God’s great saving grace that you cling to today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year, and the rest of your life. Even though we’ll never be able to fully answer or even adequately resolve the tension of the question of “do I choose God or does God choose me?”… even though we’ll approach the question and the Scriptures with different perspectives… and even though we get to difficult passages that cause us to embrace God’s power and mystery… this I know and fully believe… if you’re truly His… you’ll truly be His for all eternity. Praise God!