Thursday, January 03, 2008

“Whosoever will” and God’s Sovereignty in Election

Since the last Friday of 2007 I have been thinking about the subjects of sovereignty, depravity, grace, free will, election, and the atonement in order to formulate an answer a question that was posed to me regarding a sermon I preached on December 9, 2007 titled "For To You It Has Been Granted" based on Philippians 1:29. The following is both the thoughts of my heart and an intentional articulation of how I understand the gospel.

My intention with this article is not primarily to win an argument or to “convert” anyone to the theological convictions that I hold. I say that while also believing that my position is true (otherwise, why would I hold it), the theology that I am defending has been the victor in the debate in my mind (otherwise, why would I hold to it), and that I would not be at all upset if anyone who currently disagrees with me were to come to be in agreement with me over time. That being said, I truly want to be subordinate to Scripture, and so I will not neglect to look at these issues or passages that may be difficult to understand because they may seem to push me away from my understanding of sovereignty.

To start off this article, I would like to articulate a few of the many points of agreement that I share with my more Arminian brethren. Many of those who may have some points of contention with the force of my convictions and their doctrinal implications are good friends of mine, and those who are very passionate about the preaching of the gospel to the lost. Some are family, some are Baptists, some are both of these, and some are friends who also love me and my family. That being the case, I am sure that we agree, believe, confess, and would defend the following things:

  • Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and not based on man’s merit or works (Ephesians 2:8,9).
  • Man must be born again to inherit eternal life (John 3).
  • The correct response by any man to the hearing of the gospel must be faith in Christ and repentance of sin (Mark 1:15).
  • The gospel is and should be preached to anyone and everyone and anyone who will believe will be saved. (Rom 10:10-17).
I am sure that there are more issues and things pertinent the focus of this article that we would agree on and stand shoulder to shoulder on, but these were just a few to begin with. However, what tends to be a primary point of disagreement seems to be dealing with the compatibility or incompatibility of human responsibility, or free, will and that of God’s sovereignty in all things including election and salvation. I submit that in each of our understandings of these two things they are compatible in our own minds. The difference is that our understandings of sovereignty and free will are different. So, perhaps the best way to begin is to briefly articulate how I define these words and make a distinction from how many of my Christian brethren may define them.
  1. Free Will (not my definition):
    • Definition: Man’s will is free to choose to believe in God. Even though man is dead in sin, there is a real sense that he is able (in and of himself and his own power apart from a specific working of God) to place his faith in Christ that goes against his sinful nature.
    • Application: Natural man will freely choose to sin, but he can also freely choose to believe in Christ and repent of sin.
  2. Free Will (my definition):
    • Definition: Man’s will is able to choose anything that is able to choose. He can choose anything that his desire and nature will allow him. He, in and of himself, is not able to make choices that supersede or counteract his nature and desire.
    • Application: Natural man will freely, consistently, and constantly choose to sin, reject God, and never ever repent of sin, trust in, believe in, or worship Christ because that is not what the sinful nature desires.
Whether or not the second definition that I gave accurately reflects any specific person’s personal definition or not, I believe that it may be a good way to state how many people think of free will. So, realizing this, in an effort both to defend my position while at the same time showing how and why I believe that the other position (which is drawn from the first definition above) is not correct, I will divide the body of my thoughts into three sections. The first section will be addressing the theological and Scriptural support for my position. The second section will address the theological and Scriptural objections commonly raised against the position that I hold. The third section will address practical concerns that may arise.

Let it be noted that neither my statements in affirmation of the sovereign understanding of salvation that I will put forth nor the objections to that understanding that I will address are to be understood as being a full treatment of the issue at hand. I am sure that this is obvious, but if there are concerns or proofs that are not addressed, either adequately or at all, in this article, it is not out of an intentional shirking of verses or arguments. So, please feel free to raise verses in objection, affirmation, or question regarding this debate so that we can be as iron sharpening iron.

Section One: Scripture Support

To start off this section, let me say that I completely and whole-heartedly believe that anyone who calls on the Lord can and will be saved. It is impossible for someone who calls on the name of the Lord in true repentance and faith not to be saved. So, I am not trying to duck any passages that say this. I believe it! Let me say again, “for ‘WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.’” (Romans 10:13)

The issue, in my mind, is not can “whosoever will” call on the name of the Lord and be saved. The question is “who will” and “how will” they believe. Or, how can the “whosoever will” call on the name of the Lord and be saved. And to begin to answer this question, I will say that God makes a sweeping declaration of the extent of the vileness of the human condition both before the great flood and directly after. In both of these places, God sums up man’s condition by stating that “every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5) and that “the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). I don’t believe that one can read what God has said here and come up with any notion of some ability to do the very opposite of evil which is trusting in and believing in God. The New Testament is not silent on this predicament either. When writing to the Galatians about the differences between the fruits of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh, Paul begins by setting up a dichotomy,
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Galatians 5:17)

Even in the heart and lives of those who are saved (as the context is referring to here), there is nothing similar about the desires and inclinations of the flesh as compared to the Spirit of God that is present in the believer. And let it be noted that it is only after God has saved a person that there is even this type of a struggle.
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 2:1,2)

Before the gift of faith and the new birth, the flesh still is opposed to the Spirit, but there is no Spirit to move the person away from evil and toward God. In other words, unless there is a distinct and sweeping work of God on any person’s behalf, there would not be anyone who would call on the name of the Lord.

So, my contention is that all men are dead until they are made alive, born again (John 3), by the Spirit. And until that time, all men would freely and continually choose to blaspheme God and reject Him utterly. No one would (or could) believe in Christ. And the primary disagreement, if I were to guess, that we have is not even with what I have laid out so far, but it is with the implications that I drew (based on my understanding of Scripture) about the “whosoever” people.

On Sunday the 9th, my only goal with the portion of the passage that I was preaching out of (Phil 1:29) was to make the point that faith, initial saving faith (but also continuing faith), is a gift from God and it does not originate with man. I did this based on three points, the first is that faith had to be a gift from God because the Bible says so (Eph 2:8, Phil 1:29). But I built the case, drawing on the above Scriptures from Genesis, Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to say that man is also incapable and unwilling to believe in Christ on our own.

My point on Sunday was not to preach on Predestination or election because that is not what the verse was talking about, and I tried to be very careful not to preach about those issues. However, the only way to completely address the “whosoever will” concern is to bring up the idea of election.

And to do that, I will just reference a few passages that are clear (I believe) statements to the affirmative and make some brief comments about them, and then once I’ve done that I will try to deal with one or two that are used as objections against it.

But once again, I want to be clear that this was not material or subject matter that I preached at all on Sunday evening.
1 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

God called Abraham, who was a wretched sinner in opposition to God if he was not a practicing idol worshipper like those around him as well. God chose Him instead of Lot, Terah, or anyone else including Noah or Shem (both Noah and Shem were still alive at that time) to father the chosen people.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him 11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, 12 to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

God chose us in Him before the foundation of the world according to the kind intention of His will, not according to the future choices of humans. We have been predestined according to His purpose based on the counsel of His will, not according to our purpose, will, choices, or seen future faith.
35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. 36 "But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. 37 "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. 38 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." 41 Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, "I am the bread that came down out of heaven." 42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, `I have come down out of heaven'?" 43 Jesus answered and said to them, "Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:35-44)

Whoever believes will be saved (v.41), but Christ makes a clear statement about who will believe and come to Him. The Father will give to Christ all of those people who will come to Christ, and Christ will keep all of them (v.37). But He also goes on to say that no one can come to Him unless God draws him (v.44). The meaning is that all of those whom God draws to Christ are saved by Christ. Those who are not drawn are not saved. Not everyone is drawn because not everyone is saved.
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER." 13 Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED."

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH." 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 19 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. (Romans 9:10-24)

This section in Romans 9 is extensive and I cannot address everything here, but first of all if election was not based on sovereign grace alone but on the foreseen faith of individuals based upon their free will decision to believe in God, would this objection that Paul addresses here even be raised? How could God ever seem unjust if you, the individual, bore the full weight of your own non-election because you weren’t smart enough, wise enough, or “whatever” enough to receive salvation based on your own person and attributes? The objection of injustice only comes when our minds have a hard time dealing with the truth that God freely elects and chooses whom He desires to be saved according to the council of His will (cf. Eph 1).

Paul clarifies that he is stating what he is stating in this section “so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls”. It is not based upon any future seen faith, but on the sovereign Lord who is doing the calling. Furthermore, God claims the authority and the right to have compassion on whomever He wants. Some vessels were created for honorable use and some for common use, and that is done so by the choice of the potter. And God shows His patience by enduring the vessels of wrath that were prepared for destruction when He has no obligation to do so.
4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:4,5)

Now while this verse is specifically in response to the works righteous heresy of the Judaizers, I think that the application is true for any “deed done in righteousness” and that would, in my opinion, include saving faith. Again, if we understand that saving faith is to have originated from the person himself and not in response to a specific work done on his or her life by God that is not done to those who do not believe, then we, in effect, make man his own savior. I don’t say that lightly or flippantly, but purposefully and intentionally. If my decision, apart from any specific work on God’s part, is the thing that activates my salvation, then I truly am the one who adds my mite, however small that mite might be, to the scales of God’s justice that tips it all to the side of salvation and not damnation.

Also, I fully understand that Christians, true Christians, who would hold a different view of depravity and election than what I hold would never say that they believe that they are their own saviors. That is precisely why I stated that I believe we are in agreement about salvation being by grace through faith and not on account of works at the beginning of this response. So my statement was to point out what seems to be the logical conclusion of the understanding of free will that I am opposed to. So I am not attacking the genuineness of the salvation of believers who disagree with me, but I am trying to point out that their theology in this regard, however genuine, is not consistent.
2 "But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. 3 "To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 "When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

26 "But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. 27 "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 "I and the Father are one." (John 10:2-4, 26-30)

I think that John 10:26 is pivotal here. Those who Jesus is talking to don’t believe because they are not His sheep; He didn’t say that they are not His sheep because they do not believe. The point is important because it goes to the root of the problem. The sheep believe because they are His, they are not His because their faith in Him ultimately makes that so. Their belief doesn’t make them (in an eternal sense) His sheep. Their being His sheep and having been chosen from before the foundation of the world is the reason why they believe.
“When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)

Corresponding to John 10, those who were appointed to eternal life believed the preaching; it is not the believing of the preaching that caused them to be appointed to eternal life.

Section Two: Scriptural Objections Addressed:

One of the most common objections to the view of sovereign grace and election that I have put forth has to do with an understanding of the “whosoever” passages in the Scriptures. In order to address this issue, I did a search for whosoever passages and found 179 in the KJV (that word is not used in the NAS, NKJV, ESV that I normally use)1, and most of these don’t deal with the doctrine of salvation. So instead of trying to wade through them and address ones that are do not strong arguments for the position that is opposite mine, I will deal with seems to be the primary “whosoever” passages that many people have raised. These “whosoever” passages that will be addressed are Romans 10:13 and John 3:16, but I will also address a few others that are commonly brought up.
1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I think that it is accurate here, and not a stretch, to understand that the “all men” here is referring to all types of men including kings “who are in authority.” One of the things that is key to remember, I think, is that the Jewish culture was a very racist one, and gentiles were possibly considered to be a little better than dogs. And to think that Jehovah would save Jews was totally reasonable, but Jesus and all of the writers of the New Testament are continually stating that there are sheep of a different flock (i.e. from the gentile nations), and so Jews needed to understand this (cf. John 10). The whole issue of circumcision and law keeping was rooted, at least in part, in the false idea that Christianity and Christians had to be Jewish. So, the gospel call and salvation is for all types of people, not just Jews.
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. (2 Peter 3:9)

This one honestly had given me much concern, but I think that I understand it better now. The hardest thing about this passage is trying to understand that the letter was written to the elect of God or to those who have “received a faith of the same kind as ours” (cf. 2 Peter 1:1), and the specific intended and primary meaning of these words were for those who were saved and in the churches at that time. So the “you” are the saved. The Lord is not wishing that any of His own perish, but that all of His own would come to repentance.

This verse is absolutely true and correct. The problem is that this verse does not describe the person who calls or how they call on the Lord. It simply says that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord” will be the beneficiary of salvation in Christ. This addresses the question of “what will happen” to those who call on Christ, but it does not address “how” question. How can a dead man call on anyone? How can a dead man desire anything? It is the “how” question that is the heart of the issue, not the “who” or “whosoever”. The answer is, I believe, apart from God’s specific work in an individual’s heart (the new birth, the granting of faith, the grating of repentance), there would be no “whosoever”.
“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.” (John 3:16)

This is the primary “whosoever” passage that I could come up with, and I want to address it delicately. First of all, I have to come to this verse understanding that natural man, under no circumstances because of his depravity, would or could choose to believe in the glorious Son of God. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Secondly, there is a very true sense that God loves the world, the whole world, the sinful and the redeemed, “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45b) So, there is a general grace and a general love and patience that God displays to all humanity. I mean, the vilest rejecter of God will sin and live to breathe again. That is truly a display of God’s general grace toward mankind. John also tells us that if we love the world that the love of the Father is not in us (cf. 1 John 2:15). I don’t think that we should be too extravagant in our understanding of God’s love for the whole world.

Q: Does God love the world?
A: Yes.

Q: If anyone believes in the Son and repents of their sin, will they be saved?
A: Yes.

Q: Do those who do not believe in Christ also reject Him and sin against God willfully (i.e. in line with their will)?
A: Yes. (cf. Gen 6:7; 8:21)

Q: Do those who receive salvation by repentance and faith do so willfully?
A: Yes. Their wills have been transformed by the new birth and they have been given faith and repentance.

This is how I have come to understand God’s sovereign work in salvation. I believe that it is consistent to the whole counsel of God, it magnifies God above all things, and it still holds man accountable for his actions toward God. In short, both the continual sinful rejection of God by unregenerate man as well as faith in Him by regenerate man are free, willful, and deliberate acts done in accordance with the thoughts, intents, and desires of that individual person. In no way does God’s work in election drag a sinner “kicking and screaming” into heaven so that “heaven would be like hell”2

Section Three: The Practical Objections:

The first objection tends to be a concern that taking a firm stance on the doctrine of election completely disregards 'whosoever will'. I did attempt to deal with this in the previous portion of my response. But, for the record, I do not see any contradiction or compromise in understanding what the Bible puts forth as the doctrine of election and the doctrinal understanding of man’s corrupt nature.

Another objection usually deals with the concern that pride, arrogance, or a lack of evangelistic motivation is the inevitable result of taking a firm and defined position on the doctrine of election and God’s sovereignty. Basically, the call to witness is not ever limited to “go find the elect and preach to them only”. We are to go the world and preach the gospel to everyone. I still contend that understanding the doctrines of election, grace, and depravity are the most self-stripping truths that break down every pillar of pride or self-importance and cultivate the exact opposite reaction; that of humility and being poor in Spirit.

Some simply dislike a “hard line” stance taken on these doctrines. But to be quite frank, I am not sure what is totally meant when they refer to this position as being “hard line”. If they are simply referring to a clear, definite, and forcefully preached understanding of God’s sovereignty in election that is fairly summarized by the 5 points of Calvinism3, then that is fine. If that is the case however, I do not know if it is any more “hard line” of a position than a “hard line” position of non-distinction or assertion that the answer is so complete a mystery that the understanding of the doctrine of election as I have put forth is not possible. And if that is the case, we have a choice of which hard line to be on. However, if by “hard line” people are referring to hyper-Calvinism, which may see no need of evangelism or other types of perversions, let me make it clear that I am not a hyper-Calvinist.

Christians are to preach the word so that the elect can hear it and believe. But, more than that, evangelism is the method that God has setup for the furthering of His will, His kingdom, and done for His glory. We do it out of obedience to Christ and love for Him. I should witness with the primary motivation of glorifying God, not of saving sinners. Do we want sinners saved? Yes. But if we put our primary goal or intention on anything other than God and His glory (since I believe that is the primary thing that He is concerned with), this goal or intention that is idolatrous at the heart. No matter what replaces God and His glory as our focus, whatever “it” is, “it” is being exalted above God and that is unacceptable.

I truly believe that God will save all of His own, but that does not ever give me the cause to think that I should sit back, eat potato chips, and shut my mouth about the gospel. That kind of an attitude (that some hyper-Calvinists espouse) is as false an understanding of the Scriptural call to evangelize as universalism is. This perversion of the command to evangelize is easily defeated by simply looking at the Scriptures. I am commanded by Scripture to go and preach the gospel, and that is something that I both take seriously and fail miserably at.

Is it possible that this understanding of “chosen” can or does bring up the sinful reactions of pride, laziness, or others among believers at times? Yes, that is possible. But the possibility or reality of sinning because of a certain theological stance no more condemns my theological stance than another. Likewise, a more strongly held “whosoever will” focus in theology with the emphasis placed on man’s decision over and above God’s sovereign plan may produce the sinful reaction of pride or produce a mindset that says “I was smart enough to believe, but those people were too dumb…”. The issue is this: which theology is true? It is not which adherents sin less, evangelize more, or anything else.

I hope that my treatment of these issues have come across in a way that both has been fair to objections that can be raised and that has addressed some of the pertinent texts. I hope and pray that this will encourage anyone to engage the texts with me, and if we still disagree, we can reason together over specific passages of Scripture. This article has been a labor of love for me. Love for my friends and their families. Love for my church and fellowship. Love for the Scriptures. Love for the gospel. Love for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


2 Hank Hanegraaff, the Bible answer man, is a staunch advocate of libertarian free will that characterizes election with this type of language. I have heard it on the air many times.

3 As a note, the 5 points of Calvinism only became “points” in response to the theological false teachings put forth by Joseph Arminius’s followers.
Arminian’s Theological Assertions
(5 Points of Arminianism)
Dutch Church’s Response
(5 Points of Calvinism)
Free-will/Human AbilityTotal Depravity/Complete Inability
Conditional Election (God ratifies human faith)Unconditional Election
Universal Redemption/General AtonementLimited Atonement/Particular Redemption
Resistable GraceIrresistible Grace
Falling from Grace (can lose your salvation)Perseverance of the Saints

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