Predestination and Human Freedom

Matt Perman

Unconditional election means that "our final destination, heaven or hell, is decided by God not only before we get there, but before we are born. It teaches that our ultimate destiny is in the hands of God" (R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p. 161). God did not base His choice on anything in man. He did not choose those whom He foreknew would choose Him, but based His choice upon Himself and His holy purposes only.

How does unconditional election relate to human freedom? I believe that they are both compatible and will now endeavor to show why.

Freedom is the ability to choose according to our desires. It means making an unforced decision. "Even the most ardent Calvinist would not deny that the will is free to choose whatever it desires. Even the most ardent Arminian would agree that the will is not free to choose what it does not desire" (Sproul, p. 179). So, before we choose something, we must first desire to choose it.

Jonathan Edwards conclusively argued in his book The Freedom of the Will that the will always chooses according to its greatest desire at the moment. For example, if I have a choice between eating liver or steak, I will always choose steak because I desire steak more than liver. But what about when you choose, for example, to study for a test when you really want to go to a movie that night? In that case, you desired the long-run benefits of the good grade that studying will bring more than the short term enjoyment a good movie will bring. So when you choose to study you are still choosing what you most prefer, all things considered.

With regard to salvation, the question is posed well by R.C. Sproul: What does an unsaved person desire? Does an unsaved person, in and of himself, have a desire for Christ?

Total depravity
The Bible teaches that all people are born totally depraved. This does not mean that everyone is as bad as they possibly can be, but that all of us have been corrupted by sin in every facet of our being. This means that people are not basically good, but inherently sinful. We are all "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). The unsaved person, according to the Bible, is "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1), "hostile toward God" (Romans 8:7), and "indulging in the lusts of the flesh and of the mind" (Eph. 2:3). Jeremiah said that "the heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus said that our heart is the root of our sin and full of evil (Mark 7:20-23).

Paul elaborates further on the condition of the unsaved in Romans: "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless..their throat is an open grave...there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:10-18). He says that the unsaved person is at war with God and not even able to submit to God: "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so" (Romans 8:7). Furthermore, "a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Cor. 2:14).

So, let us ask ourselves: Does fallen man, in himself, have a desire for Christ? Does one who does not seek God (Rom. 3:11), who is at war with God (Rom. 8:7), who is unable to subject himself to God (Romans 8:7), who is full of evil (Mark 7:20-23), who is not just mortally ill but dead in sins (Eph. 2:1), who loves sin (Eph. 2:2-3), who is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20) and who cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14) have any desire at all for Christ?

Clearly, the answer is no! What will a sinful heart choose? Only more sin, but not God since there is no desire for God. "Men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). Those who love darkness and do evil simply will not ever come to the light: "For everyone who does evil hates the light [and remember Eph. 2:1-3 and Romans 3:9-18 -- all people indulge in evil before they are saved] and does not come to the light, lest His deeds should be exposed."

Effectual grace
Since total depravity is true of everyone before they are saved, how does anyone ever come to believe? In other words, what must happen before a person will believe? Clearly, there must first be a spiritual transformation of our hearts that causes us to love the light and desire the light instead of hate the light (John 3:20, 21). In other words, God must regenerate us (i.e., make us born again). You do not become born again by believing in Christ; you must first be born again in order to believe. Regeneration precedes faith. When God regenerates us, He re-creates our hearts and gives us a desire for Christ that we otherwise would not have. Then, out of the desire for Christ in our new hearts, we come to Him and believe in Him.

It should be clear by now that election must be unconditional because sinful man is unable to meet any conditions; he cannot even come to faith unless God causes him to. If God left the matter of salvation ultimately up to sinful mankind, no one would ever be saved because no one has a desire for God until God first chooses to regenerate them. Total depravity shows that we would all use our free wills to reject God. This is exactly what Jesus taught: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44).

The fact that not everyone is saved shows that God does not choose to regenerate everyone. He chooses to change the hearts of some and give them a desire for Christ. These are called the elect. Others, He chooses to pass over and leave them in their sins. These are called the non-elect. Thus, we see that God has chosen unconditionally to save some and not others.

Now we are in a position to understand why unconditional election does not violate free will. Remember that free will is the ability to choose according to your desires. The non-elect reject Christ because they have no desire for Christ. Since their choice is in accordance with their desires, it is a free choice that they are responsible for. God cannot be blamed for their eternal condemnation because He is not forcing them to reject Christ -- He is simply letting them have what they want.

Before God regenerates them, the elect are in the same condition of total depravity as the non-elect -- they love sin and hate God. But then God changes their hearts of sin into hearts that love the light and desire Christ. Then, because the elect are now given a desire for Christ that is greater than their desire for sin, they come to the light. This is also a free choice because it is in accordance with their desires. The elect are not forced to come to Christ, but come because they want to.

If what I have explained about regeneration preceding and causing faith is true, we would expect there to be verses in the Bible that teach this. There are. And if salvation is decided by God alone, we would also expect there to be verses which teach that the grace of regeneration is always successful in causing the elect to believe. For if God's grace of regeneration simply made it possible for a person to believe but did not make it actual that they believed, salvation would be ultimately up to man instead of God. (Of course, as we saw earlier, if salvation were left ultimately up to man in any way at all, man would always reject God). Are there verses which teach that God's regenerating grace does not need us to cooperate with it to make it effective, but causes us to cooperate with it and is always effective in bringing us to faith? There are.

"To all who received Him He gave the right to become children of God, to all who believed in His name, who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). This verse is clear--you do not choose to be born again. God must choose to give you the new birth. Then, with your new heart, you will choose to receive Christ.

"Those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. And those whom He foreknew He also predestined; and those whom He predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified; and those whom He justified He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). The phrase "those whom He called He also justified" indicates that the same ones who are called are the same ones who are justified. In other words, all who are called in this sense are also justified. Since Scripture teaches that no one can be justified without faith (Eph. 2:8,9), and that everyone who gets called is justified, this call must be the act of God by which He calls faith into being and is successful every time. It is a call that works effectively to bring the elect to faith and that cannot fail.

This is called the effectual call of God since it is always successful in bringing about the desired result--faith. If someone is called in this way by God, they will believe. Since not everyone believes, not everyone is effectually called by God. Therefore, salvation is a result of God's choice of whom to call. Election is unconditional.

"All that the Father gives Me will come to Me..." (John 6:37). How many that are given to Christ by the Father come to Him? All! This must mean that God works effectively in each person He has chosen to ensure that they come to faith. God is the one who unconditionally decides who is "given" to Christ because in 6:64, 65 Christ says that the reason some people do not believe is because it has not been "given them from the Father." If a person does not come to Christ, it means that the Father did not choose to give him to Christ. In 10:26 Jesus reiterates this point: "You do not believe, because you are not of my sheep." You do not become a sheep by believing. You can only believe if God has chosen to make you a sheep.

" shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). God is clear -- His word cannot fail to accomplish its purpose. This means that if God sends His word to change a person's heart, the heart will be changed. First Peter 1:23-25 and James 1:18 are clear that God's word is the instrument that God uses to regenerate us. God calls us effectually to faith through the working of His word in us. Since God's word cannot fail, then if God wills for a person to be saved, the person will come to faith. If a person is not saved, it is ultimately because God did not choose to send His word into their heart for the purpose of saving them; it is because God did not choose to save them.

"Now I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of Thine can be thwarted" (Job 42:2). God's will is always accomplished. None of His purposes can fail. If God purposes to save a person, they will be saved. If they are not saved, it is because God did not purpose to save him.

First, we saw why election must be unconditional. The human heart is so sinful that unless God first chooses to change a person's heart, he will never want to come to Christ. If you insist on God leaving the ultimate decision for salvation in the hands of men, you are insisting that all mankind reject Christ and perish forever. Second, we saw evidence for unconditional election in the verses which teach God's effectual grace in salvation. Further, if God does not make Christ a person's greatest desire he will never come, because the person desires sin more than Christ. So in order to bring a person to faith, God must change his heart and give him a desire for Christ that is greater than his desire for sin. And when God does this, He is in effect guaranteeing that the person come to faith since the will always chooses according to its greatest desire. What do you ask God to do when you pray for the lost? Do you ask God to give the person a weak desire for Christ that leaves the person in his sin (i.e., not work effectually), or do you ask God to give the person a strong desire for Christ that will irresistibly cause him to believe (i.e., work effectually)? In the first prayer, you might be asking God to preserve the person's ultimate self-determination, but the result is that he will not come to faith. In the second prayer, you are asking God to work successfully, triumphing over his sinful will, and thus acknowledging that God is the one who must make him believe.

The one who says that God's effectual grace eliminates the genuineness of our faith is arguing with the Bible, not me. The Bible teaches that man is not a robot, but also that God can cause us to believe with our wills. Having seen the ways our wills work, we can now see better how this is possible. Since the non-elect and elect are both choosing in accordance with their desires, which is the essence of freedom, we must conclude that their choices really are real, genuine choices.

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