God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is a tricky subject…or is it? The issue centers around the so-called dilemma of how a person gets saved. That is, does a man (or woman) repent and believe in Jesus Christ of his own ‘free will’ or is his will motivated, to any degree, by God. And, if so, isn’t that tantamount to invading our free will? Moreover, if that is the case, is it truly free will any longer? In other words, who is ultimately responsible for our salvation? Further, who is ultimately the highest authority in salvation?

Salvation is that act whereby a sinner is delivered, forensically and actually, from the wrath of God that is reserved for them. God’s wrath is reserved for sinners because God’s righteousness has been offended by the sins of the man and woman He created. In Genesis 2:17 God promised Adam that in that very day that he eats from the tree of which he was commanded not to eat, he will die. Adam was told not to eat of it. Adam had instructed his wife also as she was able to repeat to Satan God’s command (Genesis 3:2-3). However, they did eat and thus all men, as they are from Adam, are fallen. The tree itself was not the issue. It was the command of God that created the choice. But, as the most complex creation of God, i.e. made in His image, he would have to be able to exercise his will since God Himself has a will and does all things according to it (the whole creation narrative demonstrates that there was no outside compulsion to ‘create’ and thus was completely by His own will that He did it).

However, what needs to be understood here is that even before the fall, Adam and Eve was still a created being. They were still subject to the dominion of God himself (Psalm 135:6). God did not relegate absolute rulership at any level to Adam, although we often think of his rulership over the earth as that. However, the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains (Psalm 24:1; 89:11), therefore Adam does not truly have complete control over it. He was only a manager of it, a steward (Genesis 1:26). Likewise, Adam does not have complete control over his own soul. The dominion of God was evident even then as He has the power to kill as Genesis 2:17 says (see Luke 12:5). The absolute sovereignty of God is evident from the beginning. Man is a created being, in all his complexities and abilities, he is still a created being. Thus, as such, is limited.

A person is saved when that person repents from their sins and believes in Jesus Christ (Mark 1:15). To repent is to turn our affections away from sin and to turn toward God, both in heart and body. John the Baptist preached to the Pharisees that they should prove their repentance by their deeds, or works (Matthew 3:8). He understood that there is fruit with true repentance (v.10). Paul also summarized his message he declared to Jews and Gentiles alike as that of repentance (Acts 26:20). Repentance bears fruit and that fruit is visible. A good illustration, among many, is the church in Thessalonica. They individually turned to God away from their idols to serve Him (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). The fruit of their repentance is clearly laid out in the entire epistle (i.e. 1:3-8). But the question is, “Who is responsible for their repentance? Did God give them repentance, or did they repent of themselves apart from any work of God?”

The Scriptures indicate that repentance is a work of God. He grants repentance to the sinner. Paul told Timothy that he should be patient in his work of correction when some oppose him. Why? Because God may grant them repentance so that they can “come to their senses” (2 Timothy 2:25-26). God is the subject of the verb “to give”. He is the giver of repentance. This is the exercise of a sovereign God. Acts 11:18 also testifies that it is God who “grants” repentance. After Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem that the Gentiles are getting saved and that is allowable as proven to him via a vision (Acts 10:9-17), they conclude that just as God has granted repentance to Jews (see Acts 2:38-39, 41), He has also welcomed Gentiles as evidenced by granting them the identical repentance. In both case, it is God who grants, or gives, repentance.

What about faith? Does man produce faith? Or, is faith a result of God’s gift also? Paul teaches that salvation through faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is not that salvation is the gift, but it is our faith that brings it to us. All of it is the “gift of God”. James indicates that our ‘second birth’ is the result of the will of God (James 1:18). The tool that He uses is the “word of truth” (Romans 10:17). Peter also indicates that the tool that produces salvation is the word of God (1 Peter 1:3, 22-25).

It seems that God does all things according to His will (Ephesians 1:5) and according to that same will brings repentance and faith to whom He desires (John 6:44). However, do we have any part in salvation at all? That is, how is it that we can be responsible for repentance, faith and obedience if it is all from God? This kind of question is the result of a compulsion on our part to contribute to salvation, which indicates a low view of our own depravity. Man does not want a ruler over them (1 Samuel 8:7, 19-20). That is the heart of the whole discussion.

The reality is that it is God, and God alone, who is at work in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). It is His good pleasure to have mercy on some, leading to salvation and on others, to expend wrath (Romans 9:15-18). It is God who gives repentance and grants us a will that receives Jesus Christ and confesses Him as Lord (Romans 10:9-10). It is the gift of God, freely of His own choice, that grants us faith and salvation. We believe only because He, of His own free will, not ours, caused us to believe. The promise to Israel, which is still coming, is seen in the church today. God cleanses us, inserts in us a new heart and soul which replaces the dead and stony heart, and imparts His Spirit to us. Thus, He causes us to walk in His statutes and observe His ordinances (Ezekiel 36:25-27; cf. Romans 10:19;11:11).

Man gets no glory for salvation. He does not partake at all in the entire transaction. Otherwise, it would not be grace. However, if we do not repent and believe, we are guilty. If that is offensive, consider the fact that we are already guilty and God’s wrath already abides upon us (John 3:36).