What Does The Bible Say? Part 5, Can We Choose To Be Saved?

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series What Does The Bible say?

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

There are basically two schools of thought where the motivating force behind our salvation is concerned.

One is that before God created the first man, He knew mankind would fall into sin and be lost. At that time He chose some of us to be saved by having His Son die for our sins. Those who believe this say He didn’t give us His reason for choosing some and not others. They say He did it because He is sovereign and it was His right to do so. Neither those He chose to save nor those He didn’t choose have any say in the matter. It was all decided by God and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The other school of thought begins the same way. Before He created the first man, God knew mankind would fall into sin and be lost. But then it differs, holding that God provided a means whereby mankind could choose to be saved. The remedy He provided, having His Son die for our sins, is the same. But as you can see, the application of the remedy is different. All who choose to do so can ask God to save them and if they believe His son died for their sins and rose again, He will do so.

So, either God knew we would sin, provided a remedy for our sins, and then applied that remedy to a sample of mankind that He selected. Or, God knew we would sin, provided a remedy for our sins, and then offered that remedy to everyone who chooses to accept it. What does the Bible say? Must God choose us to receive His remedy or can we make the choice to receive it ourselves?

First Things First

To give ourselves the best chance at finding the correct answer, let’s begin by reviewing some of the guidelines we should follow for accurate Biblical interpretation no matter what we’re studying.

The first is that the Bible is the word of God and therefore is not self contradictory. That means on all matters of doctrine, the Bible only teaches one position. People who claim there are some verses that indicate our salvation is God’s choice while other verses say it’s our choice cannot be correct. It’s either one way or the other.

The second guideline we’ll follow is to always let the clearest verses on a particular issue help us understand those that aren’t so clear. The clearest statements on a topic define the Bible’s position on that topic. Therefore there are no obscure verses lurking somewhere else in the text that negate them. The Bible is not meant to confuse us or trick us, but to bring us understanding.

And third, we should always assume the Bible means just what it says when we place a given verse in its proper context, unless we’re given a clear indication that we shouldn’t make that assumption. Examples of this would be when we’re reading a parable or when some other obvious type of symbolism is being used.

With that introduction, lets look at the Bible’s clearest verses on the issue of who made the choice for us to be saved.

What Does The Bible Say?

One of the best known verses in the Bible is John 3:16. It’s also one of the clearest where the matter of our salvation is concerned. In the King James Version it reads like this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Greek word translated “world” in this verse is “kosmos”. It appears 187 times in the New Testament and in 186 of those it’s translated “world”. But from the context of the passage we can see the Lord was not talking about the planet we live on, because it can’t believe anything. He had to be talking about the people who live on the planet, and when that’s the case the word “kosmos” refers to the inhabitants of the Earth, the human family. It’s an all inclusive word that covers everyone on Earth.

So God gave His Son because He loved each and every person on Earth. This is consistent with other statements the Bible makes about God’s love for all of mankind. When John the Baptist said that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) he used the same word for “world”. And 1 John 2:2 says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Again, the same Greek word was used.

This means Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of those God had chosen, but for the sins of everyone. It follows then, that when you add the conditional phrase “whosoever believeth”, John 3:16 means everyone who believes Jesus died for their sins can ask for salvation and receive it because everyone’s sins have been paid for.  Jesus confirmed that salvation is available to everyone in Matt. 7:7-8 and in John 6:40, as did Paul in Romans 10:13.

He Can’t Do That

Jesus could not have said, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life,” as He did in John 6:40, if God only gives eternal life to those He has already chosen. And Paul could not have said that some will perish because they refused to love the truth and be saved (2 Thes. 2:9-12) unless everyone has the ability and opportunity to believe the truth. Otherwise God would not be just.

Some say the sovereignty of God allows Him to do anything He wants. But that simply is not true. Moses had this to say about God.

I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:3-4).

That means God can’t violate His own laws, or go back on His own word. And He can’t act in an unjust, unrighteous, unloving manner because these are His defining characteristics. It’s true that we’re all deserving of death and because of our sins God would be justified in condemning all of us. But to arbitrarily pick a few to save while leaving the rest to die in their sins would not be consistent with His justice, His righteousness, or His love. In fact it would be a violation of all three.

Two other clear verses underscore the fact that God could not have created some solely for the purpose of condemnation. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God doesn’t want anyone to perish but for everyone to come to repentance, and 1 Tim. 2:3-4 confirms that God wants all men to be saved. If this is what God wants, and if it is solely up to Him, then wouldn’t everyone be saved?  And if it’s not what He wants why would these verses, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, say it is?

That’s not to say God isn’t involved in our salvation decision because He certainly is. Here’s how.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:29-30).

There are five steps here and God is involved in everyone of them, He foreknew, He predestined, He called, He justified, and He glorified. Lets take them one at a time.

He Foreknew

The Greek word means “to have knowledge beforehand.” In Isaiah 46:10 God said, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come.” God is not just someone who has a lot of time. He is outside of time altogether and can actually see past, present, and future all at once. Where our salvation is concerned, it means He knew everyone who would choose to be saved before any of us came to be.

(An alternate translation of Rev. 13:8 tells us that the Lamb’s book of life, which contains the name of every member of the Church, was actually written from the creation of the world. If so, God not only knew our names from the very beginning but created a record of them as well. Rev. 21:27 tells us that only those whose names are written in this book can enter the New Jerusalem, the eternal home of the Church.)

He Predestined

This word means “to appoint beforehand.” It’s very similar to making an appointment or a reservation; arranging in advance for something to happen at a certain time. When God looked down through time to see us making our decision to be saved, He made an appointment for us to be conformed to the image of His son.

He Called

At the proper time in our life God calls us to do what He had already seen us do. This is a critical step. From Romans 3:9-18 we learn that because of our sin nature none of us will seek God on our own. The guilt we bear for our sins makes us fear Him. Therefore He doesn’t sit idly by. He sends people to tell us that He loves us and wants to make peace with us. He may even intervene in our life, orchestrating circumstances that will make us receptive to His call. (In my case He had to shatter a whole bunch of “idols” that were cluttering up my life and distracting me from making my decision. Having already seen it happen, He knew what it would take for me to surrender and He did what it took. I would never want to live through that time again, but I will be forever grateful for His perseverance.)

He Justified

The Greek word means “to render righteous” He caused us to become innocent, faultless, guiltless. He did this by applying the blood of Jesus to the sins of our life so we could dwell with Him. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (Notice how this verse confirms that Jesus died for all of us, not just those God had chosen.)

He Glorified

He holds us in honor, adorns us with lustre, and clothes us with splendor. Obviously this will happen at the rapture/resurrection, when we will become in fact what we already are from His perspective. For those who are in Christ are a new creation; the old has gone the new has come! (2 Cor. 5:17).

We can see that these five steps were all put into motion when God saw in advance that we would one day choose Him by accepting the pardon He purchased for us with the blood of his Son. But if we were to ignore that first step then it would appear that God chose us. In fact those who believe that our salvation was God’s choice and not ours do just that, often calling their position “predestination”, after the second step in the process Paul laid out in Romans 8:29-30.

Reformed Theology

The notion that God has to choose us is an improper application of Scripture that had its beginning in the Protestant Reformation. This is the time when the lines of delineation between Israel and the Church were erased and the Church was said to have inherited all the promises of Israel. A new system of understanding the Bible emerged, called reformed theology. Among its components is the idea that just as God chose Israel, in the same way He has chosen the Church.

It’s clear that Israel was chosen by a sovereign act of God. That’s why they’re called His chosen people. There was nothing to commend Abraham and his descendants above the other nations. In Deut. 7:7-8 Moses told the Israelites: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

Israel was in a national covenant with God that included a national homeland, and individuals had no say in the matter. Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day of life, long before they had any ability to choose, as a lifelong symbol of this covenant. The nation stood or fell on the basis of their obedience to their covenant with God.

But when it comes to the Church, the Bible says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)

The Church is not in a covenant with God in the sense that Israel is. In the first place, the Church is not a nation and has no national homeland. Second, we are the beneficiaries of a covenant between the Father and the Son. Every human, regardless of race or national origin, has the privilege of entering into this beneficial relationship, as a matter of personal choice, upon confessing their belief that Jesus died for their sins and rose again.

Claiming the Church is the successor to Israel is a major flaw in reformed theology, and perhaps the most serious component of that flaw is the insistence that our salvation is determined by a sovereign act of God over which we have no control, rather than being something Jesus died to make available to all who choose to accept it. Remember John’s words; “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30) 02-22-14