Have you ever heard it said that God will do everything that He can to bring a person to faith, but He will not cause him to believe because then his choice would not be "genuine?" Sometimes is it put this way: God has done everything He can to make your salvation possible, but He has left it ultimately up to you to accept or reject His love -- because true love must be freely chosen to be genuine and meaningful. It is said that we have a free will to accept or reject God, free will meaning that we have the final say in whether we will be saved or not -- it is ultimately our choice, not God's.
I believe that this view, called Arminianism, is unbiblical and has devastating implications. The problem stems from the fact that it makes salvation ultimately depend upon us, not God. Yes, God does everything He can to persuade a person to believe, but in the end the individual has the final say in the matter. In the end, the individual plays the decisive and most important part -- because it is the individual's part (not God's) that determines the outcome.
What are the devastating implications of such a thing, you ask? After all, isn't this the only way for my love for God to be genuine? I answer that final say over our choices (which I will call "free will") is not necessary for our love to be genuine and that the true picture of salvation is this: God plays the decisive role in salvation because He causes the individual to believe in Him. So, in Calvinism God has the final say over an individual's salvation, whereas in Arminianism the individual has final say. As we briefly examine the problems with the Arminian view, the details of this other view (called "Calvinism") will become clearer.
Why Can't It Be Both?
It is important to see that Calvinism and Arminianism cannot both be true. It is either one or the other. Further, there can be no in-between. Why is this? It is simple: there can be no in-between because both God and man cannot have final say in salvation. If I have final say about whether I will be saved or not (as Arminianism teaches), then God cannot guarantee what I will choose. For if He did guarantee my choice, I would not have the final say. But if God does not guarantee what I will choose, then He does not have final say over my choice. He may have influence, but He does not have decisive control. Thus, if we have final say, then God does not. But if God has final say, we do not.
Additionally, if both God and man have final say, we must ask what happens if their choices disagree? Not everyone is saved, so what if someone whom God chooses does not choose Him in return? The only answer can be that the choices will never disagree, but will perfectly coincide. But, we must ask, what is the reason that they perfectly coincide? We could not say that God caused them to coincide, for then He would have final say. But if one says that man caused them to coincide, then man has final say. And if one says that God chose those whom He foreknew would believe, then man still has final say (for our choice would be the basis of God's choice, which is precisely what Arminianism affirms). The only possible way that both God and man's choice could perfectly coincide is "it was just luck!" That makes no sense at all. In this case, neither God nor man would have final say -- coincidence would! Clearly, either Calvinism or Arminianism is true and their can be no in-between.
Free Will Denies God the Full Credit for Our Salvation
Now we are in a position to clearly see the first problem with free will (i.e., Arminianism). If free will is true, then God would not get full credit for our faith because He did not give (cause) our faith (for if He did cause our faith, then we would not have final say). If we are to have free will and thus final say, we are the ones who must ultimately provided the faith. But if God does not get full credit for our faith, He does not get full credit for our salvation because faith is an essential part of our salvation. Credit would be divided between us and God -- God's role was to create the machinery of salvation to make it possible for us, and man's role was to operate the machinery and make our salvation actual by supplying faith out of our own free will.
Because credit is divided between God and man, glory would also be divided between God and man. This is entirely contrary to the biblical view that God "will not give [His] glory to another" (Isaiah 48:11). Are you willing to deny God the ultimate credit for your faith and thus your salvation? That is what you are doing when you say that you freely chose Christ apart from God's decisive enabling grace. The statement "God wanted creatures who would freely love Him in return" amounts to "God wanted creatures who could take partial credit for their good decisions." Put simply, if God doesn't do all the work, He does not receive all the glory.
It seems clear that if free will is true, then God does not get full credit for our salvation because we contributed the decisive element to the process without which God could not save us -- faith. How are we to get around this problem so that we can give God all of the glory for our salvation? After all, faith is a necessary part of salvation -- no one will be saved without it. The only way to give God full glory is to acknowledge that faith itself is given to us by God -- that is, God causes us to believe in Him. Thus, He provides the decisive element and He has final say over whether we believe or not. Further, if God has final control over whether we will believe or not, then it is God and not man who determines those who will be the recipients of salvation. In other words, since God gives faith, he determines who will believe. And since He determines who will believe, He determines who will be saved. These truths are part of what is called "Calvinism."
Free Will Denies That All Good Is From God
It should be self-evident to any Christian that it is a terrible thing to think that we can take ultimate credit for anything that is good. But in case it is not clear to you, let me make the problem explicit. The Scriptures teach clearly that all good things (whether they are material creations or good actions) are ultimately from God: "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to Him be the glory forever, Amen" (Romans 11:36). Since faith is a good thing, it too must be ultimately from God. But to say that we have ultimate self-determination to believe in Christ is to deny that our faith is ultimately from God, thereby the biblical teaching that all good things are ultimately from God. To say that there is a good thing in this universe that is not ultimately a work of God is to insult the all-sufficiency of God as the giver of all good things. If God is truly God, and thus the source of all good, how can there be anything good that God did not bring about? Are you willing to deny that God is the source of all good things? Do you really think that you can produce, of your own free will, a good thing to give to God? Wouldn't it depreciate God and exalt man if you answered "yes" to these questions? It is a serious thing to deny God the glory of being the giver of all good things.
Our deduction that, since faith is a good thing, it must be given by God is confirmed by the many verses which explicitly teach that faith is a gift of God. To say that faith is a gift of God means that it is caused by God -- otherwise God would not be giving it but merely making it possible. And if God is the one who causes it to happen, it means that He has final say in whether a person believes or not (if he did not have final say, He could not cause it to happen because causing something to happen is essentially acting to guarantee that it will occur). Second Timothy 2:25 tells us to be patient with those who oppose us, "if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth." Philippians 1:29 says: "For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake." This verse is clear that believing (and suffering!) is a gift from God to man, not a gift from man to God.
Free Will Makes God More Pleased With Our Works Than His Works
It is often claimed that God is more honored by our faith if we create it ourselves, rather than if He gives it to us. What we have seen so far reveals that, on the contrary, God would not be honored if our faith was a result of our ultimate self-determination because then God is not the all-glorious giver of all good things. God is not pleased with things that attempt to steal His glory -- if He were, He would be denying His infinite worth. Therefore, our faith can only be pleasing to God if it is given, or caused, by Him. If God delighted in something which He did not ultimately cause, then He would be denying that He is the all sufficient and source of joy and goodness. In doing this, He would deny His infinite worth.
To say that God would not be pleased with faith that He gives amounts to saying that God would not be pleased with His own works. On the contrary, Scripture says that God "rejoices in His works." Are you willing to say that if faith is a work of God in us, it would not be pleasing to God? In doing so, you would be denying the perfection and sufficiency of something that God does. Are you willing to do this? Are you willing to say that God would be more pleased with something that is a human work than with something that is His own work?
Faith Must Be Given by God in Order to Be Genuine
Far from faith not being genuine if it is given by God, we must in light of this ask, "How could our faith be genuine and meaningful if God did not give it to us?" Do we really want to hold that God would not be pleased by His own work of faith in us? And do we really want to believe that there is something good which is not ultimately from God? This is what we say if we believe that love for God and faith in Him are ultimately produced by our free will, rather than given to us by God. The Scriptures are clear that there is no reality other than what God brings about. Faith can only be genuine because God gives it to us, not if we are somehow able to ultimately bring it about on our own. God is love, and He is the Creator. How can we, in good conscience, think that love is genuine only if it is not a gift from Him? Isn't that, in the ultimate sense, taking God out of our view of love? If God is love, how can we define true love as something that is ultimately chosen independently of Him (it is ultimately independent of Him because it is not ultimately given by Him)? I think that we have reversed the roles of the creature and the Creator.
I believe that God has the ability to create faith in me such that He is totally and completely responsible for it, yet it is genuinely my faith. Scripture has this view of our good choices. For example, Paul says that God puts in Titus earnestness on behalf of the Corinthian Church: "But thanks be to God, who puts the same earnestness on your behalf in the heart of Titus" (2 Corinthians 8:16). Yet, the next verse says that "he has gone to you of his own accord." God put it in His heart in such a way that Paul could say that he went "of his own accord." Titus's choice was not genuine because it was a result of his own self-determination, but because it was a result of God giving Him the desire to go.
Perhaps another analogy can help. God gave me my hand. But does this mean that it is not also genuinely my hand? Of course not! In creating my hand, He created it in such a way that it was really my hand, though it is ultimately His own work and possession. So it is with our faith. He gives it to us in such a way that it is genuinely our faith while at the same time completely His work.
Free Will Makes Humans Little Gods
This leads us to the next problem with "free will" in the Arminian sense -- it turns man into a little god by usurping God's role as Creator. For if God does not create my faith in me, then it means that I "create" it myself. As one writer summarized it, "Faith is the sinner's gift to God; it is man's contribution to salvation." But "if we admit free will in the sense that the absolute determination of events is placed in the hands of man, we might as well spell it with a capital "F" and a capital "W"; for then man has become like God, -- a first cause, an original spring of action, -- and we have as many semi-Gods as we have free wills." God and man are placed on nearly an equal level on the free will view. In fact, it seems to me that man is placed above God because he has the ultimate decision in whether God's desire to save him will be successful. Perhaps the Arminian writer Max Lucado has best (unintentionally!) summarized this near-heresy in the conclusion to a hypothetical story describing free will: "The Creator had created, not a creature, but another creator" (from his book In the Eye of the Storm). I don't know about you, but I'm content to stick within my biblical role as a creature. The Calvinist view seems much preferred: "Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of salvation -- it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God." How can it be any other way? "Who has first given to God, that God must repay Him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to God be the glory forever, Amen" (Romans 11:35-36).
God Has Not Limited His Sovereignty
Belief in ultimate self-determination of the individual also limits God. The Arminian view tries to avoid this by saying that God could control our choices, but instead decided not to use His control so that we could be free (i.e., have final say). This is, of course, is precisely what we have been arguing arguing against. Further, there is no biblical verse to support this view. On the contrary, it is soundly and clearly opposed by Scripture. The Bible is clear that God has not limited His sovereignty in any way. God does not just have the ability to be sovereign, He actually exercises His sovereignty. This is the ground of the Great Commission: "All authority has been given to Me on heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations ... " (Matthew 28:18-19). If this authority was not actually exercised by Jesus, He could not have given it as an incentive for us to "go." Likewise, in John 17:2 Jesus says "... even as Thou gavest Him authority over all mankind, that to all whom Thou hast given Him, He may give eternal life." It is His authority over all mankind that enables Jesus to give eternal life to His sheep. We read in Psalm 135:5 that "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does." This verse doesn't merely say that God is able to do whatever He pleases, it says that He actually does whatever He pleases. Examining the context further, it is very clear that the author does not limit God's sphere of activity, but extends it to "the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the deeps" and even to smiting the Egyptians and giving Israel their land (vv. 8-14).
Deuteronomy 30:6 says that God circumcises our hearts so that we will love Him. In Jeremiah 32:40 God says "And I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me." Ezekiel 36:27 says that God doesn't just make us able to obey Him, He actually causes us to obey Him: "And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes." We have already seen that faith and repentance are explicitly called gifts of God (Philippians 1:29 and 2 Timothy 2:25). Ephesians 1:11 is an all-encompassing statement that God's sovereignty is exercised in every single detail of history: "... having been predestined after the purpose of Him who works all things after the counsel of His will." Romans 9:16 is perhaps among the clearest statements that God does not leave the decision of salvation ultimately in the hands of men: "So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."
The Scriptures are clear that God does exercise His sovereignty in everything -- including our decision to believe in Christ. To those who have thought that God has limited His sovereignty, I ask what good would His sovereignty be if He does not exercise it in the most important affairs of life -- salvation? Yes, it is very important for God to control the weather and the ocean and nature. But if God does not also control the most significant area of history -- salvation -- of what good is His sovereignty? Doesn't a partial view of God's sovereignty defeat a main purpose of the Bible in revealing His sovereignty -- to give us confidence that everything is going according to His plan for His greatest glory and that God is never trapped in situations where He does not want to be?
The Centrality of God's Glory
Further, the autonomous view of free will seems to exalt the worth of man over the worth of God. It is claimed that God's sovereignty would violate our freedom, our rights. It is said that God is committed to our self-determination, our freedom. But what about God's freedom? What about His rights? Isn't the purpose of creation to glorify God and not man? Does not the potter have right over the clay (Romans 9:21)? Why are we so willing to limit the rights of our Creator to do with us as He pleases? Isn't this the essence of rebellion? Instead of having a problem that God's sovereignty limits our freedom, shouldn't we have a problem that our sovereignty would limit God's freedom? Who's freedom is more important?
Perhaps a God-centered view of the world would correct the notion that God must limit His sovereignty to make room for our freedom. The purpose of creation is to glorify God by putting His attributes on display and making known His excellency. A limited sovereignty would not contribute to this goal, but would be contrary to it. If God had to limit His sovereignty, then He would be denying that it is worthy enough to be revealed. He would be implying that one of His attributes is consistent with His purpose in creation. In short, He would be denying His pursuit to bring Himself maximum glory.
On the contrary, God's exercise of sovereignty in our salvation greatly glorifies Him. This is because the higher order of creatures that God's sovereignty controls, the more His sovereignty is exalted. God is more glorified by controlling human decisions than by controlling rocks and trees, nature and animals. For Him to not control human choices would thus be to deny Himself maximum glory.
Finally, let me conclude with a clarification to avoid misunderstanding. I am not saying that man is entirely passive in salvation. The Scriptures clearly teach that man's will is involved in coming to Christ. It is a choice that we make. What I do deny is that man is ultimate in salvation. Thus, when we believe in Christ, God must be the one who is causing us to do this through His effectual call. The issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is not whether man makes a choice, but why man makes the choice that He does. Calvinism answers that belief is ultimately a result of God's effectual grace, while Arminianism answers that it is not ultimately because of anything God is or does.
John MacArthur said "election is the highest expression of God's love to sinful humanity. Some people hate this doctrine. They fight against it, try to explain it away, or claim it's not fair. Some even claim it is a form of tyranny, or that it is fatalistic, or that it violates the human will. But in reality the doctrine of election is all about the eternal, inviolable love of God." How does it violate my will if God frees me from the slavery of sin and causes me to willingly come to Christ, where true freedom is found? It seems that we have confused our ideas of freedom. Freedom is not having a will that is able to frustrate God's purpose to save you so that you can remain enslaved to sin. Freedom is being entirely dependant upon God -- even for the choice to believe -- not being ultimately independent of God in the most significant choice we can make -- salvation. Freedom is being upheld by God and lovingly and irresistibly drawn to an eternity of joy in the freedom of God's truth. God owns us, because He made us. Therefore He can do with us as He pleases and justly control our choices. Thomas Aquinas said, "God alone can move the will, as an agent, without doing violence to it." Isaiah 26:12 says, "LORD, You will establish peace for us, Since You have also performed for us all our works." Hence we received from God not only the power of willing but its employment also." I think that there is something terribly wrong if we find a problem with the fact that God can and does work effectively to bring about true faith in hearts that results in an eternal relationship with Him.
Finally, if we rightly understand the freedom of the human will, it is easy to see how God's sovereignty over our salvation does not violate our wills. Free will does not mean the ability to act against God's greatest desire for you and it does not mean that we are ultimately in control. It means that we act in accordance with our desires. As long as our choices are in accordance with our desires, they are not forced and thus are real and genuine. In regards to salvation, God does not force us to come to Christ against our wills, but causes us to come willingly. He does this be giving us a desire for Christ that is so great that we prefer Him over the darkness, and thus come to Him. As John Piper has said, "You are not forcing faith when you cause someone to want to believe."
So, must love for God be freely chosen in order to be genuine? Clearly, the answer is no if freely chosen is understood in the Arminian sense as "final say" and "ultimate self-determination." But if freely chosen simply means that God has the final say, but exercises that by making us want to believe, then there is no problem in answering it with a yes.