For today’s blog we look at the other side of the coin from 2 weeks ago. What’s the coin? The coin is the tension between God’s sovereignty on the one side and on the other, human responsibility.
The first side of the coin we looked at was the sovereignty of God in our salvation. That is, God is totally in control of our salvation from beginning to end. Why is that? So that no one may boast before him or anyone else. In my last blog, we were reminded from the Scriptures that God chooses who are his before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3ff). Clearly our salvation has nothing to do with us if we were chosen by God before we even exist!
God’s choosing us before the foundation of the world also means there’s great comfort for people in other parts of the world who have not yet heard of the Lord Jesus. Our salvation does not come down to where we were born, whether we are ‘good’ people or ‘bad’ people, if we were born in the West or in the majority world, if we are economically stable or less stable, if we are upper class, lower class, middle class or other class, whether we’re educated, uneducated, male or female; whether I’m raised in a Christian home, Muslim home, atheist home, secular humanist home, materialistic home or whatever home. Our salvation comes down to the fact that God chose us before the foundation of the world and nothing more.
The tension is clear. If God chose me then what’s the point in believing, trusting, turning to God in repentance and faith. Surely if God chose me then I can just relax and do what I want! It’s the classic problem of, “I believe but I don’t need to take obedience seriously. I don’t need to go to church, meet with other Christians, read my bible or pray.” Enter the second side of the salvation coin – our responsibility…
The bible is equally clear that I must respond to Jesus. When I hear the gospel – the good news of salvation through Jesus, I must genuinely turn to Him in repentance and faith. I must turn from my own selfish pride and desires, and turn to Jesus, follow him and be obedient to him. If there is no repentance and turning to Jesus in obedience, then there is no salvation. There are plenty of verses that point to this reality of our responsibility to respond.
The apostle Peter preached a brilliant Christ centred sermon (Acts 2). Imagine being there! We read that those who listened were moved deeply. “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (That is, what is our responsibility given what we’ve heard?) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:37ff) Of course, the Lord Jesus taught exactly the same thing. He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” That is, the Kingdom has come because the King of that Kingdom has arrived! What should I do? What is my responsibility? I must turn to the King by repenting and believing in him.
The Bible is clear. God is sovereign over our salvation from beginning to end AND we must respond to that salvation. To be very clear: God is sovereign over our salvation and yet if I don’t respond rightly, then there is no chance of salvation (unless God grants salvation later). God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are the 2 sides of the salvation coin. God’s sovereignty never negates our responsibility and our responsibility never negates God’s sovereignty. How do we deal with this tension?
One of the best places we can go is John 3. In this famous chapter of the Bible, we learn about what it means to be “born again.” The notion of being born again is a controversial one because it has been used to describe fundamentalist Christians. You might have heard it said, “Oh, he is one of those born-again types”. I do sympathise with the critique against fundamentalist Christians. However, the reality is that Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) So, rather than running away from the ‘new birth’, we need to see what the Bible says about being born again not what our culture might say about it.
The idea of the new birth is a helpful way of handling the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Can I ask your question? How much control did you have over your physical birth? Clearly the answer is none. You had no control over your physical birth. So it is with our spiritual new birth. This is the case because, as we have already seen, God is sovereign over our salvation.
The Apostle Paul talks about the new birth in slightly different terms. He writes in Ephesians 2, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved..” Here Paul talks about the new birth as being ‘made alive’. We were dead and now we are alive. That is something that God does, not us. Dead people cannot believe or repent. They can’t ask for life, nor can they reach out for help. God is the God of the resurrection and he gives life to the spiritually dead.
What this means is that the Christian faith is not about making good people better but it’s making dead people alive. It’s not about self-improvement, it’s about people needing to be born if they are going to live and it’s about dead people being made alive.
I wonder if you can see already how this tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility might be played out? If God gave me ‘new birth’ or if God ‘made me alive’, then I start breathing spiritually – so to speak. If I’m given life, then I’m alive! Being alive clearly looks different to being dead! That’s when our responsibility comes into play. If God has given me life, then I need to choose to live with the life he has given me. That life is a life of repentance and faith. We read in Ephesians chapter 2, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one my boast.” Even our faith is a gift from God so that no one may boast!
The Apostle Paul again put it like this, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). To put it simply, because God has given me life in him I now exercise my ability to believe and to live by faith in the Son of God. The only way I can do that is if God gives me life and faith first according to his sovereignty.
Another text that brings this tension together is 1 Thessalonians 1:4. Here the apostle Paul writes, “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Can you see from this text the sovereignty of God in choosing his people? God chose them and so when the gospel came to them, it came with deep conviction through the Holy Spirit. The text goes on to show how this deep conviction lead to a profound transformation in the way that they lived. Paul goes on to write in verse nine, “For they themselves report… how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess 1:9-10) This transformation (v9-10) was clearly only possible because God chose them from before the foundation of the world (v4).
There is a difficult pastoral question that comes out of this. Why does God choose to save some and not others? Why does God choose to give some repentance and faith and not others? What happens to those who God hasn’t chosen?
This is indeed a hard question. So here we go…
The question to start with is not why God saves some but not others, but why God saves any of us at all! We have all deliberately sinned against God in thought, word and deed and therefore we are spiritually dead. That’s not God’s fault! That is the natural consequence of us trying to run our own lives as we please without reference to God. I don’t deserve salvation. I don’t deserve to see God face to face. If I’m honest with myself I see that I have separated myself from God. What this means is that God does not send necessarily send us to Hell. We walk there ourselves, by our own choice to live independently of God. God in effect says, “Ok, you choose independence, I will honour your choice.” Nothing can be fairer than that!
It is really important to know, believe and trust that we have put ourselves in this position. And yet!… God in his great mercy has saved some. I don’t know why he chose some while letting others go their own way. I for one will forever be grateful to God that he has stepped into my life and saved me from my own choices. He gave me faith and repentance, life and new birth.
Hell will not be full of repentant people who missed out somehow. The people in Hell have chosen to be there. That is, they don’t want God or his people and would prefer eternity that way. Sometimes my own free choice can be the most frightening thing imaginable. We desperately need God to intervene in our own free will, grant us genuine repentance and faith so that we can choose him. We need salvation. Perhaps even now you could ask him to give you ever increasing, genuine repentance.
Our Anglican Prayer book outlines this theology brilliantly in our confession of sins:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed to much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against the holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us: but thou, oh Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders: spared thou them, oh God, which confess their faults, restore thou them that are penitent, according to the promises declared onto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: and grant, O most merciful father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name. Amen
In the Confession, we see that the problem of sin is our own doing and God grants repentance transformed behaviour even as we genuinely repent. The words of the ‘absolution’ teach again that our genuine repentance which we exercise, actually come from God. “Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and the rest of our life here after maybe pure and holy….
A picture image to finish:
Imagine that you walked through a gate that had a sign that reads, “Salvation” above it. You are genuinely walking through that gate exercising your own responsibility. Once you are through the gate, you look backwards. Above the gate you’ve just walked through, you read the same sign from the other side. It reads “Chosen”. There’s the tension of the salvation coin. One side says ‘repent and believe’ and the other side says ‘chosen’. The only way I can exercise my responsibility of walking through the salvation gate is if God has chosen me first.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.
Was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” – John Newton
How are we to live in light of this incredible salvation from God? As we sing in “When I survey the wondrous cross”: Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life and my all.
With love, Gus