Man must believe, yet it is impossible for man to choose to believe in Christ. How can both these statements be true? This is at the heart of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. This article explains this relationship.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2005. 3 pages.

A Perfect Fit Scripture’s Divine/Human Tectonic Plates Balance Exactly

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean and recent earthquake on the island of Nias are a grim reminder that beneath the earth’s crust are massive geological plates that move against each other. From time to time, as pressure builds up, slippage occurs and potentially destruc­tive events ensue. In Scripture there are two gigantic theological plates resting against each other. The one is called divine sovereignty and the other human responsibility. But unlike their geological counterparts these two are presented in the Bible in perfect harmony. Attempts on our part to meddle with this balance by emphasising one at the expense of the other carry dangerous (even destructive) consequences for Christian life and ministry.

The balance of sovereign grace and human choice is nowhere better expressed than in Jesus’ teaching in the fourth gospel. Don Carson comments that, “no New Testament book more acutely focuses attention on these essentially bib­lical polarities than the gospel of John”.

The Gospel is a Challenge to Believe in Jesus (Human Responsibility)🔗

The reason John wrote his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believ­ing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). He does this by presenting a series of seven miraculous signs in order that we may respond in faith towards Christ and receive eternal life. “Believing” is the duty of man; it is an act of loyalty and commitment to Jesus made in response to His claims to be the Son of God and to His death on the cross.

Perhaps the challenge to believe is nowhere more clearly stated than in the well known verse,

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16

When we take into account that this is a world which has rebelled against God and rightly deserves His judgment we can only marvel at the kind of love He shows. The Father’s love is costly, far exceeding the best expression of human love, by offering sinful man his only Son. The enormity of rejection and unbelief must be set against the cost of sending his Son to a bitter, shameful and cursed death on a cross in order to save us. Some would emphasise the word whoso­ever and teach that this verse means any­one who desires can be saved. Yet the word whosoever is qualified by the word believes. None can be saved apart from believing in Christ.

After healing the paralysed man by the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath day Jesus’ claims are ejected by the religious leaders (John 5). While Jesus acknowledges their diligent study of the Scriptures, He holds them responsible for failing to recognise Him in them (John 5:39-40). They had failed to embrace the true goal of Scripture — Jesus Himself — and for that they were at fault.

Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus rebuked those who could not see the miracle’s significance and urged them to work for the food that endures to eter­nal life. When asked what kind of work was meant, Jesus answered that it was, “to believe in the one He sent” (John 6:29). The responsibility to believe rests firmly with man (6:36). The significance of every one of the miraculous signs carries the well-meant gospel offer to respond in faith. The gospel consistently treats us as capable of making moral decisions and therefore responsible creatures. To ascribe all the glory to God for His sov­ereign grace in salvation does not reduce man to a nonentity. It is the duty of mankind to believe in Jesus as presented in the gospel.

The Gospel Explains the Mystery of Rejection and Unbelief (Human Inabil­ity)🔗

There is mystery that is woven into the fabric of the first 12 chapters of John’s gospel — the mystery of unbelief. Why was there such an extensive rejection of Jesus? So much light was given but the people of his day preferred their own lights. That is true even today. People look for meaning and direction in life but over and over again hope to find it outside of Jesus — in science, in materialism, in the New Age movement or in the various modern “spir­itualities”. They do not recognise Jesus as the light.

A clue to the root of this unbelief is found in Jesus’ teaching on human nature. He says, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). The reason for widespread rejection of Jesus, despite the light given through His mirac­ulous signs, is the result of a malicious slavery to self-centredness, moral failure and rebellion against God. To ask a sinner to come to Christ is to ask the impossible, humanly speaking, because sin affects his choices.

Slavery to sin means that we are not morally neutral. Our “free” choices are consequences of a nature that is con­strained. Freedom is real only in that we freely sin! We act according to our nature and our ability to do what is right before God is captive to another power. Our fun­damental preference is always for sin and self and never for God. John Piper writes, “If free will were defined as the native power in a man to determine his own des­tiny ... there is no such thing in the entire world.” To say with some that we can do something to come to Christ is to misun­derstand the viciousness of this enslaving power. Sinners do not want to be saved, and cannot be saved apart from the gra­cious intervention of God’s Spirit.

The first thing God does then to help us is to change the set of our will and liberate it. The fact of human inability is met by divine enabling. Jesus explains this to Nicodemus, who is an authority in reli­gious matters in Israel, but who thinks that the kingdom of God can be entered by unaided human effort. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or from above) (John 3:3). Someone has written that “the power to receive Christ is not self-generated, even if receiving Christ is an act of the human will.” In short, we can­not do anything to will ourselves into the kingdom. But notice that God does not save us against our will. God’s strategy is to gently draw; he never uses the tactics of force or coercion. He makes us willing to be willing. The way that God makes us willing, as someone has stated it, “is not by the savage constraint of a rapist but that of the wonderful wooing of a lover.”

The Gospel Attributes Salvation Wholly to the Grace of God (Divine Sovereignty)🔗

People are responsible for coming to Jesus (6:36). Man must choose, but by himself he cannot (because he will not) choose Christ. He ought to come but he cannot apart from outside help. The gospel of John again and again indicates this initiative belongs to God (1:12-13; 3:1-5; 3:27; 6:37-40; 6:63-65; 8:47; 10:25­ 29 etc.). It is described as a drawing. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).

Notice that the drawing of the Father is selective. The grace to receive Christ is not given indiscriminately. Jesus doesn’t say, “Any man can come to me and the Father will draw him.” Elsewhere, (John 12:32) Jesus does say He will draw all men to himself but the context indicates it is all men “without distinction” (both Jew and Gentile) rather then all men “without exception”.

That God must save, and God alone, is a severe blow to human pride. The claims of Jesus are distasteful to natural man. It certainly was not popular with His first disciples, because we read that, “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with Him” (John 6:66). Those who were in the beginning eager to follow Him now desert him in droves, resenting His message, unpre­pared to relinquish pride in their own independence. To them Jesus’ message is a hard teaching and they cannot accept it (John 6:60). It is not hard in the sense of “hard to understand” but rather intolerable to human pride and offensive to the intellect.

Some might criticise: if it is true that God is com­pletely sovereign in salvation, it is ridicu­lous for Him to then judge us for our fail­ures and shortcomings. Paul was well aware of this kind of objection — “Then why does God still blame us? For who can resist His will?” (Rom. 9:19). Notice that Paul does not try to defend the actions of God; instead he reprimands the spirit and attitude of the objector. “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:20) We have to learn our place as creatures before the Creator. God is just in all His ways.

The Gospel Presents Divine Sover­eignty and Human Choice Side by Side🔗

Human logic can attempt to probe the relationship between divine sovereignty and human choice. But to finite human reason these two truths are incomprehen­sible and apparently contradictory. There is little logical space between the affirma­tion of God’s sovereignty on the one hand and human responsibility on the other. C. H. Spurgeon was once asked if he could reconcile these two truths. “I wouldn’t try,” he replied, “I never reconcile friends.”

Norman Geisler tries to reason it out and ends up (not surprisingly) complaining that, “if ‘free choice’ is doing what we can’t help doing because by nature we simply do those things, then why should I take responsibility for my actions?” If not “the devil made me do it”, then it will be “God made me do it”. Such a conclusion he agrees is false. But then so do those who hold to sovereign grace in salvation. The gospel avoids a fatalistic view of life in which man is not treated seriously but is seen as a pre-programmed biological robot. It also avoids an understanding of salvation in which we can contribute something to merit eternal life. How is that done? Simply by presenting human responsibility for our actions side by side with divine sovereignty. Neither John’s gospel nor any other part of Scripture attempts to explain this mystery. In some cases these two polarities occur within the same verse (eg Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23).

These two parallel truths do have an enormous influence on the way we live and how we go about serving Christ. The gospel of divine sovereign grace helps our witnessing to others by sweeping away all excuses and reliance on human achievement. Anything less than sover­eign grace in salvation creates converts who cling to some shred of merit which then becomes an excuse for pride. A belief in divine grace, far from weakening moti­vation to evangelism, empowers it. We are not called to preach the gospel success­fully but rather faithfully.

The Gospel of divine sovereign grace also strengthens prayer because God has not only decreed the ends (that a person will eventually believe) but also the means to achieve those ends (for example prayer). Prayer is the means not of getting our way with God in heaven but of God accomplishing His will through us on earth. This is the basis of Jesus’ encour­agement to his disciples to pray.

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. John 16:24

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