God’s Sovereignty- Man’s Responsibility; A Subject That Everyone Should Be Familiar With

Is God in control, or does man have a choice? This is a quotation from the book Chosen But Free, written by theologian Dr. Norman Geisler. I read this book some time ago and felt it was a good topic to look at in terms of God’s inerrant and infallible Word. Norman Geisler offers perspective on the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. I do not necessarily hold to his view, nor do I reject it. His book and this topic is important. This article will also look at the institutes of John Calvin.

Norman holds a Doctorate degree in both philosophy and theology and has written many books. He is especially noted for his contributions to the subject of Christian Apologetics (defending the faith). This article will address the subject of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in salvation, and will quote directly from Dr. Geisler’s book “Chosen But Free” on occasion. The article will also look at the five points of Calvinism as they are addressed within the acronym TULIP. TULIP stands for: Total Depravity (of sinful man), Unconditional Election (instilled by God upon His elect), Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints (God’s elect will perservere till their end and will not die living in a life on unrepentant sin).

Before this subject is addressed, it should be noted that we can demonstrate that the Bible is divine rather than human in origin. We can establish this by means of the manuscript evidence that has been discovered over the past centuries, the archeological evidence, the predictive prophecies which have been fulfilled, and the science of statistical probabilities- that the Bible was written over a 1500 year period, on different continents, by different individuals and all of it pointing to man’s redemption by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. The Bible is the only book in the world, which can make this claim.

The Bible indicates that all are sinners (Romans 3:23, Genesis 2:17, 1John 1:8). Because God is unchanging and cannot accept sin, He cannot accept a sinful person in His all consuming presence. All people get what they deserve, which is to be sent to Hell (Revelation 21:8, Matthew 5:29-30). However, in God’s infinite mercy He has provided a way of salvation for those who receive it. The only way is through God the Son, Jesus Christ, He is imputed to the sinner as righteousness and acts as a substitute for the sinner when the sinner repents from all sin and places his faith in Christ alone (Acts 4:12, John 14:6, 1Corinthians 3:11, Luke 3:3).

To begin with, let’s look at the five points that Bible theologian John Calvin discussed based on what the Bible says about the Sovereignty of God. The first point to be discussed in the acronym is the letter “T”, which stands for Total Depravity. A traditional Calvinist perspective sites Romans 9:16 to establish that it is not man at all who has anything to do with his/her salvation but that salvation is brought about only by God. The verse states the following: “So then it is not of him who willeth, nor of him who runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy”. This seems unmistakable evidence that salvation “does not… depend on man’s desire (will)” (NIV). Sometimes, however, only emphasizing this one verse and others like it without consulting with the whole counsel of God can pose a stumbling block and this may be especially evident within evangelism.

Geisler’s response to this is that the Greek idea “of” in this verse can mean “out of” (John 1:13). It is a reference to the source of salvation, not the means by which we receive it, he states- and the Bible does tell us it is an act of our will in receiving it (John 1:12, Ephesians 2:8, etc). This happens in conjunction with the work of the Holy Spirit, Who impresses Himself upon everyone (John 16:7-11). The Bible clearly states that God is the one who initiated salvation, even before the world began (Ephesians 1:4). Only God can be the source of God’s saving mercy. However, as the Bible indicates later in Romans 9:22, we can reject God’s mercy. This is also stated in 2peter 3:9 and Acts 7:51.

The next point in the acronym is the letter “U”, which stands for Unconditional Election. Ephesians 1:5-11 states the following: God “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” Also, “he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…” Again, “in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” (1:5, 9, 11).

It is true, says Geisler, that there are no strings attached to the gift of salvation-it is unconditional. When election occurred-before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)-the elect were not even created yet. God elected on His own, without any conditions that needed to be performed on the part of the elect. However, the question is not whether there are any conditions for God giving salvation; the question is whether there are any conditions for man receiving salvation.

Here the Bible seems to be very emphatic that faith is the condition for receiving God’s gift of salvation. We are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1). We must “believe” on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved (Acts 16:31). “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). In response to Geisler, however, the Bible is also clear that our faith is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). However, this should bring us comfort knowing that God is sovereign and also gracious…

Some have rightly stated it might be foolish to get caught up in concerning ourselves with God’s Sovereignty and asking the question “am I really one of the elect; do I deserve to be”? The answer to this is no, because none of us deserve to be when we understand the holiness of God. Nevertheless, the command is to: “Believe (or follow) the Lord Jesus Christ”; “Whosover believes” (and continues to believe) will be saved (John 3:16).

This is our responsibility being exercised within the context of God’s sovereignty. If our inner being has been awakened to make a decision to cast ourself upon Christ, we must do it. In Romans we are told not to look into certain mysteries of God, His purposes and pleasure, but rather, in all things, we are to be thankful (Romans 9:17-21). It is also a mandate that we also ask of God and trust in God and that we not trust in ourselves (Matthew 7:7, Jeremiah 17:9).

The next part of the acronym is “L” which stands for limited atonement. Jesus said in Mathew 20:16, “Many are called, but few chosen”. While God knew that only the elect would believe (Acts 13:48), He desires all to be saved (2Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to provide an atoning sacrifice for the sins of “the whole world” (1John 2:2). Since God called all, He provided salvation for all and commanded all to repent (Acts 17:30) and believe (Acts 16:31).

The “I” in the acronym stands for Irresistible Grace. One of the texts that comes to the forefront is Exodus 7:3-4, where we read: “I (God) will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and…he will not listen to you”. We can also look at the account in its entirety by studying other passages. The Bible says Pharaoh’s heart “grew hard” (Exodus 7:13, 7:14, 22). It also states that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15), and that “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard the more God worked on it” (Exodus 8:19). While it is true that God knew it would happen (Exodus 4:21), God’s Word also indicates Pharaoh hardened his heart first and God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart later (Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27). This demonstrates that Pharaoh was responsible for his actions.

Some say that God only hardens people’s hearts if they go on in continuous unbelief (John 12:37). Finally, parallel passages by Paul the Apostle, support the idea that it is man doing the initial hardening, not God. Romans 2:5 asserts, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself…”. Another point brought out by Geisler is that things that eventually seem “irresistible” may not have been so to begin with. For example, sin only becomes unavoidable when one freely rejects what is right and the conscience becomes hardened or seared. This is referenced in 1Timothy 4:2. Likewise, righteousness becomes irresistible when we yield to God’s grace.

Another verse that can be rightly brought forth is 1Corinthians 2:14, which states: “But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them”. The word “receiveth” in the Greek (dekomai) means “to welcome”. It simply affirms that while persons do perceive the truth (Romans 1:20), they do not receive it. There is no welcome in his heart for what he knows in his head. A person has the truth, but is holding it down or suppressing it (Romans 1:18).

The last point in the acronym is Perseverance of the Saints. This means that the Christian who is truly was saved or being saved, will persevere in the faith. The Christian will not simply be a Christian for a little while, but will persevere in his/her faith.

There are several verses to consider, which provide insight into this subject. Jesus says of those who are truly saved “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned” (John 5:24); “By this gospel you are saved if you hold firmly to the Word I preached to you” (2Corinthians 15:2).

Jesus speaks of Himself and His Word when He teaches in Matthew 13. He states the following in verses 4-9: “Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had little earth: and afterward they sprung up and they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because of the lack of depth in their root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and overtook them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some one hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who has ears to hear, let him hear”.

Everyone in the world has a responsibility to Jesus Christ and His message, even if one may think they do not. Romans chapter one tells us that everyone has the light of creation and the light of conscience- this holds true for anyone, anywhere in the world… When people do not respond to these two elements (regardless of what cult they may be involved with), they will not be revealed the truth of Christ. Jesus illustrates this further in the parable above and I will make reference to the study notes of Theologian Dr. John MacArthur to illustrate what Jesus meant in His parable. It is represented in the following points:

1) The gospel never penetrated the souls of the first people mentioned in the parable; the Devil snatched it away right from the start (seed on the side of the road). One might think of African headhunters, those steeped in family religion or traditions, or cultural practices that lead to blindness. God can override this, of course, but these are typical examples that come to mind.

2) These next people made only an emotional decision- they remain followers of Christ only until there is a sacrifice to be made or are persecuted, then they fall away (seed on the rocky places).

3) The third professors of the faith make a superficial commitment also, but they can’t break from the love of money, love of the world and winning the favor of people- James 4:4 (seed among the thorns).

This verse is communicating that those who will truly be saved and persevere through tough times will be those who have forsaken all they have in life to put Christ first and have everything flow from Him. Christianity cannot merely be a shallow profession, it must be one that affects your entire life forever. All sin in life must be rooted out. You cannot make any agreements with sin.

Revelation 2:26 states that the “overcomer” will be the one who is truly saved: “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations”. Revelation 3:5 says: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life…”. There is no question that the Christian will still sin (1John 1), however the Christian will not stay in a pattern of habitual sin continuously.

The Christian will be someone who knows they are weak and that they are utterly corrupt and prone to sin in thought, word and deed. They will be meek (they will not have an arrogant attitude, nor will they filled with concern for their own personal rights), they will also be humble (giving thanks to God for all things), and they will be also have a gentle attitude (Matthew 5:1-12).

They will not remain in an habitual practice of fornication, which is sex outside of one partner marriage, or any sexual union outside marriage, including pornography- Matthew 5:28. Nor will they be an extortionist for the love of money (like Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus). Further to this, they will not continue in a life of habitual drunkenness, drugs or pleasure seeking (1Corinthians 6:9). Those who go on and on in these sins demonstrate they have not repented and put their faith in Christ. This is the mark of someone who is not walking in love (filled by the Spirit-Ephesians 5). Simply put, this is someone who is not right with God and who must find repentance by coming to the end of self and casting their trust upon the compassion and grace of Christ alone.

Being “Spirit Filled” is another consideration that is often misunderstood. The Word tells us that the believer is to live a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Timothy 2:1-2); and to give all an answer for their hope in Christ with “meekness and fear of the Lord” (1Peter 3:15). These directives are absent in many church circles today.

There are many people who believe that approaching a Christian life this way is not one of being “Spirit filled”. This is shocking, but true. Those who embrace this perspective are slipping into apostasy from the faith. Amusements and entertainments in the church and outside the church characterize the lifestyles of many who attend a church today. There is also an emphasizes on a “Pentecostal Movement” or the return of the “Charismata” (miracles, speaking in tongues, signs and wonders etc). This has been referred to as the “Charismatic Movement”, popularized recently from the 1960s onward.

Those who teach this movement refer to the first book of 1Corinthians in particular and reference speaking in “tongues”. In context, however, this passage is referring to speaking in another “language”. While there was a time during the book of Acts and during the first century time of Pentecost that God enabled miracles, the ability to understand foreign languages, and other supernatural phenomena to build the early church, this was not to continue after a certain time.

What is commonly referred to as “cessation” is explained by the Apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 13:8 where he states the following: “Love never fails, but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues (the sudden ability to understand and speak a foreign language), they will cease; if there is knowledge (extra Biblical words of knowledge), it will be done away… This of course, stands to reason.

Do we see people who suddenly grow new limbs? Or who the ability to understand and explain to others a foreign language they have never learned? The answer, of course, is no- as much as some Pentecostals hype themselves up, imagine or hope that this may be true.

The Apostle Paul spent a long time discussing this topic with the church in Corinth because it was a church in chaos (just like much of the Pentecostal Movement today is in chaos). The Corinthian Church had been affected by the sorcery/sex cults of the region. Part of those cult movements involved babbling incantations. Notably, this is what many modern Pentecostals do also. These characteristics are not attributable to being “Spirit Filled”, but are actually quite the opposite, which will be explained later on.

Another element that went along with the church in Corinth was that there were even more blatant indications that there were individuals in the church who were not Spirit filled. 1Corinthians 6:9 states: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (cross dressers), nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. In the book of 2Corinthians we find out that some eventually repented of those sins, but others did not and went on to damnation. Are all Pentecostals unbelievers then? This is not the suggestion. However, the movement as a whole should be avoided because it is one of confusion.

Being “spirit filled” is based on a special relationship one has with God through repentance from sin. It has nothing to do with “speaking in tongues”, “healing” or having so-called supernatural visions. The believer’s pattern of life is to look a certain way and this is the key element. This is nowhere better explained than in Ephesians 5 where we read the following:

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

Notice the “silly talk”… “filthiness”… “coarse jesting”. What is the nemesis of this? The answer is pride and sin. It is the work of fallen man under the influence of the devil. And it will lead to damnation. This type of preaching on holiness, true repentance and sorrow for sin must be emphasized, while Pentecostalism should be avoided as a false teaching of confusion.

In bringing this part of the discussion to a conclusion, the best way to ensure that a person has made an appropriate profession of their Christian faith and is “Spirit filled”, is to emphasize that one must believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh who lived, died, and rose again on the third day, and is a substitute for the penalty of sin. The person must receive Jesus Christ by faith as their own Savior and demonstrate their trust in Him by forsaking all sin with God’s help. Also that this forsaking of a sin must be a lifelong commitment, asking for God’s grace to do so- even to the point of death, if needs be. It must also be explained that failure to do so will bring the “second death”- being cast into Hell by God (Matthew 10:28, 2Peter 2:4, Revelation 22:15).

After having taken a look at this topic, we come to the conclusion that our loving God has sent His son to die for the sins of the whole world. No one is ever be able to say that God does not love the world. He offers His salvation freely to those who will receive Him and repent from their sins. However, the believer will understand that in light of God’s holiness and his own depravity, Christianity is not a soft option. Many people have been and continue to be condemned (Romans 1:26) because of the hardness of their own hearts (1Timothy 4:2).

However, for us who are being saved and sanctified it is imperative to follow what Jesus said: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and then looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. (Luke 9:62). Abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him at His coming. “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of him” (1John 2).

A Christian will not go on and on in an unbroken pattern of sin in their life. There will be repentance and faith in Christ. The true believer will also believe in the correct nature of who Christ is: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1John 2-3). Both the full humanity and full Deity of Christ must be maintained.

It is not us that does the saving, it is Christ. Jesus says: “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And without the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, through the proclamation of the Word of God, everyone would go to Hell… Man is born with a sin nature. Everyone must be “born again” (John 3:3). A popular quote is John 3:16, but is just as important John 3:19, which says: “And here is the condemnation, light has come into the world, but men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”. “Today if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:15).

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  1. Theresa Bredenhof says:

    Wow. That was incredible. Good insight and interpretation of scripture. Powerful. I liked how much of His word you used. Good job!

  2. Chris says:

    Glad you received benefit from it, Theresa. May the Lord be glorified in it; it’s all of Him and for His glory.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the great read! :) )

    Re: Norm Geisler… his theology is not completely biblical .. he is not really a calvinist. Dr. James R. White addresses this briefly here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSA34eSC_GI

    A good example of total depravity is Lazarus. He was dead without the ability to respond. He had no life in him. He couldn’t hear, sit up, or respond. He could not exercise his will in any way.
    This is the way unregenerate man is. He is dead, blind, in bondage to sin, incapable of seeking after God. Ephesians 2:1-5. Romans 3. Jeremiah 17:9. The heart=intellect, emotions, will.

    He cannot do good - Matt 7:17-18, Romans 8:7-8
    He cannot understand the good. I co 1:18. Matt 13:14
    He cannot desire the good.. John 6:44, Matt 7:18, John 15:4-5

    The only way we could hear Jesus calling us when we were unregenerate is that he made us alive first. Jesus resurrected Lazarus first and then he could respond. Same with us…we were all born into sin=rebellion vs. God. He had to regenerate our hearts first, and ONLY then could we respond with our wills.

    So I would disagree with Geisler that it’s a combination of the work of our will and our Holy Spirit. (Which makes him a synergist not a monergist.) Because unregenerate men’s wills are naturally in rebellion to God–unable to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Our salvation is entirely the Holy Spirit’s work—He conquers our rebellious wills– regenerates our hearts, and makes us willing to believe.

  4. Lisa says:

    Re: limited atonement

    If the sins of the whole world were atoned for—then God’s wrath would be satisfied against the whole world and He wouldn’t send anyone to hell.
    MacArthur has a good message on this doctrine–here:
    http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/90-277_The-Doctrine-of-Actual-Atonement-Part-1?q=atonement

    In terms of ‘calling’, I’ve heard it explained (by John MacArthur) in terms of a general vs. effectual calling<-those who are chosen/elect are called, justified, saved, glorified…Romans 8:30. Obviously this is just the elect. This effectual calling results in salvation and is a call that can’t be resisted. I Peter 2:9.
    http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/90-296_The-Doctrine-of-Gods-Effectual-Call?q=effectual+calling

    Then there is a general calling…

    I’ve also heard atonement explained in this way: Christ has atoned (held back God’s wrath) for the sins of nonbelievers temporarily and for believers permanently.

    Justice would be that we all be punished for our sin with instant death. But Christ’s death has allowed nonbelievers to experience His grace (referred to as common grace), in that they are allowed to live, enjoy this life–have families, experience good things, etc. But when they die they will experience His wrath. For the saved, our sins have been atoned for permanently–in that we have received His saving grace– that will save us from His wrath now and in eternity.

    Not sure I explained that very well….but that’s the gist of it.

  5. Chris says:

    I agree with this analysis. I don’t agree with everything Geisler communicates and you’re right, he’s not a strict Calvinist. He has sought to emphasize man’s responsibility within God’s sovereignty by presenting a biblical emphasis from man’s side of the equation- exercising our means of grace within God’s sovereignty. This can be helpful for those who are not as theologically astute as yourself. Once one really gets into God’s sovereignty in the life of the believer, especially, it becomes a tremendous comfort. However, that can take some years of study before being able to reconcile it. For the new believer, or for someone who has been perverted by “hyper calvinism” or a lightning bolt experience theology, it is also helpful in bringing a different side to the equation.

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