How do man's free will and God's sovereignty work together in salvation?
Before any explanation of the way God's sovereignty works alongside man's free will can be attempted, it is important to define these terms. A basic biblical description of God's sovereignty is His kingship, His rule, and the fact that He has the final authority in everything. Sovereignty means that from the highest king to the smallest atom, everything bows, ultimately, to His power (Romans 14:11, 11:36). Free will, as regards the choice we make to accept or reject salvation, is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but the phrase "free will" is popularly used to describe the concept of man's ability to make choices as he goes through his life and his responsibility to make the right choices.
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That said, it is not possible for man's ability to choose to somehow trump or overrule God's sovereignty. Our choices cannot be made outside of His will. Many questions arise in our minds when looking at these two realities side by side. How should we look at evangelism? Are we truly free to choose if His will is sovereign over ours? And how is it fair that we are held responsible for our actions if our salvation is according to His will?
It is true that man's salvation is determined, and effected, by God (Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2). God chose to save His elect before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and those elect people are consistently referred to as the "chosen" of God (Romans 8:33, 11:5; Ephesians 1:11; Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:2, 2:9). The word "elect" is also used continually throughout Scripture (Matthew 24:22, 31; Mark 13:20, 27; Romans 11:7; 1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). The Bible repeatedly confirms that believers are both predestined (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11) and elected (Romans 9:11, 11:28; 2 Peter 1:10) to salvation.
It is also true that man is responsible to repent and believe in Christ (John 3:16; Romans 10:9-10). The experience of every Christian confirms that repentance from sin and belief in the blood of Christ to cover our sins is something we must do, willingly, to be saved. Does this mean that our wills are free? That is a more difficult question. The Scripture seems to indicate that the first step in salvation is not taken by us, but by God. Our hearts are changed by Him, making us new creatures, with a new desire for Him, and a new trajectory in life (2 Corinthians 5:17). Ephesians 2:1-5 and Romans 5:6-10 tell us that Christ died for us when we were "dead in trespasses" and still sinners and still His enemies. It is true that our hearts must respond to His love and to His call. But it is also true that the heart that responds to His call is by necessity a changed heart.
It is not possible for a finite creature (man) to grasp the intricacies of God's infinite will (Romans 11:33-36). People have been discussing free will and sovereignty for ages and will continue to do so. It's good to think about it, to read the Bible, and to ask for wisdom to understand it. Yet, in the meantime, we must not forget that He has given us commands to follow. We are to take the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). We are to turn away from sin and follow Him, forsaking this world. We are to love Him and love our neighbors, our brothers, and our enemies in emulation of Christ.
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