The Potter’s Freedom: Reflections on the Sovereignty of God

The question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility on matters concerning salvation is a conundrum that has perplexed theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. On one extreme reside the hyper Calvinists who see God’s sovereignty as entailing no necessitude for evangelism. On the polar extreme reside the open theists who maintain that God’s foreknowledge — as well as his predetermination of future events — is limited. It is my position that both of those extremes are at odds with Scripture and historic Christianity. In this blog post, I want to consider the issues of divine sovereignty, free will, election, predestination, the nature and extent of the atonement, and man’s responsibility in salvation.

I will begin by presenting an outline and defense of my own perspective on the matter, and will subsequently discuss some common objections to this view.

The Sovereignty of God

I take a reformed/Calvinist position on the sovereignty of God in salvation. On this view, Christ did not die merely to make salvation possible. Rather, he came to obtain eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). According to Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This is similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” What is important to note here is that Christ’s mission in coming into the world was not merely to make salvation available for sinners to attain. Rather, Christ actually completed his mission.

Imagine yourself standing on the Day of Judgement before God. What separates you, the believer, from your non-believing neighbour? Is it that you were more spiritually sensitive? Is it that you had a greater intellectual capacity to follow logical and evidence-based arguments? Was it that you were raised in a Christian home and attended Sunday School each week? Notice that in each of these cases, the difference is something inherent in you. This, however, is contrary to the teaching of Scripture that men are radically depraved and are in need of God’s grace. Romans 3:19 declares that every mouth will be silenced before God in light of His righteous law. None of us have kept it and we are all equally deserving of God’s judgement. The difference, then, between you, the believer, and your non-believing neighbour, both standing before God, cannot be something inherent in you, but as a result of God’s salvific grace — so that none of us can boast in ourselves. As we read in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Grace, by definition, is not fair — it is totally undeserved. Moreover, a governor who graciously decides to release a prisoner on death row is under no obligation whatsoever to free everyone on death row.

Scripture — in particular the book of Hebrews — makes a clear connection between the atonement and Christ’s advocacy on our behalf before the father (e.g. see 1 John 2:1-2). Christ’s intercession before the father is on behalf of everyone for whom He died. Furthermore, no-one for whom Christ intercedes can be lost. To say otherwise implies that there is dissension within the Godhead — with the Father continually rejecting the pleas of the Son for the salvation of certain people. Does Jesus pray prayers that are not answered? Such a notion is utterly unbiblical. Indeed, in Christ’s famous high priestly prayer recounted in John 17, Jesus declares in verse 9, “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”

We further read in Romans 8:32-34, we read,

 

32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”

Who does this passage when it uses the pronoun “our?” The passage tells us — it is “those whom God has chosen.” Again, the intercessory work of Christ is presented as between the Father and God’s elect. Moreover, as the passage explains, if Christ is your intercessor, who can possibly bring a charge against you? If Christ’s intercessory work is on behalf of all men, then why aren’t all men saved? Has Christ’s intercessory work failed?

Jesus also says in John 6:37 that “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” In verse 44 of the same chapter, we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” This implies that not only can no one come who is not drawn, but all those who are drawn are raised up at the last day. The first of those contentions is supported by Romans 8:7-8:

“7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”

The latter is supported by the golden chain of redemption in Romans 8:29-30:

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

In other words, all of those who are actively foreknown by God are predestined; all of those who are predestined are also called; all of those who are called are also justified; and all of those who are justified are also glorified.

A similar passage is found in Ephesians 1:11-14, in which we read,

11 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, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

We are given further indication as to the scope of Christ’s atonement in Matthew 20:28: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The “many” for whom Christ gave his life as a ransom parallels the words of Isaiah 53:11: “By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” Jesus states that He is specifically laying down His life for His people in John 10. In verses 11 and 15 we read, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Not all men are of Jesus’ sheep, as we learn in John 10:26: But you do not believe because you are not my sheep.

A similar verse is John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” It is clear that not all of humanity are Jesus’ “friends”. Likewise, Matthew 1:21 states, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Notice both that Christ will save his people from their sins (not simply make salvation available) and the particularity of the people for whom this salvation will be effective (namely, his people).

Paul writes in Galatians 2:20 that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This is the common confession of every believer. Every member of God’s elect was crucified with Christ. Conversely, those who are in Hell — eternally separated from the favourable presence of God — cannot claim to have been “crucified with Christ.”

Hebrews 9:15 tells us that “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” The purpose of the new covenant thus seems to be to impart eternal life to those who are called. That is, there is a specific intended audience that God has chosen to be the benefactors of the atonement.

One final verse I shall mention in this section is Acts 13:48’s statement that “all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”

Then How Can God Blame Us? For Who Resists His Will?

One of the most frequent objections I receive to the viewpoint articulated above concerns man’s responsibility in salvation. “How can God blame us, for who resists his will?”, the critics ask. In response to this objection, the best Scripture to turn to is Romans 9, in which the apostle Paul takes this question head on. Let’s take a look at verses 14-24:

14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

This is without question one of the most humbling passages in Scripture. It tells us that God is absolutely sovereign over our salvation. He is the potter; we are the clay. God chooses who will be unconditionally saved (grace) and who will face condemnation (justice). Either way God’s name is glorified.

This passage is also the clearest description in Scripture regarding God’s sovereignty in matters of salvation. Arminians typically object to citation of this passage by claiming that the passage is describing God’s election of nations, rather than individuals, for salvation. They usually justify this interpretation by pointing out that Paul’s citations in Romans 9:12 of Genesis 25:23 and Malachi 1:2-3 in verse 13 are both with reference to nations. When Paul writes “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated,” he is speaking of the nations typified by those two persons.

The problem with this interpretation is that Romans 9 does apply to individuals. While it is true that Paul quotes from passages that originally referred to nations, Paul’s intended application in Romans 9 is not limited to nations. In fact, he proceeds to consistently make the application to individuals. The Arminian interpretation fails to make sense of Paul’s utilisation of two singular present active participles (“desire” and “effort”) in verse 16. The desire and effort is on the part of an individual. Pharaoh likewise is a singular individual. The objector of verse 20 is also singular, as is the lump of clay of verse 21. The passage makes use of the plural in verse 22 (“the objects of his wrath”) but, again, this does not refer to nations. In verse 6, the text also clearly refers to individuals (“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”). An additional difficulty with the corporate election interpretation of Romans 9 is that one must explain why Paul raises the rhetorical question of verse 19. The question would be raised naturally on the individual election interpretation, but seems odd given the corporate election interpretation. The most common Arminian interpretation of this passage seems to collapse for these reasons.

Arminian Proof Texts

One of the common texts that Arminians turn to is 1 John 2:2, in which we read, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” There are two ways, I think, to interpret this text that is consistent with what we have already looked at. One is to examine the parallel passage in John 11:51-52, and observe that John intends “the whole world” to be taken in the same sense as given in Revelation 5:9-11. In other words, Christ’s death atones people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” A second way of looking at it is to argue that although Christ’s death was sufficient for all, it was only efficient for — that is, effectively applied to — God’s elect. Had God chosen to, through the cross, save all of humankind, he could have done so without requiring that Christ suffer more. So great was the payment that it was sufficient to save all men. But God in His sovereignty has chosen to save only some men.

Another common one is Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” A glance at the context, however, reveals that it is the door of the church that is in mind — not the door of the unbeliever’s heart.

A further frequently cited verse is Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Curiously, in my experience, this is one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible. Typically, when quoting this verse off the top of their head, people will replace “your children” with “you”. This subtly changes the meaning of the verse. The verse clearly distinguishes between “you” and “your children.” This makes sense when one looks at the wider context of Matthew 23. For example, in verse 13, we read, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” This chapter, then, is a polemic against the Jewish religious leaders, who are attempting to thwart the purposes of God by preventing those who are trying to enter the kingdom of God from doing so.

Another passage to which Arminians appeal is 2 Peter 3:8-9:

8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Again, I think there are two ways of interpreting this text in a manner consistent with what we have examined before. One is to argue that the “anyone” and “everyone” of verse 9 is limited by “you” (“he is patient with you“). Since Peter’s letter is addressed specifically to Christians, it thus follows that the “you” of verse 9 refers to believers. On this interpretation, the “anyone” and “everyone” would be referring specifically to God’s elect.

Another way of understanding this text is to make a distinction between God’s prescriptive will and God’s decretive will. Many illustrations from Scripture could be given. Consider, for instance, Isaiah 10:5-12:

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger;
    the staff in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But he does not so intend,
    and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few;
for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
    whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    as I have done to Samaria and her images?”

12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem,he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.

In this case, as with so many examples in Scripture, the Assyrians were in violation of God’s prescriptive will (i.e. his law) but were in perfect accord with God’s decretive will (i.e. his sovereign decree of what is going to happen). God in fact not only used Assyria’s wickedness to accomplish his purposes (judgement on a godless nation) but He actively orchestrated it to bring a greater glory out of it. Likewise, in the case of our text in 2 Peter 3:9, one might argue that God’s prescriptive will is that everyone might repent and trust Christ, but that is not necessarily his sovereign decretive will.

What About Evangelism?

Some object to the Calvinist position by claiming that it undermines evangelism. After all, what is the point of sharing the Gospel if God has it all worked out already? It must be granted that the Calvinist point of view entails a different focus in evangelism than does the Arminian view. God has invited us to have the tremendous honour of being a part of His salvation plan in proclaiming the Gospel to the nations. This honour is something we all often take for granted. But God did not need to use us — He could have used angels to accomplish His will. Instead, he chose to use us. I, for one, am certainly thankful that God’s work is not dependent or contingent on my debating skills, or on any ability on my part for articulating the Gospel. It also means that I have nothing to boast about when I lead people to Christ. Salvation — and indeed the sanctification which follows — is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, and a glorious act of God’s mercy and grace. As a Christian, I do evangelism as a service to God’s kingdom and to bring glory and honour to His name.

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