There is an ongoing controversy in Christian circles regarding the role Christians play in their own salvation.
There are those who say that the Christian plays no role in God’s plan of redemption. They assert that to make such a claim interferes with God’s sovereignty and gives the Christian reason to boast. They often further contend that if Christians claim they play a role in the salvation process, they are heretics who undermine the Gospel with their arrogance.
This accusation typically comes from the strict Calvinist camp as they point dogmatically to their ‘five points’ that apparently prove the Christian plays no role in their own salvation.
After all, if you are dead in your sins, a corpse cannot play a role in any important endeavor, especially one’s own redemption.
When the Calvinists level their accusations, they can also point to the Pelagian Heresy to further buttress their point. If you believe you play any role in being saved, you can be called a Pelagian; or perhaps a semi-Pelagian if you believe that you play a more limited role in salvation.
Regarding Pelagius, we should take a closer look at what he taught and discern just how misguided he was. A brief summary of his beliefs is as follows:
Pelagianism is a set of beliefs associated with the British monk Pelagius (circa AD 354–420), who taught in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Pelagius denied the doctrines of original sin [that we are born enemies of God], total depravity [that man is dead in his sins and cannot repent of his own free will], and predestination [God declares the end from the beginning], believing that the human tendency to sin is a free choice. Following this line of reasoning, there is no need for God’s intervening grace because people only need to make up their minds to do God’s will to be saved.
We know from Scripture that (1) we are born enemies of God, (2) that God declares the end from the beginning, (3) sin is not a free choice, and (4) we definitely need God’s grace because making up our minds to do God’s will is fruitless. We can discern that the teachings of Pelagius were mostly heretical. However, what about total depravity?
To answer this question, let us consider what we do know. We know from Scripture that faith is a gift from God. When someone gives us a present, they do not demand that we take it based on their sovereignty. It is offered in love with the expectation that it will bring the receiver great joy.
If Sovereignty is the only part of God’s nature, then the strict Calvinist may be correct that God does not just give us the gift of faith, he shoves it down our throats whether we want it or not. However, since we know from Scripture that God is loving, patient and kind, this possibility is out of keeping with his whole nature.
To get immediately to the point (as this debate can be very complex), it is clear from Scripture that Christians do play a role in their own salvation. The role that is played is as follows:
- Faith is a gift that we are free to reject, and many do (yes, we have free will).
- Once we receive the gift of faith, we can either remain in it or abandon it.
Regarding the first point, the primary Scripture that will be used to support it is found in Hebrews Chapter Three. The key verse is, “Today, if you hear his voice [his Gospel], do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion…” It is clear that when we hear that Christ died for our sins, we can choose of our own free will to harden our hearts against this message. We know this because it is not only Scriptural, but it is what we actually see occur when we share the Gospel. In other words, this interpretation lines up with reality.
The Gospel message is the one through which we receive the gift of faith. When we are told that Christ died for our sins, there are only one of two responses:
- That’s wonderful; what’s next (Acts 2:37-38).
- No, he did not (we harden our hearts).
Those who do not harden their hearts (1) are then cut to the heart by God, immediately receive the gift of faith, and then seek more knowledge of God’s grace. Those who answer with (2) remain enemies of God.
As you can see, regardless of which answer you give, there is no boasting here, and God’s sovereignty is still intact. When we hear that Christ died for our sins, it is like being told for the first time that 2+2=4. There is no legitimate reason to deny it unless you harden your heart against this easily provable historical reality.
Any one of us, at any time, can call upon the name of the Lord of our own volition. This is usually done when we are experiencing Godly grief that leads to repentance and thus salvation (II Corinthians 7:10). As God works to draw us in, as he does with all people, repentance is still an act of volition even while we are dead in our sins. We have a wonderful promise from God himself that if we call upon his name in repentance, he will give us the gift of faith and save us from our sins.
Therefore, we have cleared the first hurdle and have shown that the Christian does play a role in the receipt of the gift of faith. All we must do is refrain from hardening our hearts against the obvious Word of God.
However, once we receive the gift of faith, we know that one of two events can occur:
- We can treasure our new faith that God has given us.
- We can abandon the faith.
Jesus and His apostles were very clear about the need for us to remain in the faith.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [sanctifies] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you [that you received by faith]. Remain in me [Have faith in me until death], as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine [if it ever leaves the vine, it dies]. Neither can you bear fruit [your works are filthy rags] unless you remain in me [until you are harvested].
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you [by your own free will] remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me [if you abandon the faith of your own free will], you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned [in the Lake of Fire]. If you [of your own free will] remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love [through faith]. If [by your own free will] you keep my commands [by faith], you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:1-10).
The importance of remaining in the faith cannot be overstated. The waters of our baptism are designed for our sanctification; these waters are our appeal to God for a good conscience towards Him (I Peter 3:21). The reason we partake of the Lord’s supper is to ensure that we remain in the faith until Christ comes for us (John 6:56). Both sacraments are designed to secure our faith until death or the coming of the Lord.
Some Christians claim that it is not possible for us to abandon the faith because, when we believed, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we come into possession of eternal life. However, the Holy Spirit informs us:
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:1-2).
Those who abandon the faith of their own free will and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons will not see the kingdom of heaven. As the writer of Hebrews stated adamantly, it is impossible for those who have once been enlightened and then fallen away to be restored to repentance [God will not grant them repentance unto salvation a second time] (Hebrews 6:4-8).
No outside force can separate us from the love of Christ, but we can choose to abandon the faith of our own free will. It is for this reason that we are counseled to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23). If we continue on in faithlessness of our own free will, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful expectation of judgment.
Therefore, since we are required to remain in the faith until death, does that interfere with God’s sovereignty, and does that give us reason to boast? The answer to both questions, of course, is no. When God created us, he instilled within us the free will to live by faith in him or to separate from him. The story of Adam and Eve seems to demonstrate that fact clearly.
So, what do we make of the strict Calvinist view that Christians play no role in the salvation process? Let us concentrate on the main passage that they use, Romans chapter 9, and see if we can exegete this passage to discern what the Holy Spirit is actually saying to us.
We will employ an old exegetical technique called “Allowing God’s Word to Speak for Itself.” This technique has long been abandoned, but it is hoped that we can bring it back to respectability.
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart [because the hearts of the Jews have been partially hardened by God due to the crucifixion of Christ; Romans 11:25]. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers [the Jews], my kinsmen according to the flesh [who foolishly cried out, ‘His blood be upon us and our children’; Matthew 27:25, when they crucified Jesus]. They [the Jews] are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ [whom they crucified due to their lack of faith], who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed [it was the faith of the Jews that failed]. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel [only those who have faith belong to Israel], and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring [only those who have faith are Abraham’s offspring; Galatians 3:7], but ‘Through Isaac [not Ishmael] shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh [Ishmael who represents Abraham’s lack of faith] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [Isaac was the ONLY Son of Abraham because he was the son of the promise and who represents Abraham’s faithfulness] are counted as offspring.
“For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son’ [Genesis 17:21] And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election [those he foreknew he predestined; Romans 8:29] might continue, not because of works [of the law] but because of [faith in] him [who declares the end from the beginning; Isaiah 46:10] who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob [who God knew would be faithful] I loved, but Esau [who God knew would be faithless] I hated.’
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy [because I declare the end from the beginning], and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’ [I have purposed, and I will do it; Isaiah 46:11]. So then it depends not on human will or exertion [following the law], but on [faith in] God, who has mercy [on those who have faith].
“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh [who of his own free will hardened his heart five times against the Lord before the Lord took over hardening his heart; Exodus 9:12], ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up [because I foreknew that you would rebel against me], that I might show my power in you [as an act of judgment against you], and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills [the faithful], and he hardens whomever he wills [the faithless and rebellious].
“You [the Jews] will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? [after all, God has hardened our hearts after we, like Pharoah, behaved faithlessly when we crucified our Savior]. For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God [do you declare the end from the beginning?] Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use [eternal life] and another for dishonorable use? [for judgment].
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction [The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance; II Peter 3:9], in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,
‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’ [the Gentiles], and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’ [the church]. And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’
“And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel [not the church]: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved [and ONLY a remnant because God has partially hardened the hearts of the Jewish people due to their faithlessness], for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay’ [during the tribulation]. And as Isaiah predicted,
‘If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring [the faithful remnant of the Jews], we [Israel, not the church] would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah’ [as the nation of Israel will become after the Antichrist kills the two witnesses of God during the tribulation; Revelation 11:8].
“What shall we say, then? [How should we summarize this discourse?] That Gentiles who did not pursue [of their own free will] righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness [through repentance] that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued [of their own free will] a law that would lead to [self] righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue [of their own free will] it by faith [based on repentance], but as if it were based on works [the Jews tried to earn their way into God’s grace]. They have stumbled [due to hardening their hearts] over the stumbling stone [Jesus], as it is written,
‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense [to the unrepentant]; and whoever believes in him [and repents of his own free will] will not be put to shame'” (Romans chapter 9).
When exegeted properly, this chapter is in line with the fact that we do play a role in the salvation process. When we hear the Gospel, we must not harden our hearts against it but instead respond with contrition. God waits patiently while lovingly wishing that none of us will perish but that all will reach repentance.
The Jews behaved faithlessly by hardening their hearts, of their own free will, against God. In judgment, God partially hardened their hearts which is his right as God. The Gentiles, on the other hand, did not harden their hearts and received Christ by faith and became sons of God.
As far as I can tell, there does not seem to be much of a controversy when God’s Word is allowed to speak for itself.
I once read a funny analogy on the Babylon Bee that believing we play no role in the salvation process is like playing a video game that contains nothing but cutscenes. You do not get to play; you just watch the cutscenes until the game is over. I would imagine that if you ‘play’ this game long enough, you will soon fall asleep since you play no role in any part of it.
When I read this analogy, I was reminded of Christ’s parable of the Ten Virgins. In this parable, both the wise and the foolish virgins fell asleep waiting for Christ’s return. I cannot think of a more effective doctrine that puts Christians to sleep, despite its attempt at piety, that is more insidious than the one that states we play no role in God’s plan of salvation.
This doctrine seems to have a tranquilizing effect on evangelism since everything has already been preordained anyway. We do not see much in the area of evangelism anymore, and we are also seeing much less teaching of Christian values in our churches. I wonder how many churches are instructing their youth that there is no such thing as transgenderism or gay marriage. Are the pagan assertions of ‘climate change’ being shared with our youth and disputed? Is anyone being called to repent of the rampant false accusations of racism that infest society?
The values of our youth seem to be coming from our schools and universities rather than our churches. We are seeing the disastrous effect of this as our youth are being ravaged by a godless moral ethic. We need to consider whether the five points of Calvinism lead to apathy and sloth in the area of evangelism and biblical instruction.
The current thinking, which is disturbing, seems to be, “why should we go through the persecution that comes with calling sinners to repent and be forgiven in the name of Jesus if everyone’s fate has already been determined? Why don’t we just sit back and let God’s plan unfold without our participation?”
Although our fates are indeed predetermined, it is clear that God still expects us to proclaim his law and his Gospel until he returns.
As our Lord warned us would happen, many of our churches, even the faithful ones, have become drowsy and fallen asleep. It is likely they will not awaken until they hear the midnight cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”