© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014

In this study and the next we will be looking at the two truths of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man as they relate to salvation.

Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are both equally true Biblical facts. To our finite human minds they appear to be contradictory and irreconcilable. Packer terms this apparent contradiction an ‘antinomy’ – and defines ‘antinomy’ as ‘an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths’ adding that ‘an antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. … each rests on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other’ [p18-19 Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God].

After explaining that an antinomy is not a paradox, which is merely a contrast generated by choice of words, and not a real clash of meaning, Packer further comments: ‘By contrast, however, an antinomy is neither dispensable nor comprehensible. It is not a figure of speech, but an observed relation between two statements of fact. It is not deliberately manufactured; it is forced upon us by the facts themselves. It is unavoidable, and it is insoluble. We do not invent it, and we cannot explain it. Nor is there any way to get rid of it, save by falsifying the very facts that led us into it.’ [p21]

It is Packer’s belief that all Christians actually believe in the sovereignty of God, but some don’t realize that they do. His evidence for this opinion is that all Christians in the very fact that they pray to God are actually acknowledging his sovereignty, and that all Christians ask the Lord to save their friends and relatives, thereby acknowledging that God is the one who brings a person to true faith, and thirdly, that all Christians thank God for their own salvation, acknowledging that it is by his hand they have been saved.


A.1 The Sovereignty of God – a fact

When we say that God is ‘sovereign’ we mean that God is the King. He is the one in charge, the one in control. The concept of God’s sovereignty also includes the fact that there is no power or authority equal to his power and authority or bigger than his authority. If he has planned or willed something, that something will surely come to pass. God’s power and authority and control are so comprehensive and all-embracing that he can take even those things which are intrinsically and blatantly opposed to him and to his will and purpose, and cause them to bring about his will and his purpose. There is nothing that is outside of his control, nothing that is beyond his sovereign ability to do something about. In fact ‘outside his authority’ simply does not exist.

While this concept of a sovereign God generates a range of questions, we cannot allow the existence of these questions to deny what is obviously a biblical doctrine. That the sovereignty of God is a biblical doctrine is acutely and powerfully obvious. The questions raised by the concept should never be seen as a reason to deny his sovereignty, but rather as indications of the greatness of that sovereignty – something that is difficult for our time-locked, space-locked finite minds to comprehend.

To deny the sovereignty of God is to rob him of all that makes him ‘God’, and to reduce him to a fabrication of man. It is also to rob ourselves, for apart from his sovereignty we have no sure word of God, but merely a human book that might or might not tell us the truth about God, and we have no sure salvation, but only an empty hope that maybe we will make it in the end. It is also to rob ourselves of the sure and certain victory of God over Satan, sin and evil at the end of the age, and to rob ourselves of any rational foundation for prayer in this present age.

It is not within the scope of this study to do a comprehensive survey of the sovereignty of God. In passing we can note that the Bible teaches God’s sovereignty:

•    in creation and providence
•    over the nations
•    over individual people
•    over Satan and demons
•    over events and circumstances

God moves through the Old and New Testaments as the one who is in control. Even when it seems that Satan or wickedness is in control, a deeper look reveals that it is God who is in control. He has set boundaries, he sets the limit, he can take what is opposed to him and use it in his purpose, and in his own time and in his own way, he brings the manifestation of evil to an end.

Task #1: What you already know about the sovereignty of God
From your existing knowledge of the Scriptures, identify examples of the sovereignty of God evident in these contexts.



Over nations

Over individuals

Over Satan

Over circumstances, including evil circumstances

A.2 The responsibility of man – a fact of creation

The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are often held in opposition as if the two concepts were antithetically opposed and contradictory.

Such is far from the case. In fact, it is only if God is sovereign that the concept of the responsibility of man makes any sense. Responsibility of necessity implies someone to whom one is responsible, and that someone to whom one is responsible is in a position of authority over the one who is responsible. Note the dictionary meaning of ‘responsible’: ‘liable to be called to account’, ‘morally accountable for actions’.  Man is responsible to God: liable to be called to account by God, and morally accountable to God.

The sovereign creator God set out man’s responsibilities right from the beginning:

•    rule over the world [Genesis 1:28; 2:15]
•    populate the world [Genesis 1:28]
•    don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [Genesis 2:17].

The first two of these responsibilities involve a wide area of freedom and delegated authority [see also Genesis 2:19-20]. The third involves also a wide area of freedom, but also a moral and spiritual boundary beyond which exists only that to which God has said ‘no’. It was man’s responsibility to stay within this moral boundary set down by the sovereign creator God.  

There is also another responsibility imposed on man by his creation by God, and at the back of the ‘no’ of Genesis 2:17: the responsibility that comes from having been created in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27]. While in one way of looking at it man’s dominion [or sovereignty] over the rest of creation expresses or reflects or images the sovereignty of God, yet in another way of looking at, total human dependence on God is what best images God’s trustworthiness, and human responsibility is what best images God’s sovereignty.

Human responsibility then is part of the order of creation, in which the sovereign God created man, identified his role and responsibility, and set a boundary within which he had freedom of choice, but beyond which he was forbidden to move.


A.3 The bondage and inability of man – a fact of the fall

At the bottom line, it is not the responsibility of man that is in conflict with the sovereignty of God but the desire of man to be free and sovereign. The human grasping for sovereignty [unrestricted freedom], which began in Genesis 3, is the real enemy of the concept of divine sovereignty. The human quest for independence makes man rebel even against the thought that he is dependent on God, even in his most desperate area of need, even in this area of salvation.  

There are other antinomies that we accept without much of a struggle – we are happy enough, for example, to accept these facts, which on the surface appear to be mutually exclusive:

Jesus Christ is fully and truly God and, Jesus Christ is fully and truly man
God is sovereign and does whatever he pleases and, human prayer changes things

Where we appear to be the winners we are not really bothered by this antinomy. But here, in the area of human bondage and inability, where the divine sovereignty in salvation threatens us and exposes our spiritual bondage and inability, it seems that many of us fight against it with tooth and claw. We desperately try to reserve some ability and power for ourselves so we exalt human ‘responsibility’ [under the name of a perceived ‘freedom’] and demote and disempower God.


Task #2: Return to Study One
We have already looked at the effects of the fall in Study One, Section B. Return to that section now and review it. What does it teach us about the bondage and inability of man? List significant facts below.







In addition to the powerlessness and inability we see in these verses and concepts, the Bible also tells us that, left to ourselves:

•    we cannot know God [Matthew 11:27]
•    we can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God [John 3:3,5]
•    we are children of the devil [John 8:42-47]
•    we do not seek God [Romans 3:11]
•    we cannot submit to God’s law [Romans 8:7]
•    we cannot please God [Romans 8:8; Hebrews 11:6]

This clear teaching makes it obvious that human beings are in a helpless and hopeless condition and position, without any possibility of getting themselves out of it. Unless God intervenes in an act of divine and sovereign power, that is where we will stay forever.

When our first parents rejected the sovereignty of God in Genesis 3 and grasped after their own sovereignty, they actually forfeited the freedom which they had, and cast the human race into a bondage far more restricting than the responsibility to God from which they had thought they could escape. But even here in this desperate state, man clings to his perception of his power and freedom and challenges and rejects or severely diminishes divine sovereignty.

It is interesting to note that those in the history of the church who have refused to believe in full assurance of salvation and the eternal security of the believer are those who either reject this bondage and inability of man, or devise some way to get around it or overcome it apart from or prior to God’s way of salvation. For example:

Pelagius: ‘Everything good and everything evil, in respect of which we are either worthy of praise or of blame, is done by us, not born with us. We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil, we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him’ [sourced from Bettenson: Documents of the Christian Church ]

‘Pelagius taught that human beings have a natural capacity to reject evil and seek God, that Christ’s admonition, “Be ye perfect,” presupposes this capacity, and that grace is the natural ability given by God to seek and to serve God. Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin; he taught that children are born innocent of the sin of Adam’. [The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001]

Finney: ‘There is no proof that mankind ever lost their ability to obey, either by the first sin of Adam, or by their own sin.   …   it is an utter abuse and perversion of the laws of language, so to interpret the Bible as to make it teach a proper inability in man to will as God directs  …   If man were properly unable to obey, there could be no grace in giving him ability to obey …. Is man dependent on the Holy Spirit to give him a proper ability to obey God or is he dependent only in such a sense that, as a matter of fact, he will not embrace the gospel unless the Holy Spirit makes him willing? The latter, beyond reasonable question, is the truth. This is the universal representation of scripture. The difficulty to be overcome is everywhere in the Bible represented to be the sinner's unwillingness alone … The strong language often found in scripture upon the subject of man's inability to obey God, is designed only to represent the strength of his voluntary selfishness and enmity against God, and never to imply a proper natural inability. It is, therefore, a gross and most injurious perversion of scripture, as well as a contradiction of human reason, to deny the natural ability, or which is the same thing, the natural free agency of man … '           [  ]

Note: In Finney’s sermons and Systematic Theology it is clear that his understanding comes from his training in law, and not from a thorough knowledge in the Scriptures. His arguments against the inability and impotence of man are largely arguments based on his perception of moral law.

Church of the Nazarene: ‘We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.’    []

[Note: although the Church of the Nazarene rightly believes in original sin, this statement indicates that ‘the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people’ and infers that this universal bestowal of grace makes it possible for everyone who wants to, to repent and believe, thus automatically and effectively wiping out the effects of original sin.’ Similarly the Wesleyan Methodists [see below], while rightly understanding and believing in original sin, also believe that prevenient grace ‘is bestowed freely upon all men, enabling all who will to turn and be saved’.]

Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia: ‘But since the fall of Adam, man is unable in his own strength to do the right. This is due to original sin, which is not simply the following of Adam's example, but rather the corruption of the nature of every man, and is reproduced naturally in Adam's descendants. Because of it, man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature is continually inclined to evil. He cannot of himself even call upon God or exercise faith for salvation. But through Jesus Christ the prevenient grace of God makes possible what man in himself cannot do. It is bestowed freely upon all men, enabling all who will to turn and be saved.’ [in Articles of Religion pdf file]

Roman Catholic Doctrine: ‘Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),4 and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word."5 [link no longer active]

[Note that the Catholic doctrine overcomes the problem by its perception of what happens at baptism. Sins committed after baptism have to be expiated – by confession, penance, indulgences and purgatory, thus throwing the ball right back into the arena of human endeavour. Given that most are baptised as infants this means a life long [and beyond death] process of human activity necessary to remove the guilt of sins.]


Task #3: Analyse the quotes above
What do they say that takes salvation out of God’s sovereign hands and places it in the hands of men, and dependent on man’s spiritual/moral ability?









A.4 The grace and mercy of God – a fact

As we saw in Study Two the Bible presents God as gracious and merciful. The grace and mercy of God only have meaning in the absence of human merit and qualification. ‘Mercy’ like ‘grace’ operates where there is inability and disqualification. If man was able or qualified, or able to qualify himself, for God’s love and acceptance, mercy and grace would be redundant. We must never lose sight of this. Once we propose any ability in man, any power or desire to reach out to the true God then God’s grace is reduced and God’s mercy is reduced, or even discarded as unnecessary. The more ability we give to man the less we value God’s grace. That which the Bible calls immeasurable, incomparable, lavish, and which John Newton called ‘amazing’ becomes ordinary and unremarkable, something deserved by us, something merited by us, or, worse, something that we can do without.

The Bible teaches that God, in an unexpected act of sovereign grace and mercy, reached down into our inability and powerlessness and did for us that which we could never have done for ourselves and that which we could never deserve by our own efforts and merit.


We have already looked extensively at various aspects of salvation, and in doing so have been repeatedly confronted by God’s role in saving us. We have seen in every aspect of salvation that it is the work of God.

Every aspect of salvation is by God’s eternal grace, a clear indication that it has nothing to do with human ability, merit or achievement.

Regeneration is the work of the Spirit of God by which he brings to spiritual life that which was spiritually dead.

Eternal life is the gift of God; it is also inseparable from Jesus Christ, and not something which can be obtained apart from Christ. Apart from Christ there is simply no spiritual life.

Repentance is the gift of God by which he gives the gift of turning to himself to those who left to themselves would never turn to him.

Faith is the gift of God in which he opens the eyes of our understanding and enables us to see him, whom we otherwise would not see because of our blindness, and to believe in him whom we would otherwise never know or trust. By this gift we are also enabled to be committed to Christ, when, if left to ourselves, we would continue to live for ourselves.

Justification/righteousness is the result of the work of Christ and guaranteed to the believer through faith; this legal acquittal is sheer gift, granted by the declaration of God with no relationship whatsoever to our personal legal merit.

Substitutionary atonement is the work of Christ undertaken on our behalf, without our request or expectation or merit, because of the eternal plan of God to save us.

Forgiveness is the action of God in which he of his own will, and by means of his eternal plan of salvation, removes the barrier that we by our sin had erected between him and us, and enables us once again to live in his presence. Unless he removed it, it would still exist, and we would remain helplessly on the other side, still cut off from God by our sin.

Reconciliation is the action of God – a move from his side to remove the enmity and alienation generated by our sin and by his wrath against our sin.

Redemption is the action of God in which he liberates us from a bondage from which we had no hope of liberating ourselves, indeed, a bondage which we did not even recognize as bondage until he came and set us free from it.

Sanctification is the action of God in which he names us as his own treasured possession whom he has set apart from common use and common identity to be his special people devoted by him to his holy use.

Peace is the declaration of God that he, by his eternal purpose in Christ, has removed forever the necessity for fear and guilt in his presence;

Joy is the result of all that God has done, and only exists if all that has been done was in fact done by God alone, without any contribution of ours. Any perceived contribution of ours disperses or radically diminishes the joy.

Assurance of salvation, likewise, is the result of what God has done, and only exists if it is he himself who has done it all. Any contribution of ours destroys assurance.

All is of God. Nothing is of ourselves. All is given to us or done for us by God. By the very nature of the various aspects of salvation the sovereign action of God is essential.

But there are other scriptures which speak specifically of the divine initiative in salvation. These are very confrontational verses, bringing us humans to nothing, reminding us that we are indeed, as the Bible states, ‘powerless’ to do anything to make a move towards God. These are the verses which we automatically want to interpret some way other than their straight meaning, because we do not want to acknowledge that we are destitute beggars totally dependent on the beneficence and mercy of God, and totally unwilling and unable in ourselves to make a move towards him.


Task #4: Read and discuss these verses

How do they describe human inability? What do they teach us about the sovereignty of God in saving us?

Matthew 11:27

John 1:12-13

John 6:37

John 6: 44, 65

John 10:29a

John 15:19

John 17:6

Romans 8:28-30

Romans 9:6-29


2Corinthians 4:6


Ephesians 1:4,5,11


2Timothy 1:9

James 1:18


These passages emphasize that it is only by God’s self-revelation that we can know him, that it is only by his choice that we become his; that it is he who gives us to Jesus; that it is by and because of his will and pleasure that he choses us; that it is he who rips away our dark blindness so that we can see him; that it is he who has predestined us in Christ; that it is he who has brought us to new life.

There is no way around this saving action of God. Nor is there any valid way around the fact that his will and his pleasure and his choice are at the back of this saving action. Not our will, our pleasure or our choice. Certainly not our human ‘freedom’.



The Bible uses the words like ‘chosen’, ‘elect’, ‘predestined’, ‘will’ and ‘purpose’ to convey the concept of God’s divine, sovereign saving action upon individuals. This divine will and choice is what is understood to have initiated or implemented the salvation of these people.


eklegomai -To pick out or select for oneself. Examples of use: Matthew 13:20; Luke 6:13; John 15:16,19; Acts 1:2; 1Corinthians 1:27,28; Ephesians 1:4; James 2:5.

eklektos - Chosen out, selected. Examples of use: Matthew 20:16; 24:22,24,31; Luke 18:7; Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12; 1Peter 1:2; 2:4,9; Revelation 17:14.

ekloge - Selection; that which is chosen; election. Only use: Acts 9:15; Romans 9:11; 11:5-7,28; 1Thessalonians 1:4; 2Peter 1:10

haireo - To take for oneself. Only relevant use: 2Thessalonians 2:13 [compare Deuteronomy 7:6-7].


prooridzo - To mark out or determine beforehand; to foreordain, ordain or predestinate. Only relevant use of this word is in: Acts 4:28; Romans 8:29,30; Ephesians 1:5,11.


proginosko - Foreknow, know before. The only relevant use of this word is in Romans 8:29; 11:2.

prognosis – Foreknowledge. The only relevant use of this word is in Acts 2:23; 1Peter 1:2


boulema - Purpose, will, deliberate intention. Only relevant use: Romans 9:19.

boulomai -. To will, to purpose. Only relevant or semi-relevant use: Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22; Luke 22:42; Hebrews 6:17; James 1:18; 2Peter 3:9.

boule - Purpose, will. Only relevant or semi-relevant use: Acts 2:23; 4:28; 13:36; 20:27; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17.

prothesis - Purpose, something set before. Only relevant verses: Romans 8:28; 9:11; Ephesians 1:11; 3:11; 2Timothy 1:9.

protithemi - To set before, to set forth, to purpose. Only relevant verse:  Ephesians 1:9.

thelema – Will. Relevant verses: John 1:12,13; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 1:5, 9,11; Hebrews 10:7-10; Revelation 4:11.

eudokia - Pleasure, desire. Relevant verses: Matthew 11:26; Luke 2:14; 10:21; Ephesians 1:5, 9

eudokeo - To be well pleased, to think it good, to be willing – includes concept of intention and resolve. Relevant verses: Luke 12:32; Galatians 1:15-16.  

Task #5: Discuss the clear meaning of the above words understood in the context of the verses listed. [You will need to study the verses, and their context.]









From these verses it is clear that our salvation is the result of God’s will, God’s pleasure and God’s choice. Paul’s affirmation of his conversion and call sums it up: ‘when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me…’ [Galatians 1:15-16], and his statements in Ephesians 1:4-11 includes at least 11 uses of the above words. But we must not think that this concept of divine sovereignty is a peculiar Pauline idea. Jesus himself spoke of God’s pleasure and God’s choice in saving people, and John, James and Peter also refer to it in unambiguous statements.

Leon Morris, commenting on Paul‘s use of the concept of election, states:

‘Since this doctrine is so often rejected, misunderstood and opposed it may be as well to add one or two points. One is that election is an act of divine love. Paul can write to the Thessalonians, ‘knowing, brethren beloved of God, your election’ (1Thess 1:4). The popular caricature of predestination sees it as a process wherein God sentences some men to damnation before they are born, without ever giving them a chance. This is not the teaching of the Bible. There election is a means of saving men, not of sentencing them. It proceeds from God’s love and His deep concern for men. The connection of predestination with love should never be overlooked.

‘The second thing is that the thought of predestination is something that gives assurance. If we were dependent on our own effort for salvation we would never know whether we had done enough. If we were saved by Christ, but were dependent on retaining our hold on Him we could never be sure that we would not weaken. [Morris then quotes Romans 8:29f and comments] … The sequence goes on with splendid inevitability to glorification. Those who have been predestined will not fall by the way. It should not be overlooked that we tend to regard predestination as a part of a philosophical theory. For us it is the answer to the question, “Are all things determined or not?” For Paul it is the answer to quite another question, “How much of our salvation is due to God?” … Predestination is the assurance that all of our salvation, from the very beginning to the end, is of God. We ought never to think of it other than in relation to salvation. That is where Paul sees it. It assures me that my salvation is no improvised affair, brought into being by a more or less fortuitous decision of my own. I am saved because none less than God willed it and predestined me before all the ages. Nothing at all can give the believer assurance like this great truth.

‘And thirdly predestination is related to ethical ends. … [Col 3:12]… Precisely because they are elect they are to produce qualities of character. If a man says, ‘I am predestined to salvation, therefore it does not matter what kind of life I live’ he shows that he does not understand the biblical doctrine of predestination. … [Eph 2:10] … The good life of the people of God and their election are not two separate subjects. Election is for the purpose of doing the good works that God has prepared for His people to do.’ [p214-215, The Cross in the New Testament]



In trying to understand this concept of the divine choice and will in salvation it is easy to err on one side or the other: to so emphasise divine sovereignty that human ‘responsibility’ becomes meaningless, or to so deny divine sovereignty as to lose it altogether. Listed below are some of the more common errors that have to be avoided if we are to remain biblical.


D.1 Determinism, fatalism and hyper-Calvinism

Determinism and fatalism stress divine sovereignty in such a way as to render all human effort meaningless.

Determinism believes that we have no choice, but go through life like puppets on a string doing whatever the Divine Puppet Master chooses and determines. A softer kind of determinism teaches that our choices are determined by our background, genes, and circumstances – that we will not and cannot make choices outside of those boundaries.

Fatalism believes that God has predetermined all events by an arbitrary decree that cannot be changed. There is nothing we can do about it except accept it.

Note in these a kind of divine arbitrariness which is far removed from the love, compassion, grace, pleasure and joy which the Bible ascribes to God along with his sovereign will and purpose.


Task #6: Discussion
Discuss the difference between determinism and fatalism on the one hand and the hands-on compassionate sovereignty of the Biblical God on the other hand.




Hyper-Calvinism also emphasizes divine sovereignty to the extent that human responsibility is effectively denied. It is: a ’ “Form of "Calvinism" which contradicts what John Calvin taught and/or the historic creeds of Calvinism.  Can vary widely, but usually contains one or more of the following elements: a.) Denies God's permissive will, b.) Denies God's common grace, c.) Denies or minimizes the need for evangelism, d.) Denies the sincerity of the general calling, e.) Views reprobation as a kind of election unto damnation’ [ – link no longer active]. For a more extensive description go to this site..



D.2 Pelagianism and semi-pelagianism

Pelagianism and semi-pelagianism emphasise human freedom. Return to section B.3 in Study One for a summary of Pelagianism.

A comment from Berkouwer against Pelagianism:

‘The question regarding this relationship between God’s grace and man’s decision arose already in 418 when at the Council of Carthage Pelagianism was condemned because it was based on man’s free nature and it emphasized man’s decision to such a degree that God’s grace did not actually go beyond the granting of that free nature. Pelagianism is based on an “exaggeration of the forces of free will” and on “the essence of freedom as the opportunity to choose between good and evil.” In Pelagianism the Church saw grace deprived of its primary significance, of its decisive value. It was still spoken of, but it had actually been abandoned. In such a view, grace was no longer absolutely necessary, and the Church at the Council of Carthage confessed its belief in the necessity of grace. It is not that grace makes it easier to do God’s will, but that without grace it is impossible to do God’s will’ [p29,30 Divine Election]


Task #7: Problems with Pelagianism
Read Berkouwer’s statement above. Discuss why the Pelagian belief in man’s free nature and its heavy emphasis on man’s decision removes the necessity of God’s grace. What do you suggest was the Council of Carthage’s reason for maintaining grace by condemning Pelagianism?







Semi-pelagianism retained the free will of man, but, because it acknowledged that man’s free will has been weakened by sin, proposed that God’s grace is needed to help it along. This is an attempt to find some kind of cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom.


Task #8: Problems with Semi-pelagianism
Think about this compromise. What is wrong with it? How does it compare or contrast with the biblical descriptions of man’s unconverted state?





D.3 The synergistic focus on God’s ‘foreknowledge’

Taking hold of the concept of God’s ‘foreknowledge’ and building on the modified freewill of semi-pelagianism, a large trans-denominational section of the church began to believe, and still believes, that the solution to the seeming conflict between God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility in salvation is this: that God in his foreknowledge saw who would repent and believe and predestined [chose, elected] those to salvation.

This is a synergistic concept which is believed to hold man’s choice and God’s choice working together.

Yet there is an in-built flaw in this widely accepted proposition. When you think about it, it does not maintain God’s sovereignty at all. Rather is exalts man’s choice as the one thing that determines his salvation, even to the extent of his choice [seen ahead by God] determining God’s choice. In attempting to preserve man’s freedom it destroys God’s sovereignty.

Berkouwer comments:

‘Synergism does not confront us with a different problem than the one of sovereign election. It is concerned with the same question; it inquires into the prime cause of man’s salvation. … it is clear that the idea of prescience [foreknowledge] casts shadows on the sovereignty of God’s election and is a flagrant contradiction of the nature of Christian faith. … It supposes a waiting God whose judgment and final act depend on and follow upon man’s acceptance and decision, so that the final and principal decision falls with man; it teaches self-destination instead of divine destination. … replacing predestination with the idea of prescience is emphatically contradicted by Scripture, religious experience, and theological thinking.’ [selected from p34-37, ibid]

‘In no form of synergism is it possible to escape the conclusion that man owes his salvation not only to God but also to himself. Still more accurately, he may thank himself – by virtue of his decision to believe – that salvation actually and effectively becomes his in time and eternity. … The conclusion cannot in the long run be avoided and it is clear that we actually are confronted here with the real problem of synergism as it results in a certain amount of human self-conceit.’ [ibid, p42]



We have seen from the above what happens when either the sovereignty of God or the responsibility of man [often debated as if ‘responsibility’ means ‘freedom’] is stressed. In trying to explain and/or exalt one, the other is destroyed. There seems to be no answer to the question ‘how do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory concepts?’

The answer is that the question is a non-valid question. These two concepts do not need to be reconciled to each other; there does not need to be any adjustment made. Just as the Bible equally presents the two concepts of the true and full deity of Jesus Christ and the true and full humanity of Jesus Christ, and we accept them both together and fully, so too we must here in this question. We must treat them as equals and as friends.

And just as any over-emphasis on either the deity or the humanity of Christ leads us into heresy and confusion, even so here.

In terms of the sovereignty of God in salvation we have simply to believe it as the Bible presents it: that it is by God’s purpose, God’s choice, God’s pleasure and God’s action that we are saved.