By: A.G. Martin


When we look at the topic of God’s sovereignty and the free will of man, the first thought to enter our mind is, “how do we reconcile the two?” We know scripture teaches that God is sovereign. We can view passages such as: Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases, Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted,” 1 Timothy 6:15, “He who is the blessed and only sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” and many others. We know that man freely makes choices every day. We decide what clothes we want to wear or foods we want to eat. If we desire to go somewhere we get in our vehicle and travel to the destination. However, when it comes to man and his salvation, does he have the ability within his own will to choose God? We are taught from a young age that man has free will and that he must make the decision to believe in God. We have heard sayings such as “God is a gentleman, He would never force someone to do what they do not want to do.” Are these views taught in scripture?

This is a debate that has been ongoing for quite some time. While that is so, this is a subject that must be approached in a loving and thoughtful way. There are many great and godly men who have gone before us that line up on both sides of the isle. No matter what which side of the line you fall, this topic should be one that drives both parties to the scriptures. We should not desire to fit the scriptures around our beliefs. Rather, our beliefs should be derived from the scriptures. 

In this paper we will look at God’s sovereignty and the free will of man within the context of salvation. We will attempt to answer the question, “can man come to God by his own free will choice?” In seeking to answer this question we will look at and dissect several doctrines as well as biblical texts. We will first begin by defining God’s sovereignty, and man’s free will. We want to make sure we start with the proper understanding of terms in order to properly present the position. Next, we will look at the doctrine of original sin. This plays a big part in our study given that Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, and God did not stop them. After looking at original sin, we will move on to the nature of man. Within this study we will identify several positions such as Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Moving on from there we will discuss the doctrine of regeneration. This is also known as being “born again” as discussed in John chapter three. Finally, we will address the atonement of Christ. This topic brings with it its own question, “for whom did Christ die?” Within this topic there are several passages of scripture that we will need to briefly address, namely; Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9. Upon looking into these doctrines and examining the biblical text, the analysis will show that the natural man does not have the ability or freedom under his own will to choose God.

God’s Sovereignty

We have at some point seen the term ‘sovereignty’ thrown around by pastors, apologists, and theologians. However, what does this term actually mean? To put it simply, God being sovereign means that He is ultimately in control of whatever comes to pass. Charles Hodge writes, “If God be a Spirit, and therefore a person, infinite, eternal, and immutable in His being and perfections, the Creator and Preserver of the universe, He is of right its absolute sovereign.”[1] God determines when, where, and under what circumstances anything takes place. Of God’s sovereignty, there are three characteristics: First, God’s sovereignty is universal.[2] Meaning that it extends over all of His creation. No matter where you go, it is always present. Second, God’s sovereignty is absolute.[3] He does as He wills for no other reason than He wills it to be done. Finally, God’s sovereignty is immutable.[4] It does not change. No matter where you are, God’s sovereignty is always and consistently the same.

There are several places where we can observe the sovereignty of God in man’s salvation. A good example is derived from the Gospel of John the sixth chapter. In this chapter we get brief glimpse into the relationship between the Father and the Son.[5] What we see so clearly is the Father’s giving of men to the Son; and the Son’s obedience to the Father in bringing them to salvation.[6] In verse thirty-seven Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” There we see Jesus speaking not of theoretical possibilities, but of absolutes. Those whom the Father gives to the son will come to Him. He continues on saying, “and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” This is eternal security of salvation. The Father gives to the Son, and the Son brings to salvation and keep for eternity. God’s choice, God’s will, God’s sovereign purpose.[7]

Man’s Free Will

Jonathan Edwards defines mans will in this way, “The will is, that by which the mind chooses anything.”[8] Hodge gives a more in-depth definition. He asserts that there are ultimately two categories; understanding and will. In these two categories, he says the term ‘will’ has a comprehensive sense when all faculties of the soul are said to be included.[9] Thus, all liking, and disliking, inclination and disinclination are acts of the will.[10] Yet, this term at other times is used to define the power behind self-determining acts.[11] When we apply these definitions of ‘will’ to salvation, we arrive at the idea that man under his own self-determination can be inclined to choose God. Elmer Towns says, “God created man with a will to choose or reject the work of God in his life.”[12] It is foolish to deny that man makes choices freely. That is not something we have to think about very hard to realize. Nevertheless, the ability to freely choose my desired breakfast is not the same as being able to submit to a Holy God. Some would disagree given that Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey God’s command (Genesis 3). In order to look at this further, we will need to look at the doctrine of original sin.

Original Sin

No doctrine plays a more crucial role in our anthropology and soteriology than the doctrine of original sin.[13] When we speak of original sin, we mean the first sin committed by man. We can find this account in Genesis the third chapter. God creates man and places him in a garden. He tells man that he may eat of any tree in the garden except one; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While in the garden, the serpent approached Eve tempting her to eat of the tree. The serpent appeals to the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life in attempts to entice her. Please note, Satan made the same appeals to Christ when He was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Eve replies with God’s words, “you shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (3:3). The serpent then begins to contradict the Word of God saying, “you will not surely die” (3:4). This places doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve who made a choice to eat from the tree.

The consequences of this action, are seen today in the sinfulness of men. Sin is a constant reminder of the past. Horton writes, “our present is the effective history of an original transgression that defines our ethical condition and actions.[14] The reason we are sinners and sin is because of Adam’s sin. Adam was our representation in the garden. He was our federal headship. Meaning that he acted on behalf of all persons.[15] Paul explains this in Romans 5:12 saying, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Every person is born tainted by sin because of Adam. The doctrine of original sin speaks directly to our nature as fallen individuals and is the very reason why we need a savior.

Paul shows how Adam was our representation in the garden when he sinned. Thus, spreading sin to all men. However, Paul will continue in chapter five to explain how through one Man [Christ] comes the free gift of God’s grace. Jesus Christ abounded for many (Romans 5:12-21). Where Adam sinned at a tree, Christ obeyed on a tree. He made salvation definite for those that would believe in Him.

We can see how we are all in sin because of Adam, and it appears as though Adam and Eve made a choice out of their own will to disobey. Calvin would convey that before the fall Adam possessed free will, however lost it after the fall.[16] Nevertheless, what then does this action say about the sovereignty of God? Could he not have stopped this from occurring? Yes, if that was His decree for how He wanted His plan to unfold. The reality is, this was God’s plan all along. If we look to scripture, Revelation 13:8 tells us that there are people, whose names are in the book of life that were written before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4 says, “even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…” If God is already making plans before the foundation of the world; then it must follow that everything which takes place in the world after its creation was decreed by God. Do not assume that this either makes God the author of sin, or our lives a robotic deterministic fatalism. We are not robots, or puppets on the strings of a puppet master. Yet, while He is not the author of sin, He can still use and allow it in order to bring about His will. For example, Joseph and his brothers in Genesis chapter fifty. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. By the providence of God, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt. When Joseph’s brothers meet him again bowing fearfully Joseph tells them, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” (vv.20). This is a display of the sinful actions of man at the decree of God for His purpose.

The Nature of Man

The will of man is determined by his nature. The scriptures speak abundantly of man’s nature, and it does not paint a flattering picture. Because of original sin, man’s nature is corrupted. He does not desire God nor the things of God. Paul says, “as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God’” (Romans 3:10-11). Later on, in Romans Paul would go on to say, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7). According to the Apostle Paul, the natural will of man has no desire to submit to God. In fact, he is hostile towards God and desiring to do evil deeds (Colossians 1:21). Man loves that which he ought to hate, and he hates that which he ought to love.[17] Meaning man loves sin and unrighteousness, and he hates God and His holiness. Charles Spurgeon demonstrated the nature of man using the example of a sheep and a wolf. To use an extended version of the same example we can view mans will as such:

Imagine you have a room. On one side of this room you place a pile of meat, while on the other side of the room you place herbage. Next, place a wolf inside that room. You could push him all you want towards the herbage, but he will not eat it. If you were to leave the wolf to his free will; his will is going to naturally take him to the meat. Likewise, if you were to do the same with a sheep, you can push him towards the meat all day long. He will not eat the meat. His free will nature will take him to the herbage. Now, replace meat and herbage with sin, and the desires of the flesh on one side, and put God and holiness on the other. Take an unregenerate man and place him in this room. You can push him towards God all day long, but his will by nature will take him towards sin and the desires of his flesh. It is only the regenerate man that will desire to go towards God and holiness. The nature of man must be changed.[18]

This condition of man’s nature is due to the total depravity. Total depravity refers to the effect of sin and corruption on the whole person.[19] A better phrase might be “total inability.” For man is unable to contribute to his salvation in any way given that it is outside of his nature. In short, man is spiritually dead. Ephesians 2:1, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” The word Paul uses for ‘dead’ is ‘nekros’ which means dead like a corpse. There is no life in it. Now you have to ask yourself the question, “a dead man can do what?” Answer, stink! All a dead corpse can do is slowly rot away. This is the lesson we learn from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in John chapter eleven. Lazarus could not raise himself. He was ‘nekros.’ He was dead. He was rotting away, and he stunk because of it (John 11:39). That was his nature. Jesus had to change his nature from dead to alive. Once Christ did that, Lazarus arose and came forth when Jesus called him. He did not stop to think about it or analyze evidence. Instead, Christ called, and he obeyed.

In the fourth century, there arose a teaching known as Pelagianism. This teaching was developed by Pelagius, who was a British monk of a cultured mind.[20] Pelagius’ views were opposite of what has been discussed thus far. Pelagius taught that all human beings when born, are as sinless as Adam was before the fall, and that Adams sin did not affect the rest of the human race. Church Historian Nick Needham dives closer into Pelagius’ teachings showing he believed that anyone could become sinless if they tried hard enough. Since God gave free will to all human beings and provided Christ as an example of how to live; a person can enter into heaven by his own free will and effort.[21] The idea behind this teaching was to convey that if God gives commands to follow, then we must be made able to follow them. In order to hold to Pelagianism you have to deny all passages of scripture we have so far discussed.

Out of Pelagianism came what is known as Semi-Pelagianism. Augustine viewed the Pelagians as blasphemous heretics. Yet, the Semi-Pelagians he treated with gentleness and respect. Believing that they were only erring brothers of faith.[22] The Semi-Pelagians believed that man was corrupted by Adams sin. However, man did have the ability to cry out to God. In this view, man and God work together to accomplish salvation. This is referred to as ‘synergism.’ God has done all He can do, and it is up to man to make the decision to come to God. This is in contrast to ‘monergism.’ God alone saving man. Jonathan Edwards said, “you contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”[23] God alone replaces the heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). If I have the ability to come to God with my old heart; I have no need for a new one.

Both of these views Pelagianism, and Semi-Pelagianism bring forth teachings that are contradictory to the Holy Word of God. These views are in support of man’s ability to choose God. If we refer back to John chapter six and look at the words of Jesus, we get a completely different picture. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (vv.44). This one verse displays through the words of Jesus that in man’s fallen nature, he is unable to come to Christ, and therefore never will.[24] His nature of being at enmity with God will not allow it. This is why Paul in Romans nine says that our salvation does not depend on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.

Does man make choices? Yes. It is foolish to say that he does not. Are man’s choices free? Only in the sense of working within his nature. What does this look like? Imagine your nature is that of a jail cell. Within that cell you are free to do certain things. You can work out, you can read, you can sleep etc. However, you cannot take a vacation if you desired. You cannot up and leave. Like the freedom within the jail cell your freedom is confined to the restraints of your nature. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Meaning the curse of sin. The wrath that it is due being apart from Christ. Where is freedom in slavery? We need a new nature. We need our wills that are enslaved to sin to be set free from sin.

Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of The Will. n.d.

Gregory Boyd, Paul Eddy. Across the Spectrum. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology Vol 2: Anthropology . Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of The Will. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1957.

Lutzer, Erwin. The Doctrines That Divide. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998.

Sproul, R.C. Chosen By God. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1986.

—. The Holiness of God. Sanford: Ligonier Ministries, 2010.

—. What is Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.

Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon on God. Alachua: Bridge Logos, 2013.

—. Spurgeons Sermons Vol 2. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013.

—. Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol 4. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013.

White, James. Drawn By The Father. Lindenhurst: Great Christian Books, 2000.

—. The Potter’s Freedom. Calvary Press, 2009.

[1] Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology: Vol. I. Theology. (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2011). P.440

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] James White. Drawn by the Father. (Great Christian Books, Lindenhurst, 2000). P.10

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. P.30

[8] Jonathan Edwards. Freedom of the Will. P.1

[9] Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology: Vol. II. Anthropology. (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2011. P.288

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Elmer Towns. Theology for Today. (Cengage Learning, Mason, 2008). P.450

[13] Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2011). P.423

[14] Ibid. P.426

[15] Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2013). P.580

[16] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. First Book. (Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1993). P.169

[17] Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeons Sermons: Vol.4. (Hendrickson, Peabody, 2013). P.417

[18] Ibid. P.413. Initial illustration is from Spurgeon. I expanded the analogy to give a fuller representation.

[19] R.C. Sproul. What is Reformed Theology. (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1997). P.138

[20] Nick Needham. 2000 years of Christ’s Power. Vol 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. (Christians Focus, Scotland, 2016). P.275

[21] Ibid. P.276

[22] Ibid. P.280

[23] Jonathan Edwards. Edited by John Hendryx. Selected Shorter Writings.

[24] White. P.68

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