A few questions in relation to the issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom have piqued interest in numerous individuals through the ages and provided ample amount in debate material. One of these debated matters centers around whether God is a respecter of persons if he chooses to damn some while saving others. Now without question God is ultimately sovereign in that election occurs. God has sovereignly chosen to actualize this world instead of another. He has done this through the use of his exhaustive omniscience and therefore knows what any person could, would, or will do in any given circumstance. Herein lays the question: How does God proceed forth to doing this sovereign election without being guilty of favoritism towards certain people over others?
Some positions have posited that God salvifically loves some unto salvation and not others unto damnation by means of a causal determinist view. I don’t think this is an adequate view. I suggest that God is no respecter of persons and is able to refrain from showing partiality by providing prevenient grace and bestowing Libertarian Free Will to his human creations. God does this because he has a genuine desire to save all men, and though many are damned, his sovereign will is still accomplished.
Favoritism and Mankind’s Condition
If we are stating that God is no respecter of persons then we need to know what favoritism is. Favoritism is the act of showing partiality, bias, or preference towards one person over another with equal claims. How does this apply to human beings? Human beings are all equal to the claim of being in sin and meriting death. We see this in Romans 3:23
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
Moreover, equally all sin merits death as it wage as seen in Romans 6:23
“For the wages of sin is death…”
Mankind was initially in a sinless state but through willful disobedience sin and death entered the world and marred the image of God man was made in (See Genesis Chapters 1-3). Now the term of ‘Radical Depravity’ is one I prefer when it comes to a descriptor to mankind’s current state. We are Radically Depraved in that every aspect of our being is infected by sin. Some prefer the term ‘Total Depravity” but it’s an older term that seems to mislead that mankind is as bad as it can be. The point is that mankind is fundamentally corrupt, fallen, and under just divine condemnation to which nothing in man himself moves God to save him. Despite this radical depravity of man under just divine condemnation God moves to save mankind. God does this due to his good pleasure and impartially because favoritism is incongruent with his character. Support for this is found in Romans 2:11 which says
“God does not show favoritism”
“There is no favoritism with him.”
“Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”
Suffice it to say all men are equally damned and God shows no partiality to any man over another.
God’s Desire and Sacrifice for All
So how do we further know God doesn’t show favor to just some? We know this because scripture tells us that God desires that all repent and come to him. God doesn’t desire that just some or a few repent and believe but again that ALL do so. Several verses covering God’s desire of all to repent include:
1 Timothy 2:4
“who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;”
2 Peter 3:9
“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.”
1 John 2:2
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
This desire of God’s is no small thing. God has a genuine real passion, inclination, urge and love to see all men repent from their sins. The full scope of this desire God has is seen in how God expresses it through what he did for man: Sending his son Jesus Christ. God’s desire is matched by his action and this is beautifully seen in one of the most popular verses John 3:16-17 which says:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
For whom was Jesus given as a sacrifice for? The World! The Greek word for “World” is “Κόσμος” (Kosmos/Cosmos) and was often used to describe either the entire planet, or the entire physical universe. So when it states that God so loved the world it is reasonable to conclude that he loved the entire planet/entire universe. We further see scriptural evidence of Jesus sacrifice being for the world when scripture informs that he died for “everyone” and “all people”. Such scripture as:
“Jesus tasted death for everyone.“
1 John 4:14
“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”
1 Timothy 4:10
“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.”
Further in John 4:42 we see that even those who encountered Jesus recognized that he came to save the world when they say
“and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Scripture unequivocally states God’s desire is for all people to repent and live. God’s demonstration of his exceptional desire for man to repent and believe is his action of love by sending his only begotten son for the whole world. Deviation from this stance begins to question God’s genuine desire and therefore his passionate action of sending Jesus.
Scripturally it is well within reason established that all men are equally damned in sin, that God desires that all men repent and be saved, and that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all men. Now we ask if a fallen man in the bondage of sin can respond to God’s grace? No. Scripture demonstrates that the natural man on his own cannot and will not respond to the things of God. Such verses that speak of this are:
1 Corinthians 2:14
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
“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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Mankind is radically depraved and God hating and this is where what is called ‘prevenient grace’ comes into play. Prevenient grace is the enabling of mankind by God to respond to him. This is a freeing of his will to where he can choose to follow him. This prevenient grace is opposed to the Calvinist view of grace which is described as ‘irresistible.’ With the Calvinist irresistible grace God by sheer force makes the man do exactly as he wants him to. There is no real choice. On prevenient grace God purposely holds back so that a sinner can resist him if he chooses to do so. God in his love sternly, passionately, vigorously warns an individual of resisting him but ultimately God presents the option before man.
Can a man resist the Holy Spirit? Now on a Calvinist view in regards to this question man cannot (or is unable to) resist the Holy Spirit. This would be why God’s grace on Calvinism is irresistible and with such overpowering man has no real choice. Further, on Calvinism only some people are given what they describe as a ‘special call’ which they cannot resist. The rest of humanity does not receive this ‘special call’. This perspective is in stark opposition to a genuine desire of God for all people to repent and come to saving faith. This Calvinist limited irresistible grace clearly hints of favoritism despite the obvious plethora of scriptural highlight that teaches God sent Christ to save the world, not just a preferred few. Johnny Sakr helps accentuate this point in his article “Ephesians 1:4: How Calvinistic Exegesis is Logically Impossible” in why this is so upon the Calvinistic perspective:
“However, by God either passing over the non-elect or choosing them for damnation; there is no possibility for them to receive Christ (John 1:9-12). Therefore, God has determined the non-elect to reject Christ. If God determines the non-elect to reject Christ and, on the basis of His love for the elect, has determined them [the elect] to irresistibly receive Christ. God has therefore demonstrated favoritism for the elect as opposed to the non-elect. Thereby, contradicting Romans 2:11.”
Despite the position of irresistible grace on the Calvinist view scripture actually communicates that man can certainly resist the Holy Spirit. We see such an instance in Acts 7:51 when Stephen, after recapping some history to the Sanhedrin, states
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!“
Aiding this position is that Stephen here was speaking via the Holy Spirit as stated a few verses later in Acts 7:55
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Now with respect to resistibility I found some passages of interest relevant to the subject from Jesus. In John 16:8 Jesus spoke of it being necessary for him to leave so that the Holy Spirit could “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”. Why? Because just before in verse 7 Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “Helper” and that his arrival is to our advantage! What advantage? The convicting! This convicting is that enabling as John 3:17 states
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This convicting of the world was to draw (in the Greek “Σχεδιάζω”) or persuade, unsheathe, or reveal. Man was being enabled to see that which in his natural state alone, apart from God working on his behalf, he could not otherwise see. We further see this in John 12:32 when Jesus states
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Now if the Calvinist view of irresistible grace is correct alongside God having a genuine desire that all repent and be saved then universalism would be entailed. Why? Because God’s genuine drawing of all people would result in no one resisting the Holy Spirit therefore all coming to saving faith! But this is not the situation we see as all are not saved. There are plenty of people who are lost due to their resisting the Holy Spirit. Continually we see that God provides salvation for all and people can resist the Spirit. Still yet how does this occur and why? This is where we need to cover two other important points that relate to God’s desire for all to be saved and his providing prevenient grace. The two points involve God’s endowment of Libertarian Free Will and the Ambulatory Model of Overcoming Grace.
Libertarian Free Will
Having sensibly secured that Jesus died for all and that man can resist the Spirit we come upon the issue of how does a person reject the Spirit? One can only reject that which one is genuinely able to respond to. All are called to repent and believe but not all repent and believe. This is because God has conferred upon man ‘Free Will’. Now Free Will can mean an assortment of things. So, considering the longstanding debate on this issue, here I will specify Libertarian Free Will (LFW) as the particular viewpoint I hold.
LFW essentially states that a morally (and rationally) responsible agent is the originator of (at least some of) their choices. Prior conditions and influences are not the final determiner in an agent’s decisions but that the agent is a casual agent. A causal agent is an entity that produces an effect or is responsible for events or results. If a man is genuinely liable for an act then merely positing prior conditions as the cause of his choices aren’t adequate. It is sufficient however to posit that the agent themselves caused an act. A more succinct look at LFW is presented in “Philosophical Foundations for A Christian worldview” by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. They explain that
“Many libertarians claim that the libertarian notion of categorical ability is that of a dual ability (or control): If one has the ability to exert his power to do (or will to do) A, one also has the ability to refrain from exerting his power to do (or will to do) A”.
This dual ability is itself sufficient for holding a morally responsible agent accountable for their actions. It is sufficient because, unlike determinist views, you did not only have to act a specific way. You could have at minimum refrained from an action even if you chose not to. LFW doesn’t need to argue that you have unlimited choices all the time (See Tim Stratton’s article, “What is Libertarian Free Will?”). Rather with man’s fallen condition he has a character that gives him a range of choices that at minimum allows him to refrain from acting.
Now if his character determined his choice for him, via prior conditions, a man could not have done otherwise and if a man could not have done otherwise then what he does is necessary. If a man does ‘choose’ (act) necessarily then holding him responsible for what he did is disingenuous and starts dealing with an issue of theological fatalism. Theological fatalism further enforces that a man has no real genuine choice. Theological fatalism essentially states that “What will be, will be” is equivalent to “What will be, must be.” It is a logically fallacious equivocation because what will happen does not necessarily entail that it must happen. If something must happen then there is no choice but that it happens. You are then ‘fated’ to do something hence ‘fatalism’. God is Just and will hold all accountable for what they as causal agents do and not what he determines them to do. Man may have a sinful nature, fallen and depraved, but he is so of his own doing. He was not forced or fated to do only one thing but genuinely could have refrained but did not do so. So what can scripture tell us? In the Bible we see that not only is a choice presented to man but that it’s an authentic choice. We see that man should turn from his wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11), if he does not believe then he is damned (Mark 16:16), that if a man does not believe then he will die in his sins (John 8:24). John 3:36 states explicitly
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
How can a man reject God’s grace if he is not able to reject it because it’s irresistible? Moreover, how can a man choose to reject God’s grace if he is actually never given a bona fide choice considering Calvinistic views? LFW provides a reasonable basis for how one can decidedly reject God’s gift of salvation but Calvinistic views hit an unsurpassable barrier that seems to defend itself Ad Hoc.
Ambulatory Model of Overcoming Grace
Does man having LFW mean that he works for his salvation if he accepts God’s gift of grace as opposed to rejecting it? No! The work of salvation is “monergistic” in that God alone does all the work necessary for us. No work is necessary on our part! We see this played out in what is called the Ambulatory Model of Overcoming Grace. This is presented in Kenneth Keathley’s book pg 104 of “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” by way of an illustration.
“Imagine waking up to find you are being transported by an ambulance to the emergency room. It is clearly evident that your condition requires serious medical help. If you do nothing, you will be delivered to the hospital. However, if for whatever reason you demand to be let out, the driver will comply. He may express regret and give warnings, but he will still let you go. You receive no credit for being taken to the hospital, but you incur the blame for refusing the services of the ambulance.”
In this illustration we see the ‘dual ability’ of LFW in action. A person is able to either continue to resist the Holy Spirit therefore rejecting God’s grace or refrain from resisting God who does the work of grace that saves him. Refraining from doing anything is doing nothing. There is no way to incur meritorious work by doing nothing. However if man was to do anything, namely resist, he damns himself. In this God gets all the acclaim and glory in salvation while man incurs the full blame for his damnation. Keathley further explains in his book on page 106 that on this model
“God is the Evangelist. We – the Church collectively and Christians individually – are the instruments and means by which He accomplishes the task of bringing lost humanity to himself.”
I’ve contended God desires that all people come to repentance and this desire for all to come to saving faith is borne out in God providing sufficient grace through the work of Christ on the cross. Despite this, however, many people are not saved. Why is this so? Is God’s salvific will not done then? Does man’s choice somehow denigrate God’s sovereignty? To answer these questions I feel we need to understand a particular view about God’s will. Theologians have taken substantial interest in the issue of God’s will over the ages to the point that most consider that God’s will is not simple but complex or it is instead simple but fragmented. For the most part there have been approximately four views posited on the issue of God’s will. The view I adhere to is called the “Antecedent/Consequent wills” paradigm and I think resolves the issue well.
Historically the Church has generally had a consensus concerning this paradigm view of God’s two wills. This consensus was attained through a series of church councils such as Ephesus (431), Arles (475), Orange (529), and Quiersy (853). The exception to this consensus though is the Calvinistic tradition, which rejects the antecedent/consequent wills paradigm in favor of a hidden/revealed wills paradigm. With the hidden/revealed wills paradigm there are an assortment of issues that make it more than less than favorable. Simply put on the hidden/revealed wills paradigm those who are lost aren’t saved because God doesn’t want them to be saved. When we know scripturally that God genuinely desires that all repent and be saved then it refutes a position that turns around and claims the opposite about God for the sake of a view.
In antecedent/consequent wills paradigm the “antecedent” part is meant as God’s will before taking into consideration anything in man. By the “consequent” part it is meant as God’s will after an action of man that God takes into consideration. While the antecedent will is in a sense very similar to God willing absolutely his consequent will could be called “conditioned.” This ‘conditioned’ is not based on some variable in God, but in the sense that it depends on a condition in man. Antecedently God loved the world and gave his son so consequently that any who believes would not perish but live. This is seen especially in the Great Commission when Jesus commands antecedently that the gospel be told to everyone (Mark 15:16; Matthew 28:19) while consequently that those who do not believe would be damned (Mark 16:16).
Thomas Oden lays out several characteristics of both the antecedent and consequent parts in his book “The Transforming Power of Grace”. On the antecedent will Oden describes four characteristics:
1.) It is universal.
2.) It is impartial.
3.) It is sincere and
4.) It is an ordinate will.
In this it is impartial because God desires ALL to be saved. In this it is universal because grace is offered to ALL. In this it is sincere because grace is provided for ALL. It is inordinate because grace is provided prior to anyone’s accepting or rejecting of it.
As to the consequent will Oden references three characteristics. Firstly, God’s consequent will is consistent with human beings created in God’s image. God has free will and so do those in his likeness (See Stratton’s article, “The Image of God: The Kalam & Freethinking Arguments”). Though man is fallen, and on his own cannot come to God, he is enabled by the Spirit to respond freely. Secondly, since God allows man to freely respond then his consequent will is conditional. God’s grace is not coercive but can be refused as explained previously. Thirdly God’s consequent will is just. Those who believe are granted salvation and those who do not are damned. Romans 3:21-26 describes this:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
As we can clearly see God’s antecedent will is gracious while his consequent will is just. It is interesting to note that on the Reformed hidden/revealed wills paradigm the mystery of why some reject God is laid upon God and answered that he just doesn’t reveal why. To the contrary the antecedent/consequent wills paradigm lays the mystery as to why many are lost upon the unbeliever themselves. I believe this demonstrates again how impartial and sincere God is in his work of grace towards mankind.
God’s Character and Glory Upheld
In reply to the antecedent/consequent will paradigm some accuse that it makes God’s choices contingent upon man’s. They therefore say it puts man on the throne of God and denigrates his glory. This objection is mistaken though. God is not powerless before man as if he bends to man’s will. God is in control and he alone is the initiator and completer of grace of which no man can hold claim. God, being the supreme authority, chooses to present a genuine choice of salvation or damnation before man. What of merit? Is man choosing to accept God’s gift of grace meritorious? As we have seen with the Ambulatory Model of Overcoming Grace a man — enabled by the Spirit — either continues in rebellion (resisting) or refrains from resisting by doing nothing.
Grace is a gift genuinely given by the work of God alone that can be resisted. A person refraining from doing anything and therefore accepting a gift precisely does so because they realize (again by the enabling of the Spirit) that there is nothing in them that can gain grace. They know they are in severe need of God’s work on their behalf. A beggar doesn’t incur meritorious work because they accepted a gift from a person. They realize their need of someone else’s working on their behalf to provide what they need.
As well God has always been fully glorified in who he is. This is in conjunction that God is self sufficient in that he needs nothing from man and so nothing and no one can add or take away his glory. Rather than being about adding or taking away glory it is that God’s glory is revealed. Objectors try to say that man being able to choose takes away from God’s glory but this is absurd in light of scripture. We see this is refuted in scripture such as Act 17:24-25 which says:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
God is the provider of everything that man has. His glory is being revealed in what he has endowed man, most prominently, a graciously enabled human ability of self-determination or free will. This position maintains that God dealings with man are just and consistent with his holy nature. God is loving, merciful, and desires the salvation of all therefore initiating and providing what is necessary for man to be saved. God is just in that those who do not believe are damned for their unbelief. God is wrath in that he dispenses to the unbeliever (one who rejects God’s grace) the penalty of their sin. God is sovereign in that he is the sole supreme authority in these matters and has demonstrated this in scripture.
In conclusion God is no respecter of persons. All are equally damned and God has a genuine desire for all to repent and believe. God’s desire to save all is matched with his action to save all. This action of the cross shows no partiality because grace is prevenient, in that he sufficiently provides for all. This grace reveals more his glory in that man’s endowed Free Will is enabled by his Spirit so that all who believe are saved and those who do not believe are damned. Despite the fact that many do not believe God’s will is still accomplished antecedently and consequently. This reveals further God’s glory because he is just and consistent with his holy nature.
There are other views that have been presented through the years but I feel they are inadequate in their explanation. When they are contrasted with this view that involves prevenient grace, Libertarian Free Will, and an antecedent/Consequent wills paradigm their explanatory scope just doesn’t achieve what is hoped to accomplish.
-Johnny Sakr, “Ephesians 1:4: How Calvinistic Exegesis is Logically Impossible” freethinkingministries.com/ephesians-14-how-calvinistic-exegesis-is-logically-impossible/
– William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, “Philosophical Foundation for A Christian Worldview” pg 272
– Kenneth Keathley’s book “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” pg 104 & 106
– Thomas Oden, “The Transforming Power of Grace” pgs 83-89