The book of Romans is often used to show that God pre-decides our eternal destinies, that He determines if we go to heaven or hell because it talks about God “hardening” hearts, predestining people. So this could sound like we are predestined to go to heaven or hell. However, I happen to believe that Romans actually teaches free-will and human responsibility. And the more I read it, the more I believe this. And the more it falls in line with the rest of the Bible.
So in this post, I want to specifically look at how the book of Romans supports the idea that God lets us decide to choose or reject His offer of salvation, choose or reject eternal life. The responsibility lies with us. God does not pre-decide it for us.
But why should this issue matter to us? To Christians who have already decided to put our faith in the Lord?
It might not matter much for those of us who already believe, but you can bet-your-bottom-dollar that it matters to unbelievers and to seekers, to those who are wondering what kind of God we believe in. Is He really as loving and willing to forgive as we say He is, if He has pre-decided that certain people will go to hell? Is forgiveness really available to all? Did Jesus’ death cover everyone’s sins? Is there really a need to evangelize and to make a decision about Him if we don’t even really have the right to decide or make a choice?
This is why this issue has been so important to me to figure out. What we believe about this places God, His love, His forgiveness, His grace, Jesus’ sacrificial death, our personal responsibility, etc. in a very different light. And we cannot have real answers for the doubters and the seeker’s questions if we aren’t even sure what we believe about it.
When I was younger, I used to be more Calvinistic. I thought that God always did whatever God wanted to do. That He chose who to save and who not to save. That we had no ability to do anything on our own and that He controlled every action and move.
And I think that my fellow “Calvinist” friends and I wore that title like it was a badge of honor. We were hard-core Christians. After all, unlike those who believed that mankind had some sort of power or control, we were more glorifying to God because we acknowledged His supreme power and submitted ourselves to it. We were more humble because we admitted that we had no power or control or influence of our own and that we had to accept this confusing “predestination teaching” by faith because God’s ways couldn’t be understood by us lowly humans. We were more committed and devoted because we believed in God despite the mysterious, difficult, and “demeaning” teaching that we humans had no will of our own, whereas those who believed in free-will were too prideful to see their error and would probably never be humble enough to embrace such a difficult and “distasteful” teaching. But we did embrace it, making us hard-core, ultra-humble, selflessly-committed, God-glorifying Christians!
But as I got older and began to think more deeply about things, I realized that my view left me with too many questions that I couldn’t answer. Too many things didn’t line up or make sense. Too many things to be able to just “accept it in faith.” And it presented a view of God that didn’t make sense to me, that didn’t match up with the loving, forgiving God of the Bible, the One who wants all people to be saved and who sent Jesus to die for all sins.
It didn’t explain the times in the Bible when we read that God wanted something to happen but that the people caused something else to happen. Such as God telling Israel that He didn’t want them to have a king because it wouldn’t be good for them and because it meant that they were rejecting Him as King. But they begged for one anyway. So He gave them what they wanted, instead of forcing what He wanted for them (1 Samuel 8). Why did God not force what He knew was the best option, especially if He is all-powerful and always does what He wants?
And if (as those who believe in predestination say) God always does His Will and everything that happens is because He willed it, then why does Jesus tell us in Matthew 6:10 to pray that the Father’s Will gets done? Why have to pray for it if it’s the only thing that ever happens?
And the idea that God always does His Will and that everything that happens is His Will leads us to another dilemma. In the Garden of Eden, God had commanded Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree . . . but they ate anyway. So which thing was His Will – the thing He commanded them (to not eat the fruit) or the opposite thing that actually happened (they ate the fruit)?
If you say that His Will happened (meaning that He willed and caused the Fall), then you would have to say that the command He gave them wasn’t His Will. Does this mean that God commands people to do things that are opposite His Will for them? (Just so He can . . . what? . . . trap them into sinning and then punish them to hell?) And can it really be considered “sin” if Adam and Eve were really just doing what God wanted them to do all along by eating the fruit? Isn’t sin not doing what God wants you to do? Talk about confusing and misleading! How could you trust anything He says then? Why listen to any command He gives if His Will might actually be the opposite thing?
Besides, wouldn’t a God who always did whatever He wanted make sure that no one ever sinned? If He didn’t want anyone to sin then why make sin possible in the first place? But why make sin possible in the first place if you aren’t even going to give people the choice of obeying or disobeying anyway? Just so you can have someone to send to hell!?! What is “sin” then? Or “obedience” or “forgiveness”? Why tell us in the Bible how important obedience is if we don’t even have a choice about obeying or disobeying?
And if you say that He caused the Fall because it was His Will, then you would have to say that He wanted sin. Does that sound even remotely right!?! That God is the reason we sin? What kind of God would cause people to sin and then turn around and punish them for it? Why even bother making people if you are just going to create a majority of them for eternal damnation? Wouldn’t it have been more merciful and loving to never make people in the first place then?
And why would He desire to make people specifically for hell and then say that He really desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4) and that no one perishes (2 Peter 3:9)? How is that kind and good and loving and merciful and gracious? How could you trust a God like that? And what does it even matter if we trust Him or not if trust is something we don’t have control over anyway?
It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t match up with the kind of God I read about in the Bible!
Yet the response given to these kinds of questions and doubts is “Well, this is what the Bible teaches and we don’t have to really understand it. God cannot be really understood by our limited thinking anyway. And so we just have to accept it as truth because that’s how it is.” [There are some issues where this is the only ultimate answer we can give, but I don’t think this is one of them.]
But what if this view is wrong all along? And yet here we are, preventing people from digging deeper and from disagreeing, telling them that they just have to “accept it as truth.”
But as I have gotten older, I have kept digging and searching for a view that makes more sense and that fits with the Bible as a whole and with the kind of God the Bible says He is. And I have now found answers that make sense and that don’t leave me scratching my head in confusion.
We need to remember that Calvinism is based on John Calvin’s views of what the Bible says. We should never take someone else’s view as “Bible truth,” without running it through Scripture to see if it holds up. We should never view any man as “infallible,” as though they are above making mistakes.
It seems that, with Calvin’s approval and help, one man who vocally and forcefully disagreed with Calvin’s view on predestination (and who held various heretical views) was burned to death at Geneva. Whether or not Calvin had much influence over this, he did support the death penalty for this man and there was a lot of animosity between them over predestination. Look up “Michael Servetus” on-line and see what you think.
And Calvin supported the idea of legalism, maintaining strong (and sometimes forceful and violent) control over people’s lives and forcing them to be the way he thought Christians should be, punishing them if they fell out of line.
And from what I can tell, he believed in baptizing the infant children of the “elect,” as a sign of their salvation and a way to gain entrance into the church and, therefore, obtain their salvation, which is passed down from the “elected” parent to the child. And even though they are too young to know about repentance (which many Christians, myself included, believe has to precede salvation and baptism), baptizing them as infants is a sign of their future repentance and future faith. It seems that Calvin believes that the children of the “elect” are already saved because they are the children of the “elect,” people of the covenant, whereas the children of the non-elect are already damned. (This is different than believing that God’s grace covers the sins of infants and young children who die – whether or not they are baptized - before they reach the age of accountability, the age when they are old enough to know right from wrong.)
And I understand that Martin Luther, who greatly influenced Calvin, believed that baptism is necessary for salvation, that through it we obtain salvation and forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Look all of this up for yourself to see what history says. What do you think about this and what do you think the Bible says about this?
Never adhere to any one man’s teachings on the Bible, as though he is speaking for God and infallible. We are all human and capable of mistakes and have our own biases. Run what they say through Scripture. (Run what I say through Scripture!) And the more I have done this with “predestination,” the more discrepancies and problems I have found with it. And the more answers I have found in Scripture. And it makes sense.
Maybe there’s a reason why “predestination” is so hard to grasp and understand. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t match up with Scripture.
And so to make it match up, we have to do an awful lot of twisting and contorting to make it fit.
And when that fails, we simply say, “It’s what the Bible says and you don’t have to understand it. You just have to accept it!” Or we say that “The Bible doesn’t seem to have any tension or conflict with it. It presents these ideas in perfect harmony. It’s only we who struggle with it.”
(Well, of course the Bible doesn’t have any internal conflict with what it teaches. Of course, it holds it all in harmony. But it’s not the Bible that I am struggling against and have tension with. It’s someone else’s interpretation of what the Bible teaches that I struggle with and find tension in. Because I don’t think it meshes with what the Bible really says.)
Never let anyone make you feel like you are less of a Christian or less intelligent or more blinded because you disagree with predestination. Or that when it comes to this teaching, the only possible reactions to it are to “get angry about it, avoid it, or accept it.” While there are teachings where this is true, I don’t think it’s true about this one. I think there is another option: Disagree with it because you don’t think it’s what the Bible really teaches and find Biblical support to back you up.
There is more than enough in Scripture to support the idea of free-will, to show that it is a reasonable, intelligent, godly view that fits with Scripture and with God’s character. Don’t be bullied into silence or into “just accept it and don’t disagree,” setting aside reason and research. Dig deeper. Pray for insight. Be willing to see what the Bible really says instead of just holding to preconceived ideas or to what someone else tells you to believe.
[And for a deeper look at my interpretation of verses which are used to support predestination, look at the other predestination posts next to this one: "Predestination Does Not Mean ‘No Choice’” and “Controversial ‘Predestination’ Verse” and "Does Ephesians Teach Predestination?" But for this post, I will not be digging deeply into those.]
The first thing I want to note are verses in Romans that talk about being “called.”
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle . . .” (Romans 1:1)
“And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:6)
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
If you look up this word in a concordance, you see that it involves the idea of being invited. We are invited to accept God’s offer of salvation. “Called” does not mean being “forced” or “compelled.” It does not mean God has pre-determined it and that we are just fulfilling a pre-written role. It means we are invited to believe, to have faith. And being invited means that we can refuse. We can choose to agree with God, to put our trust in Him, to respond to His call. Or we can choose to resist. The responsibility lies with us.
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself . . .” (Romans 2:5)
“For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die.” (Romans 8:13)
There is an element of human responsibility in these verses, the idea that our choice of what to believe and how to live affects our eternity. God does not arbitrarily elect people to heaven or hell; it is based on our decision.
Who does God harden? He responds to our lead!
Here are some verses that illustrate the idea that our decision affects how God responds to us:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and foolish hearts were darkened . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts . . .” (Romans 1:21-24) Because they chose not to acknowledge or glorify God, their hearts were darkened and He “gave them over” to their sinfulness. It all started when they chose to ignore the truth about God.
“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. . . . For this reason, they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts . . .’” (John 12:37-40) God did not just decide to harden their hearts for no reason. They had a chance – the best chance – to believe in Him, and they did not. “They would not” led to “they could not.” It’s not that they didn’t believe because God hardened their hearts; it’s that God hardened their hearts because they did not believe. God does not blind people or harden their hearts (in general) on His own whims. He follows the people’s lead, where their hearts are already going.
“But my children rebelled against me: They did not follow my decrees, they were not careful to keep my laws – although the man who obeys them will live by them – and they desecrated my Sabbaths. So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in the desert . . . I let them become defiled through their gifts – the sacrifice of every firstborn – that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 20:21, 25) Notice here that first the children rebelled, then God lets them become defiled. He does not compel people to obey or disobey. They choose. But He can and does harden hearts and blind eyes when people decide to turn away from Him. And He softens hearts and opens eyes when people turn toward Him.
Yes, the Bible talks about God hardening people’s hearts. But when it comes to salvation, these verses above show me that God does not base this decision on nothing in particular. He decides to harden those who have decided to not believe.
It was the same with Pharaoh. During the plagues, he repeatedly hardened his own heart first, and then God gave him over to the hardening of his heart in the sixth plague. In Exodus 7:3, before the plagues even start, God tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. He’s not saying that He hardened Pharaoh’s heart before the plagues started, but He’s letting Moses know what will happen later, during the plague of boils in Exodus 9:12 and then again in Exodus 10:1 when God tells Moses that He has now hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his servants. But for the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. And then God made it permanent, solidifying the decision that Pharaoh made.
It comes back to us and our hearts and our decision. If we have a heart to believe, He draws us. If we don’t want to believe, He gives us over to our unbelief. And at some point, He might solidify our decision, make it irreversible, and use it for His purposes and glory. But He doesn’t force us to be resistant; He follows our lead. And for me, this is a clear indication of “free will” and not “predestined to go heaven or hell with no influence from us.”
Look at Romans 11:4-5:
“And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.”
God did not arbitrarily choose a remnant. He chose those who had not chosen to turn away from Him by bending a knee to Baal. The people influenced their future themselves, by choosing to turn from God or toward God. And He chose those who chose Him. And likewise, He hardened those who chose against Him (Romans 11:7-8). But it was the people’s choice. They chose first, then God responded to them according to their choice.
“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (Romans 9:18)
If you look up “hardens” in the concordance, you see that being hardened by God is basically a punishment. After bearing with our self-hardened hearts for a long time, in His love and patience, He finally hands us over to the hardness of our heart, making it permanent. God does not (in general) arbitrarily blind and harden people with no influence from them. They basically “earn” a hardened heart by first hardening it themselves. His hardening of their heart is retribution. If they end up hardened and blinded, it is because they wanted it. They chose it. They first headed in that direction themselves.
Besides, 1 Corinthians 4:4 tells us who blinds the hearts of people so that they cannot believe. And in general, it’s not God.
“The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Satan blinds. But Jesus opens the eyes of anyone who turns to Him.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:16)
Another word to look at besides “called” is “received.”
“Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship . . .” (Romans 1:5)
“through whom we have received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:11)
“For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17)
When looking this up in the concordance, you can see that this word involves the idea of deliberately grabbing ahold of something, of consciously accepting what is offered. It is intentionally reaching out and grabbing it, as opposed to passively acquiring something. There is a responsibility on our parts to grab ahold of this grace and salvation, to not let it pass us by.
Let’s say you are sitting in a room with lots of people, and someone walks in and places a golden ticket into the hands of 10 of them. Then they say, “If you have received a golden ticket in your hand, you are going to the chocolate factory.” That is like predestination, the idea that God decides who gets the tickets and who doesn’t. And in this case, “receiving” is passive. It involves no effort or decision on our parts to get that ticket.
But “receiving” in these verses involves the idea of reaching out and grabbing, of willfully and deliberately accepting what is offered. It would be more like someone walking into the room and placing a golden ticket down on the desk before each person. And then saying, “Anyone who reaches out and grabs the ticket in front of them - who accepts the gift - is going to the chocolate factory.” This is more like the kind of “receive” we read in these verses. It is active. It involves a response on our part, our willingness to reach out and take hold of the gift that is offered to us. This is free-will. We choose to accept or we choose to reject.
“. . . but you received the Spirit of sonship” (Romans 8:15). They didn’t just sit back while the Spirit was installed in them, without any effort on their part. They reached out and took what was offered to them.
The thing is, if it really is free-will then it’s because God made it so. And we don’t have to worry about trying to defend His sovereignty by saying it’s predestination. Because He might just be saying, “Dude, don’t worry! I made it this way. It doesn’t diminish My sovereignty at all. Not when I decided this is how I want things to be. I am glorified when people willingly choose to love Me.” (And God can say “dude” if God wants to say “dude”!)
People who don’t like the idea of “free-will” think it weakens God, that it makes Him less-sovereign, less “in control.” But that is simply not true, not if God made it this way. He is still just as sovereign and just as in-control, even if He decided to give mankind certain rights and responsibilities. And we will look at this next.
What does “God is Sovereign” mean?
“God is all-wise and all-powerful, so He always does whatever He wants. And everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen and made it happen. Since God is in control, He controls everything. And we have no influence on Him.”
This is how many of us view God’s sovereignty. We think that because He is all-powerful, He always uses His power and controls every detail.
And this view of “sovereignty” is used to support the idea of predestination, that God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell and that He compels us to do whatever He wants us to do. If you end up in hell, it’s because He wanted you there . . . because He always does what He wants. We don’t have any real free-will because He is all-powerful.
And this view is also used to support the idea that He controls every detail on earth. If there is a tornado, it is because He put it there. He decided the exact path and who would be destroyed and who wouldn’t. He puts the cancer there and causes it to grow or not grow. He decides if a child should be born with a handicap or abnormality.
But is this what “sovereignty” means? That because He is all-powerful, He controls every detail of our lives? Our eternal destination? Every tragedy? Or do we misunderstand what “sovereignty” is?
I think that many of us do indeed misunderstand what “God is sovereign” means. And therefore, we misunderstand how we end up in heaven or in hell and how bad things happen in this world.
In fact, I remember when I was younger, I heard a story of a missionary woman who was single. And she used to pray and pray that God would call the right man to be her husband. But she never got married. And she said something like this, “Oh, I believe that God answered my prayer, that He called to the right man. I just think that he didn’t listen.”
And at that time, I thought, How could she say that? If God wanted her to be married, she would be married. So it must be His Will that she stayed single. Because if He willed her to be married and if He called someone to be her husband, it would have happened. There would be no way to resist it. God’s Will would be done!
But as I have grown and learned more about God’s character in the Bible, I see more and more how He calls and guides but doesn’t force. Many times, He lets us choose to resist or choose to follow.
(This is a “hot button” topic and I do not know if I am totally accurate. But this is what I have come to believe the more I have read the Bible over the past 30-ish years.)
Sovereignty basically means “possessing supreme power, having the right to do whatever He wants without having to answer to anyone” (not an official definition). So, yes, God is sovereign. He possesses all the power, the ability to do whatever He wants, to create life and take it. Nothing is here that He hasn’t made or allowed. And He answers to no one.
But where we go wrong is thinking that because He is sovereign and all-powerful, He always forces whatever He wants, that He controls every detail. However, I think Scripture is quite clear that this is not the way it is. I believe that God has chosen to voluntarily hold back His use of power and His right to control everything. He voluntarily restrains Himself to a degree because He wanted man to have free-will and the ability to cause things and influence what happens on earth.
Basically, He has chosen to grant us a certain amount of influence, rights, and responsibilities, starting in the Garden of Eden when He gave mankind a level of dominion over His creation and when He gave them the option of obeying or disobeying His command to not eat from the forbidden tree.
And this idea bothers some people because they think it lessens God’s power somehow, that it means He is less sovereign. That if people have any kind of power or influence, it must mean He is “weaker.” But that’s not true.
I mean, yes, it would lessen His power and sovereignty if we had power in and of ourselves, or some sort of control because we took it from God. But it does not lessen His power at all if He voluntarily gave it to us, if He chose it to be this way and decided to hold back His use of power, and if He willingly has decided to grant people a certain amount of free-will. It is totally within His power to control every detail, but He has chosen not to. And I believe it was His plan and His pleasure to allow people to have an influence over what happens and to decide for themselves if they want to turn toward Him or away from Him.
And this does not mean He is any less-powerful, not when He Himself has decided that this is the way He wants it to be.
If a family had a day off . . . and the parents asked the child what he wanted to do that day . . . and the child chose to go to his friend’s house . . . and the parents let him go even though they wanted to stay home as a family and grill some burgers in the backyard . . . does that mean that the parents are somehow “not in control,” that the child calls the shots, that the parents are at the mercy of the child? Would we look at those parents and say, “Wow, you have no control over that child, do you? He rules the roost, doesn’t he? Because he got to do whatever he wanted!”?
No! Of course not! The child only had the power to choose because the parents gave him that right. He only got to go to his friend’s house because the parents let him, not because he was all-powerful or in-control or anything like that. He got to do what he wanted because the parents allowed him to, even though they had the right to not let him go and to make him do what they wanted instead.
But allowing the child to choose did not lessen their power or control in any way. They just chose not to exercise their right to make every decision for him. They voluntarily restrained their ability to use their power in forcing what they want. This isn’t too different from how I think God works with us.
So how should we understand God’s sovereignty? Here is the way that I see it . . .
1. Everything that exists is because God made it. So we are all here by His power and Will and pleasure.
2. Many things happen because He allows them, not necessarily because He wants them or causes them. He did not want or cause the Fall, but He allowed it. He allowed the detrimental effects of the Fall. He allowed us – through the Fall – to unleash sin’s influence in this world, which includes illnesses, storms, conflicts, etc. And He allows what He does because He knows how to work it into His plans.
But this does not mean that He causes each and every tragedy or consequence that happens. But He does let them happen. And He is fully aware that they happen. He sees it all. He misses nothing. Nothing takes Him by surprise. Yet He is not micromanaging everything.
Just because He can control everything doesn’t mean He does control everything. And when I say that He doesn’t control everything (that He doesn’t micromanage everything and that He allows people to make decisions), I am not saying that there are things that are beyond His ability to control. I can’t stand that argument - that if you say He doesn’t control everything, it means you are saying that He can’t control everything. Of course, He could control everything if He wanted to. I just don’t think that’s how He has chosen to operate.
And just because He foreknows everything that happens doesn’t mean that He causes it to happen or that it was His Will. That is a false assumption. He knows when we will obey and when we will disobey and He knows the outcome of each choice we make, but that doesn’t mean He causes us to do what we do. It’s just that He knows it all ahead of time.
Consider for a moment 1 Samuel 23:12-13. (Thanks to Ryan Nelson at blog.faithlife.com for sharing this example in a March 12, 2016 post called “Predestination in the Bible: A (Possible) Counter Example.”) In this passage, David asks the Lord if the people of the town, Keilah, will hand him over to Saul, who is pursuing him to kill him. And God says that they will. Armed with this foreknowledge of what will happen if he stays in that town, David leaves. So this thing that God foreknew would happen – that the townspeople would hand David over to Saul – never happened.
But if “foreknowledge” means “predetermined by God to surely happen” then David would have stayed in that town and been handed over to Saul. David would not have had a choice about leaving the town.
But he did have a choice. He had the choice to heed God’s warning or to ignore it. God didn’t determine David’s choice. But He did know the outcome of both choices. He knew that if David stayed, he would be handed over to Saul . . . and that if David left, he would evade Saul. But God let David choose! (Reminds me how important it is to “inquire of the Lord” instead of just making decisions in my own wisdom!)
And then there’s 1 Samuel 13:13-14. In this passage, Saul has disobeyed the Lord’s command by improperly performing a burnt offering. And Samuel tells him that if he had kept God’s command and done it properly, God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel for all time. But since he disobeyed, God was now taking the kingship from him. God had a plan, but it hinged on Saul’s obedience. God was willing to secure Saul’s kingship, but Saul changed the plan when he disobeyed.
If you think that God always does what He has pre-planned, that He does not allow us to make our own choice about obeying or disobeying, and that our choices don’t affect His plans then you would have to call Samuel a liar for claiming that God had a different plan in mind that hinged on Saul’s obedience. There would have been no different plan in God’s mind if it was His pre-planned Will that Saul disobeyed and lost the kingship. After all, if God always did what He pre-planned, how could He have a plan in mind that He never carried out?
To a degree, God sits back and lets life happen. He lets us decide. He lets us heed His warnings or ignore Him. He lets us obey or disobey. He lets us affect His plans and the path we take in life, for good or bad. He lets us accept or reject His invitation to salvation and the gifts of faith and grace and forgiveness.
And, unfortunately, He lets the bad things happen. He lets our cells go wonky. He lets our smoking and poor eating lead to bad health. He lets the natural environment stir up storms and tsunamis. He lets us hurt each other. It is part of living in a fallen world.
In the garden of Eden, He gave us a degree of ownership over the earth. And we blew it. We introduced fallenness into the world and handed over part of our “ownership” to Satan by choosing to listen to him over God (when Adam and Eve ate the fruit). And God has allowed us to face the consequences of it. (And don't kid yourself! Any of us would have eaten the fruit too, given enough time in the Garden of Eden.)
Consider Job. God did not micromanage every tragedy that came into Job’s life. He did not tell the “fire from the sky” to strike the animals or the wind to blow the house down while Job’s children were inside. God gave Satan a certain amount of leeway. He gave a boundary such as “Do not touch Job himself,” but then He let Satan run wild and do as he wanted. God allowed the tragedies and He saw the tragedies, but He did not cause them to happen as they did.
I think this is how the world operates today, in general. Satan and people are allowed to do things within certain boundaries. So when you do something, it’s not that you have total and complete “free-will,” the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. It’s that He allows it. He allows you to do it. He has the right to stop you – to put an end to your plans and even your life – and He has boundaries. But within those boundaries, He gives us freedom to act and decide and choose.
And nature is allowed to run its course within certain boundaries. Meaning that air currents can cause tornadoes and earthquakes can cause tsunamis and cells can go bad.
So did God cause that tornado to wipe out your house but spare your neighbors? It’s possible. Did He give you cancer or cause your child to be handicapped? Maybe.
But more likely, it is life and nature and the consequences of the Fall running its course. God sees it and allows it, but doesn’t necessarily micromanage it. Our cells are imperfect now. Nature is imperfect. People are imperfect. And Satan still has a lot of influence over the world. There are far too many factors involved for us to say that “God did it.” And allowing it to happen is not the same thing as causing it to happen.
[Yet for all intents and purposes, you could say “God caused it” if you want to boil it all down to one simple truth . . . because He did indeed know it would happen and He could have stopped it, but instead He allowed it for a reason. So in all practicality, you could say that problems and trials are from His hand, regardless of who or what caused them. In that sense, it’s just mincing words to say “allow” instead of “cause.” But the reason I like to differentiate it is because it takes into account all the other factors and reasons that problems happen in this world. However, regardless of “cause” or “allow,” our response should still be to cling to Him, to trust Him, to obey Him, and to praise Him. Because He is still God over all. And we can trust that He has reasons for what He allows, even if it hurts.]
3. However, there are times when God does indeed cause “bad things” (or good things) to happen. Being sovereign means that He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants for His purposes, with or without our cooperation or approval. The Bible shows times when He causes storms or plagues or deaths or wars or whatever. There are times when it might be His Will to cause a certain thing to happen. So this is possible. (Yet I still think that, in general nowadays, it’s more about allowing it than causing it. But I do not think it means that God causes people to be evil or to do evil, although He can and does work someone’s choice to do evil or to sin into His plans. But it doesn’t mean that He made them be evil or sin.)
But if He does allow bad things to happen, it’s because He knew how He could turn it into something good. He causes or allows things that He doesn’t like or want, in order to accomplish things He does.
But we cannot often know when He has caused it and when He has just allowed it. So we just have to fall before Him humbly and trust Him. And we cannot make proclamations against people, such as “God caused this to happen to you because your sins deserve it.” Haughty Christians love to do this, to pass judgment on why bad things happened to a city or a person. But who are we to know the mind of God and His reasons and how involved He was in a certain tragedy? Keeping our mouths shut and our judgments to ourselves (knowing that we don’t know God’s mind like we like to think we do) would be erring on the side of compassion and caution and humility.
[However, I want to address one issue in particular: childhood abuse. I heard someone preach recently about how God has the right to ordain (“cause”) evil to happen in your life, and that He is still good, and that He does this for His purposes and for your good and because He knows what trials you need to humble you. And this preacher included childhood abuse in this list of “God-ordained evils.” He says that the bad things that happened to you are God's "Plan A" for your life, and you just have to trust Him in it. (He seems to believe that God causes everything that happens and that everything that happens is because He made it happen, for His purposes and glory.)
It’s one thing to say that God caused a natural disaster or loss of a job or an illness, in order to teach you something. None of those involve causing someone to commit terrible sins. But it’s another thing to say that He causes people to sin or that He deliberately causes someone to do something as evil as abusing a child . . . and that if you were abused as a child, it’s because God caused it to happen for your own good and for His loving purposes for you.
Are you freakin’ kidding me!?! (I’m using stronger language in my head!)
But I say “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” I don’t believe for one stinkin’ second that God causes children to be abused.
God might summon an evil nation to discipline rebellious people, such as God using Assyria to discipline Israel. However, God did not make them be evil or make them choose to do evil. He just worked their evilness into His plans. And He was dealing with Israel in His justice – to discipline them and turn their hearts back to Him and make them want to restore their relationship with Him. But I don’t think this example is comparable to causing the abuse of an innocent child, which is not an act of justice, nor discipline, nor restoration. (At least to my way of thinking.)
And He might allow Satan to cause all sorts of tragedies, like what happened to Job. But once again, God did not decide which tragedies to allow. He let Satan do as Satan wanted, within boundaries.
But saying that God causes a parent to abuse a child for His purposes and for their good (and that we just have to trust His wisdom and goodness because He had His reasons) is taking the idea of “God is in control” too far.
What kind of God would He be if that were the case!?! It might make Him a “fully in-control” God, but it wouldn’t make Him worthy of love, worship, respect, or trust.
Yes, God is “in control,” but I do not believe that He causes people to be evil or to choose to do evil. He lets people make decisions. He lets evil run its course, to a degree. And He will work it into His plans. But He does not make people sin.
Consider for a moment the child sacrifices to foreign gods in the Old Testament. If everything that happens is because God causes it to happen – if He causes people to sin and to do the evil things they do to children – why would He say this in Jeremiah 19:3-5:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: . . . ‘For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods . . . they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn theirs sons in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.’” (Emphasis is mine.)
God Himself says that He never even imagined that child sacrifices should be done. (Not that He didn’t know they would do it, just that He never thought to require this kind of sacrifice from people.) He is not responsible at all for the people sinning in this way. He did not cause it to happen, but He did let it happen. He let the people choose to sin and to do evil things. But God is in no way responsible for it. To me, it’s clear that things happen that God never intended, nor wanted, nor had a hand in causing. Because He lets people act out of their own free-will.
Abuse of innocent children happens NOT because God causes it, but because God allows people to make decisions, even bad ones. God allowed Sarah to beat her maid, Hagar, but He didn’t cause her to do it or condone it. God allowed Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery and He worked it into His plans, but He didn’t necessarily cause it or condone it.
Just because He allows people to make their own decisions and He allows them to be evil doesn’t mean that He causes them to be evil or to choose to do evil things. He has the wisdom and foresight to orchestrate events to put someone’s sin to good use, but He does not make them sin. Once again, it’s free-will in action. God has chosen to give people the ability to make their own decisions. And many people chose to do evil. But it does not mean God causes it or condones it.
In no way do I think He causes children to be abused. He has a heart for children and gives them special provisions. Ephesians 6:4 says that fathers should not exasperate their children. Matthew 18:6 says that if someone causes a child of God’s to sin, it would be better if they were drowned in the sea. And Matthew 18:10 tells us to not even look down on children because “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
If people are not even supposed to look down on children because they are like the face of God, I would whole-heartedly say that we are not supposed to abuse them either. God has put up special protections around children and they are especially close to His heart. Abuse is NOT in His plan or Will for them.
I think this kind of teaching is so damaging to someone’s faith, telling them that they have to trust that God knew what He was doing when He caused them to be abused as a child, that it was for His glory and their own good and their spiritual growth, because He loves them and He wants the best for them and He knew what they needed to go through in order to be humbled.
No! NO! NOOO! I think this kind of teaching goes against the very nature and heart of God. I think it misrepresents Him terribly and that it is detrimental to people’s faith. (And I think that I might end up leaving a church over this kind of extreme teaching! I also disagree with this particular pastor's view on spanking. He teaches that God commands spanking, because of the "if you spare the rod, you spoil the child" verse. I, however, believe that God commands discipline, correction, and guidance, but not necessarily spanking. And I told him this in a comment I made on his post on spanking. It's funny, though, that my comment never showed up on his blog. Technical difficulties?)
God doesn’t cause people to be evil or to sin, but He does allow people to make bad decisions and to do bad things. And evil things are part of a fallen world where demons run wild.
But even though God didn’t cause it, He can work it into something good. And He knew what was happening to someone who was abused as a child. He knew what that person chose to do to you. And I think His heart broke for you, that He wept for you. Because abuse is never His plan for children. And someday, the offender will stand before Him and give an account to Him for what they did.
But for you, God can help heal the pain – pain He never wanted for you, for humans, when He created the world perfect - and turn it into something good, if you will let Him. He is a good, loving Father who wants to heal you and love you. And someday, He will make all things right again!
But do not, for one second, buy that crap that God caused your abuse for your own good or for His loving purposes! That it's His "Plan A" for your life. That’s pure crap! (Goodness, am I getting fired about this one! It’s just so damaging and so not what God is like!)
No! Abuse and violence and hate was never God’s Plan A. God’s Plan A was a life of peace and joy and wholeness and safety and security in the Garden of Eden where we walked with Him and knew Him intimately. His Plan A was an eternity of peace and joy and fellowship with Him. Not abuse and violence and hate and brokenness and fear. God didn’t introduce those things into this world, into our lives. We did, through disobedience and rebellion. We – with the help of Satan – interfered with God’s Plan A. Through our choices and our actions.
But we didn’t destroy it for good. We just postponed it.
God is still working His Plan A into our lives, into history. Through Jesus’ death, we can find salvation from our sins and our brokenness. God is still about wholeness and joy and life. He’s about peace and healing and forgiveness, about using our sins and mistakes and hurts for good and working them into His plans, if we will let Him. But He lets us decide how to live and how to respond to Him. He lets us sin and disbelieve and hurt others and get bitter and self-destruct and choose death. But He is always beckoning to us, always offering us peace, joy, healing, wholeness, eternal life with Him! His plan A for our lives!]
4. While God does let things run their course to a certain degree, He is always available to hear our prayers and to intercede if we pray for His help, if it is in line with His Will. However, He also allows us to not pray and not seek His help.
Consider Joshua. In Joshua 7 and 9, we see two instances when Joshua does something without “inquiring of the Lord.” Every other time that Joshua did something, he sought God’s guidance. Yet these two times, Joshua acts on his own. And God lets him. God was there, ready and willing to help. But Joshua failed to seek Him. And it reaped consequences. And God watched it happen because He has granted us the right to seek Him or not seek Him, to pray or not pray, to obey or disobey. To a degree, He lets us live life as we want to. With Him or without Him.
He allows us to tackle life on our own if we want to, and to reap the consequences. But He is always waiting for when we cry out to Him. He will listen to our cries for help. But He does not have to answer us the way we want. And if He doesn’t, He has His reasons. And we have to learn to trust Him, even in the face of “no” answers. Personally, I think those “no” answers are the greatest testers and refiners of our faith. (And while He might let the bad things happen now, He will someday make it all right again and He will work good things out of the bad.)
5. God has certain over-arching plans for mankind that we cannot thwart. They will happen regardless of us. Restoring the earth and restoring us from the effects of the Fall. Having all people bend a knee and admit that He is God. The redemption of mankind. Having a family of believers with Him in heaven. Putting an end to evil. These are some things that will happen for He has planned it so. And we can do nothing to change the plans that He has determined to carry out.
[And if He has planned something in particular, He will use whatever means He can to work it out. He can use demonic influence (2 Chronicles 18), angelic activity (the angel and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22), a person’s willful rebellion (Jonah and Pharaoh and Judas, etc.), a person’s willing obedience (such as Moses), or even insanity (Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4) to accomplish His plans.
This doesn’t mean He has planned every little event of our lives or every choice we make or that He overrides our free-will. But it does mean that when He has willed a particular thing, it will come to pass because He knows how to “manipulate” circumstances and to influence us to make it happen. He knows what kind of pressure we need to make us willing to do His Will, and He knows how to incorporate our resistance if we choose to be stubborn and rebellious.]
But then there are things that He has planned – things He wants to have happen on earth, in this life - that He has chosen to do in cooperation with us. It was God’s plan that the Israelites go from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. He planned it. It was His Will. It was sure to happen. But He allowed the people to rebel. And this earned them death in the desert. And then, He took the next generation – the generation who was willing to follow Him – into the Promised Land. He still accomplished His Will, but only with those who were willing to follow Him.
I think this is how He operates in this life, in general. With mankind’s cooperation. His plans will still happen, but with those who are willing.
In Job 42, it was God’s Will to forgive Job’s friends for what they said about God. Yet, God asked Job to pray that He would forgive them. He waited to forgive them until Job prayed. This is God accomplishing His Will with mankind’s cooperation.
I think there are times and ways that God’s plans hinge on us. And this is the way He made it, giving us a certain amount of influence and responsibility. But if we always think He will do whatever He wants regardless of us, we do not stop to consider how important our obedience is and how necessary our prayers are, that God might just be waiting on us to get His Will accomplished.
6. When it comes to salvation, I do not think it was His desire to decide each person’s eternal destiny. I think He wants people to decide for themselves. He paid the price and He offers us forgiveness, faith, love, salvation, grace, etc. And He calls to us over and over again. But He allows us to accept it or reject it. And He allows us the consequences that go with our choice – heaven or hell.
And He did this because He is a relational being who wants a genuine relationship with people who choose to love Him, not who are forced to. But to allow people to choose to love Him means allowing people to choose to reject Him. He does not want people to reject Him and to end up in hell, but He allows it to accomplish His goal of having an eternal family of people who choose to love Him, who are willing to follow Him
Salvation and a relationship with Him is still all initiated by God. All because of His efforts and pleasure. He chose to make us, call us, love us, reveal Himself to us, and pay the price for our sins so He could offer us forgiveness and salvation. All of this was set up by Him and possible only because He wanted it to be, because He made it that way. We couldn’t love Him if He didn’t first love us. We couldn’t choose Him if He didn’t make Himself known and call to us. We couldn’t have faith unless He made it possible, offering it as a gift that we can accept.
But . . . He gave us the right to choose to accept or reject His gifts of faith, salvation, grace, forgiveness, love, etc. He lets us decide. And then, He responds accordingly. If we turn towards Him and reach out to accept these gifts, He opens our eyes and softens our hearts and we receive these gifts He has made available. But if He ends up hardening our hearts and blinding our eyes, it’s because we did it first. Because we turned our backs on Him and His gifts.
Granted, I think He is patient and long-suffering, wooing people for years because He wants no one to perish. But we cannot blame Him for randomly hardening hearts, for “sending people to hell with no choice,” because He follows our lead. He responds to our response to Him. He gave us the choice and the right to decide. And in the end, He will give us what we wanted. Eternity with Him or eternity without Him!
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
“This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live . . .’” (Amos 5:4)
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
God expects us to seek Him, to respond to what we know deep in our hearts – that there is a God and He can be found.
Yes, there is Romans 3:11 which says that “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” And this is often used to support the idea that we cannot seek God, that He chooses who to make Himself known to, who to save. And so if He doesn’t make Himself known to you, then you are out of luck and headed to hell, with no chance to find Him.
But I do not think this is saying that no one can possibly seek God, that it is up to Him if our eyes are opened or remain closed. I think it is stating the general condition of mankind, that we don’t generally desire to seek Him. We are all fallen humans. And as humans, it is not our natural tendency to seek after God and righteousness. Our natural tendency is to focus on our sinful nature and remain in our fallen state. But He expects us to look at creation and know that He is there and to seek Him.
Romans 3:10: “There is no one righteous, not even one;” is often used to support the idea of “total depravity,” meaning that we are so fallen and wicked that we don’t have the capacity or ability to even think about God or to want God in our lives - and so He has to be the one to initiate and carry out the desire in us to become saved. It’s all done to us by Him and, therefore, there is no free-will. No ability to decide for ourselves.
But I don’t think this is what that verse means. I think that’s adding things that the verse isn’t saying. Personally, I think “there is no one righteous” doesn’t mean that we don’t have the capacity to think about, desire, turn to, or seek God. I think it simply means that none of us deserves heaven.
We are all fallen, and we cannot earn or work our way to heaven. Nor does our bloodline get us into heaven, as Paul is warning the Israelites. Verse 20 refers to this – that “no one will be declared righteous” just because they followed the “rules.” There has to be a change of heart, repentance. This is what the whole passage is about. It’s not about us being unable to seek God, but about us being unable to earn or work our way to heaven. Neither our “righteous behavior” nor our “bloodline” will earn us salvation. Only the righteousness that we get through Jesus’ sacrifice can get us into heaven.
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known . . . This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)
[In this verse, “believe” isn’t passive, as if belief is something that happens to us, such as “God makes us believe.” According to the concordance, it involves the idea of allowing ourselves to be persuaded by something, of choosing to believe it and put our faith in it.
Basically, it means not that God makes us believe but that we allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth. And once we are persuaded, we put our confidence and trust in it. In Him. The opposite of this would be to be resistant to the truth. It’s not God that makes us become a Christian or not, but it comes down to our willingness to believe or not believe. He makes it possible and He presents us with the truth, but we have to decide to be persuaded or un-persuaded by it.]
Salvation was made possible by God and Jesus alone. We cannot earn our way; we simply have to accept the way that He made possible. We have to accept Jesus’ payment for us. And we are expected to seek Him!
“God did this [created the nations of the earth] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
Yet, of course, we could not have even thought to seek Him if He did not make Himself known to us. We could not have desired to know Him if He didn’t want to be known, didn’t call to us, and didn’t place in us a deep ache to know Him, a void that only He could fill. So essentially, it all comes down to Him initiating a relationship with us, making it possible. But He makes it possible for all people. And furthermore, He expects all of us to seek. For if we seek, we find. And He wants to be found. It is the way to salvation.
He is always revealing Himself to us, reaching out to us, and offering His gifts to anyone who is willing to receive them. But if we do not receive them, it is our own fault for not turning to Him, not seeking Him, not responding to Him. For His gifts – salvation, forgiveness, faith, etc. - are available to all of us. And if we don’t accept them, it is because we did not want them.
Let’s consider Romans 10:3 (RSV): “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
First of all, we notice in the book of Romans that Paul is grieving for the lost Israelites. But why waste your effort grieving for people and spending your life trying to reach them if God has determined that they will go to hell? Instead, if you hold to predestination, you really should just be living your life and saying, “Oh, God, You are sovereign and righteous. And if You have decided that these people shall go to hell, who am I to disagree or complain!?! Your Will be done!”
But Paul is grieving for the people. He spends his life witnessing to them, appealing to them, sharing the Good News with them.
Because I think he knows that his efforts matter, that it makes a difference, that he might be able to reach some of the lost people.
And he grieves for those who refuse God’s way. He says they are “ignorant” of God’s righteousness. “Ignorant” in this passage does not mean “God never told me” or “I had no idea because God blinded my mind.” In the concordance, we see that “ignorant” here implies the idea of deliberately ignoring something, of being reluctant or unwilling to see it.
Paul is saying that the Israelites knew the truth and chose to ignore it. It is a deliberate ignorance. They were unwilling to see it. They chose to resist it, to be ignorant of God’s way. And they created their own way instead.
This does not sound like “predestination” to me, like God made it this way. It sounds like they were responsible for their choice. And Paul knew it. And it’s why he grieved and why he worked so hard to reach them.
God woos all of us/The call to evangelize
“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (Romans 10:21)
“[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
“ . . . so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ death] was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) [Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:6, “who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . .”]
Why would God say that He wants all to come to repentance, and that He calls all to repentance (even reaching out to obstinate and disobedient people), and that Jesus died for all men if He did not make repentance possible for all, if many were created specifically for hell? That doesn’t make sense. Did Jesus’ death not also pay for their sins and make salvation possible for them?
But these verses make sense if salvation is possible for all and if it’s up to us to accept it or not. Then His call to all people makes sense. His desire for all people to be saved makes sense. And the fact that Jesus’ death was a payment for all people’s sins makes sense. Because it’s not His fault if anyone ends up in hell. It’s ours, for turning from Him and rejecting His free gifts.
This, to me, best ties together God’s love for people, the fact that Jesus died for all and that He says that “anyone who calls on Him will be saved,” the fact that He continues to woo us (Why call and woo people you created for hell?), and the fact that we are to evangelize and share this message with others.
[When the dilemma of “How could God say He wants all people come to Him and yet deliberately create many people for hell?” comes up, sometimes those who believe in predestination will respond, “Well, it’s because God doesn’t always force everything He wants.” This is a truth I agree with, as you’ve seen above when I talked about God’s sovereignty. Yet I think that they are misapplying this truth. It’s the right truth but it’s applied in the wrong way.
It’s not “God wants all people to be saved. But since He doesn’t always force everything He wants, He created most people for hell instead and gave them no chance to be saved.” It doesn’t make sense. Because if He deliberately created them for hell - for His purposes and glory - then He really did want them to go to hell and He can’t claim that He really does want all to be saved and no one to perish.
But I think it is this way: “God wants all people to be saved. But since He doesn’t always force everything He wants, He has chosen to not force salvation on us. He lets us choose instead.” He invites us to accept His gift of salvation and He wants everyone to accept it, but He doesn’t force us to accept it (or reject it.) He wants us all to be saved and He made it possible for all because His Will is that no one should perish, but He lets us choose.]
Why would it be so important for us to share the Gospel if people’s eternities are already decided by God? And you can’t say that it’s because He planned that they would respond to the Gospel when they heard it because this involves the idea that it is necessary for us to share the Gospel for them to be saved . . . and that involves the idea that we have to be obedient to share the Gospel in order for them to hear it . . . and if obedience is necessary, then disobedience is possible . . . and if disobedience is possible then we are right back to “free will,” to the idea that we have to be willing to - to choose to - respond to God and do things His way.
Either we have the choice to obey or disobey, or we don’t. If we don’t, then it is “predestination” and we have no influence over whether we go to heaven or hell because it was all planned by God. There is no option to disobey or obey because whatever He has planned for our futures will happen regardless of us.
But if we do, then it’s “free will” and we have to respond to God in order to receive the gifts He offers and we have to be obedient to share this news with others because it does affect our lives, whether we end up in heaven or in hell. We have a real effect on it.
(And not making a decision about Jesus is still making a decision because we are all born separated from God, on the path to hell. And if we do not accept the forgiveness and salvation that God offers then we stay on that path.)
As Romans 1:20 says,
This means that no one will have an excuse for why they did not turn to God. He has made it clear to all of us in His creation that He is real. And so we all have a chance to respond to Him. But this verse would not be possible or make sense if it was pre-decided for us that we would go to hell. That would be the best excuse ever for not turning to God! But God says that none of us will have an excuse for not realizing He exists. It is within the realm of possibility for all of us to turn to Him and it is on our heads if we don’t.
[On a slightly different note:
“But,” you might ask, “how can it be possible for all people to come to Jesus if some people have never even heard of Him, such as those who live in the jungles of a primitive island or those who grew up in another religion and only heard the name of other gods? How can they be saved if the Bible says that only those who call on the name of Jesus will be saved, and they have never even heard of Him? You can’t call on a name you never knew about.”
I have always been interested in sorting this question out in my mind – how (and if) salvation can come to those who never heard about Jesus. And I think I might finally understand it. (I do not know if I am accurate on this, but it’s what I think.)
First off, keep in mind that there is a difference between those who have never heard of the Bible or Jesus and those who have heard but who reject it (such as atheists or those of most other religions). And I will look at each group separately.
Some people think (as I once struggled with) that since the Bible says that Jesus is the only way to God then that must mean that if you haven’t ever heard of Jesus and cannot call on His name then you cannot be saved. And they think this is how God works, that those who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place (a primitive island) are “elected” by God to be unsaved.
However, I do not think this is the case. As I said all along, I think it is possible for all to be saved. And I think that people who have never heard the name of Jesus can still, in fact, become saved. And it keeps coming back to this verse, among others.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
“. . . He has also set eternity in the hearts of men . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
God says that He has made Himself abundantly clear through His creation. And He has set a knowledge of eternity in the hearts of men. So we all – no matter where and when we live – can know that He exists and can find Him. And no one has an excuse for why they did not turn to Him, for why they turned away from the revelation of Himself in nature and from the knowledge that He has imprinted on our hearts.
This leads me to believe that God judges the heart and how we respond to the knowledge and the revelation that He has given us. And that it is indeed possible for those who never heard of Jesus to turn to God. As we’ve already seen, God expects to seek Him. And there is no excuse for why you don’t seek Him because He is clearly seen in His creation. (And I don’t think the Holy Spirit is limited by geography and someone’s accessibility or lack of accessibility to the printed Word.)
But if it was necessary to know the name of Jesus in order to turn to God and be saved and yet you lived in a time and place when you had absolutely no contact with the outside world and no knowledge of the Bible or Jesus, then you would have a great excuse for why you never turned to God. Because you never had the chance to hear about Him! But the Bible says that no one has an excuse, which leads me to believe that everyone has a chance to find God . . . because God has made Himself clear to all, to a degree through nature and the knowledge He puts in our hearts but most clearly through Jesus. Yet all of those things point back to God.
But, you might ask, are you saying that Jesus is not the only way to the Father then? How can you say that people who have never heard of Him can be saved when the Bible clearly tells us that Jesus is the gate, the only way, the name we have to call on to be saved?
Yes, I emphatically believe that Jesus is the only way. But I think that when it says that we cannot come to the Father except through Jesus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to know His name but that His death is what makes it possible for any of us and all of us to be reconciled to the Father. His death paid for the sins of mankind.
“ . . . so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ death] was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:18, underlining added)
“who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . .” (1 Timothy 2:6, underlining added)
Does this not also include those who never heard of Him? Did His death not cover their sins? Are they beyond God’s grace and mercy, simply because they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time?
If you say that they are automatically consigned to hell and have no chance to be saved because they never heard about Jesus, then you would have to say that Jesus’ death never really covered their sins and that He never made life possible for them. And that’s not what Scripture says.
I think that at the most very basic, primitive level, we are all responsible for the knowledge of Him and the truth of Him that He has placed in nature and in our hearts. We are responsible to respond to the call He places on our hearts and to turn toward Him. And we are accountable for if we do not, if we turn to some other “god.” (And the God of the Bible would not support, condone, or reveal Himself through any other man-made god or false religion, so you cannot say that it doesn’t matter what your “god” is, as long as you believe in something and are sincere. It matters greatly! Just read the Old Testament. Primitive or contemporary, you cannot substitute a god of your own making for the God who is, as He reveals Himself to be.)
A person in a primitive, unreached, illiterate community can be saved (at least I think so) if they respond to the truth that God placed in their hearts. It might be difficult and unlikely, but I think they can look up into the sky, know there is a Creator, and cry out to Him and be saved. (This is far different than those who make up their own gods and their own way to heaven because they don't know what else to believe.) And they can still walk through the right gate by listening to God and following His leading, even if they don’t know the exact name of the gate. Because Jesus’ death covered their sins, too, and bought life for them. Even if they don’t know His name. And even if they don’t know who the name of the One who made salvation possible for them, God does! God knows that Jesus death paid for all sins of all time.
There is a story I once heard (although I don’t remember where I heard it or the exact details) of a small child who was raised in a strictly-atheist home. And one day, he asked his mother how the world was made. And she gave all the scientific, atheist answers. But at the very end, she nonchalantly added, “And then there are some people who think that God created the world.”
And at that moment, the little boy smiled and began to dance around, saying, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it was Him!”
Even though this child had no chance in that atheist home to hear about God, he could still sense in his heart that there was a God, that He is real, and that He is the reason we are here. And he could respond to the truth that is deep within all of us, buried in our hearts by our heavenly Father.
But, you might counter, you have to say the name ‘Jesus,’ don’t you? Doesn’t Romans 10:9-10, 13 say “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”? Doesn’t this mean that if you don’t or can’t call on His name then you cannot be saved?”
I don’t think that this verse about saying “Jesus is Lord” is meant to be taken so literally. Like there is a “formula” that must be followed. If so, then the only ones who are saved are those who have actually said “Jesus is Lord” at the time of their conversion. And those who used some other words – “Father, I need You . . . Lord, save me . . . Help me, God . . . I want You in my life . . .” – are not saved. But does this sound right? Seriously!?! When we have a God that searches and judges our hearts? If that were the case, the majority of us Christians would be unsaved, simply by our choice of wording.
I don’t think this verse is meant to be so literal. Remember that the thief on the cross next to Jesus never said, “Jesus is the Christ” or “Jesus is Lord.” In Luke 23:42, he simply said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Yes, he used the name Jesus, but he never said that Jesus is Lord. He simply saw the truth before him and he responded and reached out, just as one can do when they see God in nature and then reach for Him because of it (not reaching for nature as God but for God as the Creator of that nature).
But I do think this “Confess that ‘Jesus is Lord’” verse is sharing the basic truth that Jesus is the way to God. And that those of us who have knowledge of Him are accountable for that knowledge. We are required to answer this question: “Is He Lord or is He not Lord?” And anyone who denies that Jesus is Lord is not saved.
But you cannot deny someone you never heard of. A person who never heard the name ‘Jesus’ is not denying Him when they do not say His name. But a person who has heard of Jesus and refuses to acknowledge that He is Lord is denying Him. (And the vast majority of us nowadays have heard of Him, no matter our religious upbringing.)
You have to remember that Romans 10 is not necessarily talking about those who are from unreached, primitive cultures and who have no knowledge that there is such a thing as the Bible, Jesus, or even other countries out there. This chapter is not about those who haven’t heard about Jesus but about those who have heard and who have rejected Him.
As we saw just a couple pages ago, Romans 10:3 is about a people who deliberately ignored the truth, who refused to see it and who refused to do things God’s way, choosing instead to do things their own way. And they have passed this stubbornness and resistance and denial of the truth down to their children. And the children have willfully clung to falsehood.
I think that there is a difference between those who have never had a chance to hear the Gospel (and the name of Jesus) and those who know about it but who reject it. And the difference is that those who never heard can still be saved if they respond to the call and the truth that God places on their hearts, even if they do not know the name of the One who paid for their sins . . . Whereas those who know but reject the truth or who are from a religion that expressly rejects Christ can be saved if they turn from their stubbornness and their erroneous thinking and embrace the One that they have previously rejected.
“Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.” (1 John 2:22)
“But he who disowns me [Jesus] before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:9)
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:2-3)
The Word doesn’t say that we are condemned for never hearing the name Jesus. We are condemned if we refuse to respond to the call that God places on our hearts. And we are condemned if we reject Christ, implying that it is referring to those of us who have heard of Him, because you can’t reject someone you never heard of. In fact, we all stand condemned from birth until and unless we respond to the call of God, whether it’s the call He places on our hearts and in nature or whether it’s that we have been given access to the Word and the knowledge of Jesus.
So then, why is evangelism necessary if primitive people can simply respond to the truth that God has placed on their hearts and it isn’t necessary to know Jesus’ name? Because I think it’s so much easier to find the way if someone helps point it out to you instead of just leaving you to find it for yourself, if someone turns on the light and gives you a map instead of leaving you to find the way out of a dark room all on your own.
Many more will be reached by hearing the truth and by having the Way clearly explained to them than by leaving them to find it themselves. Plus, Jesus paid an enormous price on the cross and that precious truth deserves to be shared with others. It is a much greater thing and will be a much sweeter relationship with the Father if you know Who to thank and what to thank them for!
I’m not saying that everyone has the same amount of easiness in finding God, but that we all have the chance and opportunity to find Him and be saved because He has revealed Himself to all and because Jesus’ death paid for all of our sins. But due to our upbringing or geographical location, some people will have a harder time and more resistance and some will have an easier time and less resistance. Yet everyone still has the chance and the responsibility to respond to God’s call, whatever form that call takes.
And for those who know the name of Jesus and who reject Him (or come from a religion that rejects Him), they need to be warned about where this rejection will lead them. Unlike those in a dark room who are left to find the right path themselves, they are in a well-lit room and can see the right path but have refused to walk down it. And they need to be told why this path is the only one that leads to heaven. They need to be shown the consequences of rejecting the only way to heaven and the only One who can save them. Their souls depend on it.
Both groups – those who haven’t heard of Jesus and those who have but reject Him – can find salvation if they respond to the truth that God has shown them. And salvation is possible for them because Jesus’ death made it possible when He paid for all of mankind’s sins and bought life for all men. It’s just up to each person to accept the truth God has revealed to them or to reject it!]
“Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes . . . Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:4, 13)
In the concordance, “believes” is active, not passive. Like “receive,” it involves a conscious and willing action on our part. It is allowing ourselves to be persuaded by something and choosing to commit to it. This supports the idea that we are responsible for being willing to believe in Him or not.
Time and time again throughout the Bible and even throughout Romans, we see that there is a real responsibility on our parts. We are accountable for our belief or unbelief. God does not make that decision for us. He expects us to hear and respond to His calls. And if we don’t, it is because of our own unwillingness to believe.
We live according to what we set our minds on. If we set it on our sinful nature, we will live according to our sinful nature. But if we set it on the Spirit, we will live according to the Spirit. And it is our choice where we set our minds. God does not force us to choose one way or the other. We are responsible for what our mind is set on.
“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5)
Of course, there is the verse in the NIV Bible which says “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) At first, I thought this meant that maybe the Spirit controls our mind, our decision to believe in Him or not. But in the Revised Standard Version, it says “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” And I think this means that we are responsible for where our minds are set. We either set it on the flesh or on the Spirit. God does not set it for us.
“ . . . They were broken off because of unbelief . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in . . . ” (Romans 11:20,23)
According to the concordance, “unbelief” is along the same lines as dis-believing something or being unfaithful to it. It is not just an ignorance of God (as though He never revealed Himself to us); it is a refusal to believe in the God who calls to us and who has made Himself known. If we are “broken off,” it is because of our unbelief, our unwillingness to believe. But if we will choose to believe, we will be grafted in.
Although Romans is often used to support the idea that God “saves whomever He wants to and hardens whomever He wants to, that He pre-decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell without any influence on our parts,” it simply is not the case (at least in my mind). All over Romans (the book used most to support “predestination”), I see that the responsibility to believe lies with us. It is by our willingness or unwillingness to believe that we end up in heaven or hell, that we receive or reject the gifts of forgiveness and salvation and eternal life. And in the end, we will get what we wanted. And it will be fair!
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:7)
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
“For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already . . .” (John 3:16-18)
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)
“if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-10, 13)
“But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)