_ One of the ideas I come across fairly regularly is the one that when it comes to salvation God purposely limits himself and gives human beings free reign to choose as they will on the matter. That is to say, God, who is sovereign in all things, limits his sovereignty so that it does not include salvation. He still works to save people, he presents people with a choice and they are free to accept or decline as they see fit. The advantages of this thought are clear: it makes the whole issue of divine sovereignty and human free will very easy to understand. God has his bit he’s in charge of and we have our bit and so we sidestep a lot of the complicated issues predestination brings up.
But its ease of understanding is not a measure of its truthfulness. The question we have to ask is simply whether this idea is biblical or not?
_ The first consideration is whether or not a God who limits himself fits with the grand sweep of biblical narrative. Throughout the Bible we read of the Almighty, the Most High who inhabits eternity, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Beginning and the End, we read:
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.”
Daniel 2 v 20 – 21
“Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”
Lamentations 3 v 37 - 38
And as Jesus says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10 v 29 – 30)
Not even a sparrow dies unless God has willed it. This is hardly a picture of a God who limits himself. There is a discrepancy between the usual description of God and the idea that he purposely limits himself. But what about when it comes to salvation? Does the language the Bible uses alter?
“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”
John 6 v 35 – 37
All who the Father has given Jesus will come to him. This is by no means a description of a limited God. As Paul writes about salvation:
“It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
Romans 9 v 16
“For he [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
Ephesians 1 v 4 - 5
Or to put it even more bluntly: “Salvation is of the Lord” Jonah 2:9.
And again: “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Acts 13 v 48
I’ll let the verses speak for themselves. If you read them for what they say, always a good habit, then they clearly teach that salvation is God’s and there’s no limiting go on. God’s sovereignty extends over all things and salvation is part and parcel of that. To conceive otherwise is to conceive of a God who is not the Almighty for there would areas beyond his control.
The objections to these truths stem from two various trains of thought. The first is that we have an example of God limiting himself in the form of Jesus who was limited to being a man. We know from the Bible that Jesus was both man and God and I think it’s fair to say that no one knows how that works in practise; it’s one of these mysteries we don’t fully understand. While Jesus was limited in the sense of his human form, feeling hunger, tiredness and other such things we can see from the miracles he performed that these limitations could easily be overcome.
And we see as well that there are more than a few occasions where Jesus knows how events will pan out before they happen – consider his knowledge of Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal. And if Jesus foreknew these events then logically it was because God has planned them, if he knew the future then the future was in some way fixed, and if it was fixed then something must have been fixing it and either that’s God or fate and the Bible prevents us believing in fate.
The second objections is that the Bible provides us with examples of people arguing with God and getting away with it.
“But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.”
Exodus 4 v 13 – 15
Moses is an excellent example of this; during his whole conversation he proves himself to be less than up for what God is telling him to do. It cumulates in an outright request to God to send someone else. Surprisingly, God agrees and sends Moses’ brother with him to be the spoke person.
Yet if we examine this whole event it provides no evidence for God limiting himself, indeed, we find instead God in control over all things as we might expect. God agreeing to Moses’ request does not mean God did not know Moses was going to ask. It shows God’s grace and humility that he should help Moses so when Moses has been so argumentative. But it is God who suggests Aaron and if we read the following chapters we see that despite Moses reluctance the Israelites are still brought up out of Egypt. The whole scene is an example of how God uses even weakness and somewhat unwilling servants to bring about his ends. It is an example of his sovereignty not an argument against it. The fact that God went with Moses is not necessarily an example of the fact that God is limited by Moses more that by his grace he grants Moses his request. I’m pretty sure that had God said no Moses would have had very little choice but to go with it.
And if we examine any other similar situation we find the same principle at work: God’s grace is clearly shown in how he so patiently and kindly deals with his chosen servants and we see again and again how God works out his purposes despite, through and above the arguments of his servants. Now this is a glorious truth – God is not even limited by the weakness and brokenness of man nor does he limit himself.
“Why do the nations rageand the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us." He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”
Psalm 2 v 1 – 4
It is possible if difficult to interpret some passages that God limits himself but it runs in contradiction to so many others. The overwhelming picture the Bible paints for us is a God in control of everything, including salvation. Yes, this presents us with the great mystery of human free will and divine sovereignty but just because it’s difficult to understand does not make it wrong and the Bible teaches both so clearly – God is in control, we are still responsible.