PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST IS CURRENTLY IN THE PROCESS OF BEING REVISED AND UPDATED
Question: If God’s Grace Can Be Resisted, Isn’t the Decisive Factor in Salvation Man’s Choice Instead of God’s?
Answer: In a sense, the decision solely rests on the individual. The responsibility to repent and accept Christ as Saviour is man’s and man’s alone. God won’t do our repenting for us. But it’s important to note that the ability to repent is not inherent to the individual – it is only by God’s grace that we can repent. As Arminius said,
“No man believes in Christ except he has been previously disposed and prepared, by preventing or preceding grace, to receive life eternal on that condition on which God wills to bestow it, according to the following passage of Scripture: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17 )” 1
So God does the enabling, but if a man wants to be saved, he must personally make use of the fact that he has been enabled by God’s grace, and choose to accept God’s gift of salvation. The responsibility is on man to enter by the narrow gate, and not by the wide gate (Matt. 7:13-14); the responsibility is on man to seek for glory and honour and immortality in order to receive eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7); the responsibility is on man to sow to the Spirit and not give up in order to reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9).
So there is a sense in which the final decision is man’s, but it must be remembered that the decision is not based on man’s inherent ability; it is based on God’s grace, for it is only by the grace of God that man is enabled to respond in the first place. As Roger Olson said,
“The moral ability to respond to the gospel freely – by the graciously freed will – is a free gift of God through Christ to all people in some measure. It does not mean that anyone can now seek and find God using natural ability alone! It is a supernatural endowment that can be and usually is rejected or neglected. According to Arminian theology, because of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit all people are being influenced toward the good; the deadly wound of Adam’s sin is being healed. And yet their fallen nature is still with them. This dual reality is analogous to the simul justus et peccator, or the war between flesh and Spirit within every Christian. The inability to will the good is not merely hypothetical; it is the state of nature in which every person (except Jesus Christ) lives. But no person is left by God entirely in that state of nature without some measure of grace to rise above it if he or she cooperates with grace by not resisting it. Arminians agree with Peterson and Williams that ‘without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.’” 2
Note especially the last sentence: “without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.” So yes, the final decision to resist or to not resist God’s grace is man’s, but without that grace, the decision couldn’t be made to not resist. The decision to repent and believe the Gospel is the responsibility of man, but without God’s enabling grace, we cannot make the decision to repent and believe the Gospel. As Arminius said,
“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 3
The fact that human choice plays a vital role in salvation can be illustrated by the words of Jesus when He was dealing with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30). When the young ruler asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 18) we do not read of Jesus rebuking the young man for having the audacity to presume that he himself could make a decision and inherit eternal life. Instead, Jesus told him that there was something he could do: sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (v. 22). Jesus’ words, of course, were not as much about money as they were about the heart. The young ruler loved his money, possessions, and the myriad privileges that his position granted him. So much so that he just couldn’t bear to live without them. But Jesus was not going to grant the young ruler eternal life while he was proud, self-sufficient, and unwilling to forsake all to follow Christ. The young ruler needed to humble himself and quite literally forsake everything he owned to follow Christ. Unwilling to forsake all and make a full commitment to Christ, the young ruler went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions, the passage says. Noting the young ruler’s unwillingness, Jesus said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (vv. 24-5).
The implications of this encounter are clear and undeniable – Jesus is suggesting that salvation is, in some measure at least, tied up in man’s response and commitment to Him and His calling. Surely if the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistible Grace were true, then Jesus would never have said that it was harder for rich persons to be saved than poor persons. Surely their wills would be irresistibly and invincibly bent to faith and conversion upon hearing the effectual call of God. Surely it would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God’s monergistic and irresistible call than it would be for any other person. But of course, what Jesus is suggesting stands in stark contrast to the Calvinist’s doctrine. Surely there can be no doubt that human choice is vital for salvation.
While human choice is certainly vital for salvation, it does not contribute anything to salvation:
“[I]n and of themselves, people’s choices accomplish nothing. Perhaps the best model is the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman, the commander of the Aramite army, had leprosy. He asked for help. The prophet Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman initially rejected that notion, complaining about having to bathe in the dirty Jordan River. Finally, after his servants prevailed upon him, he did it, and his leprosy was cleansed. What was it that cleansed Naaman’s leprosy? Was it his dunking himself in the Jordan River seven times? Of course not! He could have dunked himself in the river a thousand times and nothing would have happened. On the other hand, what happened when he did not go bathe? Nothing! God allowed him to suffer the results of his own rebellion. But when Naaman responded obediently to God’s direction through the prophet, Naaman was healed.
So it is with our salvation. Humans do not do anything to earn or deserve salvation. Humans are too sinful in nature to seek God independently or take the initiative in their own salvation. Humans can come to salvation only as they are urged to by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and they are drawn to Christ as He is lifted up in proclamation. Cooperation contributes absolutely nothing to human salvation. God’s grace provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation. However, God in His freedom has sovereignly decided that He will give the gift of salvation to those who believe, who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So salvation truly is monergistic – only God provides for human salvation, and He alone. Before He does so, He requires humans to respond. If humans do not respond, then He does not save. If humans do respond, He surrounds them with overpowering grace impelling them forward until they come to the point of repentance and faith.” 4
1 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 2, Letter to the Reader, ‘Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed’, (On Faith)
2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 155
3 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 1, Declaration of the Sentiments, (5)(3)
4 Steve Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, p. 159