Question: I have always been around people who felt strongly that we make the choice to come to God. I argued that point with many peers, until I was forced to believe that we don't have any power over coming to faith. When I read Romans 9, as well as other various writings of Paul, I don't see how I can believe anything except the fact that people don't have choice. Is there a different explanation of Romans 9? Or do you think the two ideas are not mutually exclusive? I know this is a very well-debated issue among believers, and many people have come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter as long as we do come to faith whether by God's choice or ours. I, however, think that the answer to this is profoundly important to a Christian's perspective of God, salvation, and duty on earth. If you prefer not to address this with me, that is fine and understandable.
Response: I am happy
to talk about this issue. The Christian life is entirely about choice.
Free will is the reason why we are here as human beings - to prove God's
righteousness in His judgment of the devil through His merciful
salvation of those creatures who ARE willing to come to Him (the Satanic
Rebellion series in five parts is largely devoted to this thesis).
As I have pointed out before, much of the misunderstanding of the issues of election, predestination, foreordination etc. stem from the overstatement of these things by the Reformers. These great men of God were reacting to a series of Roman doctrines which stated that, in effect, a person could work his/her way into heaven, and that anyone who wasn't doing the works adjudged worthy by the Roman church was not going to be saved. This position is, of course, non-biblical in the extreme, but to combat it the Reformers (Calvin in particular) sought to emphasize the choice, the election of God over the will of man. That is not a bad thing to do, nor is it technically wrong (when one looks at many of the things the Reformers actually say). Problems arise when their interpreters (who, after all, really ought to be interpreting the Bible rather than those who have interpreted the Bible) go overboard and make these doctrines so absolute that they twist what scripture really says. It is true that we as human beings are nothing compared to God, that the only choice is the one He gives us, and that any choice or exercise of free will which is not a positive response to what He tells us is, in fact, no positive choice at all. Put it another way, the only choice we can really make is to say "yes" to God or to refuse to do so. If we are stubborn and refuse to say "yes" (or arrogant enough to actively say "no"), then we reject His will for our lives and must suffer the consequences of divine judgment.
My short explanation of Romans 9 etc. is that everything that happens in the history of the universe was known by God in every detail ahead of time. But in terms of His moral creatures, angels and mankind both, God did not preprogram positive or negative responses so as to take away our true choice. He knew ahead of time what we would do, given a choice, but He did not force our choice. Many are called to salvation, but only those who choose for Him are elected/selected (Matt.22:14) - and that is really the theological point of election/selection. It really IS God's choice, but that choice is based upon His prior knowledge of our free will responding to Him.
This is the part of the equation that hyper-Calvinists overlook. As it says in Romans chapter 9:18, "God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden". But doesn't He want all to be saved? Indeed He does (1Tim.2:4; 2Pet.3:9; cf. Lam.3:33; Matt.18:12-14; Jn.3:16 Jn.12:47; Acts 17:27). So if some are hardened, it is not on account of God's will (for that is clearly not His will). Therefore it must be on account of their own will that they are hardened (see the series: Exodus 14: The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart; also in CT 3A: "The Process of Apostasy"). God's choice to have mercy on some and harden others is, therefore, NOT arbitrary - every page of the Bible proclaims His justice and fairness. Instead it is based upon what every other scripture that deals with this issue says it is, namely, our attitude to Him and the gift of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
I see no inconsistency whatsoever with us having to exercise choice and with God having provided for that choice before the universe was made. Time is only an issue for us - He is above time. Besides the obvious problem of causing terror for those who come to doubt their election because of some misstep on the one hand, and a dangerous false sense of security for those who feel their election is secure no matter what they do on the other (neither of which is a biblical point of view), the hyper-Calvinistic interpretation of the doctrine of election is a problem because it divorces the believer from a sense of personal responsibility for his/her actions. It is good to have the perspective that God is sovereign and all-powerful and that we must humbly respond to Him and His will, for that is true. But it is spiritually dangerous to believe that nothing we do matters because everything was decided by Him in eternity past. For everything regarding us was decided by Him in full knowledge of the choices we have, are, and will make, for or against His truth.
For more discussion on this point, please see the following links:
Faith: What is it?
Free-will faith and the Will of God.
Soteriology: The Biblical Study of Salvation (BB 4B)
Predestination and the Plan of God
Our will vs. God's WILL
The word "chosen" in the Bible
Election in the Plan of God
In the Name of the all-wise and sovereign Lord who bought us and in whom we have placed our trust, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.