God’s Grace and Man’s Will
Professor Robert D. Decker
We begin by calling the readers’ attention to two passages of Scripture. The first is Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” The second is Romans 9:16 and 18: “So then it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy…. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he (God) will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Are these two passages contradictory? After all, Deuteronomy says, “choose life,” but Romans 9 plainly states, “it is not of him that willeth, but of God who shows mercy on whom he wills.” To choose is an act of the will. Again, does Romans contradict Deuteronomy?
Let us understand, this is not merely an interesting question. This is not a question merely to be discussed or perhaps debated on an intellectual level. Certainly this is not a question on which there may be tolerated differing opinions in the church. This is a question that concerns the very fundamental issues, or even the most vital issue, of the truth of the sacred Scriptures as summed in the Reformed confessions and as taught by God’s grace in the Protestant Reformed Churches! It is a question that lies at the heart of the Reformed truth of Scripture.
Think of what is involved here. Either man’s will is free, so that he is able to choose to allow God to save him by the atonement of Jesus Christ, or man’s will is in bondage to sin, i.e., totally depraved, thus rendering him unable to cooperate or contribute one iota to his own salvation. To put it another way, does God respond to man’s will, or does man respond to God’s sovereign will? Or yet another way, is God an acting, sovereign, almighty God, or is God a reacting God, powerless to save unless man is willing to allow God to save him? Is God sovereign, or is He dependent upon man’s willingness to be saved?
Really, when all is said and done, the question becomes: Who is God — the God of the Scriptures, or man?
Testimony of the Reformed Confessions
What do our Reformed confessions say in answer to this question? We begin with the oldest of the Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession (1561). Article 13 (Of Divine Providence) of this marvelous statement of the Reformed faith teaches that God, after He created all things, did not give them up to fortune or chance, but rules and governs them according to “his holy will” (emphasis mine). Nothing happens in this world without God’s appointment. God, the article emphasizes, is not the author of sin! God executes His work in a most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly. While we cannot understand how this can be, we do not curiously inquire into it, but with humility and reverence adore God’s righteous judgments. This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since by it we are taught that nothing can befall us by chance. God so mercifully watches over us that the devils and wicked men cannot hurt us.
Article 14 teaches three fundamental truths:
1. God created man good, sinless, and in His image and likeness.
2. Man willfully transgressed God’s commandment and subjected himself to sin, death, and the curse.
3. As a result, man is totally depraved. He is corrupt in all his ways and has lost all his excellent gifts; his whole nature is corrupted. The few remains of God’s gifts left to man are sufficient to leave man without excuse. Therefore we reject the error of the free will of man since man is but a slave to sin.
Articles 2 1-24 teach the only way out of this sin, depravity, death, and curse. Article 21 teaches that Christ satisfied the justice of God for the elect by offering Himself on the tree of the cross. Article 22 emphasizes that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Christ with all His merits. In Jesus Christ we have complete salvation. Article 23 teaches that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us by means of the gift of faith. And Article 24 stresses the truth that good works do not merit our salvation, but are strictly the fruit of faith. This is a truth that needs emphasis in our day in the light of the fact that some in Reformed/Presbyterian churches are teaching that we are saved by faith and works!
Turning at this point to the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), we confess with Lord’s Day 1 that our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. To enjoy this only comfort we need to know three truths: How great our sins and miseries are. How we may be delivered from our sins and misery. How we may express our gratitude to God for that deliverance.
From Lord’s Day 2 we learn that the source of the knowledge of our sin and misery is the law of God: love God and the neighbor. Question 5 of this Lord’s Day asks a very important question; “Canst thou keep all these things perfectly (emphasis mine)? The answer to that question is, “In no wise, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” Note well! It is not a question of whether we do keep the law, but it is a question of whether we can keep the law. In other words, it is a question of whether we have the ability to keep the law!
Lord’s Day 3 teaches three fundamental truths:
1. God did not create us so wicked and perverse, but good and after His own image in true righteousness and holiness.
2. The depravity of our nature came from the fall and disobedience of our first parents, hence our nature is become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.
3. The conclusion is this: Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness. Is it really that bad? The answer is, “Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
Lord’s Days 4, 5, and 6 teach that God is just and will not allow such disobedience to go unpunished. No mere creature can be found anywhere who is able to make satisfaction for our sins. We need a Mediator who is fully God and a real, righteous man! And that God/Man is Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son in the likeness of our sinful flesh.
Lord’s Day 7 teaches that God saves, not all men, but only those engrafted into Christ by a true and living faith. This faith (a certain knowledge and an assured confidence) is worked in our hearts by God, the Holy Spirit. Faith is worked in us merely of grace and only for the sake of Christ’s merits. Obviously the Catechism teaches that salvation from our sins and sinful natures and death is from beginning to end solely the work of God!
Lord’s Days 9 and 10 reinforce this precious truth. The Creator God is my God and Father for Christ’s sake. He provides me with all things necessary for my salvation and makes whatever evils He sends upon me in this valley of tears turn to my advantage, God is able to do this because He is Almighty, and He is willing to do this because He is a faithful Father. Therefore all things, good and evil, come not by chance, but by God’s fatherly hand. And for this reason we may be certain that nothing shall separate us from God’s love. All creatures are so in God’s hand that without His will they cannot so much as move!
What a marvelous comfort for the believer!
Lord’s Days 23 and 24 teach that we are righteous before God only by a true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though our consciences accuse us that we have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God and kept none of them and are inclined to all evil, nevertheless God, without any merit of us, graciously imputes to us the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. Further, we are acceptable to God, not on account of the worthiness of our faith, but only because we embrace the righteousness of Christ by means of faith. Still more, our best works are all imperfect and defiled with sin, and the only righteousness that can be approved by God must be absolutely perfect and conformable to the divine law. Therefore our good works are the fruits of God’s gift of faith. And, hence, the reward we receive in glory is not of merit, but of grace!
Next, we look at the 3rd and 4th Heads of Doctrine of the Canons of the International Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619). We confess with Articles 1, 2, and 3 that man was originally created in the image of God and endowed with many excellent gifts. Man, however, revolted against God by the instigation of the devil and forfeited those excellent gifts. Man thus entailed upon himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, perverseness of judgment. He became wicked, rebellious, obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections! In a word, man became totally depraved. What is more, we confess that through the fall of our first parents into sin and death, the entire race inherited this terrible depravity and corruption. This means that all men are conceived in sin and are children of wrath by nature. All men are incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage to sin. Without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God.
In the clearest of terms, the Canons teach that all are not saved in Christ. Article 6 teaches that God saves only those who believe in Jesus. With Article 7 we confess that God graciously saves only those who believe, out of all nations, according to His sovereign good pleasure and unmerited love. Articles 8 and 9 teach that it is neither God’s nor the gospel’s fault that many who are called refuse to come to Him. The fault lies in themselves, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Sower ( Matt. 13). And according to Articles 10 and 11, that some do come is not due to their free will, but God elected them in Christ and God works salvation in them. Once again, the Canons (just as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) teach that salvation is all the work of God!
In a profoundly beautiful statement Article 16 teaches that, though all of our salvation is by God’s grace, God does not treat us as senseless stocks and blocks. Rather, God makes our wills alive and corrects us, but also sweetly and powerfully bends our wills, so that restoration and spiritual obedience begin to reign in us. This is true freedom, viz., that we love God and the neighbor. Following this same line, Article 17 stresses that God uses means sweetly and powerfully to bend our wills. Those means are the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
Testimony of Scripture
At this point we face the question: do the confessions accurately reflect what Scripture teaches? The Bible teaches that all men by nature (apart from the regenerating, saving grace of God in Christ) and by virtue of the fall of Adam and Eve are totally depraved. The passages are legion, and we cite only a few. We learn from Genesis 6:5, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great. . .and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Ephesians 5:1- 5 teaches that by nature we are dead in trespasses and sin. Note that! We are not merely by nature weak or sick or even quite sinful, but we are dead in sin! Romans 8:7 is absolutely conclusive on the issue of what total depravity means. There we read, “Because the carnal mind (the Greek has, “the mind of the flesh,” RDD) is enmity (hatred, RDD) against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (emphasis mine). Total depravity means that, apart from God’s grace, man lacks the ability to be subject to God’s law! A man may observe some of God’s commandments outwardly, but if he does not do so out of faith in Christ and to the glory of God, it profits him nothing but leads to greater condemnation. Jeremiah 17:9 teaches, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Likewise Ephesians 2:3 teaches that we all had our conversation (manner of living) among the wicked and were by nature children of wrath.
The Bible, therefore, also teaches that salvation is only, always, entirely by God’s sovereign, particular grace. This means that salvation is not made possible by a certain “common grace” by which all men are enabled to accept God’s well-meant offer of the gospel to them. The Scriptures nowhere present the gospel in the form of an offer, but always in the form of an imperative, a command. The apostle Paul, in the course of his sermon in Athens, told the audience that God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). In II Corinthians 5:20-21, the same apostle, wrote, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (emphasis mine).
And in Ephesians 2:8-10 we read, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Scripture knows of no well-meant offer of the gospel.
Salvation is all by the grace of God in Jesus. Listen to the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:18 b-19 we read, “…turn thou me, and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.” The prophet Ezekiel writes (36:26-27), “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments to do them.”
The New Testament echoes the same truth. Paul writes in Romans 5:5 , “And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” And in Ephesians 1:19 he writes, “And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his (God’s) mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead….” To the church in Thessalonica and to the church catholic, the inspired apostle writes, “Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power, That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thess. 1:11-12). In II Peter 1:3, we read, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness….” The inspired apostle Paul concludes in Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” The apostle goes on to say that God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of showing his (God’s) power and declaring his name throughout the earth (vv. 17-18). This provokes the objection recorded in verse 19, “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” Pharaoh did not resist God’s will, but in spite of himself served God’s purpose. How can God find fault then in Pharaoh? God’s answer through the apostle is sharp, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (v. 20).
The Response of Faith
And what shall we say in the light of this precious truth?
What can we possibly say but with the publican in the temple, “God be merciful to me the sinner”? “This man,” Jesus said, “went down to his house justified rather than the other.” That other was the Pharisee, who boasted of his good works, thinking he could earn his own justification by those deeds.
Or we say with the holy apostle Paul, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (I Tim. 1:15). Or with the father out of whose son Jesus cast an evil spirit (Mark 9:24), we cry out as did this father with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Or again with Paul (II Cor. 9:15) we exclaim, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.”
Now what about that question with which we began: does Romans 9 contradict Deuteronomy 30? Not at all! The Bible speaks with one voice, and it is to that one voice of God’s inspired Word that we must turn for the answer. In Philippians 2:13-14 we read, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” i.e., “Now therefore choose life!” And, let it not escape our attention, the text does not say choose life or choose death! The text says, “Choose life.” That is not an offer; it is God’s command! We can obey it for only one reason, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” As we learned from the Canons of Dordt, God does not treat us as senseless stocks and blocks. God works in us by sweetly bending our wills to conform with His will.
What, then, is the last word? Just this from Romans 11:36: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever, Amen.” Do not ever say anything but that! That is our only comfort in life and in death. We and God’s people out of every nation are forever secure in the wonderful, sovereign, and particular grace of God in Christ, worked by God the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives.