If God Enables People to Believe, Should We Use Wording Calling Sinners to Receive the Gift of Salvation?

I check my Facebook page and really enjoy reading the comments and interaction. Sometimes a comment that’s made, and the issue it raises, is worth sharing with a wider audience. That’s the case with a comment in response to my post:

Like any gift, forgiveness can be offered to you, but it is not yours until you choose to receive it. There are cases where convicted criminals have been offered pardon by governors but have actually rejected their pardons. Courts have determined that a pardon is valid only if the prisoner is willing to accept it. Likewise, Christ offers each of us the gift of forgiveness and eternal life, but just because the offer is made does not automatically make it ours—we must choose to receive it. “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:10, ESV).

Someone made this thoughtful comment:

I love nearly all of your posts Randy, but this is one that I would have to respectfully (yet lovingly) disagree with. This sounds similar to the analogy of how our salvation is described as being a drowning man in the ocean and still needing to grab hold of the life preserver that is thrown to him. When instead, as R.C. Sproul describes, “God just doesn’t throw a life preserver to a drowning person. He goes to the bottom of the sea, and pulls a corpse from the bottom of the sea, takes him up on the bank, breathes into him the breath of life and makes him alive.” I believe that our salvation is of the Lord from start to finish, from election to glorification. If it were up to us, we would have never been saved.

On this particular topic, I can’t describe it any better than the late Dr. Sproul does in the attached.

One of our EPM staff, Stephanie, responded with these thoughts:

Thanks for your comment and for sharing the Sproul link. Our ministry believes there is no conflict between believing in God’s sovereignty and His work in salvation, and still preaching the gospel and encouraging people to choose to trust Christ. You wrote, “I believe that our salvation is of the Lord from start to finish, from election to glorification. If it were up to us, we would have never been saved.” We agree! But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call people to repent and turn to Jesus. That theme is throughout Scripture. Jesus Himself said to unbelievers, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

John Piper said in a recent Ask Pastor John episode that it is possible to put the focus “so completely on the unconditional election of God and the spiritual deadness of man and the sovereignty of grace in conversion (all of which are true) that the irrational and unbiblical inference is drawn that we should not say to any non-elect person who’s spiritually dead, ‘Repent. Believe. Come to Christ.’ We should never preach like that. We should never indiscriminately say to a whole crowd of people, many of whom would be non-elect, ‘Come to Christ. Repent. Believe.’”

Piper goes on to say:

Now, the reason I say that’s irrational and unbiblical to draw that inference from election and deadness and sovereign grace is this: nothing in reason says that summoning a spiritually dead sinner to repent might not be the means God uses to perform the miracle of making him alive, and thus demonstrating he is elect. I say it’s unbiblical because the Bible tells us to preach the gospel to everyone, and the sheep will hear the Shepherd’s voice in the preaching and follow him (John 10:27).

Our job is not to know ahead of time who the sheep are. Our job is to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, pray for converting power, and plead for people to repent and trust God — trust him to do his regenerating work. God raises the dead. He grants faith, and he does it through preaching. We’re supposed to say precisely to dead bones, “Live! Live! Why would you die?” That’s the way we should preach: indiscriminately, to all people, offering the gospel to everyone, and trusting God to call his own.

Stephanie followed these preceding comments with some related excerpts from my book hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice:

God’s “Come to me” invitation is genuine.

God invites us and sovereignly empowers us to choose to come to him. His invitation is as real as the possibility of our making a meaningful choice to accept it. Listen:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1–3)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

That final clause is alternatively translated as “whosoever will” (KJV), “let the one who wishes” (NASB), “let the one who desires” (ESV), “let anyone who desires” (NLT), “whoever desires” (HCSB), and “let the one who wants it” (NET). Young’s Literal Translation renders the full verse, “And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come; and he who is hearing—let him say, Come; and he who is thirsting—let him come; and he who is willing—let him take the water of life freely.”

It’s hard to imagine a more sincere invitation. The passage assumes our ability—even if it’s a God-given ability (whether through saving grace or prevenient grace)—to make this choice.

Of course, no one verse ever gives the full picture. But I cannot embrace any view of God’s sovereignty and human choice that suggests God would use words that lead us to believe meaningful human choice exists when it actually doesn’t.

…It seems that people genuinely respond to God when God first opens their hearts: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia.… The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14).

God calls us spiritually dead without Christ (see Ephesians 2:1). We did not, by acts of our will, make ourselves alive. Rather, “when you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:13).

God extends a genuine—not pretend—invitation to choice-making people to come to him, as he sovereignly empowers them. (From the Calvinist viewpoint, God empowers only the elect with saving grace, whereas Arminians believe God empowers all people who hear the gospel through prevenient grace—they may or may not respond, but they can choose to respond.)

Just as hyper-Calvinists can step outside orthodox Calvinism by denying human choice, hyper-Arminians (a term rarely used) can step outside orthodox Arminianism by believing people have a full capacity, in and of themselves, to respond to God. But this doesn’t square with many Scriptures, including John 5:21: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.” Here the emphasis is on God’s choice.

Notice what Paul wrote about repentance: “Those who oppose him [the Lord’s servant] he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:25–26). Sinners should choose to repent, yet only God grants saving repentance. God calls upon us not only to choose to surrender but also to switch sides. We need his empowerment to undergo such a radical transformation of allegiance and identity.

Some final thoughts: I think we should use the language Scripture does. Piper says in that same Ask Pastor John episode, “That’s the absolutely crucial thing: believe and teach what the whole Bible, rightly understood, teaches, and believe it and teach it in biblical proportion — biblical balance — so that no Scripture is used to silence the meaning and importance of other Scriptures.“

Sproul’s analogy (that the commenter shared) of a dead man being rescued from the sea after drowning and being made alive again in a unilateral act of God may capture God’s sovereignty and election and grace, but Scripture itself constantly calls upon dead people to do things, including to come, believe, and repent. Sure, the power of God is necessary for them to do so, and the person couldn’t do so on his own without God enabling him. But if believe and repent and come don’t actually mean what those words mean, at least in some sense, it would be misleading and even heretical for Scripture itself to use them, which in fact it does. We should ask ourselves why. And we should not object to believers using the very words Scripture does.

When I say, “We must choose to receive it,” I am saying what Scripture does: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). and “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) and “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

These are all fully compatible with Acts 13:48, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” And with “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).

Acts 16:31 could have said, but doesn’t, “Acknowledge that God has chosen you and empowered you and predestined you to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and that is why you are already saved.” It says, and it’s worth repeating, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

I think of Charles Spurgeon, a five-point Calvinist who constantly called on sinners to repent and believe and receive the gift of salvation in Christ. He was aggressively opposed by hyper-Calvinists, a fatalistic dogmatic Calvinist minority. Among other things, they disdained his practice of indiscriminately preaching the gospel to the unsaved, and inviting people in meetings to come forward or otherwise respond to the gospel. This struck them as putting salvation in man’s hands rather than recognizing it was in God’s. Spurgeon believed salvation was in God’s hands, but that men needed to embrace it, and that God wanted men to hear the gospel and wanted him to preach it.

He said,

That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. (New Park Street Pulpit, 4:337)

What Spurgeon said about believing Scripture whether or not we can logically resolve the apparent contradictions fits well with this topic. You can read more from him here.

Image by Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández from Pixabay

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries