The intricate relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is an age-old debate. The question applies specifically to salvation, but to other areas of life as well. Has God predetermined who will and will not be saved? Or does each individual human being make their own choice to believe or not to believe?
On one far side of the spectrum are those some refer to as hyper-Calvinists. They take the doctrine of predestination much further than John Calvin himself, claiming that those who will be saved and those who will not be saved is a list that has been fixed for all eternity and that an individual can do nothing whatsoever to change their eternal destiny.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who want to claim that God has no say in the matter and does not even know who will be saved. Some, if not all of these, would fall into the open theism camp, a theory that claims God does not know the future.
As in most cases of extremes, it is a good idea to search for some middle ground. Does God know who will be saved? I certainly believe He does. But does mankind have absolutely nothing to do with it? I can’t go that far. The Bible says that God “chose us in Him [our Lord Jesus Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Ephesians 1:4; italics added). It also says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; both citing Joel 2:32). Are these two concepts contradictory? Not necessarily.
Instead of drawing a line in the sand and choosing sides, what if we saw a beautiful interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will (when it comes to salvation as well as everyday life)? What if we believed in the absolute sovereignty and authority of God, but also admitted that it takes faith on the part of man for salvation? What if we put it this way: God makes the phone call, but man decides whether or not to answer it.
Peter’s Pentecost Day sermon in Acts 2 includes a great example of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. In Acts 2:22-24, he states,
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: This Jesus the Nazarene was a man pointed out to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through Him, just as you yourselves know. 23 Though He was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail Him to a cross and kill Him. 24 God raised Him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.”
It was clearly God’s plan for His Son Jesus to die, but did the “lawless people” who did it know that? Were they killing Jesus because it was God’s plan? No way! They were killing Him because of His teaching and because of who He claimed to be. Nevertheless, they accomplished God’s will.
God’s sovereignty and man’s free will worked together here, and they work together at the moment of salvation as well. The Spirit will not convict someone of their need for salvation if it is not God’s will, and man will not place His faith in Christ unless he himself wills to do so.