The question concerned whether or not human beings have a choice to be saved or not. To this person it was crucial to preserve some notion of free will at all costs. I told him that he may not like my answer, but he asked the question. It serves no purpose to cloud the truth with reductionist simplicity.
The exchange made me realize that sometimes people are unable to or refuse to understand complicated theology. They are too used to simplicity. My answer was not all that complicated, but it was moreso than what would satisfy the questioner. How does one deal with people such as this? The following describes how I handled the situation. In the end, the questioner and those listening agreed with me, and I believe I did not compromise the truth, although I conceded some terminology just to make my response understandable.
- I told him that people did have a choice, if he would like to think of it that way. But I insisted that because of mankind's depravity, they would only choose evil. They are incapable of choosing Christ.
- I insisted that salvation from start to finish was the work of God. If I grant that someone has a choice, then I must qualify that statement by insisting that he could not choose God due to his sinfulness.
- I told him that God chose all those who would be saved in eternity before the creation of the world. Since mankind is only evil, their only hope to choose righteousness is if God has first chosen them, and then acted upon that by providing them with the Gospel and the operation of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel and in the heart to enable that heart to choose God. Once cannot choose the Gospel unless God first enables a person to choose the Gospel by the Holy Spirit. This is called regeneration, the resurrection of what was once dead. The people listening agreed that man was dead in his trespasses and sins, and incapable of salvation unless God first acted to save the person.
- One person listening in asked me to explain John 3:16 in light of what I just said. I explained that it is true that whosoever will may indeed believe in Jesus Christ. But I told them that we could take that promise and throw it into a room full of unbelievers and all of them would ignore it, unless God first acted to change their hearts to believe. Whosoever will means whosoever will, but the question is who indeed will? It is in fact only those who have been enabled by God to believe. All others will reject Christ.
- I explained that God was sovereign over all things, including who will be saved, when they will be saved, how they will be saved, etc. I intended to make clear, and I explained, that a God who is sovereign over all things but who has no power to save someone unless they first allow God to save him or her, is not sovereign. Instead, to believe such a thing is to place man's power, at least in this one area, outside of and even above the authority and power of God. Such a god would have all power except that he is powerless to save a soul. Such a God is no god at all.
- Another man asked me to explain what Peter meant when he said that God does not desire that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. I explained that this relates to the promise of mercy made to Noah. God will not destroy this world until all those who are to be saved will be saved. All will not come to repentance, but all the elect will.
- Another man explained that he believed that God looked ahead through time, and since he knows all things, he saw who would get saved, and then chose them for salvation. I explained in return that this was a free will cop out, intended to explain away the clear language of Scripture that includes without any debate words such as predestination and election. The Bible teaches that God's choice in eternity was unconditional. He did not merely foresee who would be saved and then choose them based upon their choice. Whom God foreknew he predestined. This means that God knew beforehand exactly who he wanted to save for his own reasons, and then he predestined them to salvation.
- I explained that some people are offended by God's electing and saving work through the Holy Spirit almost like it were an act of rape, transgressing the wills of unwilling participants. God, however, did not have to save anyone. He could have sent all to eternal punishment and would have been just and righteous, and good. But God in his mercy saw fit to change the wills of many who do not believe so that they can enter into eternal glory and fellowship and brotherhood, etc. This cannot in any way be equated with rape. No one was ever dragged to heaven who did not want to choose Christ, and no one ever went to hell who chose Christ. How can it be evil to save a soul from damnation?
- I told them that even the WCF confesses that these things are difficult to understand, and they should bring us to our knees in humility. The simple fact is that God alone deserves the glory for our salvation. We cannot claim any part of it. Not even our faith; not even our "choosing."
Turns out the person and those who listened agreed with all that I had said, as long as I granted that we have a choice. I do not mind the word, as long as it is caveated with the truth that all mankind will choose, apart from the action of God, is evil. They will not choose salvation. We ended up on the same side, I believe, at least temporarily. It is always possible that their need to preserve the notion of choice will cloud their understanding of the more complicated facets of the explanation at a later time.
The idea of choice is important to many West Virginians. Unless one wants a fight in attempting to explain reformed theology, I would stay away from assertions such as "man has no choice." Instead, it may be better to grant the notion of choice as long two things are clearly presented: 1) Apart from God's work through the Holy Spirit, man will only choose evil. 2) Any notion of choice that infringes upon God's sovereignty reduces God to something less than God, for he must have all power and authority, or he is not God.