The Sovereignty of God in Salvation
Ian Jackson, Eastbourne, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Salvation originates with God
It is amazing to think that each individual believer’s salvation can be traced to ‘before the foundation of the world’, Eph. 1. 4. This firmly grounds salvation in God, not man, and means that all the glory belongs to Him.1 He has purposed it, provided it, and caused His people to possess it, so that they might say, ‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory’, Ps. 115. 1.
Reflecting on divine purpose in relation to salvation, we can only come to the same conclusion as Paul, namely that ‘God is for us’, Rom. 8. 31. His argument starts in verse 28, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’. God has purposed, and central to it is His Son, to whose image we will one day be conformed. To bring about the fulfilment of that purpose for His own glory, and that of His Son, God has effectually called His people, those who love Him, and works together for their good all the things that are connected to that eternal purpose.
The ‘all things’ of verses 28 and 32 are identified. They stretch, if we may so speak, from eternity to eternity. In an eternal past, God both foreknew His people and predestinated them. In the present time, He has called and justified them. In the future, they shall know what it is to be glorified. Of course, God has neither past, present, nor future, and so He sees it all as already accomplished. This interface of time and eternity is beyond our ability to comprehend. It defies human logic and reasoning, not because it is illogical or unreasonable, but because we are limited by our space-time perspective.
God’s foreknowledge is of persons. It is clearly a mistake to think that this passage suggests that God foreknew His people by looking down the years of time to see whether or not they would believe the message of the gospel. If mere prescience of that nature is what is meant, God would also foreknow all those who would refuse His salvation; but the passage is clear that all who are foreknown are predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son. Before time began, God, according to His purpose, foreknew people. And it is according to that foreknowledge, rather than their faith, that His people are elect, 1 Pet. 1. 2.
Those who are foreknown, and no others, are predestinated. ‘Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate’, Rom. 8. 29. This is not predestination to faith, or to heaven, but to be conformed to the image of His Son. One day His Son’s brethren will surround Him, all like Him for His glory’s sake, for He will be the firstborn among them.
Thou gav’st us, in eternal love,
To Him to bring us home to thee,
Suited to Thine own thought above,
As sons like Him, with Thee to be.
John Nelson Darby
It could only follow that the foreknown and predestinated would be called. Everyone who is saved has been called according to divine purpose. And not only so, but such are justified because they are called. In Romans chapter 4, people are justified because they believe; in chapter 8, they are justified because they are called. This is God acting sovereignly in accordance with purpose. The glorious outcome of all of this for His people is that they will be conformed to the image of His Son, but what lies behind it all is that God is acting for His own glory.
Salvation cannot be experienced without God’s working
The call of faith, Rom. 10. 13, is so simple. It is expressive of unconditional, unqualified, childlike trust in the Lord. It arises from a believing heart. This, in turn, springs from the fact of hearing of Christ in the message of the gospel. But people shall not hear unless a preacher is sent. It is God who sends the preacher. Therefore, behind every case of salvation there is a process in which God has acted first. It is His will that the sound of the gospel be heard throughout the world, heralded by divinely-sent preachers.
But there is more that God does prior to a person believing the gospel and being saved. In 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 2, and 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13, it is clear that the Spirit of God is at work in the hearts of those who will believe in a way that is never predicated of the lost. Both these passages speak of the sanctification of the Spirit as a pre-conversion work of God. In 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 2, it leads to ‘obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ’. This obedience is not a reference to the obedience of the believer to the Lord in the course of his Christian life, with blood sprinkling being available in the case of disobedience, but rather it is the ‘obedience of faith’.2 This is the yielding of the will to God, which is a necessary ingredient in every true conversion. In 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13, the sanctification of the Spirit leads to the same thing, which is stated to be ‘belief of the truth’. In both cases it is stated that the sanctification of the Spirit is linked with, and is because of, the truth of election, of people being chosen. Election is clearly linked with the salvation of individuals in both passages.
That work of the Holy Spirit before conversion is necessary because of the condition of man before God. It is often said that many false doctrines develop from a wrong view of the state of unregenerate man. Help is afforded to us in this connection by Ephesians chapter 2. Again, the whole chapter, but especially the first ten verses, approach from the standpoint of divine sovereignty in salvation. The sinner is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. Some say that this means merely that man is separated from God, but this is a weak understanding of what is stated. Man has no principle of life towards God, and it is only as God intervenes in rich mercy that quickening can occur. Left to himself man will always choose that which is disobedient to God, because the flesh is incapable of being subject to God, Rom. 8. 5-8. It is mercy that intervenes in the life of the sinner to bring him to the point of yielding his rebel will to God.
Salvation is not primarily for man’s benefit
It is helpful to remember in considering these matters, and basic to a right understanding of them, that salvation is not primarily for man’s benefit but, rather, for God’s glory. God delivered Israel from Egypt not simply to relieve them of the affliction of the taskmasters, or to show His power at the Red Sea and in the wilderness, or to bring them into the Promised Land, but in order that they might be His peculiar treasure, a people for Himself. In this church age, it is not any different. Gospel preaching is in danger of becoming increasingly humanistic, as if it is all about man. The gospel is not primarily that man might not be in the lake of fire with all its misery, and found, instead, in the happiness of heaven. It is not merely devised for man’s greater happiness. No! God has acted, and acts, for His own glory in it all.
It is for this reason that God has not left the outcome of His purpose to the will and whim of fallen man. He calls generally, in terms of the proclamation of the message, Rom. 10, so that no one will ever be able to blame God for not being saved. Such is the work of Calvary that provision has been made for all; it could not be otherwise, for the sacrifice was of infinite worth. Man chooses not to believe, loving his independence of God in will and action. Lawlessness marks man, for that is the essence of sin, 1 John 3. 4. He therefore calls effectually, Rom. 8. 29-30, so that divine purpose will be accomplished. Foreknowledge and election closes the door to no one, neither does it limit the blessing. It secures a people for His glory when otherwise there would have been none.
The outcome of it all is articulated by the apostle, after he has ended a section of the Epistle to the Romans concerned with the sovereignty of God in His bringing men into blessing, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen’, Rom. 11. 33, 36.
- Eph. 1. 6, 12, 14.
- See Rom. 1. 5; 16. 26.