The Role of the Will in Salvation
by Daryl K. Coleman
(Inspired in part by a sermon of Charles H. Spurgeon)

"So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but
on God who has mercy." Romans 9:16

"… let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of
life without cost." Revelation 22:17

The discussion over whose will is predominate in determining salvation is an old one, but one which can always profit from another voice. Is it man who determines the time and place of his own salvation, or is it God who determines this? More fundamentally, does man ultimately make the choice of his own salvation, or is this left to God alone? The easy and obvious answer to most people is that of course man makes this decision, because of his free will. This assumption has become the most common theology of modern evangelicalism, but is this true, according to the Bible? Does man really have total free will, as this view assumes? Can a man really become the sovereign over his own eternal destiny? And, considering the two passages of scripture quoted above, how can they be reconciled?

Before even discussing the issues noted above, one might ask, "Why is this even an important topic of discussion? Isn't this just something used by Satan to divide Christians and ruin their witness?" My answer to this question is, yes and no. Yes, it sometimes can be used by Satan to divide Christians and damage their witness to the Gospel of Grace, but also NO, this is NOT an unimportant topic to discuss and understand, because it IS something addressed many times in the scriptures, and therefore something demanding the attention and understanding of Christians. We are not only to read the Bible, but we are also to strive to understand it as best as we can, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In one of his sermons, Charles Spurgeon noted,

"I have heard of one man who said he had read the Bible through thirty-four times on his knees, but could not see a word about election in it; I think it very likely that he could not; kneeling is a very uncomfortable posture for reading, and possibly the superstition which would make the poor man perform this penance would disqualify him for using his reason; moreover, to get through the Book thirty-four times, he probably read in such a hurry that he did not know what he was reading, and might as well have been dreaming over 'Robinson Crusoe' as the Bible."

Put simply, salvation is of the Lord. To be more explicit, the work of salvation, from beginning to end, depends upon the will of God and God alone, and not upon the will of man. Now, the will of man has its proper role and will be addressed at a later point in this presentation, but at this point let it be said that man's will in salvation is entirely subordinate to the will of God in the work of salvation. Consider again our text from Romans 9:

"So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."

No man is saved because he wills it, but because God wills it. Now, the believing man may very well insist that he did exercise his will for Christ, as he perceives it (for nearly every Christian, at the new or second birth, is born an Arminian and holds this view), but God clearly proclaims that His will was the determining factor in this man's salvation. Two passages of scripture to help support this are:

"But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth." 2 Thessalonians 2:13

"You did not choose Me but I chose you…" John 15:16

Now think a moment about the fact that God has always been. There never was a time before God, because God has always been. God willed to create our universe and all that is in it, ex nihilo (something from nothing). God did not need any help from any other being to do this, and likewise needs and asks for no help to do anything else that He wills to do. In creation, God created and formed everything according to His will, just as he pleased. No where in scripture is it even hinted that God has ever given up His place of determining and causing all that we see and experience around us. It is His production. Hear, from the book of Daniel, the words of a newly enlightened Nebuchadnezzar himself:

"All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'" Daniel 4:35

From beginning to end, all events are according to the will of God. This is not to deny the role of second causes, which are things like the evil decisions of fallen man, or the magma of a volcano pushing up from the middle of the earth, but underlying all of this is the will of God, according to the scriptures. God is the first cause behind all second causes. Furthermore, since God is in control of each and every event, Paul could write

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28

This should give comfort to every Christian, to know that God has total and complete control over all events (and not just events perceived as good), and is working those events out for our good. With God, there are no accidents, no unforeseen events. When my own father died and went to be with the Lord at a young age, and when I was only 15 years of age, I did not understand that God was in control of all events, and I questioned how God could do such a thing to us. Since then, I have gained the comfort of knowing that there are absolutely no accidents with God. Let me be crystal clear on this point: There is not one event, however large or small, which occurs outside the will of God. Certainly, for the God who created the entire universe and every single thing in it, not even one atom or molecule escapes his notice and attention, even his very direction. Everything happens according to His gracious plan, and does work for good for His blood-bought people, believers. For this, I am thankful and would have it no other way.

Now, if you find any difficulty accepting this view that God's will entirely determines the direction of all events, and even the very salvation of believers, think for a moment about the mountain of difficulties with the opposite view, that being the view which says that it is man's will which determines the state of his own salvation. For, if you hold that salvation depends upon our own will, then you have made the purpose of God (who is infinite and perfect in all His ways) in the plan of salvation, to be entirely contingent upon the will and whim of men, who are finite and sinful. This is unthinkable, and quite unbiblical. Furthermore, once you introduce this contingency, it does not and cannot stop there. The death, burial and resurrection of Christ, while it might accomplish much in the redemption of many, may also not accomplish anything at all, since according to this theory the work of redemption is contingent upon the will of man accepting that redemption.

The Apostle Paul repeatedly referred to the unsaved as "slaves to sin" and "dead in sins and trespasses". Would we really believe there is more efficacy in the decision of one who is "dead in sins and trespasses" than in the will of God and the shed blood of Christ? Are we really prepared to make salvation contingent upon one who is dead in sins and trespasses? As Spurgeon said,

"Redemption is therefore made contingent; the cross shakes, the blood falls powerless on the ground, and atonement is a matter of perhaps. There is a heaven provided, but there may no souls who will ever come there if their coming is to be of themselves. There is a fountain filled with blood, but there may be none who will ever wash in it unless divine purpose and power shall constrain them to come."

Another problem with the view that has the will of man holding supremecy in salvation is that it ultimately elevates man to be the supreme being in the universe. According to this freewill view, the Lord God intends good and would do it, but for the unwilling man who can thwart God's will and prevent it from occurring. This idea, in effect, drags God from His throne and enthrones sinful, fallen man in His place, and then it is the creature, not the creator, who makes the final decision. This is indeed a far cry, though, from that passage in Romans 9: "So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." Also, it makes the words of Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Daniel, quoted above, a laughable joke. If you believe the Bible, then this just cannot be.

Let us go back, for a moment, and reconsider the condition of fallen man, as it speaks mightily against the notion that salvation depends upon his own will, and instead strongly supports the truth that it is God who chooses, God who takes the first step, and not the creature. If you hold to the theory that a man can come to Christ of his own free will, then what do you do with texts of scripture which say that man is dead?

"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins." Ephesians 2:1

What does the scripture mean here when using the word dead? Certainly, it is referring to the notion of being spiritually dead. And if this is the case, it follows that spiritually, one who is dead can do nothing, being that he is dead. So, how could such a person perform the spiritual act of exercising his will in the matter of salvation? The natural man is certainly alive enough to do that which is evil, but he can do nothing which is spiritually good. And speaking of the natural man, consider this scripture:

"But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." 1 Corinthians 2:14

Is it not abundantly clear from the scripture that God's intervention is necessary before man can act spiritually in response? The natural man, the unbeliever, will not and cannot accept the things of God, and considers them foolishness, nor can he even understand them.

So now, I ask you, if you be a Christian, "Who made you to differ from he who is an unbeliever? Was it you, or the Holy Spirit? To whom should the praise go, to yourself or to God? Further, if you long for the salvation of a friend, do you pray to God for his salvation, or do you pray directly to your friend for his salvation?" I have never yet heard a believer of whatever persuasion pray to anyone other than God for someone else's salvation, and I doubt you have, either.

Now, before moving on, I would like to speak a bit further on the issue of the natural man. In a recent (2004) US presidential election debate, the candidate for the democrat party stated, "We are all God's children." Is this true? Let us compare this man's opinion (which is the opinion of a great many folks) with what the scriptures say. First, Paul says:

"By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious; anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother." 1 John 3:10

The most obvious thing in Paul's statement is that it is very clear there are those who are children of God and those who are children of the devil. Any professing Christian who says otherwise is either ignorant of the Word of God, or is purposely speaking in contradiction against the Bible and against God. Also, consider the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, where Jesus says to them:

"Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father." John 8:43, 44

So in summary, while we can say that all people are creatures made by the creator, we cannot say that all people are children of God, for that would be in flat contradiction to Jesus and the scriptures. Only God's people, believers, can truly call him Father, Abba!

So now that we have established the our salvation depends entirely on the will of God and not on our own will, what do we do with scriptures such as this:

"… let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of
life without cost." Revelation 22:17

First, we must, as with all scripture, accept as truth what this is saying. At the same time, we must understand what it is saying in light and context of the rest of scripture. Every word in this verse is true, but we must ask several questions:
1. Who is or would be thirsty, and what causes this thirst?
2. Who would wish to take the water of life, and what would cause that person to wish to do this?

In a way this again brings us back to the condition of the unsaved or natural man, as discussed briefly before. Here is yet another passage of scripture, from the pen of the Apostle Paul, which speaks to this issue:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them."
Romans 1:18-32

Now, looking at the passage above, let me ask you, would the person described by that passage, in and of himself, have that thirst for the water of life mentioned in Revelation 22:17? Would the person described immediately above, left to himself, have any desire for God whatsoever? The only obvious answer must be NO. Where then, is hope to be found? Are we all to be left in this miserable condition? Before answering this question, let it be noted that man, left to himself, loves this condition and does not see it as a miserable condition. Man loves his sin, and as such does not naturally recognize his need for God or salvation. Only the intervention of God can change this. Donald Gray Barnhouse, the late pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, said that what was needed was for God to "tickle man's willer". What he meant by this is that God must first call the sinner or bring the sinner, through regeneration, to a place where the sinner then responds by faith to the Gospel. God gives that thirst, spoken of before. Hear God's word, from the Apostle Paul in the Book of Ephesians:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will…" Ephesians 1:3-11

Notice that Paul brings in the concept of adoption here. This is certainly no accident. With adoption, children of the devil are adopted and made children of God. No one, at their physical birth, is born into the family of God. No one is born a Christian! Believers are all adoptees, adopted into God's family by God's work of redemption, each in God's appointed time, bought by the precious blood of Christ. This, then, is the hope of the redeemed, whereby we who are His children can call our God Abba, Father. Further, as this passage points out, it is all due to the will of God. To underscore this again, look at the Gospel of John:

"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." John 1:13, 14

It cannot be any more clear than it is right here that it is the will of God which determines the salvation, the redemption, of those who become His children. Again, from the book of James:

"In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures." James 1:18

And lest anyone still think that a man can, in and of himself, come to God apart from God's will and calling, consider the words of Jesus, recorded in the sixth chapter of John:

"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

Further, God's will does not end with salvation, as it extends also to sanctification. In 1st Thessalonians we read Paul, writing to believers:

"For this is the will of God, your sanctification…" 1 Thessalonians 4:3

God not only brings his children to saving grace, but also wills to grow us in the faith also. And as we grow in the faith, we take great comfort in knowing…

"This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day." John 6:39

So, when we come to verses like Revelation 22:17:

"… let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost."

How are we to understand this, in light of what we have seen and read already? Simply put, we are to understand this as plain evidence that no one is compelled to salvation against his will. It says "let the one who wishes…". So, who wishes to take this water? According to the first chapter of Romans (quoted earlier), no one, except those who have been moved upon by God to have a change of will. Seeing that the unsaved are slaves to sin, only those who have been freed from this slavery will be free to choose God, and it is both perfectly biblical and logical that this freedom must be graciously provided by God, as He wills. So, the work of the Holy Spirit is to make unwilling men willing, by a supernatural change, which we call regeneration, to follow Christ. Still, so much of what the Holy Spirit does and how it is done is a mystery to our minds, but it is there for us to see nevertheless.

"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." John 3:8

Though we may not fully understand it, we take it for what it is and believe it. The gate to salvation is barred to no one who wishes to have Jesus as their savior, for the very fact that they wish it is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in preparing the way. The point in all of this is to say that moral suasion is not the way to salvation. People are not saved by first cleaning up their lives for God. Rather, it is the work of God in opening a man's heart to respond to the Gospel, the work of regeneration.


With all that has been presented here, it would be good to consider some real world examples to see where these truths might be applied. Most of these are supplied from this writers own experience.

I grew up in a tradition (Southern Baptist) which, though rooted in the Calvinistic view presented in this document, had been hijacked and converted from the late 1800's and early 1900's to the point that by the mid 1900's, the predominate view in that denomination was more of an Arminian view, holding to free-willism. Therefore, salvation was viewed as something which could be simply and humanly persuaded upon anyone, theoretically at least. As many know, a common practice in Southern Baptist churches (adopted in large part from the practice popularized by Charles Finney), is that of the altar call (they usually call it the invitation). A song commonly used in the altar call when I was growing up was this one:

The Savior is waiting, to enter your heart
Why don't you let Him come in?
There's nothing in this world to keep you apart
What is your answer to Him?
Time after time, He has waited before
And now He is waiting again,
To see if you're willing to open the door
O how He wants to come in!

I still remember singing this song, and I remember all of the emotional feelings and baggage which goes along with it, but I must say that these lyrics are theologically incorrect and unbiblical. Why? Because these lyrics assume that God has done everything He possibly can in getting an individual to salvation, and is now sitting on the sideline, biting His nails and waiting to see what this individual's decision will be. Do you see how this paints the picture of an impotent God, instead of the almighty, sovereign God of the universe presented in the scriptures? This song does exactly what was mentioned in the early part of this presentation, in that it casts all of the sovereignty onto the individual and takes it away from God. Who are we, mere creatures, to let or not let God, the creator of the universe, do anything? Thankfully, there has been a resurgence of sorts amongst some Southern Baptists of late and many are again coming to appreciate and understand the doctrines of God's sovereign grace, but still the weak and errant view of God and his sovereignty is rampant amongst evangelicals, even in the modern Bible Church movement, where many hold seeker-friendly services, under the impression that there is a need to reach out to those who are strangers to God's grace, but who are seeking, in and of themselves, for Christ. Now, I am all for evangelism, but it must be proceeded by the view that it is God who brings sinners to Himself, as he wills. Remember the passage from the first chapter of Romans, which clearly teaches that the natural man hates God, and actively opposes God in all things. People must be evangelized with the understanding that it is God who must break through and change man's will, and turn him around, bringing him through regeneration to faith.

Some who are opposed to this presentation will say that it kills evangelism. I know this to be true, as it is a charge leveled against our view countless times over the years. Funny thing, though, is that the modern missions movement was started by people who held and believed the very thing promoted by this presentation. Carey and Judson, commonly credited with being the fathers of the modern missionary movement, were strong Calvinists who agreed with the view put forth in this presentation. Most of the founders of the protestant reformation (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin) held to the view put forth in this presentation. Likewise, George Whitfield, believed by many to be the greatest evangelist to ever grace the North American continent, held the view put forth by this presentation.

Below is presented an illustration from a tract produced by the Moody Bible Institute Colportage Association from the early 1900's which depicts their flawed view of salvation, showing that both God and the Devil have cast their votes concerning your salvation, and it is up to you to cast the tie-breaking vote. Again, this is contradictory to scripture and is nowhere to be found in it, for it places God on the sideline and gives man the place of sovereignty in salvation. Sadly, a great many folks today hold to this errant idea regarding salvation.

At this point, I think it appropriate to mention some prominent names who, for lack of a better way of saying it, got it wrong. Charles Finney comes to mind as one who totally rejected the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and taught that men were not so damaged by sin that they could not come to Christ on their own, when and where they pleased. Hence, his evangelistic methods bore out his flawed theology, with the anxious bench and then the altar call being some of the hallmarks of his ministry. Finney held that man was not totally ruined by the fall, but was only wounded and could pick himself up and move towards God, with the proper encouragements. Finney's view went far beyond Arminianism, and would rightly be called Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian. Unfortunately, Finney's ideas and methods have had great impact upon modern evangelical methods and movements, damage which may never be undone prior to the return of Christ. Likewise, Billy Sunday was an evangelist who held views similar to Finney, whereby he would at least imply that if people would reform their lives (quit drinking, gambling, etc.), they could go to heaven. He was big on preaching the reformation of lifestyle, which is only wrong in that he was putting the cart before the horse. It is also worth noting here that Billy Sunday used devices like sliding across stage (he was a former baseball player) to entertain his audiences, and in my view brought shame on the gospel by these and other antics.

I am sorry to say that even Billy Graham, one of the most revered names in evangelical circles today and for the past fifty years, seems to hold to the arminian view which rejects the sovereignty of God in salvation. By all appearances, he is a sincere man whom I believe really desires the salvation of many, but his approach betrays his view that man can will himself to salvation when and where he decides.

One more time I would like to offer a rather lengthy quote from the Baptist pastor from London, England, Charles H. Spurgeon, upon this subject:
"You cannot vanquish a Calvinist. You may think you can, but you cannot. The stones of the great doctrines so fit into each other, that the more pressure there is applied to remove them the more strenuously do they adhere. And you may mark, that you cannot receive one of these doctrines without believing all. Hold for instance that man is utterly depraved, and you draw the inference then that certainly if God has such a creature to deal with salvation must come from God alone, and if from him, the offended one, to an offending creature, then he has a right to give or withhold his mercy as he wills; you are thus forced upon election, and when you have gotten that you have all: the others must follow. Some by putting the strain upon their judgments may manage to hold two or three points and not the rest, but sound logic I take it requires a man to hold the whole or reject the whole; the doctrines stand like soldiers in a square, presenting on every side a line of defense which it is hazardous to attack, but easy to maintain. And mark you, in these times when error is so rife and neology strives to be so rampant, it is no little thing to put into the hands of a young man a weapon which can slay his foe, which he can easily learn to handle, which he may grasp tenaciously, wield readily, and carry without fatigue; a weapon, I may add, which no rust can corrode and no blows can break, trenchant, and well annealed, a true Jerusalem blade of a temper fit for the deeds of renown."

Now, one might ask why God would do things in such a manner as this. I cannot say why, and I don't think anyone else can say for sure, as the Bible does not tell us why. But the fact that the why is not answered is absolutely no reason to reject what the Bible plainly states to be the truth. If God did not act in this absolutely sovereign way, none would be saved at all, and even if that were true, God would still be holy and just. If that were the case, man would be getting exactly what he deserves.

So, coming back to the beginning, does man have a responsibility in and for his own salvation? According to the scriptures, yes, for man must repent and believe in order to be saved. To the question, "What must I do to be saved" is given the answer "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved". And yet, the same Bible which teaches this, also teaches emphatically that man is totally unable to repent and believe, apart from the sovereign, special enablement of God. So, if you are at this moment a stranger to the grace of God, and see that you are a sinner in need of a savior, and also that you cannot come to God on your own merit, then I invite you to come to Him by trust in the completed work of His Son, Jesus Christ, on behalf of His people, and my prayer is that our sovereign God will enable you and call you to do just that.

Daryl Coleman, August 1, 2005

Back to Fenceposts