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A look at the theology of Christmas. An exposition of Philippians 2:3-11.
I hope you see now why this doctrine of God’s sovereignty is so important. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation, the doctrine of the bondage of the human will, it’s subjection in its unregenerate state to the power of sin and its subjection always to the sovereign will of God, was and is, indeed, the ” grand hinge upon which the whole turned.” It is the doctrine that informs and implies the other doctrines of grace. It keeps us safe in the gospel.
Only by understanding that God has caused us to be born again can we maintain orthodoxy and avoid contradictions in our theology. It’s a shield against the addition of works or any human merit to grace. The human will is free to do as it pleases, but what it pleases to do apart from God is only sin all of the time.
It has no power to do anything authentically good entirely with the right thoughts, motives, and action. Only by the regenerating power of God is the human will made alive, then irresistibly drawn to Christ. Election, regeneration, justification, glorification, and all of the gracious gifts of God on your behalf are all connected by the sovereignty of God, by the immutable eternal decree of God.
In the end, this doctrine of God’s sovereignty does what all true things do. Anything true exalts the glory of God. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty, the corresponding doctrines of grace and attributes of God, all of these exalt the glory of our God who saves.
Behold your God, perfect in knowledge, absolute in power, waiting for nothing, dependent on no one, King of kings, Lord of lords, mighty to save, the One Who elects, the One Who regenerates, the One alone in Whom is found all of the elements of the salvation of a people for His own possession, and for His own glory, the Sovereign of the universe! Soli deo gloria!
Note: This is only about 1/3 of the full article. If you would like to read or download the full text of this article, please visit the Reformation Series page.
Regeneration and the Freedom of the Human Will
So what does all this mean for the doctrine of the human will? Do people have free will or do they not? The testimony of Scripture is this: people have the freedom to do as they please, and God exercises absolute sovereign control of every human thought and act. Prior to regeneration, people have the ability to do as they please, and all that they can please to do is sin.
Prior to regeneration, they can do nothing truly righteous and free from the stain of sin. It is not possible for the unregenerate person to do anything meritorious, anything perfectly righteous. After regeneration, the will is changed, so that it is now capable of doing things that are truly good, truly God-glorifying.
But even after regeneration, the human will is not “free” in the sense that it is now free from the sovereign hand of God. The will is never free in that sense. God is always sovereign over everything, including human decisions.
God has caused us to be born again
He has caused us to be born again. Now, understand this – He has caused it, as He causes all things! The Scripture is explicit and unequivocal on the sovereignty of God in all things. Psalm 136:5, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” If it happens, He does it. Here, the Holy Spirit tells us explicitly, He has caused us to be born again. He didn’t encourage it, didn’t make it possible, didn’t permit it, didn’t give some sort of spark of life, or seed of righteousness, or whatever – He caused us to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
He has caused all of this, all of the hope of Heaven, all of eternal life, all of it. He has caused our salvation. It doesn’t say he cooperated in it, hoped for it, wanted it, suggested it – He caused it. This cannot be interpreted away as something God does partially, cooperatively, synergistically. He has caused us to be born again. 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” He didn’t come to make salvation possible for the human being to accept! He came to save. The gospel is complete – God waits for no human being to complete it. Yes, the sinner must turn from their sin and put their faith in Christ, but the turning and the faith are gifts of God. The sinner is incapable of making these moves toward God in his own power.
Our certain inheritance belongs to the One Who caused it all. He doesn’t share His glory by only making possible what must then be apprehended by the sovereign free human will. He causes our salvation by doing all of the steps that are necessary, including exercising His sovereign control over the human will.
God has caused us to be born again
He has caused us to be born again. God has caused this – this was caused by God, not by the human will. Or do you have an Arminian Bible in your hands today – one that says, “Blessed be you who according to your own great and powerful free will caused you to be born again”? No! God worked this rescue. It is God who caused us to be born again.
And why? Because of His great mercy, because of His purpose in election, because of His foreknowledge, His foreordination, His eternal decree. In eternity past, He has chosen a people for Himself, individuals with names written in the book of life, permanently, never to be blotted out. All men are completely helpless and hopeless and need a rescue, need salvation, and He has graciously, mercifully chosen some for His family. These are His elect. In time, He effects the rescue by first regenerating His sheep, first changing the minds and hearts and affections, giving us an understanding of our sin and a righteous fear of God, that we might realize our need for a Savior and desire to commit our lives to the Savior. The thief on the cross goes from mocking Christ to defending Him and seeking His favor. Paul is changed in a moment on the road to Damascus. God has caused us to be born again. “Salvation is from the Lord.” Jonah 2:9.
God has caused us to born again
We can mean nothing more or less by the term “will” than the entire spiritual aspect of a human being. The human will is the human spirit, and that will, was dead in trespasses and sins, unable to respond to the gospel, unable to move Godward at all. Luther says of free will, “If we do not like to leave out this term altogether (which would be most safe, and also most religious) we may, nevertheless, with a good conscience teach, that it be used so far as to allow man a “Free-will,” not in respect of those which are above him, but in respect only of those things which are below him; that is, he may be allowed to know, that he has, as to his goods and possessions the right of using, acting, and omitting, according to his “Free-will;” although, at the same time, that same “Free-will” is overruled by the Free-will of God alone, just as He pleases: but that, God-ward, or in things which pertain unto salvation or damnation, he has no “Free-will,” but is a captive, slave, and servant, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.”
John Calvin said, “When the will is enchained as the slave of sin, it cannot make a movement toward goodness, far less steadily pursue it. Every such movement is the first step in that conversion to God, which in Scripture is entirely ascribed to divine grace.”
Prior to regeneration, then, the human will is dead and helpless. It is free to do as it pleases, but subject to the sovereign hand of God and capable of doing only what is consistent with its unregenerate, reprobate sin nature. We must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. We need that first step in our rescue to come from God – His gracious quickening and awakening to the gospel. Is this a free will?
John Calvin, “In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title?”
The unregenerate human will is free in the sense that it does as it pleases, but not free from slavery to sin, and no man’s will is ever free from the sovereign hand of God.
So that’s what it means to be born again. We needed to be born again, and God caused us to be born again because we were otherwise dead in our sins and completely unable, in our own ability, to turn to Him.
 Luther, Martin, On the Bondage of the Will, Translated by Henry Cole, Wildside Press, LLC, 1931, pp. 55-56.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Human Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, 2.3.5, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p. 180.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Human Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, 2.2.7, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p. 162.
A Brief Outline
In this article, we’re going to see the Biblical, compatibilist view of the human will and the sovereignty of God in salvation and some implications of that truth by briefly looking at 1 Peter 1:3. We’ll then look at a competing view of the human will, libertarianism, as it was and is applied in Roman Catholicism, in the Arminian Remonstrance, and in the Socinian heresy. The goal is for all of us to understand the Biblical view of God’s sovereignty, that we may offer Him the gratitude and the glory that is His due AND so we can avoid adding anything to grace as we realize that salvation is entirely from God.
We will be looking at 1 Peter 1:3 and the phrase “He has caused us to be born again.”
This passage speaks of being born again, or what we call “regeneration.” What is regeneration? It’s a work of God that makes us alive spiritually, moves us from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 tell us that, before regeneration, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. This is obviously not a reference to being physically dead, but spiritually dead. What does it mean to be physically dead? What is a good definition of physical death? One good sign of physical death is an inability to respond to physical stimuli – a dead body doesn’t respond to light, to sound, to being touched or poked. In the same way, a spiritually dead person is unable to respond to spiritual stimuli, like the gospel. The gospel calls to the spirit of a person, calls to repentance and faith. But the spiritually dead CANNOT respond. Spiritual death implies inability, not frail ability. We are not called spiritually comatose or spiritually sick or spiritually injured, but spiritually dead. This is what we refer to as total inability, total depravity, or radical depravity. Mankind is totally incapable of responding positively to God.
Romans 8:8 says, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “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.”
This is the state of man prior to regeneration – totally depraved, totally unable to respond to the gospel. The natural man cannot will to do anything truly good. We must first be made alive spiritually so we become able to respond to God. God graciously makes alive each and every individual whom He has chosen in eternity past to be made holy and blameless in His sight.
Introduction – The Grand Turning Point of the Cause
“In this, moreover, I give you great praise, and proclaim it – you alone in preeminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down, though in vain! You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you. For in this kind of discussion I willingly engage…”
These are the words of Martin Luther in his De Servo Arbitrio, translated as “On Un-free Will” or “On the Bondage of the Will” to Desiderius Erasmus, as a response to Erasmus’ “On Free Will,” wherein Erasmus had defended his concept of the free will of man, particularly in faith, in salvation. Erasmus defended the idea that the human will is not subject to the sovereignty of God. For Erasmus, the will is totally free in the sense that there is no influence over it at all, by anything or anyone. This from Erasmus, “By freedom of the will we understand in this connection the power of the human will whereby man can apply to or turn away from that which leads to eternal salvation.” Note that it is the “power to apply to or turn away from that which leads into eternal salvation.” To Erasmus, the will of the unregenerate man is able to turn to God, and the will of the unregenerate man is able to fully resist the gospel, whether or not we might call a person elect or non-elect.
This is the essence of the concept of what we’ll call libertarian free will. This use of the word “libertarian” has no relationship to libertarianism as a political movement or party. Libertarian as it applies to the human will is the idea that human beings make decisions without any sort of determinism. Choices are absolutely free in the sense that they are not determined by anything outside of the will itself.
If people have free will in the libertarian sense, then God exercises no control, no influence, and is not sovereign over the decisions of human beings. Human beings would be the sovereigns – we would each be the sole determiners of our decisions. God could assert no control and no influence – even at the point of conversion.
Luther, on the other hand, argued that people have free will in a compatibilist sense – as far as we know, we are free to do as we please, but God works through our preferences and constrains and mind in such a way that our choices are aligned or “made compatible” with His will of decree, His will of purpose. We will always do what He has decreed in eternity past. We do it freely, without being forced or compelled by God, yet it is always directed by, governed by, caused by the sovereign hand of God. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” Likewise Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
For Luther, then, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, God’s control, over the will of man, was central to the “cause,” – the Reformation itself. God’s sovereignty over the will, especially God’s sovereignty in the salvation of man, is “the grand turning point of the cause” and the “grand hinge upon which the whole turned” and the “vital part” of the theological and practical reforms that Luther and others embarked upon. This doctrine is, in fact, essential to a consistent and orthodox understanding of the gospel and of many of the essential attributes of God.
 Luther, Martin, On the Bondage of the Will, Translated by Henry Cole, Wildside Press, LLC, 1931, p. 259
 Erasmus, Desiderius, On Free Will, Translated by E. Gordon Rupp, P. Watson, The Westminster Press, 1969, p. 35
Gordon Hunt, missionary to Paraguay for over 35 years, preaches from the book of Matthew on the topic of FAITH.