God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility: What does it all mean?

Both positions affirm that man cannot save himself apart from God’s grace. Praise God that our sins and depravity were put on the only sinless One: our perfect, blameless Savior.

For centuries great theologians have meditated on the doctrines of salvation; we would be foolish to believe there is a simple definition to each position. Taking our cue from the Synod of Dort, we’ll explore the five points as a catalyst for a pilgrimage into soteriology (the study of salvation). To read a brief history on the doctrines of salvation, click here.

Defining the terms

Total Depravity deals with the condition of man’s heart. If humans are inherently corrupted by sin and bent toward disobedience to God, we are in desperate need of a Savior. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). Both positions affirm that man cannot save himself apart from God’s grace. Praise God that our sins and depravity were put on the only sinless One: our perfect, blameless Savior. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Unconditional vs Conditional Election questions the condition of man’s soul in “election.” Is election the same as predestination? Who are the “elect”?

In short, those who are saved are called the elect. “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6).

Unconditional election contends that God chose who would be saved apart from their potential faith or merits. We have been predestined to be saved apart from ourselves and solely on the merit of the cross, for God’s purposes. Conditional election suggests God chooses those He foresees will exercise their free will and have faith in Him. In other words, He chooses those who will choose Him.

Thankfully, understanding predestination/election is not a determining factor in our salvation. No matter where we land in this chronology, we can praise God that He did choose us: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

Power of Christ to save

Limited vs Unlimited Atonement addresses the scope of people atoned for in Christ’s death on the cross. This is an incredibly controversial point that many Calvinists do not hold to, and another area we must hold in tension. Neither side suggests there is any limit to the power or ability of Christ to save whomever He desires, but rather the question focuses on the specificity of who His death was for (TUPIP did not make as clear an acronym, but Particular Redemption may be a helpful synonym).

Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption narrows the work of the cross to those specifically within the elect. In His death on the cross, Jesus atoned for (saved) the elect and only the elect.

Unlimited Atonement broadens the scope of the cross and contends that Jesus died to make salvation possible for anyone. Many questions and ramifications come from this discussion, but above all we must agree that Jesus Christ did sacrifice His life for us on the cross so we might be reconciled with God. “More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). 

Irresistible (Efficacious) Grace vs Resistible (Prevenient) Grace may be the most central point in the question of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Rewinding for a moment, we remember that both positions affirm total depravity of man and the need for grace to save us. “Even when we were dead in our trespasses [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).

Here’s where that application gets messy: Irresistible grace recognizes that because man is completely dead in sin (incapable of doing anything to save himself), it is necessary for God to regenerate his heart prior to faith — repentance and faith would not be chosen if God had not first regenerated man’s heart. No one is being dragged kicking and screaming by irresistible grace, but rather they run to Christ because their hearts have been changed.

‘Take the water of life without price’

Alternatively, in resistible grace, “dead in sin” is read to mean simply “separated from God by sin.” Prevenient (preceding) grace proposes that in the midst of this separation, God intervenes with grace that “softens” the heart of man, creating an awareness and willingness to respond to the gospel. Ultimately, the human will is free to accept or deny prevenient (resistible) grace.

Undeniably (pun intended), grace is an essential ingredient in our salvation. Praise God for His grace to us. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

Perseverance of the saints vs Conditional perseverance finishes the exploration of the five points by talking about the ability of Christians to finish the race of faith. You may have heard it said, “Once saved, always saved.” This is the fundamental argument for perseverance. Because it is God Who calls, and God Who saves, it also is God Who keeps us. Although Christians will still continue to fall into sin, their regenerated hearts cannot be undone.

Conditional perseverance warns that a believer may fall away from faith (apostasy) and cease to participate in the promises of salvation.

Therefore, it is highly necessary to continue to persevere in spiritually maturing and pursuing the things of the Lord. No matter where you plant your flag, the relationship with Christ is never static. We are all called to press on in discipleship and sanctification.Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).

Concluding thoughts

Hundreds of books explore the topic of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and people continue to land on both sides of that tense rope. Information can be overwhelming and paralyzing. We are not meant to be paralyzed by great theological questions, but rather made thirsty for the only Living Water that can satisfy. The gospel message is not defined as reformed or unreformed. Theology that is technically correct but practically arrogant or self-centered loses sight of Christ. We must unite under the blood of the cross and handle disagreements humbly and charitably.

Calvin and Arminius dedicated themselves to thinking deeply on the ways of God, but more importantly, they were teachers and evangelists. We have the message of the gospel, and we must never dilute it with our traditions or opinions. All Christians have been commissioned to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Let your study of theology deepen your meditation on God’s Word, and above all, let it propel you to advance His kingdom!


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