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XII. God's Drawing and Man's Responsibility

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? -- Rom. 9:20.

We have been emphasizing the truth of the statement that "whosoever will may come," and have repeatedly laid stress on the truth that there never was or will be a sinner willing to come to Jesus who finds the way barred, or who feels that he is restrained from approaching and appropriating Him and all His blessings of salvation. On the other hand, we also have been placing due emphasis on the truth that no man has of himself the will to come to Christ, and that no mere human persuasion can cause that will to arise in his soul. In as far as the hymn from which we derive our theme intends to convey the notion that it is in the power of every man to will to accept Christ, it is certainly false, calculated to instill into the hearts and minds of men the poison of Pelagianism. Salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy, Rom. 9:16. The will to come is the fruit of the drawing of the Father. And the number of the "whosoever will" is therefore limited to those whom it pleases the Father to give to Christ, to give them a new heart, and to call them out of darkness into His marvelous light. And preceding this drawing of the Father, there is no saving activity on the part of the sinner whatever.

This, you understand, takes the matter of salvation entirely out of the hands of the sinner, and leaves it absolutely to God. Salvation is a divine work from beginning to end. It is just as absolutely a work of God alone as is the work of creation. In no sense does man cooperate with God in his own salvation. God alone determines who shall be saved, and God alone accomplishes the work of salvation. Salvation is of the Lord. In the ultimate sense of the word, therefore, the will to come to Christ is rooted in, and is the outcome of God's unconditional, free and sovereign election of His own unto eternal life.

This truth, that God determines sovereignly who shall be saved, and who shall not be saved, the doctrine that God is GOD, that He is the sovereign Lord, even in the matter of the salvation and damnation of man, is not according to the flesh, and does not meet with general approval. How could it find grace in the eyes of sinful men? It humbles all the pride of man. It casts him prostrate in the dust. In relation to God it makes him a mere nothing. It presents him as he truly is, as less than a drop of the bucket and the dust of the balance. It leaves him no power, no wisdom, no goodness, no glory whatever. And it exalts God as the only sovereign Lord, Who is in the heavens, and Who doeth whatsoever He pleaseth, Who forms the light, and creates darkness, Who makes peace, and creates evil, Isaiah 45:7; Who is the Potter, while we are the clay, and Who forms, according to His good pleasure, vessels unto honor, and vessels unto dishonor. Rom. 9:21; and Who declares unto pharaoh: "Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth," Rom 9:17. How could it even be expected that this doctrine that exalts God and lays low all the pride of man, could find favor with sinful men, that always exalt themselves against the living God ?

Many objections are, and always have been raised against this truth, and we shall not discuss them all. There is, however, one objection that is as old as the truth itself, one that is supposed to expose the doctrine that salvation is of the Lord as both horrible and absurd, and which we may well examine for a moment. It is the well-known argument that the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty in the matter of salvation implies a denial of man's responsibility. If salvation is so absolutely the work of God that He alone determines it, and that man of himself can do nothing towards his own redemption and deliverance from sin, then, thus runs the objection, the sinner is no longer a moral agent, and God cannot justly hold him responsible in the day of judgment. The doctrine of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility stand in opposition to each other. They involve a contradiction. And, therefore, they cannot be true.

What shall we say in answer to this objection?

First of all, I would like to repeat that the objection is a very old one, and that it has always been raised against the truth of God's sovereign dealings with men in the matter of salvation. You may study the history of the Church and her doctrine, and you will discover that the principal objection of the opponents to the doctrine of absolutely sovereign grace was always the same. Always they accused those, who faithfully proclaimed this fundamental truth, that they made God the author of sin, and that they denied the responsibility of man. We may find comfort in this. In this very indictment, if brought against us, we may find a proof that we are preaching the truth. This is especially of force, in view of the fact that the same accusations were lodged against the apostle Paul, and that, therefore, this very objection is raised directly against the truth as revealed in the Scriptures. For in the ninth chapter of the Romans the apostle Paul is setting forth this same truth of God's sovereignty in the matter of salvation and damnation of the sinner. And there he meets two objections, which he knows will be and are being raised against this doctrine. The first is expressed in the question: "Is there unrighteousness with God?" And the second, denying the responsibility of man, is raised in the words: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted His will?" If, therefore, one proclaims a gospel against which these objections are not raised, he may well draw the conclusion that there is something wrong with his preaching; while on the other hand, those whose preaching causes these objections to be raised, may find comfort in the fact that they are in good company.

Secondly, I want to call your attention to the fact that the apostle Paul in the face of these objections does not apologize, does not withdraw one word of what he had written with regard to God's sovereignty in the matter of salvation. He does not answer that the objector had misunderstood his meaning, and that his objection was due to a misapprehension of his teaching. O, it is very evident that the objector understood the apostle as having taught God's unconditional predestination. Only on this supposition have the objections any sense at all. An Arminian preacher, one that presents salvation as depending on the sinner's free will, does not meet with these objections. No, the apostle had been teaching that salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy; and that, according to His sovereign good pleasure, God is merciful to whom He will be merciful, and whom He will He hardeneth. It is to this doctrine that the twofold objection is raised: then there is unrighteousness with God; and then man is not responsible, no one can resist his will. And if the objection had been due to a misunderstanding, the apostle could easily have removed the difficulty. In that case he would have modified his statements, and we would have found in the ninth chapter of the Romans something like the following: "But my dear man, you misunderstand me. You misconstrue my words. I certainly did not intend to convey the idea that God is sovereign even over the will of man; on the contrary, His sovereignty is limited by the will of man. He hardens only those that resist His sincere efforts to save them; and He saves whosoever will be saved." Surely, some such statement on the part of the apostle would have removed the very reason for the opponent's objection. But since the apostle writes nothing of the kind, it is evident that he concedes that the opponent had understood him correctly. In Romans 9 the doctrine of unconditional predestination is taught, and not the Arminian conception. Salvation is absolutely of the Lord. To this we will hold on the basis of Scripture, regardless of any possible objection by opponents.

Thirdly, I would like to point out that the apostle does not for one moment modify his teaching, by appealing to "another side" of this doctrine. He does not shift to "another track." This is often done by those who claim to believe in God's absolutely sovereign grace, and that exactly to meet the objections raised in Romans 9. They try to maintain a double faced theology. They profess to believe in the truth of absolute predestination and of God's sovereignty in the matter of salvation. But if the objection is raised that by this doctrine they violate the freedom of man and destroy his responsibility, they shift to another track. They say, that although it is true that God chose those that shall be saved, before the foundation of the world, and that He certainly saves them, yet. He also sincerely wills that all men shall be saved. They profess to believe that atonement is limited, and that Christ died only for the elect, yet, on the other hand, they also insist that God sincerely and well-meaningly offers salvation to all men. They admit that the sinner is dead in sin, and that of himself he cannot come to Christ, yet they preach that God sincerely, that is, with the purpose to save him, invites that sinner to come, though He does not give him the indispensable gift of grace that must enable him to come. And if you object that this is a plain contradiction, and that it is quite impossible for any believer to embrace both elements of this contradiction, they answer that this is a deep mystery, and that one must not curiously inquire any further into this profound truth.

Now, I like to emphasize that it should not be difficult for any believing Christian to accept mysteries. God is great, and we shall never comprehend Him, though by His own revelation we may know Him. He is the eternal One, and we are children of time. He is the infinite, and we are finite. He is the Creator of the heavens and of the earth, and we are mere creatures of the dust. He is the incomparable One, and He dwelleth in an inaccessible light. The more we contemplate Him, the deeper the mysteries become. Not to admit this, is to deny God! And, therefore, the believer does not claim that he can solve all problems, least of all those that concern God's relation to the creature. He does not deny mysteries. On the contrary, he loves them, and in the contemplation of them, he falls down in the dust, worships and adores. But with equal emphasis I insist that mysteries are not the same as flat contradictions, and that the latter are no mysteries, but plain nonsense. Either, God wills that all men be saved, or He does not: both cannot be true. Either, God sincerely offers a Christ that died for all men to every sinner, or He does not: to maintain both is simply impossible. Either, man has a free will to accept or reject Christ, or he is absolutely dependent upon sovereign grace: to maintain both is nonsense. And however this may be, if this double track theology were the proper answer to the opponents of God's sovereignty in the matter of salvation, we would surely find it in the ninth chapter of the epistle to the Romans. For in the strongest terms the apostle taught the truth of absolute predestination, and of God's sovereignty to save whom He will. And against this doctrine the objection was raised, that then God must be indicted of unrighteousness, and that man is without responsibility. Yet, the apostle does not point to another side of this truth. He does not apologize. He does not shift to another track. He leaves the truth to stand in all its implications.

In the fourth place, it must be pointed out that the objection that the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty destroys man's responsibility does not hold. The two do not contradict each other. The objection is not rooted in a logical difficulty, but proceeds from a sinful, a radically wrong, a rebellious attitude against God. The objector does not know his place. He is motivated by the desire to dethrone God, and to be God instead of Him. The lie of the devil: "Ye shall be as God," blinds his eyes, distorts his view, perverts his will. Sin, enmity against God Who is really GOD makes him argue that he will not be responsible to a God that is sovereign. This is clearly evident from the answer of the Word of God to that objector: "Who art thou, O man that repliest against God?" When the Scriptures say that God is sovereign even in the matter of man's eternal destiny, that He is merciful to whom He will be merciful, it is God that speaks. And when you or I object to this that then He cannot find fault, that He cannot judge me, and that we are not responsible to Him, we are replying against Him. But if man replies against God, he is rebellious. He must be reminded of his proper place. He is mere creature, and God is GOD! Man is a mere speck of dust one wipes off the balance, a mere drop of water that falls from the bucket. Nay, he is less than that. And if he will only understand his proper position and acknowledge it, he will no longer reply against God, nor will he foolishly argue that God's sovereignty eliminates his responsibility. On the contrary, he will understand that the greater God becomes, the more he becomes responsible to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. Man's responsibility in relation to God's absolutely sovereign dealings is a mystery, to be sure. I cannot fathom it. It is too deep for me. But it is no contradiction. The objection is foolish.

What is responsibility? It is the state in which I am under obligation to God. And man is for ever under obligation to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength. It is the state in which man stands in judgment before God, and is answerable to Him for his deeds. And that answerability God never destroys. Whether He hardens a man or irresistibly draws him by His grace and saves him, God always deals with man as a rational moral being. When he stands in judgment before God, and is called to account for his sin, the most hardened sinner will have to admit that he sinned because he loved iniquity and hated God and His righteousness, and that, therefore, he is worthy of damnation. When through the gospel he was called to repentance, he refused. When through the same gospel he was brought into contact with Christ, he would have none of Him and crucified Him afresh. And yet, with all his sin and rebellion against God he can only be subservient to God's sovereign counsel. God is the Lord, not man. Nor is it thus that the sinner is not conscious of this absolute Lordship of God. On the contrary, his own responsibility and the absolute sovereignty of God are indelibly written in his consciousness. And even in hell all the devils and the ungodly will forever have to admit, that they never prevailed against His will, that He is absolute Lord and does all His good pleasure, and that He is righteous when He judgeth! The voice of rebellion will then forever be silenced.

Nor, on the other hand, does God destroy a man's moral sense, when by His irresistible grace He draws him unto Christ, and makes him heir of everlasting salvation. Ask a believer why he comes to Christ, and he will answer: "Because I am lost in sin, and I know it; because I repent and long for forgiveness; because I hunger and thirst after righteousness, and I see and know Christ as my only righteousness before God; because I desire to live in God's fellowship and according to His precepts, and I know that this is possible only through the grace of Christ. I want to come to Him!" Yet, ask that same believer again how he came to know and acknowledge all this, and he will answer without hesitation: "Only through the sovereign, irresistible grace of God in Christ, that drew me, that gave me eyes to see and ears to hear, and a heart to yearn after Him. My salvation is of the Lord!" And in heaven the redeemed children of God will for ever walk in highest and most perfect freedom, yet they will always acknowledge that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. No flesh will ever glory in His presence!

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Last modified, 26-Apr-1998