Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Free Will" and Evangelism

by Bruce Mills

Most of my Christian friends—other than many of those who attend my church and a few others—are Arminians in their doctrine of salvation. That is to say, they believe that every person has the ability in and of himself to choose to receive Christ as Savior. For the vast majority of them, this viewpoint is based entirely on their own experience in coming to faith in Christ. It is not based on any in-depth study of the doctrine of salvation and the differing viewpoints of James Arminius and John Calvin. For most of them, it is entirely centered on their own human understanding and perspective of salvation, without any effort to understand the critical issues which are involved.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that it simply is not found in Scripture. The Bible constantly portrays man as completely dead in sin, enslaved to sin, and totally unable to choose to do anything other than sin. Man is not merely spiritually sick—he is spiritually dead! He is a religious and moral cadaver. Therefore, man rejects the gospel because it is man’s nature to do so.

So then, no one has “free will” as defined by the Arminians, because a person’s will is the extension and invariable expression of his nature. No creature ever acts in violation of its nature and, therefore, every person willingly chooses to reject the gospel because that is the desire of his heart. No one is free to act or choose contrary to his nature any more than an orange tree is free to produce almonds. Thus, no one seeks to come to Jesus because it is not his nature to come. In fact, it is man’s nature, and therefore his will, to flee from Christ.

So why is it that, when confronted with the gospel, a person may choose to believe the message regarding his lost, sinful condition and God’s forgiveness through Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and then come in repentance and faith to believe? It is only because God, in His sovereign grace, grants that person the faith to believe.

I recently read a wonderful quote from George Whitefield, written back in the 18th century, which illustrates what I have been saying. Whitefield wrote:
“Come, ye dead, Christless, unconverted sinners, come and see the place where they laid the body of the deceased Lazarus; behold him laid out, bound hand and foot with grave-cloaths, locked up and stinking in a dark cave, with a great stone placed on top of it. View him again and again; go nearer to him; be not afraid; smell him. Ah! How he stinketh. Stop there now, pause a while; and whilst thou art gazing upon the corpse of Lazarus, give me leave to tell thee with great plainness, but greater love, that this dead, bound, entombed, stinking carcase, is but a faith representation of thy poor soul in its natural state; for, whether thou believest or not, thy spirit which thou bearest about with thee, sepulchered in flesh and blood, is as literally dead to God, and as truly dead in trespasses and sins, as the body of Lazarus was in the cave. Was he bound hand and foot with grave-cloaths? So art thou bound hand and foot with thy corruptions; and as a stone was laid on the sepulcher, so there is a stone of unbelief upon thy stupid heart. Perhaps thou hast lain in this state, not only four days, but many years, stinking in God’s nostrils. And, what is still more effecting, thou art as unable to raise thyself out of this loathsome, dead state, to a life of righteousness and true holiness, as ever Lazarus was to raise himself from the cave in which he lay so long. Thou mayest try the power of thy own boasted free-will, and the force and energy of moral persuasion and rational arguments (which, without all doubt, have their proper place in religion); but all thy efforts, exerted with never so much vigour, will prove quite fruitless and abortive, till that same Jesus, who said ‘Take away the stone’; and cried, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ also quicken you.”
Why do I think this issue is important? Because we must always remember that while it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. God uses our evangelistic efforts as the instrument by which He accomplishes His sovereign purposes in bringing some to salvation, but it is His prerogative to bring about results when the gospel is given. If we ever begin to think that our gospel presentation can be so fine-tuned as to become an incontrovertible convincing argument which will cause individuals to see their sin and then, using their own “free will,” choose to believe and generate within themselves the faith and repentance that are necessary for salvation, the result will be that our methods will quickly degenerate into similarity with those of snake oil salesmen.

J. I. Packer puts it this way. He says that if we regard faith and repentance merely as the product of human effort, “we should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of the wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifying similar to the philosophy of brainwashing.”

It is only when we recognize God’s sovereignty in every aspect of salvation, from beginning to end, that we can avoid these errors as we share our faith. No decision for Christ is ever the result of a slick, well-articulated gospel presentation, and no rejection of Christ is ever the result of a stumbling, inept presentation of the gospel. Every person who comes to faith in Christ does so because God has chosen that person in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and then draws that person in time, giving him the gracious gift of faith to believe. Our duty as Christians is to do our best to share the gospel with everyone we can, using the most effective means available to us, but entrusting the results to our sovereign Lord.

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