While reading Anthony Hoekema’s immensely helpful work on soteriology, Saved By Grace, his articulation of the paradoxical tension between “God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility; both God’s sovereign grace and our active participation in the process of salvation” reminded me of the importance of terminology. The tension is between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, not between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.
Why is it important to couch the discussion in terms of man’s responsibility instead of free will? First, because these are two coexistent truths that must be allowed to stand in a biblical understanding of truth, with the concurrent reality that we accept them by faith not by logic. Second (the reason for this reflection), juxtaposing God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is fraught with danger simply because of what most mean by the term free will. For most who use this term the clear intent is that free will means I can do whatever I wish. The confusion/error is in the equating of the freedom to choose to do what I want with the ability to do whatever I wish. Freedom does not constitute ability.
Example 1: I may choose to be President of the United States but reality is that I seriously lack the ability to do that. Example 2: I may choose to be a better golfer than Tiger Woods but those who have seen me play know the dearth of my abilities and the dearth of my potential abilities in that arena. The problem is not simply a lack of practice. The short-coming has to do with innate ability.
Prior to knowing Christ my condition of being dead in my trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) rendered me helpless in the matter of salvation. I may choose or wish to be saved but the desire and the ability are not qualities I inherently possess. Both must come from God (Philippians 2:12-13). My responsibility is to respond rightly to God through the power He gives—not to somehow manufacture salvation on my own. When it comes to salvation, I am told to “work it out” not to “work it up.”