Several years ago when I began a sermon on the early part of Ephesians chapter one, I said something like, “This morning we want to talk about God’s work in salvation, specifically His election of sinners to salvation. And as I said the word ‘election,’ some of you instinctively bowed up and already feel resistant to what I’m about to say.”
After the service, one man approached me and said, “When you said, ‘some of you are bowing up,’ that was me.” My friend was an illustration of the reality that the truths that expound the work of God in our salvation — doctrines like foreknowledge, predestination, and election — are resisted by many. Much of that resistance is often put in terms like this: “But I do have a part in my salvation. I exercise faith in Christ and that faith is a work and it is my decision.”
Is that right?
It is true that to receive the gift of God’s grace, one must believe (have faith alone) in Christ’s work on the cross. But to say that we believe in God’s sovereignty in salvation does not preclude faith. Scripture itself testifies that faith is necessary to receive the gift of salvation. Consider just a few verses in Romans.
In Romans 3:28, Paul affirms that man is “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Further, the one who “believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5). In fact, all of Romans 4 is an explanation of the necessity of faith for salvation.
However, it is not faith that saves the individual. Faith is merely the mechanism through which salvation is received and justification is applied to the believer. Paul is explicit in Romans 3-4 that justification is by God, and not by faith (note carefully the distinctive meanings of the prepositions — salvation is by [i.e., brought about by] grace and through [received through the mechanism of] faith). Notice what Paul says:
- Several times Paul says we are justified — that is we do not justify ourselves, and faith does not justify us (3:24, 26, 28, 30; 4:3, 5, 24-25).
- Paul also explicitly says that God justifies us — “He [God] would be just and the justifier…” (3:26) and “God…will justify” (3:28). Justification is the monergistic act of God — He alone saves sinners apart from any contribution by them.
We must also remember that faith is no work; faith is that which says, “I can’t, God must.” As has been said, “Faith is the empty hand that receives salvation.” Even when faith is exercised, Paul emphasizes that God is still the One who saves (3:30).
It has also been noted that we all innately believe in God’s sovereignty — and we prove it when we pray in two particular ways:
- We acknowledge belief in God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation when we pray for the salvation of specific unbelievers we know, asking God to save them; if we believe that man is sovereign in salvation and not God, then we should not pray for the salvation of sinners. But because we do believe God is sovereign, we do (rightly) pray.
- We acknowledge belief in God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation when we pray with thankfulness for our own salvation — and we only give thanks to Him because we know that He originated the plan and process and end of our salvation. From beginning to end, He is responsible, and our prayers reflect that truth.
As J. I. Packer noted, “On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.” [Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.]
So I have a part in my salvation? No. My justification is the result of God’s gracious eternal plan, His execution of that plan through Christ, and His fulfillment of that plan in justifying, sanctifying, and glorifying all those who believe in Him. We contribute nothing to our salvation, except our sin nature and sin which need justifying.