Does God withhold salvation?

Dom and I have been discussing atonement.  Its been an interesting and exhilarating way to grow…

This post serves as a continuation to the discussion that started here, was followed up here and which Dom has continued here.

The final issue that Dom raises is regarding my comment:

Salvation is offered to all – the whole world, but received only by those who believe.

To which Dom states:

“If one truly offers something, then one does not deliberately keep it from the person to whom it is offered.”

This is a common opposition to the viewpoint of sublapsarians (as we are called) on this issue.

Firstly, God does indeed harden hearts in order to make it impossible for individuals to believe – and he is not unrighteous in doing so.

Therefore, if God did make an offer and withhold it, he would not be unrighteous to do so.  In fact scripture states in a number of places that indeed He does withhold salvation.  For instance, Deut 29:4 which says “To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (cf Acts 28:26-27, Rom 11:8).

Typically the response to this is “thats not fair!”.  How can God do that to people and hold them accountable?  This argument is dealt with by Paul in Romans 9:19-21.  Prior to this passage Paul has been explaining that God has mercy on whomever He wills an he hardens whomever He wills” (Rom 9:18) which further adds to my previous point.  This leads to the following argument that Paul predicts in his reader:

You will say to me then “Why does He still find fault?  For who can resist his will?”  But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?

The point is that God made man for His purpose – not for mans own purposes.  He has made us all for different purposes, but all of which fulfill His purpose.  It is at this point that many so called believers switch off.  The reason for this is that they have supposed that the universe is at mans disposal and that Gods purpose for the universe is man – however mankind is a means to a far greater end for God.  This greater end is His own glory.  That is that man is made to make much of God.  We can deal with the accusations of ego another time, but for now the fact is that the glory of God is the most valuable thing in the universe and it would be wrong for God to view it any other way (as it is for us).

So God hardens whom He will and He has mercy on whom He will.

Secondly, Man is utterly depraved and left to his own devices will not seek God.  Rom 3:11 states this clearly when it states “no one seeks for God”.  That is to say that man in his sin is incapable of turning to the Lord as he does not even seek to do so.

This seems to further be acknowledged by Steven in his address to the Jewish Council when he called them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit”.  His point builds on the truth that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the Heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:28-29).  As they were uncircumcised in heart, (i.e. unbelieving) they always resisted the Holy Spirit.  This is the natural response of the unregenerate person.

Further confirmation of this in plain language is found in the following passages:

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14 )

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot (Rom 8:7)

These two points state that

  1. God can offer salvation to all and be just in doing it and
  2. that the offer can be made to all but man, without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, cannot receive it as he has no capacity to receive it

This is what Christ referred to when His disciples asked “Who then can be saved?”.  Of course in their thinking they had been conditioned to understand that wealth was a sign of holiness and the blessing of God.  So in their mind if the wealthy cannot be saved, then who can? Jesus answered by saying “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

That is to say that God alone is the hope of the unsaved.  As Dominic inferred – the Holy Spirit must bring about a change on an unbeliever – which is generally called regeneration.  It is also referred to as the new birth (being “born again”).  We find the new birth referred to in John 3:3.  Here the word translated “again” is often translated “from above” – see John 3:31, James 1:17, 3:15, 17 which all translate this word along these lines.  Thus the new birth is a second birth (as Nicodemus understood it to be), however, it is also the birth from above – meaning the new birth is from God.

We further read that even faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:8).  On Faith Rom 4:16 says “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace“.

Finally, there are good reasons why the call to salvation and repentance is a general call – some of which (there are many) I will put down here:

  1. In order to be offered at all, Christ’s sacrifice must be offered indiscriminately.  Otherwise, the preacher would need to know who was elect and who was not.
  2. The atonement is sufficient in value to atone for the sin of all men indiscriminately  – there is no sin of man for which an infinite atonement has not been provided (which speaks to my original point).
  3. God is not the one putting an obstacle in the path of the atonement being effective.  That is, God leaves the non-elect to do as he likes – which as we have seen is to reject Gods offer.  In fact – Gods kindness, forbearance and patience is meant to lead people to repentance (Rom 2:4)
  4. God desires that all should come to repentance (1 Tim 2:3-4).  God has the right and the ability to call upon the non-elect to something that He delights in, simply because He delights in it.

This is a huge topic and any one of these points could very well lead to more discussion.  It never ceases to amaze me that we are called to believe in Jesus Christ and be saved (i.e. a simple message to preach) – but the complexity of what happens under the covers is monstrous, and not for the faint hearted.  To be able to dig into the depths of salvation means to understand the plan and character of God, the design and failure of man, the nature of Sin, the work of Christ, the extent of atonement, a significant understanding of the sovereignty of the creator and significant time in the word of God.

In my humble opinion the most critical thing in the Gospel is the centrality of Jesus Christ in all aspects.  After all – by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through Him and for Him (Col 1:16).

I hope someone finds this useful 🙂

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