Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Reformer Martin Luther believes that this verse is intended to show that while God does not exclude our willing and running, no matter how much a person wills and runs, they do not owe any progress to their own strength, but to the mercy of God, since it is He who gives them the power to will and to run. Luther then recalls what Paul told the Philippians: “God is at work within you, helping you want to obey Him, and then helping you do what He wants.”1 Luther then goes on to admonish his readers by saying that no one should get all wrapped up in speculation about what God insists on or what He will allow them to do through their freewill. Luther says, that if your mind is not yet sanctified you may end up in a pit of anxiety and despair. One should begin by putting everything negative and doubtful out of their mind and concentrate on what Jesus went through and the wounds He received by doing God’s will. This is the best theology, in the sense that we understand and use that word2.3

John Calvin has two points to make on this verse. First, he says that any doubt or controversy about our election and adoption as children of God have nothing to do with God’s choice. Neither will our determination, nor to our trying hard, nor to our efforts effect that calling. It rests solely on the counsel and wisdom of God. That way, none can proudly think of themselves as having been elected because they deserved it. Also, no one can give themselves credit for winning God’s favor. In other words, it is wrong to think that one has even the tiniest bit of worthiness that might impress God. Why else would Paul say that Christ died for us while we were still in sin?4

Simply put, it depends neither on our will or our efforts, we were counted among the elect solely because of God’s goodness and mercy. Furthermore, those who would try and reason from this passage that any striving or effort on our part is useless has missed the point. Calvin says that Paul does not touch on what is in us, he concentrates on what God put in us to affect His will with our own willing and running. Therefore, it is a misconception to insist on willing and running because Paul says clearly we cannot make it happen on our own.5 Whatever God saw that caused Him to call us into His family, that is the only thing that counts and will affect our willing and running. When you see this phrase of willing and running, think of what Paul said about how he had finished the course.6

Calvin then comments on the two statements from Augustine and Pelagius we included above to show the difference in their thinking: He writes that Pelagius attempted to use very sophisticated logic to get around what Paul is saying here by advocating, “It is not only of him who wills and runs but also because God will assist him.” Augustine acutely counters this in his rebuke by saying, that if man’s freewill is not denied as having any role in their election, it is not the only cause but only part of it, then we might as well say that it takes a combination of man’s mercy and God’s mercy working together in mutual agreement because one reciprocates to the other. It’s another way of saying that when God says,”I love you,” we, in turn, say, “I Love You,” then we agree to love each other mutually.

Such a concept immediately falls apart because of its absurdity. Let us be clear, the salvation of those whom God is pleased to save can only be attributed and ascribed to His mercy. Nothing a person can do or say will change that.7 If I would have been present at this time, I may have been bold enough to ask both Augustine and Pelagius to explain their view based on the following Scripture: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.8 For me, it does take some cooperation on a person’s part to accept Christ’s invitation. But I would adamantly refuse to believe that Christ saw anything in that house, the door to that house, or that person who answered the door in that house that gave Him any reason to be there because they deserved a visit. He was there by His own design and according to His own will.

However, Adam Clarke draws from the First Covenant to make his point on this subject. He concludes that from what he reads here, the calling and making of anybody as part of the body of Christ is determined only by the will and wisdom of God alone, not because it was someone’s idea, wish, hope, or dream. Look at Isaac’s desire to give the birthright to Esau who ran out to hunt for venison to please his father. But Jacob got it instead, and that by deception. Both Isaac and Esau were disappointed. But it proved to be God’s sovereign will, not man’s will. And it was nothing that Isaac, Esau, Jacob, or Rebecca did that convinced God to do it this way. It had been decided a long time ago before any of them existed. God was planning on raising up a great people, not just a great person. There are many other examples that can equally prove this point.9

So where does this put us? It is more than a case of semantics, it is a case of selection. Pelagius says that man does play a part in responding to the call of the Holy Spirit to salvation. Because, unless he desires to be saved and responds to God’s offer, salvation cannot be received. On the other hand, Augustine insists that man’s will or desire to be saved plays no role in his salvation, that it is God’s call because man can do nothing to persuade God to offer salvation. Then Clarke maintains that the offer of salvation must come from God, but even though man does nothing to seek it, and in some cases even resists it, God’s love, grace, and mercy will continue the effort for all mankind to be saved. So when a person does come to accept salvation, they can’t turn around and say I’m glad I sought God until I found Him, nor can someone else say I’m sure glad God found me and saved me even though I didn’t know what was going on. Rather, they thank God for saving them, even when they were obstinate at first. Rather, God said to them: When you came to your senses, your willingness to be saved was the reason I selected you. But without God’s help in bringing them to their senses, they would still be lost. This seems to be the point Paul is about to make.

In light of the argument being pursued by Paul defining the rock-solid foundation upon which salvation is built, Robert Haldane shares his view that salvation is not the result of man’s freewill, nor from any effort he may exert in trying to achieve it on his own. It is entirely the result of God’s mercy granted to whom He pleases. So the question is, is there a principle found in God’s Word that supports the idea of self-righteousness? Is the Bible the Word and Will of God, or a self-help book? Can a person really decide to do it on their own or opt out and let God handle it? The truth is, neither one. God decides and those who are called must then reply. No salvation can be ascribed to a person’s good will, good intentions, good character, or good works. It is solely dependent on God’s purpose according to His election of those who will be saved. It is not accomplished by man’s deeds, but by God decision10.11 Did not the Apostle John tell us about Jesus: “He came unto His own, but His own received Him not?12

Albert Barnes also examines this topic. As he sees it there is no effort more intense and persevering, no struggle more arduous or agonizing, than when a sinner seeks eternal life. Even if they design the best plan the human mind can conceive, salvation will elude them. The facts are if someone is pardoned it will not be based on their own effort. This has nothing to do with trying, it’s simply because God is the one who chose to pardon them. All the grieving, crying, anxiety, prayers, and agony is not enough to pressure God to forgive them. They are forever dependent on God’s mercy to either save or not save them at His will. Nothing sinners can do, and no matter how hard they may try it does not make God obligated to pardon them any more than a guilty, convicted, criminal. Even though they tremble with the fear of execution and the embarrassment of their terrible crime, no judge or jury is under an obligation to acquit them out of pity.

This is the message that the Gospel must deliver to every sinner. Otherwise, they will not wake up and know how hopelessly lost they are. Yes, the sinner should be deeply anxious, but distress does not guarantee delivery. Prayer is good, but not when the effort is to get God to feel sorry for them. Regardless of what the sinner seeking to find God on their own may attempt to do, and no matter what evidence they may offer as grounds for a pardon, they must realize and accept that any forgiveness and pardon is dependent solely on God’s sovereign mercy. To be saved is God’s will, to be lost is their will.13 So when we connect this to the role any person plays in their ultimate salvation, it is not a case of their freewill, but upon their will to be free.

On the subject of man’s freewill versus God’s elective sovereignty, Henry Alford reminds his readers that he purposely did not enter all the commentaries on this part of Scripture which attempt to reconcile the sovereign election of God with our freewill. Alford says he did so because the reader will find that when the time comes Paul will assert the purpose of man’s freewill for edifying purposes. At the moment, he is declaring God’s divine Sovereignty as He looks down on earth from above. Alford also is uncomfortable with those who insist that there is no hint in this passage related to the salvation of individuals. He agrees, that the main subject is the rejection of the Jews as a nation, but we must reserve our opinions if we do not recognize that God’s sovereign power and free election extend to every act of His mercy – whether temporal or spiritual – whether in Providence or in Grace – whether national or individual. Alford warns that it is in Scriptures like this, that we must be very careful not to miss what is actually written. We should not allow ourselves to compromise the plain and amazing words of God’s Spirit just out of caution. This is not what Christ Himself taught us.14

H. A. Ironside taught that apart from God’s sovereign grace no one would ever be saved because mankind has forfeited everlasting life to live in sin. As a nation, Israel owed all her blessings to God’s mercy and compassion. Had they depended on their own righteousness, they would have never made it out of the wilderness into the Promised Land. Furthermore, if it pleased God now to open His arms to the Gentiles to show them mercy, on what grounds does Israel have the right to complain? By doing so, God is not discarding man’s freewill to choose; He is not declaring that people have no responsibility for what they do or what they have become. Rather God is declaring that, apart from His sovereign mercy, no person would ever be saved or have the opportunity to find out His will and destiny for their lives.15

1 Philippians 2:13

2 Theology is the science of God which the existence, character, and attributes of God, His laws and government, the doctrines we are to believe, and the duties we are to practice

3 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 139-140

4 Romans 5:8

5 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

6 See 2 Timothy 4:7

7 Calvin: ibid.

8 Revelation 3:20

9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 184

10 See verses 12, 16

11 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 468

12 John 1:11

13 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 83

15 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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