Do people choose or refuse to believe, or does God choose who is saved?

As my small group was using the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, a question came up in 2 Thessalonians.  In one section, Paul says that some will perish “because they refused to love the truth.”  But in the very next section, he tells the Thessalonians, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved.” The first statement seems to place agency in the hands (and hearts and minds) of individuals, while the second one seems to imply God’s agency in determining who is saved. How do we reconcile ostensibly contradictory statements that are right next to each other?  What is the bigger picture we are missing?

This isn’t the only place in the Bible where God’s sovereignty and human moral responsibility are asserted in the very same place.  For example, Peter says about Jesus in his message on the day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

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Benjamin West, “St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost”

It seems to me that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two sides of a mystery or paradox that we today have much more difficulty reconciling and living with than the biblical authors did.  So how can we reach the place where we’re as comfortable with this paradox as they were?

I find it helpful to think about this by analogy to the understanding the community of Jesus’ followers eventually reached, after centuries of debate, about whether he was divine or human.  The answer was, “Both.”  The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed in AD 451 that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  That is, he was somehow 100% divine and 100% human at the same time, without it being possible to say which things he said and did as God and which things he said and did as a man, and without either nature getting in the way of the other.

We might say similarly that when a person is saved, this is the result of a process or action that is “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, after all, that when people “refuse to love the truth and so be saved,” “God sends them a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie.”  Divine and human agency working simultaneously—in this case, unfortunately negatively, but the same thing happens positively when a person is saved.

The practical takeaway is to acknowledge that we have a human moral responsibility to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation through the gospel, but also to acknowledge in all humility that our salvation is a work of God achieved only through the incarnation, life, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Do people choose or refuse to believe, or does God choose who is saved?”

  1. >> It seems to me that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two sides of a mystery or paradox that we today have much more difficulty reconciling and living with than the biblical authors did.

    What do you think is different beetween the time of the biblical authors and now? Why do contemporary people have more difficulty with the paradox? (This might be more of a “historical” question than a theological one.)

  2. I think that ancient cultures, like traditional cultures today, saw the world as infused with divine activity, so this activity was taken for granted as involved in anything that happened. When people did something, that’s just one more layer. Even in the Middle Ages there was an appreciation for a variety of “causes”–material, formal, efficient, and final–all at work behind an event. But we are heirs to a scientific and intellectual tradition that things in terms of single causality, and that may be why we have a greater problem with paradoxical simultaneous causes.

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