John 6:37, 44, 65, and 3:16 draw our attention to two equally valid principles—God’s sovereignty whereby He brings people into a relationship with Himself and man’s volition or responsibility to personally trust in Christ. Both truths are taught in the Word, though, they seem to contradict each other. This is what many refer to as an antinomy and something that is in many ways beyond our ability to comprehend in this life.
As a result, many have swung in an imbalanced way from one side of the argument to the other. Either God’s sovereignty and election of some to salvation is stressed excluding man’s responsibility to choose, or the opposite occurs. As a result, five point Calvinists believe that Christ’s death is limited in its scope, i.e., He died only for the elect, and not for the whole world. So they would restrict John 3:16 claiming it is not all inclusive, but only applies to the elect—Christ died for the whole world of the elect. I personally believe this to be in error. Scripture teaches Christ died for all—unlimited atonement. First John 2:2 tells us that Jesus Christ and His death “is the propitiation not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.” In fact, 1 Timothy 2:3-5 reads, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Further, 1 Tim. 4:10 says, “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” In other words, through Christ, God has made the provision of salvation for all people and desires that, but only those who personally believe will and can experience that salvation.
Because of man’s condition in sin, man cannot come to God on his own (John 6:37, 44, 65), but as another passage in John also illustrates, Christ seeks to draw all men to Himself as the One who lights every person.
John 1:9. There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.
John 6:32. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
2 Pet. 3:9. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come (literally, “have room for, be open to, progress, comprehend”) to repentance.
Rom. 2:4. Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads (this is what grammarians call a voluntative present = “attempts, desires to lead”) you to repentance?
With this in mind we see that there are plenty of other verses that emphasize man’s responsibility to personally believe like John 3:16-18 and 36; Tit. 3:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3. I believe we must keep both aspects of the equation in mind: first there is the sovereignty of God, His work to bring men to faith, and the truth of election, but there is also man’s responsibility to believe and respond the grace of God.
How do we understand these two seemingly contradictory truths? We don’t, but both are taught in Scripture and they must be each held in balance or we move into error and imbalance. We have the same kind of issue with the person of Christ as undiminished deity and true humanity united in one person. Both of these truths must be held or we move off into what the cults are promoting.
An excellent book that deals with this is Unraveling the Big Questions About God by Ken Boa, a Zondervan publication. Unfortunately, I think it is out of print, but you might be able to find a copy through www.amazon.com.