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Lesson 6: The Call of the Sovereign God (Acts 2:21, 23, and 39)

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The doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty versus man’s so-called “free will,” especially as it relates to our salvation, has sparked controversy in the church for centuries. John Calvin’s name is most often attached to this controversy, and some mistakenly think that he was the first to teach God’s sovereignty and the doctrine of predestination. But over 1,000 years before Calvin, Augustine contended against Pelagius, who insisted that men have full freedom of the will in spiritual and moral matters.

In 1525, while Calvin was still a teenager, Martin Luther strongly insisted on God’s sovereignty in all things, including man’s salvation. In his classic work, The Bondage of the Will [Revell, translated by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston), Luther attacked the views of the Roman Catholic scholar, Erasmus, who argued for a semi-Pelagian view. Erasmus said that men have free will, which he defined as “a power of the human will by which man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same” (ibid., p. 137). Luther vigorously denied this and argued that Erasmus’ views utterly destroyed the Christian faith and undermined the promises of God and the whole gospel (ibid., p. 84).

Although you may not know it, many of you are semi-Pelagian by default, since it is the prevailing view in American evangelical circles. Semi-Pelagianism is also called Arminianism, after Jacobus Arminius, who lived a generation after Calvin and opposed his views on predestination and free will. The Arminian view is that men can, of their own free will, choose to believe in Jesus Christ. The fact that God elects some to salvation is explained as being due to His knowing in advance who would choose Him. Arminians reject the doctrine that God chose in advance those whom He would save.

You may wonder, “Why bring up an issue that is so divisive? Shouldn’t we just focus on matters where we all can agree? Besides, isn’t the issue irrelevant to how we live? Why not focus on something more practical?” The answer is, because the Bible deals with these matters, so should we. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all maintained that the issue is crucial to the entire Christian life. Luther writes,

It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will. This bombshell knocks “free-will” flat, and utterly shatters it… (p. 80).

A proper understanding of the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty affects our whole understanding of God, of man, and of salvation. Since God saw fit to say a great deal about these matters in His Word, we would be greatly impoverished if we set them aside, as if they were just academic matters for debate. We must wrestle to understand what God has wisely revealed for our growth in grace.

The verses we have read in Acts 2 invite us to ponder this deep subject. They present to us God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, even over all evil deeds. They also show us the open invitation that the sovereign God issues to all sinners to call upon Him for salvation. And they reveal to us to fact that all who call upon the Lord were previously called by God, so that none can boast in his salvation. Note these three important truths:

1. God is sovereign over all things, even over all evil deeds, and yet He is untainted by evil.

Jesus was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (2:23). In Acts 4:27, 28, the early church declares in prayer that all of the wicked men who opposed Jesus merely did “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Nothing—not even the death of the Son of God—happens outside of God’s predetermined plan. Paul states with regard to our salvation, that we have “been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Let’s explore three aspects of this important truth:

A. God’s eternal decree encompassed sin and yet He is not the author of sin or responsible for it.

To say that God is totally sovereign, even over sin, immediately raises the charge, “If God decreed sin, then He is the author of sin.” That fits human logic, but we must accept the testimony of Scripture, realizing that our finite, time-bound minds may not be able to reconcile matters of eternity. The fact is, if God did not decree sin, then there is a major flaw in His universe that He could not prevent, and thus He is not omnipotent. There would be an evil power equal to or greater than God. This erroneous view is called dualism.

If He could have prevented it and did not, then clearly He decreed it. Some try to get God off the hook by saying that He did not decree it, He only permitted it by giving men a free will. But, as Calvin argues, God “does not unwillingly permit it, but willingly” (The Institutes, ed. by John McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles [Westminster], 1:18:3). Besides, as Calvin points out with numerous biblical examples, God openly declares that He is the doer of certain evil deeds, thus repudiating the evasion that He only permitted them (1:18:1)!

For example, God wills that the wicked King Ahab be deceived. An evil spirit offers his services to this end. God sends him with a command to be a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets (1 Kings 22:20, 22). Thus the wicked prophets were lying in disobedience to God, and yet they were fulfilling what God had determined to take place! Calvin gives many more examples, stating that for the sake of brevity he could have given even more. But he gave these, he says, to show “that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God’s providence, substitute bare permission—as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will” (ibid.).

Jonathan Edwards argues that since God decreed the sin of crucifying Christ and it is the worst of all possible sins, it follows that “all the sins of men are foreordained and ordered by a wise Providence” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:528). If you cannot grasp how God can will something that He forbids to be done, and yet remain untouched by evil, Calvin says, “let us recall our mental incapacity, and at the same time consider that the light in which God dwells is not without reason called unapproachable [1 Tim. 6:16]” (loc. cit.).

Many try to evade God’s absolute sovereignty by saying that God decrees all that will happen only because He foreknows it. But,

B. God’s sovereignty is not contingent on His foreknowledge.

Obviously, God knows everything in advance. But He didn’t make up His eternal decree in response to seeing that men would someday sin and even crucify the Savior. Can you imagine God, sitting passively in heaven, wringing His hands because He saw in advance that men would sin against Him and crucify the Lord Jesus, but He couldn’t do anything about it, because, after all, He had given man free will and He dare not violate it! The cross was not God’s plan B! Nor did God see in advance that you and I would believe in Him and then say, “I’ll elect them to salvation, since I see that they will choose Me”! That would make the will of men sovereign over the eternal will of God! It also contradicts what Scripture plainly asserts, that our fallen will is unable to choose God apart from His first imparting a new nature to us (Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4). It would make salvation depend on something in us (our faith), rather than the unconditional grace of God.

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not just refer to His knowing all things in advance. In that sense, He foreknows all men. But when Scripture says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29), it refers to God’s sovereign choice to enter into a personal relationship with an individual. When Peter says that Christ was delivered up according to God’s foreknowledge, he means that God the Father, based on His personal knowledge of the Son, decided before time began that He would die for our sins. Surely Peter did not mean that God knew by looking down through history that evil men would kill His Son, and so He devised His plan to fit their evil deeds! Such a thing is unthinkable!

C. God’s sovereignty over salvation is our only hope for it.

If salvation depends on fallen man’s will to believe, we’re in big trouble! According to Scripture, my will (before I am saved) is enslaved to sin (John 8:34; Eph. 2:1-3) and unable to do anything to please God (Rom. 8:8). Since believing in Jesus Christ is pleasing to God, the natural man cannot do that, apart from God imparting saving faith to him. If any part of the process depends on us, rather than on God’s sovereign will, the chain has a weak link that could snap at any time. The only way that we can hope to be saved is if God sovereignly undertakes all that concerns our salvation.

A. W. Pink makes this point when he laments,

The average evangelical pulpit conveys the impression that it lies wholly in the power of the sinner whether or not he shall be saved. It is said that “God has done His part, now man must do his.” Alas, what can a lifeless man do, and man by nature is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1)! (The Sovereignty of God [Banner of Truth], p. 105).

Thus all hope for our salvation lies with the sovereign God, who ordained even the death of His Son for our sins. What process does this sovereign God use to impart that salvation to us?

2. The sovereign God gives an open invitation to everyone to call upon Him for salvation.

Peter cites Joel 2:32, “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). Also, he says that this promise of salvation “is for you and your children and for all who are far off” (2:39). This means that …

A. The scope of the invitation is unlimited.

“Everyone” is about as broad as you can make it! He doesn’t say, “Everyone except those who are really bad sinners.” In fact, in the context, God has just warned of impending cataclysmic judgments—blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood (2:19-20). God wouldn’t impose such terrible judgments unless people were more than deserving of them. And yet to such sinful people, the Lord promises, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”! There is hope for the worst of sinners right up to the brink of judgment!

Furthermore, the invitation is open to people from every race and walk of life. Peter tells these Jews, whom he had just indicted for crucifying their Messiah, that the promise was for them (2:36, 39)! Also, the promise was for their children. Even if your parents were horrible sinners, if you will call on the Lord, He will save you. More than that, the promise was “for all who are far off” (2:39). This is a reference to the Gentiles, even though Peter wouldn’t come to understand this until Acts 10. This means that even if you have had no religious background, if you will call upon the name of the Lord, He will save you. The scope of this invitation is unlimited! The gospel is offered to all who will call on the Lord. But, what does this invitation mean?

B. The meaning of the invitation is to cry out to the Lord in faith for salvation from His judgment.

To do this, you must realize that you is lost and under God’s just condemnation. “Salvation” refers to being delivered from God’s judgment. Thus you must be convicted of your sinfulness before the holy God or you will not call on the Lord to save you.

To call on the name of the Lord implies that the person knows something about who God really is. His name refers to His character or His attributes. He is revealed in Scripture as the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is revealed in flesh to us in the person of Jesus Christ (and in this sermon Peter is arguing that Jesus is the Lord [2:36]). Obviously, a person does not need to have a full theological understanding of the nature of God to call upon Him. But, he at least needs some basic understanding of who God is and how He revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ who offered Himself on the cross in the place of sinners. This knowledge is revealed in God’s Word, the Bible.

To call out to any “god,” however you understand him to be, will not save you. A sincere Muslim may call out to Allah to save him, but he will not be saved because he has not called upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. A Hindu may call upon a number of deities to save him, but he will not be saved, because he is calling out to demons, not to the Lord Jesus Christ. A Buddhist may call out to Buddha for salvation, but his prayer will not be heard, because Buddha is not the Lord. A sincere Roman Catholic may pray to the pope or to Mary or one of the saints to save him, but he will not be saved, because he is not calling on the name of the Lord.

To call upon the name of the Lord implies faith in Him, that Jesus has the ability to save you. No mere man and not even an angel can save you from God’s wrath. Only God can do that. To come to God, we must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). If the sovereign God states that everyone who calls upon His name will be saved, it seems reasonable to take Him at His word! Indeed, not to do so would be to call Him a liar! That “everyone” includes everyone here. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off.” No matter who you are or what you have done or how far off from God you may be, if you will call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, He promises to save you from His judgment.

But, we need to come back full circle to His sovereignty:

3. Everyone who calls upon the Lord for salvation does so because the sovereign God first called them to Himself.

After saying, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off,” Peter adds, “as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (2:39). He is going back to Joel 2:32. After stating that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered,” Joel adds, “For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” The King James Version reads, “even among the remnant whom the Lord shall call.” Obviously, not all will be saved, but only the remnant, which the Lord calls to Himself. God must first call us and send His Spirit to convict us of sin, righteousness, and judgment, before we will call upon Him.

Paul links these things in Romans 8:30-33: “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?”

If you have called upon the Lord for salvation, you know that it was because He first called you. Thus He gets all the praise and glory. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:5-6, “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace.” We can take no credit for calling upon the name of the Lord for salvation. John Calvin put it, “… God’s lovingkindness is set forth to all who seek it, without exception. But since it is those on whom heavenly grace has breathed who at length begin to seek after it, they should not claim for themselves the slightest part of his praise” (Institutes, 2:3:10). Thus the bottom line is,

The sovereign God invites everyone to call upon Him for salvation, calling to Himself those whom He will, that no one should boast.

Conclusion

There are dozens of practical applications of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in our salvation, but I will limit myself to five:

1. This doctrine alone gives all the glory to God for our salvation.

If we think that we came to God because of our own free will, we will boast in our brilliant decision. We made a smarter decision than those who reject Christ. If we think that we came to God because of our great faith, we will boast in our faith. If we think that we did anything at all for our salvation, our proud hearts will be lifted up and rob God of His glory. All that we did was to cry out, “Lord, I deserve Your wrath because I am a sinner. Save me by Your grace.” We realize that we would not even have cried that, except that God in His mercy first called us. He gets all the glory.

2. This doctrine alone humbles us from all our pride.

Calvin repeatedly argues that the reason the Bible teaches God’s sovereign election is that it is the only doctrine of salvation that produces humility. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

3. This doctrine alone gives us assurance in our salvation.

If your salvation depends upon anything in yourself (including your “free will”), it is a most shaky salvation! What if your will decides to reject Christ? One weak link anywhere in the process, and you are lost! But if it depends on God’s sovereign purpose, His effectual calling, and His safe keeping, you can be sure, as Paul puts it, “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:6).

4. This doctrine alone gives us comfort in our trials.

Whatever trials come your way, whether mild or severe, even unto death, come from the hand of the sovereign and loving God who is working to conform you to the image of His Son. Thus “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

5. This doctrine alone encourages us to evangelism, since we know that God will save His elect as we proclaim the gospel.

If salvation depends on man’s will, we have no guarantee that anyone will be saved. But if it depends on God’s will and God’s working, we know that He will use the gospel to save many. The Lord encouraged Paul to go on speaking in Corinth because, He said, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). When Paul preached in Pisidian Antioch, many opposed his message. But others “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Paul summed up his ministry by saying, “I endure all things for the sake of the elect [lit.], so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

If you have never called upon the name of the Lord to save you from your sins, I invite you to take God at His Word today. His promise is for you: If you will call upon the name of the Lord, you will be saved.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to assert God’s sovereignty, even over evil?
  2. Why does asserting that man has “free will” not resolve the charge that God is responsible for evil? How does the Bible resolve this problem?
  3. Arminians assert that to invite sinners to trust in Christ is a farce if they do not have “free will.” Why is this charge invalid?
  4. Arminians assert that if Calvinism is true, then God is not infinitely loving toward all people. What does the Bible teach?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)