Every Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.
Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …
Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.
Generally, people tend towards either:
- A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
- A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation
There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.
This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …
Way back when, in a galaxy far, far away, a theologian named J.I. Packer wrote a little book entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Here’s how he introduced this topic …
There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.
What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.
People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.
The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.
How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.
I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …
If this is a topic that interests you, consider picking up a copy of this little book. It’s about 120 pages. You can do it!
 J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1961), 16-17.