Many wrongly conclude that salvation is dependent upon man’s free-will. Overlooking the Biblical truth of man’s total inability to do anything to merit God’s favor many opt for the unbiblical notion that sin has left man’s will unaffected and that he has the ability to merit God’s favor either by exercising his free will to choose God or by exerting his free-will to pursue God. However, the Biblical record and human history proves that man’s will is not free but is enslaved to sin. This was the whole purpose of God giving His Law – to show that men are enslaved to sin and cannot and will not obey God (see Romans 8:5-8).
If man’s will was free in the sense that most use it then of necessity it would mean that man is free to obey God’s Law. As a matter of truth it would be in the choosing to obey and the actual obeying of God’s Law whereby the man with “free-will” would prove that he is “choosing” God. Disobeying God’s Law by not subjecting oneself to it is “choosing” sin and not God. Every man has made his choice - and it hasn’t been “for God.” Man in his unregenerate state operates his will enslaved to sin. It is for this reason that he cannot and will not do that which is truly good (obey God’s Law or choose God). Being enslaved to sin the only freedom of will that a man has is that he is free to sin and free from being able to do righteousness (Romans 6:20; John 8:34). This proves man’s inability!
Is this not the Biblical record? “There is none righteous not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Where is free-will in that? Where is human ability in those verses?
Since man’s will is enslaved to sin and free from being able to do righteousness his total inability is established rendering him unable to respond properly to God’s mercy apart from supernatural assistance. This is why regeneration precedes the ability to exercise saving faith. We are not regenerated because we exercised saving faith (we are unable in and of ourselves); we exercised saving faith because we were regenerated by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. This is what Jesus was speaking of when He told Nicodemus that a man must be born again by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit using God’s Word in order to enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5-8).
The Lord also spoke of this same truth (that regeneration precedes saving faith because of man’s inability) in John 6:45, 63-65 – “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me....It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe…. For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” I want you to notice something very important in John 6:45 – everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me – Jesus said. This means that all who are regenerated come to saving faith in Christ. There are none who are regenerated that resist the grace of God – they all come to Christ.
Since all that we have said is Biblical and true then salvation doesn’t depend upon man but upon God who has mercy. It is precisely this point that salvation isn’t by man’s will but by the grace and will of God that brings about the accusation of God being unjust. This is what the apostle Paul was dealing with in Romans 9:14-18. Here he was proving that salvation is by God’s free-will to have mercy on whom He desires and is not by man’s free-will.
Anticipating the wrong conclusion about the Gospel of salvation by grace, Paul brought up the question of God’s justness in Romans 9:14; stated the emphatic and obvious truth that it is impossible for God to be unjust; and then he went directly to the Scriptures to prove that dispensing mercy is solely the prerogative of God on undeserving sinners – “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'” (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15).
Salvation doesn’t depend on man but on God who has mercy! Paul stated the obvious application of Exodus 33:19 – salvation does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16). Moses didn’t find favor in the sight of God because of his will or his works but solely on the grace of God. This was true for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all other true believers – they were saved by grace and not their will or their works.
That salvation doesn’t depend upon the will of man is made abundantly clear not only from Romans 9:16 but also from John 1:13 – “Who were born, not of blood [physical descent] nor of the will of the flesh [personal desire] nor of the will of man [popish decree], but of God.” Esau is a perfect illustration of this truth who was the firstborn of Isaac (not of blood/physical descent); he later desired to inherit the blessing (nor the will of the flesh/personal desire) but was rejected and found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears (Hebrews 12:16-17); and his father was intent on giving him the blessing (nor the will of man/popish decree) although God had already said that the older would serve the younger and that they younger was to be the heir of the promise (see Genesis 25:23 and Genesis 27:1-38).
To further prove that salvation doesn’t depend upon man but on God who has mercy, Paul gave the Biblical illustration of Pharaoh (Romans 9:17). Pharaoh was a king who thought that he had free-will but found himself in bondage to sin, an object of God’s wrath, for the proclamation of God’s glory. Moses was a slave, Pharaoh was a ruler, and yet God had mercy on Moses and withheld mercy from Pharaoh. Neither deserved mercy! So the logical conclusion is given in Romans 9:18 – “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens who He desires.”
Pharaoh was confronted with enough truth that we marvel at why he didn’t repent and believe in the Lord. The hardening of Pharaoh was judicial. He should have seen his need for mercy – but he didn’t! Mercy is by God’s free-will!