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There are passages in the Bible that seem to suggest that saving faith is caused by external factors, over which a non-believer has presumably no volitional control:

Ephesians 2:8-9

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

John 6:44

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Romans 12:3

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Romans 10:17

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5

4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

According to my understanding of these passages, the list of external factors includes:

  • The grace/gift of God
  • The drawing of God
  • The hearing of the word of Christ
  • The power of God
  • The preaching of the gospel with demonstration of the Spirit and of power

Most of these external factors are arguably outside the non-believer's control. For example, the drawing of God is something that God initiates unilaterally (unless there is a mysterious way in which a non-believer can take the initiative, by "making" God draw them to Himself). Similarly, when we consider external factors such as the power of God or the gift of faith, I don't see an obvious way for a non-believer to "trigger" or "choose" any of this to happen, since these are things that pertain to God's control (it's His gift and it's His power).

The only external factor on the list over which a non-believer might have some degree of volitional control is 'hearing the word of Christ', by proactively choosing to read the Bible, watching a sermon, or something along those lines, motivated perhaps by curiosity. However, this would still need to be reconciled with the other passages suggesting that faith is assigned/given/caused externally by God.

In contrast, a different group of passages seem to indicate that non-believers possess volitional control over their beliefs. This conclusion is rooted in explicit commands to believe, which wouldn't make sense unless non-believers have the capacity to obey these commands. A person has to be able to choose to believe if they are to obey a command to choose to believe.

Examples of passages with commands to believe include:

1 John 3:23

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

Acts 19:4

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

Mark 1:15

and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 5:36

But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Acts 16:31

And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Luke 8:50

But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.”

John 10:37-38

37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

John 14:1

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.

So the apparent paradox is as follows:

  • On the one hand, saving faith is outside the non-believer's volitional control (because it's caused by external factors).
  • On the other hand, saving faith is under the non-believer's volitional control (because it is a choice, made internally by the non-believer's free will).

How can these two apparently contradictory conclusions be reconciled?

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    some of the greatest minds of Christian history have grappled with this issue. Good luck getting a clear answer. Jan 18 at 3:28
  • John6:44 in context is speaking exclusively about the twelve disciples ONLY and it’s in the old covenant context. To extrapolate this for the New covenant and to all believers in the NT is not a faithful reading of the text. Even if you want to extrapolate it’s application it’s not done in a vacuum by some mysterious unknowable means, the drawing is done by the Scriptures pointing to Jesus Christ and thus the choosing is determined by the voluntary acceptance of the individual to believe that Jesus Christ is indeed who God the Father says He is in the Scriptures. It’s not a forced “activation” Jan 18 at 6:25
  • The problem is the assumption that predestination and free will cannot coexist, although the scriptures claim they do as you and Dottard point out. Note free will is a more difficult issue with scientific cause and effect. Rather than predestination restricting free will, it makes it possible to exist. Look at it this way, God gives us the ability to choose.
    – Perry Webb
    Jan 18 at 11:08
  • @NihilSineDeo What about Ephesians 2:8-9, which explicitly says that saving faith is a gift from God, and not a work-based choice by the individual? But please post an answer instead of a comment.
    – Mark
    Jan 18 at 11:42
  • The Greek text @Mark does NOT say faith is the gift, it says salvation is the gift & only salvation makes sense to be the gift. If faith needs to be a gift then you need to be regenerated first which would place regeneration prior to faith, making faith redundant & unnecessary. It would also make God deceptive giving man an illusory choice when in fact it’s all irrefutable & not a genuine choice. Besides a gift must have the quality of EITHER being accepted OR rejected if it’s imposed it’s not a gift but an imposition, that’s why salvation is the gift because it can be accepted or rejected Jan 18 at 19:32

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They are BOTH true as the OP has ably documented.

No one can come to the Father except the Father draws them (as quoted by the OP) but we must still accept.

Now, while this is true, ALL people are drawn toward God as noted in the appendix below, because God wants ALL people to be saved. Thus, God draws ALL people to Himself, but only some will accept and choose to believe.

One of the main mechanisms for this is via the work of the Holy Spirit who provides spiritual enlightenment.

John 16:13 - But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

APPENDIX - God wants all people to be saved

  • John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
  • John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave …”
  • John 12:32, “I [Jesus] … will draw all people to myself.”
  • John 12:47, “… for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
  • Acts 17:30, “God … commands all people everywhere to repent.”
  • Rom 3:23, 24, “… for all have sinned … and all are freely forgiven...”
  • Rom 5:15, “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s [Adam’s] offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to the many.” [Note the same word, “many” applies to all people.]
  • Rom 5:18, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all people, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all people, resulting in justification of life.”
  • Rom 11:32, “For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”
  • 2 Cor 5:14, “…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
  • 1 Tim 2:3, 4, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
  • 1 Tim 2:6, “[Jesus Christ] gave Himself as a ransom for all people.”
  • 1 Tim 4:10, For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.
  • Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God appeared bringing salvation to all people.”
  • Heb 2:9, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
  • 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
  • 1 John 2:2, “He Himself [Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours [Christians to whom John writes] only but also for the whole world.”
  • Isa 53:6, “We all like sheep have gone astray … and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
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By way of a contrast to Dottard's "compatibilist" answer I want here to explore what a "hard-determinist" answer might look like.

Definitions for this answer:

"Libertarian", all human actions are due to free-will.

"Hard determinism", all human actions are due to God's sovereignty.

"Compatibilism", both Libertarianism and hard determinism are in the Bible and therefore though they appear incompatible it becomes a matter of faith that we accept both are compatible. [Dottard's opening remark -"They are BOTH true..].

If we ask where do apples come from we could say A. Apple trees, or B. God. A. is correct in that apples come from apple trees and not fir trees. The apple tree has "instrumental responsibility". It is an instrument in the hand of Almighty God who has "ultimate responsibility".

"Ultimate responsibility". God created all things [Romans 11:36 "from him..] including apple trees, and sustains all things, [upholds the universe..Hebrews 1:3].

Apple trees and people behave according to how God made them as He creates not just "them" but as part of "them" He creates their inner nature.

We choose. We choose on the basis of who we are. We do not choose who we are.

I did not choose my DNA, my nurture, nature or when born again or whether born again. Giving birth is parental responsibility. John 3:6-8. "The wind blows where it wishes..". It is up to the Spirit to give spiritual birth when and where He wishes.

By the time we exist and can choose, we cannot choose who we are as we already exist. We are born subject to our sinful nature [1 John 1:8] or the Holy Spirit [Galatians 5:22] ruling in our inner beings.

Peter denied Jesus [Mat 26:70] but later was bold [Acts 4:13]. God did not give Peter the grace to obey, so Peter saw his, Peter's, weakness. God gave Peter strength, he had been with Jesus. Is it God's will that we obey God's commands? No, it is not when God denies the grace to obey, that He might show us our inability to obey without His help. And Yes it is his will that we obey when having seen our weakness He shows us His strength. We need not just to obey but know and acknowledge where our strength to obey comes from.

Thus God in His holiness can withhold grace. Our choices are not free of how He made us; why He made us; in what state He sustains us. God is holy [Leviticus 20:26] and has a holy motive for making and sustaining creation even in its present state. Before God created He knew the future [Rev 13:8] and that if He created the world as we see it that there would be sin. But He went ahead.

God is all knowing; holy; self-dependent; has all authority. [ Mat28:18]. He created something that is not all knowing; not holy [of itself]; dependent; and can only have derived authority as it is given. ie: not perfect in itself though perfectly fit for His purpose. Gen 1:31 "very good" for His purpose.

John 14:1 ESV

"Believe in God; believe also in me".

This command sounds out but will it be obeyed? Some obey, some don't. Why the difference? People are different. Why are people different? God made them differently. John 17:2 Jesus has "authority over all flesh".

Galatians 5:22

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love....faithfulness..".

God exercises His authority. Some are born again and others not. In response to His command to believe faith is required. Love and faith[pistis] are the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and not the fruit of "free-will". I say "free-will" but as I do not see it in the Bible except "free-will offering" ie: not specified by Law but still not subject to randomness.

Acts 17:26

"And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined alloted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place".

God chooses how long people live and where they live. That is "hard-determinism". He chooses how they choose. Choice does not equal free choice but is an expression of who they are, which is an expression of how they were made. Like apples on an apple tree our choices speak of who we are.

God commands us to believe. [eg Acts 16:31]. God answers His own command in us according to His will. In Matthew 6:10 Christians are instructed to pray: "Your will be done".

1 Tim 2:3-4 God wants all people [all people types v1-2 even kings] to be saved.

Personal note-In this answer I have tried to give hard-determinism my best shot and an alternative to compatibilism. Whether combatibilist or hard determinist we have a Saviour

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    You’re being inconsistent, if you’re describing a hard determinist he cannot choose anything, it has already been decided and chosen for him. The sinner has been chosen and determined to sin and the determinist made no choice in choosing God, he was activated and he just plays the preprogrammed script. “God commands us to obey” is a misnomer because God decided who would obey and who wouldn’t. ”We need not just to obey but know and acknowledge where our strength to obey comes from“, it’s not obedience by choice it’s obedience by predetermined decree as per Westminster confession Jan 18 at 19:43
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    Many thanks for you heroic efforts in defending hard-determinism. The great problem is that it makes God into a monster that effectively creates people that cannot and will not be saved. That is, God creates people to be destroyed. Further, such people, according to most Calvinists, will be eternally tortured for doing things over which they had no control. Such a God is the greatest sadist in the universe.
    – Dottard
    Jan 18 at 20:34
  • @Nihil Sine Deo. Thanks. Meaning of the word "choose". Say a computer gives the answer to 5+6 as 11 then yes it was determined by its construction to give/select/work out/choose this answer. Mechanisms programmed by prior experience, inc' human brain, choose as they work out solutions. All choices are determined by something. "Free-choice" outcomes are determined by inclinations of one sort or another.
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 19 at 15:13
  • @C.Stroud that might be the determinist view, but for God to be righteous and offer a genuine choice, He cannot decide the decisions by INITIAL inclination or an ACTIVATION. The choice has to be free, meaning without the input of God. Biblical free choice or free will is by definition without God’s input. It’s not without consequences but it’s without God’s contribution. What you describe is GOD’S decision through pre-programming. That’s not a decision that’s a program running Jan 19 at 23:15
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    There’s a difference between God HARDENING a man’s decision, and God making the man a certain inevitable way. Your conflations would indicate that you’re either biased or you haven’t thought this out @C.Stroud Jan 20 at 13:47

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