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  • Writer's pictureNoah D Burnett

Getting Saved: Unwilling and Unable

In this series we are focusing on the act of salvation: the fact that God has saved us completely of His good pleasure, not being coerced or convinced by anything we have done or will do. This is widely categorized as a doctrine within the Reformed tradition or "Calvinism". But what I want to show you is that the whole act of salvation– calling, regeneration, and sustaining of faith– is completely a work of God and is found in the Bible long before it appears in Calvin's Institutes or at the Synod of Dort.

CLARIFICATIONS: Saying that God is 100% responsible for salvation does not negate the responsibility of the believer. God does not save us against our wishes but rather He "quickens" our will so that our new desires would be to love and serve Him. We have a responsibility to respond, but for those who are called, a response is guaranteed (see the excerpt at the bottom of the article). In essence, we’re going to talk through the relation between the Will of God and the responsibility of man.

WHY THIS MATTERS: This is not a conversation to have for the sake of debate. This matters because if we get this wrong, our view of God will be drastically skewed and it will cause us to misrepresent our King. I don't want to sway you to a doctrine, I want to rightly see what the Bible tells us about our Savior and share that with you.

To really understand salvation we have to understand the position between God and humans. In Genesis 3 we learn that although humans had the choice to be holy in the presence of God, they chose to rebel.


Genesis 3:2-7

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.


This is how many people think "free will" works today in our lives, God gives us the choice to choose to either accept Him or reject Him, but this was pre-fall. Before Adam and Eve rebelled, they had a true and unlimited free will, they could actually be holy and please God with their actions. But everyone born after the fall is born damned, ("brought forth in sin" Psalm 51:5) both their ability and their will. This is the root of why people's understanding of free will, and therefore salvation, is flawed.

If you were raised in an American Christian church like I was, your understanding of salvation probably sounds like one of the following. I'll call them misconceptions.

Misconception #1: We are born "neutral", not inclined to good or bad. But eventually the sum of our influences win out and we become mostly good or mostly bad, and then from that point God makes His decision on our salvation.

Correction to #1: This is blatantly unbiblical. God does not judge based on moral performance, if He did there would be no grace in the gospel.

Misconception #2: We are born sinful, but God loves us SOOO much that he offers everyone the chance to choose Him. He doesn't cause us to choose one way or the other but holds an outstretched hand towards us, waiting for us to choose holiness.

Correction to #2: This seems to be the most widely accepted thought process on salvation, but in this we find a passive God and savior that only has some ability to save. In this scenario, Jesus' death on the cross did not actually save anyone, it only made it possible for people to save themselves. It also assumes that humans have the moral and spiritual capacity to choose to be good. This scenario undermines God and directly contradicts scripture.


Romans 3:10 "As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;"

Ephesians 2:1 "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins"

Ephesians 2:8 "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,"


We must understand that we as humans are not just a notch below acceptable, only needing a nudge towards righteousness. Rather, we are completely without hope on our own, dead, not mostly dead...dead. Not only are we unable to be righteous but even if righteousness was achievable, our sinful nature would reject the thought all together. Both our ability and desire are damned in our sin.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:7-8

Apart from having our desires altered we are in a resting state of hostility toward God, we can't please God and we don't want to. So with this in mind, wouldn't it be silly if God "offered" us a chance at salvation? Wouldn't it be a waste to send your son as a sacrifice for people that must choose to accept Him but have no ability to do so?

Romans 5:10 "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."

We weren't reconciled to God by the blood of Christ AFTER we decided to follow Him, but while we were actively opposed to Him

Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

We we were not save as a result of anything we did, but purely by grace.

1 Peter 1:3 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,"

Our salvation was not initiated by us, but completely achieved by His plan and by His power.


At this point we have established that man has no ability or desire to accept Christ, but that only according to the plan and mercy of God can someone's heart be awakened to new life.


Why do we rage against these truths? Why do we build entire schools of thought in order to weave around them? I want to blame it on our culture here in America, but people have been hatefully opposed to salvation by grace alone since the days the disciples were writing it in letters to the first churches.

Romans 9:11-21 "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

Paul raises question after question that he knows his readers will be wrestling with. He knows that this will be hard to hear and hard to accept. But he ends his back and forth, once and for all, not with an answer, but with a rebuke. "Who are you, to raise your fist and demand anything of God." It begs for us to recall God's response in Job 40&41, where God demands that Job give Him answers to the greatest mysteries of the world, rightfully making Job aware of his "smallness" in the presence of the sovereign, omniscient, creator God.

At the end of the day, we realize that the fullness of salvation is a mystery not fully to be comprehended in our earthly mind. But the things that God has revealed to us about salvation are clear and we must hold to them.


The holy, righteous and just God, the creator of the universe, sent His son as the perfect sacrifice to die on a cross and to bear His father's wrath in the place of His chosen people. On that cross, Jesus bore, in full, the penalty of sin that God rightly held over those whom He would call to Himself. Three days after His crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead, thereby conquering death and sin altogether, giving His people the promise of resurrection and eternal life. All of this was carried out by the work of the Holy Spirit, according to the plan of the Father, and by the power of the Son, Jesus. This is the good news, that if you repent of your sin and declare that Jesus is your savior, you will be saved from eternal damnation under the righteous wrath of God. If you feel like God is calling you to this, know that the Spirit is at work in your life and that we would love to talk with you about what it means to follow Christ.


These are hard things to ponder, and I hope this has been of some help. I want to leave you with an excerpt from Charles spurgeon. He really captures the frustration and the mystery of these things, and yet, we are left with hope that one day all of our wondering will take a back seat to the awe of being in the presence of the Almighty.

I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that "it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy."

I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure.

Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.

That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

Charles Spurgeon

Soli Deo Gloria!

Noah Burnett



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