What I Learned from Election and Free Will: Book Review of Willing to Believe

The doctrine of election says that God chooses who will believe in Him. This choice not based on anything that we did or said, but is dependent completely on God and His mercy and compassion. This doctrine has been hotly debated throughout church history. For some Christians, it’s a tough doctrine to swallow because in our American way of life, we like to preserve our independence and our belief that we are in control of our own destinies.

Just after he passed away, R.C. Sproul’s new book, Willing to Believe: Understanding the Role of the Human Will in Salvation was released by Baker Books.

I expected the whole book to be an expository analysis of passages of Scripture that had to do with election and free will. However, the book is an overview of church history and the theologians that studied and taught on issues of free will, election, and total depravity. R.C. Sproul makes the case that the issue of election is so tied to what a person believes about whether or not we are born sinners so out of necessity, the book talks a lot about that total depravity, too.

I am thankful for how the book is organized. It turned my “bits and pieces” knowledge of the theologians (Pelagius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Edwards, Finney, and Chafer) into a mental timeline connecting the theologians together. Since one person’s work is a refutation or a reaffirmation of those theologians who have gone before, the overview of history helped me understand the pendulum swing of the popularity of Arminianism and Calvinism.

Free Will or Election_ Willing to Believe Book Review

Here are some key things I learned:

Free will and election are not opposing forces. We often think that it has to be one or the other that is in charge. Either you decide to come to Jesus or Jesus draws you to Himself all on His own. But that is not the case. The “opposite” of election would be human autonomy. In other words being dependent on the Lord for your eternity is opposite of depending on yourself for it. God does not offend your will when you are elected. He doesn’t force you to do it from a human perspective. If you are a believer, you wanted in your own will to come to Him. How does it work? How does God elect you and have you come to Him without forcing you to? We don’t really know how it works, only that it does. R.C. Sproul puts it this way:

“Though the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom may be mysterious they are by no means contradictory. The antithesis to divine sovereignty is not human freedom, but human autonomy.”

human freedom, human autonomy

Luther did more study and writing on the doctrine of election than Calvin did. The doctrine of election is known today as one of the five points of Calvinism. However, R.C. Sproul says that “Calvin’s work on the will and predestination may be considered nothing more than a footnote to Luther’s.” The term Calvinist seems to have stuck because John Calvin’s followers were more vocal and organized on these particular matters of doctrine.

I need to be mindful of how I explain how a person becomes saved. When I share the gospel with kids, I often talk about deciding to believe in Jesus. Now I know that that particular wording comes out of evangelical thought that upholds human autonomy which is popular today because of Charles Grandison Finney. Finney was a 19th-century evangelist and revivalist.

When I ask a kid if they will decide to believe in Jesus, I am doing it in the context of Reformed doctrine. I believe that God elects those who will be saved and by asking a kid about his decision, I just want to know if God has given them salvation. However, I should simply ask the kid if he believes. I don’t need to use the word decide. The word “decide” is not a biblical way to describe salvation. It does not appear in any verse related to salvation. However, “believe” appears in a majority of them.

I realize this is probably splitting hairs. I don’t want to paralyze anyone from presenting the gospel. If you have a chance to share the gospel, just do it! The Holy Spirit will give you the words to say. You cannot screw up someone’s salvation by saying it wrong since salvation is God’s work, not yours.

Does that mean I can never sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”? No. From a human perspective, we make a decision to follow Jesus. But our decision is not a prerequisite for salvation from God’s perspective. Plus, the song itself is an incredible testimony about an Indian man who believed in Jesus for salvation even though that meant his wife and kids would be killed before his eyes. I just want to be careful that I don’t focus more on the decision moment than the belief itself.

Should I read Willing to BelieveIf you want a deep dive into the doctrine of election than yes, you should read this book. Take it slowly. Read it with a dictionary nearby. You will need it! I appreciated the opportunity to read a lot of original quotes from the theologians who were referenced. While I didn’t absorb every single point that was made, there was a lot that made me think. R.C. Sproul is able to explain doctrine in a way that preserves the complexity of the doctrine while making it understandable.

who we know not what we know

I only had one problem with the book. In the introduction, R.C. Sproul mentions he is often asked if Arminians are saved. Arminians do not believe in the doctrine of election as the Calvinists understand election. He answers “yes, barely.” That didn’t sit well with me. I read it to my pastor/husband. He said that wasn’t fair. He said, “We are saved by Who we know, not what we know.” Our salvation is all because of God and His mercy no matter our understanding of doctrine. Like Paul says:

Romans 9:14-15

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.


Do you struggle with the doctrine of election? What Scripture has helped you understand believing in Jesus for salvation? Comment below!

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One comment

  1. Great post Rachel and I appreciate your approach to be open to understanding both sides. Unfortunately since it is such a highly contested topic most aren’t willing to listen and work to understand.

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