People can take one of two extremes (with everything between) in regards to this question. Some will emphasize the sovereignty of God to the point that human beings are little more than robots simply doing what they have been sovereignly programmed to do, while Others emphasize free will to the point of God not having complete control and/or knowledge of all things.
Sovereignty refers to the supremacy of God, kingship of God, or God having absolute rule. To say that God is sovereign declares that He is the Almighty and no one can resist His will.
Isaiah 46:9,10 “I am God and there is no other. I am God and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all My purpose.’”
The question in salvation becomes, does God choose us or do we choose God, or both. To answer this we need to understand about election and depravity of man.
What is the depravity of man
This refers to corrupt, depraved, degenerate acts or practice of man. It runs against societies view and our North American culture that man by nature is a depraved sinner and that man has total freedom and control over everything.
The Bible teaches that we sin because we are sinners by nature and that even the “good” things man does are tainted by sin because they are not done for the glory of God.
Man’s spiritually blind eyes must be open and the bondage of sin that renders him hopelessly enslaved must be broken so that he can respond in faith to the Gospel message. God overcomes man’s depravity in such a way that man is able to recognize his spiritual state and his hopeless condition.
Jeremiah 13:23: (NIV): "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil. Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” Ephesians 2:1-3: "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Doctrine of election
This has been a hotly contested debate in the history of the church. The word itself simply means chosen. In our culture today we usually think about the election or choosing of our government officials. In the Bible we see how God has chosen us to salvation. Let's look at at few verses that speak about election.
Col. 3:12 "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 2 Thess. 2:13,14 But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:1,2a Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father... 1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You can't cause your own birth.
In each of theses verses and many more we see how God refers to us who are Christians as the 'elect' or 'chosen' ones. We will also see that the 'elect' have been chosen before the foundation of the world; as in the following verses.
Has God chosen the elect from the beginning, for salvation. We were chosen before we were born; even before there was a world. God has predetermined who would be saved or elected, before they were ever born?
2 Thess. 2:13 “We should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved of God, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation.” Eph. 1:3,4 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ," "just as He chose us in Him," "before the foundation of the world."
Those that are not 'elect' have not been chosen and are not in the 'Book of life'. These will end up in an eternity of Hell.
Rev. 13:8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world Rev. 20:15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. Rev. 17:8 "The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is...
God planned the death of Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world, which means that God planned for sinners to be redeemed which meant that He must have planned the allowance for sinners to fall. God created the world planning that He was going to redeem the world.
Who chooses who first?
Unless God makes the first move by electing us and drawing us to Him, we will never try to seek Him out. Scripture is clear that all of man is affected by sin that “no one seeks after God".
Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God." Romans 8:7-8: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” 1 Corinthians 2:14: "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."
Let us consider Romans 9:22,23
Rom 9:22,23 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, God says, I prepare vessels for glory, but vessels are prepared for destruction. The responsibility for such preparation lies right in the very heart of the man.
God says in Rom 9:22 is passive, vessels of wrath fitted to destruction. God did not create anyone for wrath, but that they were “fitted for destruction.” That is, mankind has fitted himself for destruction. It is God who prepared these vessels; they have prepared themselves for destruction because they would not leave their sin and turn to God.
God says in Rom 9:23 that vessels of mercy He had prepared to glory. God elects certain people beforehand for His glory; before the foundation of the world God chose certain people to be His children in order that He would be glorified.
From all eternity, before we even existed, God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish. God chose some individuals to be saved into everlasting blessedness in heaven and others He chose to pass over, to allow them to follow the consequences of their sins into eternal torment in hell."
How to define the free will of man.
In what does the sinner's freedom consist? God never forces the sinner to sin, it is the evil heart of a sinner has an evil heart that inclines him toward sin; while divine power up-holds man from plunging deeper yet into sin.
Man’s will is bound by sin and by that nature. Like a prisoner is confined to the walls of his cell, sinful man is confined within a cell of corruption and wickedness brought on by sin. The will of sinful man is free that he can choose his sin. He’s not driven by God toward some sin.
Man can choose the form of sin that most appeals to him, but that's the limit of his freedom. He cannot choose salvation, righteousness, holiness, God, or Christ unless God has enabled him. Only God draws man to seek Him, awakens the sinner,and gives spiritual sight to the blind. Man does not have the “free will” to choose God, because his will restrained by sin. Salvation is all of God once you understand the doctrine of human depravity.
1 Cor. 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. John 6:44. “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who has sent Me draws him.” So all that the Father gives are drawn. All who are drawn, come. All who come, I receive and I’ll never turn one of them down. Why would the Son turn down a love gift from the Father. Romans 8:29. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined. And He predestined them to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. We were predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Eph. 2:1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, Eph. 2:5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), Col. 2:13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,
God can alter the wills of men, as per this example.
Ex 34:24 "For I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.
All the males of Israel, three times each year were required to leave their homes and go up to Jerusalem. They lived in the midst of hostile people, who hated them for having appropriated their lands. The hand of God was upon the wills of these wicked men, to hinder the Canaanites from seizing their opportunity, during the absence of the men, to take possession of their farms. How could God make this promise beforehand, that none should so much as "desire" their lands?
Romans 9:16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. predestination "does not depend on the man who wills...but on God who has mercy." While we do have a will, it is not totally free. That is, the ultimate outcome is not in our hands. However, our will is not forced; as we saw before, we come to Christ because we want to.
People come to believe because they had been appointed or chosen.
Acts 13:48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. We were elected first, and no one comes to salvation unless the Father draws him. Then the Father draws and the Bible says that 'all' the Father draws will come to Him.
John 6:44 "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Election is not the cause of anybody going to hell, for election is unto salvation; election harms nobody.
No one seeks for God unless God has drawn them or elected them. God in His grace has elected some out of His creation to come to Him. If God didn't choose some, then all man would end up in hell; because all are sinners and no one seeks Him out.
Romans 3: 10~12 As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one." 1 Cor. 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God." God will turn no one away who seeks Him. The only people who will seek Him are those He first calls. The only people who come to Christ are the people that God predestined or elected.
John 6:44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who has sent Me draws him.” John 6:63-65: "[Jesus said,] ' It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. "But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father." John 6:37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out So all that the Father gives are drawn. All who are drawn, come. All who come, I receive and I’ll never turn one of them down. Why would the Son turn down a love gift from the Father.
Faith is a gift
Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” Rom. 12:3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
God grants belief
Phil 1:29 For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,
God produces faith
John 6:29 Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
God appoints those to believe
Acts 13:48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
Why should we pray for anyone's conversion if God has chosen before the foundation of the world?
Pray that God will do for unbelievers what He did for Lydia: He opened her heart so that she gave heed to what Paul said (Acts 16:14). Pray that He will 'take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh' (Ezekiel 36:26). Pray that they be born not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God (John 1:13).
God has promised to respond to prayer, and his response is just as contingent upon our prayer as our prayer is in accordance with his will.
I John 5:14. 'And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us' Rom. 10:14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? God has ordained that the means by which men believe on Jesus is through the preaching of men. To believe that if no one spread the gospel; that all those predestined would be converted anyway is simply naive and an improper understanding of the Gospel, Election and God's Sovereignty. The preaching of the gospel is just as predestined as is the gift of Faith and the command to believe the gospel:
If we don't evangelize, will the elect be saved?
God knows who He has elected and they will become saved. If we don't evangelize, God knows those who are his and he will raise up messengers who will. Just as God will see to it that His Word is proclaimed as a means to saving the elect, so He will see to it that all those prayers are prayed which He has promised to respond to.
Verses that seem to contradict.
So what about those verses that seem to contradict that God has elected us and we can do nothing to save ourselves. With study and proper understanding of the scripture we are able to see how these scriptures do not contradict but reinforce the Doctrine of Election. When there seems to be some differences of opinion about what the scripture is saying about any subject, we need to do some study to address these apparent differences and reconcile what God is saying.