Salvation is a creative work of God, not a do-it-yourself project for sinners.
Second Corinthians 5:17 is an oft-quoted verse that illustrates this: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” The point of that statement should be clear: Salvation is accomplished solely and sovereignly by God. Making “a new creature” by definition is something God does; it is not the fruit of the sinner’s own self-reform. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10, emphasis added).
Thus Paul begins his great passage on penal substitutionary atonement (2 Corinthians 5:18–21) by expressly underscoring that truth: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:18). God is the one who reaches out, initiates, and accomplishes the redemption of fallen creatures who have set themselves at enmity against Him. Without God’s sovereign intervention, no sinner could ever be saved. He does for them what they could and would never do for themselves.
Consider what this says about believers. All Christians are former adversaries of God who have been made right with Him. “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God” (Romans 5:10). But our salvation is not our own doing. Redemption is not something we purchase for ourselves. Even our faith is a gift from God, not an independent, free-will choice we make on our own. “To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake . . . to believe in Him” (Philippians 1:29). God is the one who brings about repentance in the lives of sinners so that He “may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). Paul therefore reminds those who have responded positively that even the faith that energizes their daily walk is a gracious gift from God: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Scripture always stresses the sovereignty of God in salvation. Believers are born again, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). “Of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures” (James 1:18, emphasis added). Jesus Himself repeatedly affirmed the sovereignty of God in salvation. He said the redeemed believe because they are elect, not vice versa. To His disciples He said, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you” (John 15:16). To hardened unbelievers, He said, “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26). On the other hand, He promised, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37).
No New Testament author emphasizes God’s sovereignty more often or more clearly than the apostle Paul. It’s one of his main talking points every time the subject of the gospel comes up. This is why he often starts with the subject of sin—to make the point that all men and women in their fallen state are “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Unregenerate people are absolutely enslaved to sin (Romans 6:20; John 8:34). They have trespassed against God and made themselves His enemies, and therefore they have absolutely no way of redeeming themselves. “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
If sinners are to be saved, it must therefore be by God alone, no thanks to their own efforts and totally apart from any merit of their own. “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
Even though Paul is fully aware that this is a doctrine sinners naturally tend to discount or deny, he doesn’t hesitate to say it plainly. In fact, he stresses this truth at every opportunity. For Paul, the conviction that the salvation of sinners is entirely God’s work, done in accord with His own sovereign will, is absolutely vital to a proper understanding of the gospel.
We also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:3–6, emphasis added)
Never does Paul teach that salvation is a joint effort between God and the sinner. “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8). Left to themselves, all sinners would continue indefinitely in their rebellion. The stubborn will and self-deceiving heart of a fallen creature has no capacity for self-reform. A sinner can no more reform his own heart than a leopard could change his spots or an Ethiopian alter his skin color (Jeremiah 13:23). Jesus Himself was emphatic about this: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). God’s will is the determinative factor in bringing sinners to Christ.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)