In your church or elsewhere, you were probably taught that someone can be born again only if they are willing to change. You were probably also taught that Jesus paid for the sins of everyone in the world and that only those who accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior would be saved. You might have been taught that someone who is saved becomes a new creature.
Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The Problem of Willingness
Firstly, let’s address the problem of willingness and what the Bible says about it. The teaching that people don’t change to become saved because they don’t want to is the opposite of what the Bible says in Romans chapter 9. In this chapter, God uses Jacob and Esau as examples to illustrate that He has chosen some but has not chosen all to receive salvation. This may sound like an outrageous and frightening teaching, but it’s the truth.
And not only [this]; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, [even] by our father Isaac; (For [the children] being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? [Is there] unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then [it is] not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (Romans 9:10-16)
What God is effectively saying here is that He chose to have mercy on Jacob, to save him, and that He did not choose to have mercy on Esau. It says in verse 11 that God’s choice was not based on anything either of them did or didn’t do, good or bad. The choice was made by God before they were even born. Since life begins at conception, that means that God made the choice to save Jacob and not to save Esau before they were even in their mother’s womb. This is predestination.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to [his] purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate [to be] conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:28-29)
According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6)
Some people might argue that God knew who would want to be saved, and He therefore predestinated those people to salvation. There is one problem with this argument. That problem is that this would make salvation conditional. This school of thought states that God looked ahead from eternity past and saw who would receive Jesus and therefore predestinated them. That means that God would have made a choice to save based on something that the human would have done. That human could then say that he or she had some kind of part to play in his or her own salvation, so the work would not be entirely of God. That would give us something to take credit for, which is against what God teaches in the Bible. This is why God says:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Exactly What did Jesus Suffer
The Bible tells us that the punishment for sin is eternity in Hell.
But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: (Mark 3:29)
[Ye] serpents, [ye] generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)
If someone who sins has to spend an eternity in hell, then Jesus would have to do the same kind of suffering in order to make payment for someone’s sins. Obviously, that payment could not have been made just with nails and a crown of thorns and a severe beating. Jesus was already suffering in His soul before He was crucified.
Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt]. (Matthew 26:36-39)
And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray. And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things [are] possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:32-36)
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)
In these passages, we can see that Jesus was already suffering terribly the night before His crucifixion. The Bible tells us that He was sorrowful, that He began to be sore amazed, and that He was in an agony already. Since He had not yet been nailed to the cross, beaten, whipped, or stabbed with the crown of thorns, there would be no physical reason for Him to be suffering so badly already many hours before He was even brought to trial. The Bible tells us in these passages that He was sorrowful even to death. That’s because the death that God refers to when He says that the wages of sin is death is not physical death, but the second death, the lake of fire.
For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
Jesus came to pay for the sins of His people, those whom God had chosen. In order for Him to make full payment for those sins, He would have to suffer in a fashion equivalent to the suffering that each individual would have to suffer in hell if the individual had not been chosen. That means He had to suffer the equivalent of those people spending an eternity in hell. There’s no possibility that the nails, crown of thorns, spear, whips, bleeding, beating, spitting, etc., in themselves could ever have amounted to that kind of punishment. Ordinary people have been killed in a very similar manner.
Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. (Matthew 27:38)
No kind of physical suffering, no amount of bleeding, no level of pain or injury in this world could ever equal the eternal suffering that the unredeemed sinner will endure in hell. Jesus was suffering in His soul as well as in His body. God the Father was pouring out His wrath, His anger, on Jesus’ soul. Because Jesus is eternal, infinite God, the Father was able to intensify the punishment so that it would amount to an eternity in hell on behalf of those He came to save, the elect. All this was accomplished in the space of just a few hours.
The Blood of Jesus
You might wonder, what about all those passages that talk about the blood of Jesus taking away sin? Remember that the passages above told us that the sweat of Jesus was like great drops of blood.
And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:44)
The Bible teaches that the life is in the blood. That’s why God commanded the children of Israel not to drink blood.
For [it is] the life of all flesh; the blood of it [is] for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh [is] the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (Leviticus 17:14)
Therefore, Jesus shed His blood in the sense that He gave His life. The sweat was a parabolic (metaphorical) picture of that shed blood, which is why the Bible says it was like great drops of blood. Even though it was not literal blood, God the Father counted it as real blood. God views the suffering that Jesus endured at the hands of the Father as spiritual bloodshed. The sweat in the garden of Gethsemane was only a visible picture of what couldn’t be seen literally, that Jesus was already enduring the punishment of hell in His soul.
While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen [are] temporal; but the things which are not seen [are] eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
The crucifixion that followed saw a literal outpouring of Jesus’ blood, and it was no less important to the atonement. The spiritual substance of the crucifixion, while disputed by some, is well documented in the Bible.
“For it pleased [the Father] that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, [I say], whether [they be] things in earth, or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;” (Colossians 2:13-14)
“Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with [him], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Romans 6:6)
That punishment was complete. Jesus suffered every bit of the punishment that I would have had to suffer if I had not been elected to salvation. I would have had to go to hell forever to pay for my sins, just as the countless others whom Jesus chose would have had to go to hell forever to pay for their sins. All this makes it impossible to conclude that someone can be saved simply by choosing to be. In order for God to save someone, He would have to suffer the same punishment that person deserves in hell, and that punishment has already been paid.
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, [as] silver and gold, from your vain conversation [received] by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)
A Foregone Conclusion
Jesus is called the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. That’s how it was possible for Old Testament believers who died before the time of Jesus to enter into heaven. Everything was decided and sealed before the creation of the world. It was fulfilled in literal fact at the time of the cross, but it was a foregone conclusion before God created the universe. God is capable of seeing that far ahead because He has no beginning and no end; He is outside time.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou [art] God. (Psalms 90:2)
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:8)