First of all let me be clear that the ministry of RZIM does not take an official stand on this debate. Like many apologists and theologians of his generation, Dr. Zacharias desires to be conciliatory with all brothers and sisters on both sides of this issue. However, his interpretation of the passages in question are clearly compatible with my non-Calvinistic perspective. Pay close attention to his free will theodicy (also posted below) and how he interprets Romans 9. He sounds like a “Traditionalist” to me. You can listen to his article on the video, or scroll down to read it:
“The question you have raised has to do with an issue that theologians have been wrestling with for centuries. The Calvinistic and the Arminian position highlight their own views in attempting to answer this question. The passage you have referred to in Romans is taken out of Paul’s letter in which he is dealing with the privileged position that Israel has as being the mouthpiece to the nations of the world, and the passage in Peter, of course, is referring to the fact that God is not desiring that anyone should perish. If I may rephrase your question, you are wrestling with the dialectic of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Let me try and give you a couple of illustrations before dealing with it theologically and in a mild philosophical manner.
The sovereignty and responsibility issue should really be seen as two opposite poles of the same position. Light, for example, is viewed from some vantage points as particles. From other vantage points it is viewed as waves. Scientists are aware that light could not be both particles and waves, so they have coined a term for it, a kind of a construct, and they call it a “photon.” All they have done is create a word and a category that accommodates both perspectives which are real. I think you should view the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man as a kind of a precious stone with two facets to it. When it catches the light from one direction, you see one color; when it catches the light from the other direction you see the other color. Our propensity in the Western world to put God into a box and to systematize everything sometimes violates a fundamental precept in philosophy. It is not possible for a finite person to infinitely understand the infinite. If a finite person can fully understand the infinite, the very category of infinity is destroyed. So my proposal to you is to see both of these perspectives and hold them in balance.
For example, the biblical writers held these in tension. When you look at Acts 2:23, Peter is addressing the people. After the crucifixion of Jesus, he says, “That which God hath ordained from before the foundation of the world, you with wicked hands have taken and crucified.” What is he talking about? “That which God hath foreordained (the sovereignty of God) you with wicked hands have taken and crucified (the responsibility of man).” Peter holds it in tension. The apostle Paul in Philippians 2:12 does the same thing. He says, “Work out your own salvation (the responsibility of man), for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure (the sovereignty of God).” So Paul holds it in tension. Jesus also in Matthew 18:7 says, “Offenses must come, but woe unto him through whom they come”–the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man. So in an attempt to try to clearly highlight either of these two extremes, you will do violence to the other.
In your example of Romans 9, it is imperative that you understand the context. In Romans, chapters 9, 10 and 11, Paul is primarily writing to the Jewish church in order to get them to understand that the chosenness that God had given to them was a privilege with concomitant responsibilities. He goes on to show that their privileged position was given to them because someone had to be a mouthpiece to the world and God chose the least of all the nations. He did not choose the philosophers in Greece; He did not choose the imperial might of Rome; He did not choose the splendor of Babylon. He chose a tiny little nation with whom and through whom He was going to pronounce the oracles to the rest of the world. Now, with that great privilege came a proportionate responsibility. So that chosenness was one of instrumentality, and to whom much was given much was also required. In the same way, I believe this principle applies to preachers. Just because we are called upon to stand in front of people and proclaim, it does not necessarily mean we have a better deal going for us. The fact is that our lives must be proportionate to the privilege and responsibility.
The passage in Peter expresses God’s desire for all mankind. Of course, He is not willing that any should perish. Now, what you need to do is recognize that foreknowledge and foreordination are not the same thing. I may know, for example, that as I see my child about to lift something heavy that he is not going to be able to lift it, but there are times when I stand back and watch in an attempt to teach this individual the fact that there are some loads too heavy for a smaller body to handle. Now when you are looking at the sovereignty of God, it is undeniable that God is sovereign in history. He is even able to take the evil intents of people and turn them around to good benefits. But isn’t that true of all life? There are some things in life that are givens–you and I have no control over them, but we do have options as to how we are going to deal with those givens, and that is where our responsibility comes in.
When you think of the mystery of sovereignty and responsibility, the very incarnation of Christ carries this enigma. Here is the sovereign God dwelling in a finite body with all of its limitations. So in my initial answer to you, may I suggest that you look at these two points as opposite poles of a dialectic; we cannot take God and put Him in a box as absolutely free. Somewhere the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man meet. The picture I have in mind is not of overlapping circles, as if each circle represented one extreme of the pole, but of conjoining circles. At some spot the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man meet. To try to answer it and explain it away would require infinite knowledge. The challenge you and I face, therefore, in life is to see how we can responsibly operate within the parameters that are so clear–God is sovereign, and yet I have the freedom and reserve the right to say yes or to say no. You see, God has given to every man the fundamental privilege of trusting Him or refusing to trust Him. You know, the old illustration used to be the sign outside of Heaven saying “Whosoever will may come,” and once you enter in, you see the sign that says, “Chosen before the foundation of the world.” A person who is truly born again recognizes that it was really the grace of God that brought him there because he could ever have come this way himself. It does not in any way mitigate or violate the choice that he made. The choice man makes is to trust God’s provision. Frankly, the tendency we may sometimes have is to complain that there is only one door to Heaven. Rather than complaining about it, we ought to thank God that there is at least one door by which we may enter.
There have been Calvinists and Arminians, giants of the faith, on both sides of the fence. I believe what John Calvin says holds very true: “Where God has closed His holy mouth let us learn not to open ours.” My own perspective on this is that God’s assurance of sovereignty is given to the person who wonders whatever caused him to merit the salvation, and God’s challenge of free will is to the person who tends to blame God for having even brought him into this world and that he has nothing to do to control his destiny. When you look at the encounter between Pharaoh and Moses, you see the constant availability of data given to Pharaoh, and the hardening process is really not a predestined one. It is a description after the fact that God was going to reveal the face that this man’s heart was already hardened. Remember, God operates in the eternal now.
So to sum up once again, the chapters of Romans 9, 10 and 11 are Paul’s theological treatise to the Jews to alert them to the fact that this great privilege does not let them get away scot-free. They have an enormous and a proportionate responsibility. He goes on to alert other nations that, rather than complaining about it, they should be glad that a privilege was given to someone, and through that someone this message has come to them also. In fact, if you read Romans 1, 2 and 3, you will find out that the privilege that the Jew had, in many ways, for many of them, turned out to be a disadvantage. If you read Romans 5, you will find out that even though God called Abraham, it was the faith of Abraham that justified him. Once again you see the sovereignty and responsibility. Why don’t we leave this enigma within the divine mind and just be grateful for the privilege that we have heard His voice and we can turn and follow Him?
May I strongly recommend that you pick up the book written by J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. His introductory comments alone, dealing with the difference between a contradiction and a paradox, are well done. If God were absolutely sovereign, then it would be a contradiction to say that man is absolutely free. God is not absolutely sovereign to the point that He can call something that is not as if it actually were. For example, God cannot make squares into circles. That would be a contradiction. So absolute sovereignty is really not what is being talked about here. God, therefore, has chosen to give us the option and, within that framework, He cannot call us free while absolutely violating that freedom. Both poles exist–His sovereignty and our responsibility. We rest on the fact that God is just, that God is love, that God is good, and He woos us enough so that we may trust Him and yet gives us enough freedom so that we might know that this freedom cannot be transformed into coercion.”
-Ravi K. Zacharias/ 1987
For those who would like to hear more from Ravi on this topic just listen to his defense of free will here:
And here is another video of Ravi where a similar question was asked: