Introduction: Jesus’ Hard Words
Why should we study what the Bible says about how we came to faith in Jesus? Isn’t it enough to simply believe and let it go? After all, do not such discussions only cause hurt feelings and doctrinal arguments among believers? These are good questions. Here are two answers. First, Jesus himself calls us to pay attention to His hard words,
Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (John 6:61-63).
Second, we should think about these things because they concern God’s glory. He is rightly jealous for His glory. He says, “I will not give my glory to another.”1 Neither should we give God’s glory to another. The question of who saves whom is central to God’s glory.
Its true that discussing God’s eternal decisions can cause trouble. This is also true of any one of a number of biblical doctrines. The solution can hardly be to refuse to think about or discuss Bible doctrines. Scripture itself gives guidelines for Christian discussion. If we treat one another with love, humility and patience, not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, then we ought to be able to grow together gracefully.2
In any doctrinal discussion, the most important question is, “What does God’s Word say?”3 It is God’s Word which should determine what we believe. God’s Word alone is His Spirit-inspired, infallible, inerrant, authoritative, self-revelation for faith and life. God’s Word written must determine our faith and confession, even if what it says is difficult to accept.
Sin Means Death and Total Inability
Understanding what the Bible says about sin is essential to understanding what the Bible says about salvation. What is sin? 1 John 3:4 says, “Every one who does sin, does lawlessness because sin is lawlessness.”4 James says that if we break one law, we have broken them all.5 Sin is the violation of God’s holy requirements. God’s Word is an expression of God’s holiness. Sin is an offense against God. Paul says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin.”6
God’s Word is equally clear that every human being is born “in sin.”7
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away….They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.8
Contrary to the generally accepted modern view of man, Paul says that by nature we are not seekers after righteousness or God. We are by nature at war with God. The results of sin are accurately described as “total inability.” In Romans 8:7 Paul puts it this way,
The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
Outside of Christ, before we have been redeemed, our natural (fallen) state is such that we are unable to obey God, it is impossible. Reminding God’s people of the radical nature of God’s saving grace John emphasizes the divine initiative in salvation:
Not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent His Son an atoning sacrifice for our sins.9
In Genesis 2:17 we read that God commanded our first parents, Adam and Eve, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The command to avoid one tree in the Garden was God’s standard of holiness for Adam and Eve. God’s Word says that Adam and Eve were created “in the image of God.”10 The text gives every indication that they had the power and ability to obey God. They freely chose not to obey God.11 The narrative of Genesis chapter 3 certainly seems to confirm Augustine’s conclusion that before the fall we were able not to sin. After the fall, we were not able not to sin.
It is important to note that the penalty attached to the law was death. “For when you eat of it you will surely die.”12 Paul says, “The wages of sin are death.”13 Death, in God’s Word, stands as the absolute opposite of life. Let me illustrate. In High School I had a Physiology teacher who took the class to see cadavers at a university medical school. We were allowed to put our gloved hands into the corpses, to learn how the human body works. Had those bodies any life in them I assure you, I would not have had my hands in their chest cavities! But the cadavers were dead. Dead people do not revive themselves. Dead people do not call the ambulance. Without God’s power, dead people simply stay the way they are, dead.
In Adam’s Fall Sinned We All
In Romans 5:12–21 Paul explains how we died. He says that Adam stood before God, in the Garden, as the representative of the entire human race. When Adam sinned, we all sinned. His sin was imputed, put on, credited to us. Adam’s sin offended God and brought physical and spiritual death and corruption to the entire human race.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned…For if the many died by the trespass of the one man…The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation…For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man…Consequently, just as the result of one man’s trespass was condemnation for all men…For just as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners.
The original sin of Adam has radical effects for our daily lives also. We sin because we are sinners by nature. We do not become sinners after we sin for the first time in our individual existence. We are not each born as Adam, without sin. We are born sinful and we act accordingly. Paul explains the relationship between our sin and our sinfulness this way.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air….14
The Colonial puritan rhyme is correct, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The result of our sin is that we are spiritually dead.15 Because we are spiritually dead we have no natural desire to know God or to be saved.16 We are prone by the way we are from birth to hate God and our neighbor. Outside of Christ, we would be lost and without any hope. God’s Word says that we are lost and dead, not merely confused or sick. Because we are in such a sad state God alone can save, by grace, through faith. God’s Word gives no indication that we are, by nature, in any position to cooperate with God. God is not “waiting” helplessly for us to come to Him. There is nothing in us that makes us worthy before God. All human beings stand before God as hell deserving sinners.
Grace and Faith
The good news is that there is hope in Jesus! Romans 5:8 says that “While we yet were sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus died to pay the penalty for the sin of all his people. Our sin was credited to Christ, and His righteousness was credited to those who believe.17 Whoever believes in Him has everlasting life.18
Ephesians 2:8,9 says,
For you were saved by grace through faith—and this faith does not come from yourselves, but it is the gift of God—not from works, so that no one will be able to boast.
What is the nature of God’s grace? First of all it is saving, “you were saved by grace.” It is saving in that it delivers the believer from the state of being under God’s condemnation to a state of being under God’s favor. The Biblical words for grace, Chen (O.T.) and Charis (NT) and are not ever used in Scripture to indicate that grace merely enables a person to cooperate with God.19 Grace is never merely enabling, it is always saving.
By its very nature, grace is a gift, it is the unearned favor of God. In Romans 6:23 Paul contrasts works righteousness with the righteousness which comes by grace. “The wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” A gift is the exact opposite of wages. A gift is not required, it is given merely out of one’s good pleasure.20 Grace is not earned, as Paul says, because then “grace would no longer be grace”21
Even the faith of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 2:8 is a gracious gift. It is true that it is we who must do the believing. No one can do our believing for us. The Gospel says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”22 Faith is the means through which people received the grace of God. Faith appropriates God’s grace, faith trusts that Christ has acted on my behalf. Faith says,
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Yet, in the translation of Ephesians 2:8,9 given above, it is clear that the clause, “it is the gift of God,” refers to faith. God has ordained that it is through faith the saving grace of God is received. With this biblical teaching in view, the old hymn takes on new meaning:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!
The question is: how do sons and daughters of Adam, dead in trespasses and sins, come to believe in Jesus? This is the question which I will seek to answer in the rest of this essay.
Freely Chosen By God
God’s Word teaches that our election is not conditioned upon any merit in us. There is no teaching anywhere in God’s Word that we are somehow able to recommend ourselves to God. Deuteronomy 4:32–40 illustrates this choosing of a people by God. In his speech to Israel, Moses compares the choosing of Israel in vv.32–34 to the primeval creation.
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it before ever been heard of?
Moses supposes that his audience is familiar with the creation narrative, which says,
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.23
The Letter to the Hebrews says,
By faith we understand that the earth was created at God’s command, so that what was seen was not made out of what was visible.24
God spoke and all things came into being. Before God spoke, no earth existed. The same is true of God’s people. In his speech, Moses says that God spoke Israel into existence as a people.25 For this same reason, it is God who sovereignly calls, elects and saves a people to be His possession,26 because he is, as Paul puts it, the Creator of a “new creation in Christ.”27 The creation did not help God. God made the creation by His Word, without any help from us. Moses goes on to say that, in fact, the fact that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob elects a people for Himself, makes Him unique among all the gods.
Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?28
Three chapters later, Moses denies that there was any quality inherent in Israel which made the sons of Jacob worthy of being called the people of God.
The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all people. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh, King of Egypt.29
According to this passage, there are two reasons for God’s choosing of Israel, His undeserved love and His Covenant promise to Abraham.30
God’s Sovereign Decisions in Exodus
Several passages in Exodus make the whole matter of God’s sovereignty, predestination and election very explicit. In Exodus 4:11, in answer to Moses’ excuse about not speaking well, the Lord asks the rhetorical question, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” God’s absolute justice and power are fundamental themes of the Exodus narrative.
Throughout the Book of Exodus the Lord declares unequivocally that,
…I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go…But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.31
Exodus 7:22 says …”and Pharaoh’s heart became hard.” That Pharaoh is said to “harden his heart” shows that we are not robots.32 God uses means. People also retain a sin corrupted will. Exodus 8:15 indicates that Pharaoh looked at the situation and then he “hardened his heart.” That was a willful act on Pharaoh’s part. The ultimate cause of Pharaoh’s hard heart, however, must be understood in light of earlier and later passages which say clearly that God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
This can be a difficult teaching to accept. Many years ago while enrolled in a Bible Literature course at a large state university the class came upon these passages in our studies. After reading them, one of the students blurted out, “this must be a mistranslation! This can’t be so!” Actually the grammar of each of the verses is unambiguous and is rendered correctly above from the NIV. What caused problems for my fellow student was a common (but unbiblical) assumption that it is unfair for God to hold humans responsible for anything over which they do not have absolute control.33
This premise insists that God treat each of us as though we were Adam and not the children of Adam. We cannot, however, have it both ways. If we each wish to be Adam, then we must do away with Jesus, since he purposefully came to earth to succeed where Adam failed. If we were in a position to be Adam then Jesus was wasting His time, or providing insurance at best. This does not accord with Jesus self-description as “the way and the truth and the life.”34
Scripture explicitly rejects the notion that moral responsibility is contingent upon human autonomy. In Exodus 9:15,16 the Lord says to Pharaoh.
I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the face of the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show (in) you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
According to Scripture, Pharaoh existed primarily to bring glory to God. The grammar of v.16 is exceedingly clear and the language equally blunt. God raised Pharaoh up so as to use him to demonstrate His power to harden and to redeem. It is against the backdrop of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, against the backdrop of the plagues on Egypt, that the greatness of God’s grace in redeeming Jacob’s sons is to be seen. The marvel is not God’s cruelty in hardening Pharaoh, but in redeeming Israel’s sons!
The Apostle Paul and The Fairness Doctrine
What makes these verses even more important is the way Paul interprets them in Romans chapter 9. In God’s treatment of Pharaoh, Paul sees the prime example of God’s predestinating, sovereign, electing, grace.
So then salvation is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up that I may show my power in you, and that my name may be declared in all the earth. Therefore he has mercy upon whom he wills and whom he wills, he hardens.35
Through the example of Pharaoh, Paul also answers what I call the “fairness question” which asks, “Is it fair that God wills that some should be saved and that some should not?” Paul’s reply, “What shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!”36 God is fair. It was not God who sinned in the garden. In Adam, we were not created with any defect. We were created in the image of God. God made Adam and Eve so that they could live obediently, but they chose not to. That is not God’s fault. The marvel is not that some are not saved, but that anyone at all is saved.
If, however, salvation is all of God, then how can he condemn those who do not believe? Paul’s answer,
But indeed O man who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have the power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?37
The context shows that the issue here is God’s sovereignty. That is why Paul goes on to discuss the problem of justice.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump done vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:19–24; ESV).
According to Paul, the fault lies not with God but with us, which is why he goes on to quote Hosea.
That Adam had a free will, the ability to sin or not, is widely accepted. The idea however, that human beings have a free will has a long history in Western theology and continues to strongly influence many Bible interpreters and theologians. Many evangelicals simply assume that the doctrine of free will is a biblical one. It will be helpful, therefore, to understand the background of this idea in the Western intellectual tradition.
Reacting to Augustine’s strong doctrine of human depravity (inability) and divine sovereignty, the British monk Pelagius (c.400) and his followers challenged the doctrine that all humans are federally (legally) united to Adam and thus fell with him. By breaking the legal/moral link between Adam and us, the Pelagians almost eliminated the effect of sin upon us.
Though the Councils of Carthage (411) and Orange (529) sided with Augustine, afterwards the majority of the medieval church moved in a steadily semi-Pelagian direction, attempting to synthesize Pelagius with Augustine. The synthesis said that sinners are able to cooperate with grace toward justification. In the high middle ages the semi-Pelagian banner was carried by Gabriel Biel (c.1420–95) and the greatest humanist of all, Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469–1536), against whom Martin Luther reacted during the Reformation.38 In the late sixteenth century, Jacob Arminius (1560–1609) renewed the semi-Pelagian struggle against the Pauline doctrine of the will. Later, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined free will to mean something like “the power of contrary choice.” Kant said that a choice is truly moral choice only if the one making the decision has the power to will the contrary.
Though the doctrine that (fallen) human beings retain a free will is widely held, it is not is certainly not Pauline. He argues from God’s electing wisdom that God has the right to choose Jacob and reject Esau.39 We are not in any position, being sinners and finite humans, to question His mysterious, eternal, decisions. God’s Word nowhere provides any defense whatsoever for the position that man has the ability to will the contrary to God’s will. Rather, God’s Word, as we have already seen, provides extended passages defending God’s righteousness in His sovereign eternal gracious decrees. I doubt that is possible to find a single passage in God’s Word which clearly teaches that created, sinful, human beings have a free will relative to God’s. If Pelagius, Erasmus and Kant are correct, then one must say that Pharaoh is not morally culpable for his hardness because he did not have the power to will the contrary to God’s decree. One would be forced to conclude that God is a evil tyrant who uses people as puppets.
A word of clarification about the meaning of the term “free will” is in order. One may use the term free will. If, with Jonathan Edwards, we define a free will as that will which acts according to its nature, then the will, in this restricted sense may be said to be free. Sin warps our will so that, by nature, we do not will to do what is pleasing to God. Because of our relationship to Adam, we freely will to sin.40 The fallen will may said to be free in an existential, or experiential sense. No one visibly compels any human being to do anything they do not will to do. After all, we experience ourselves choosing daily or moment by moment. One always has a choice, even if one of the choices is unpleasant.41
Nevertheless, ultimately, the human will must be said to be limited by God’s decisions. Any other position is suicidal to the Christian faith. If one assumes that believers or unbelievers have the power of absolute contrary choice relative to God’s decrees, then all of the biblical language describing God’s eternal decrees becomes meaningless and mythological.
Second, if we have the power of contrary choice relative to God, then we must find some foundation in the Word of God to show that God has voluntarily limited Himself in some way so as to give us this almost divine prerogative. In the light of passages studied (and the ones forthcoming) this will be extremely hard to do.
Third, if we have the power of contrary choice, what does the Bible mean when it says that we are dead? Is this language also mythological? Why does the Bible consistently use death as the analogy for our spiritual state outside of Christ if God really means to say that we are only sick or ill? Why doesn’t God’s Word ever once describe us as “sick” or “ill” or only in a weakened condition?
It is sometimes asked: what if someone wanted to be saved but could not be saved because they weren’t predestined? This might be an interesting question except that there have never been any such people. According to Scripture, everyone who wants to be saved will be saved because anyone who desires salvation, does so because God has effectively called them to faith by the work of His Holy Spirit.42 The premise of the question is flawed. It assumes that sinners, if given the chance, will believe in Jesus on their own. This isn’t true. We saw above that we are all dead in sin. Apart from the prevenient work of God’s Spirit dead men don’t love Jesus. The Scriptures make it clear that no one even wanted to be saved, until God gave them a desire to be saved. Everyone who believes in Jesus does so because God predestined us, called us by the Holy Spirit, gave us a new life, mind and heart (i.e., we were born again) and caused us to believe in Jesus.
The Golden Chain
Romans 8:28–30 says,
And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose, because, those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover those whom he predestined, these he also called, those whom he called these he also justified, those whom he justified, these he also glorified.
Because of the way they link one part of salvation with another, these verses have been called “the golden chain.” These verses speak of God’s eternal, pre-creational, decisions. We’re all familiar with vs.28. Notice, however, that those for whom all things work out, are those whom God has “called.” He explains that the group of everyone called is the same group as those whom God foreknew. Everyone he “foreknew” belongs to the same group of those who have been “predestined.” This is the same group as those who are “justified” (i.e., declared to be righteous before God). The same group about whom all these other things are said, is the same group whom God will glorify. In each verse it is God who is the subject of the verse, the person doing the action, and those whom he is saving are the objects of God’s gracious acts.
Salvation is from God from beginning to end. By definition, grace excludes human effort. Grace rescues a drowning man unable to save himself. Grace is raises the dead to life by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible calls Christians the “elect.” The noun “elect” (that is, “the chosen ones”) occurs 25 times in the New Testament.43 Using the word “elect” or “chosen” only makes sense in the context of God’s sovereign predestinating grace. Believers are elect because we have been chosen by God, not because they have helped God to be a Savior. In Ephesians 1:1-15 Paul explains how, when and why God decided to save us. How is “in Christ.” In vv.3, 4, 10 Paul says that we (believers) were chosen “in Christ:”
before the foundation of the world, in order that we might be holy and blameless before Him, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will.44
According to God’s Word, those who believe were chosen by God before the world was created so that he would glorified (Ephesians 1:6). How? “Having predestined us….”. God in His grace chose us, even though were worthy of destruction. We believe because God predestined us to believe. Why? Because it is “according to the good pleasure of His will.”
God’s Sovereign Choice According to Peter
The Letters by the Apostle Peter make it equally clear, in his own style, that he believes God predestined God’s people to faith. In 1 Peter 1:1–3 he calls his readers (us!), …the elect aliens…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by His blood…” .These verses define, for Peter, what it means to be “elect.” Some have tried to show that these verses prove that election only means that God could see in advance who was going to believe. This understanding ignores the context of the word “foreknowledge” as well as all of the other Biblical passages which clearly teach the contrary. Look at the grammar of these verses. Peter calls his readers, “elect strangers.” In verse two we are elect “in the sanctification of the Spirit” i.e., by the work of God’s Spirit we were set apart. We were elect “to the sprinkling of blood.” Again, these phrases indicate that salvation is God’s work in us and for us. We do not sprinkle ourselves. Sprinkling is something done to us by God.
This clarifies Peter’s use of the word “foreknowledge.”45 That God foreknew whom he had chosen is clear Biblical teaching. Paul teaches the exact same thing in Romans 8:29 where the verb “to foreknow” is used as part of God’s “foreordaining” described in vs.28.46 Foreknowledge implies in Scripture, not just a bare knowing ahead of time, but rather an intimate relationship. Repeatedly Scripture uses in the Old Covenant the verb Yada “to know” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.47 The same verb lies behind Peter’s choice of the Greek noun prognosis in this passage. To clinch the argument we need only to look at Peter’s use of the verb “to foreknow” in his Pentecost Sermon. In Acts 2:23 Peter explains the crucifixion by saying,
This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross (NIV).
The noun “foreknowledge” elaborates or explains the phrase translated as “set purpose.”48 These terms are used interchangeably. We could well speak of God’s decided purpose. Whatever foreknowledge means, it must include God’s will which has settled the future as well as his advance knowledge about the future. Never are events described with the verb “to foreknow” as though God had only advance knowledge but not control over them. Instead His foreknowledge is always described in conjunction with His working of His decrees.
At the same time, despite God’s “foreknowledge” and his “predetermined will,” Peter refuses to release his hearers from their moral obligation. He reminds them that it was they, not God, who nailed Jesus to the cross. It is they who are culpable before God.
Peter also liberally uses the language of predestination to describe God’s people. In chapter 2.9,10 Peter describes his readers as,
a chosen people, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (NIV).
His gentile readers are called “chosen” or “elect.”49 Prior to our calling we were “in darkness” a poetic way describing spiritual death. The image reminds us of creation and the Exodus out of Egypt. Notice too that in verse ten, the elect are those who “have received mercy.” Mercy is received, not earned or deserved, but bestowed by God by grace through faith. As in Acts 2:23 it is evident here too that, for Peter, God’s electing grace does not nullify the human obligation of a response of gratitude. According to verse nine, the elect were chosen by God for the purpose of telling other people about “the praises of Him who called you out of darkness….”
God’s Sovereign Choice and the New Life in John’s Writings
John’s gospel opens with a very strong and clear statement of God’s total control over the process of salvation. This flows out his discourse on the pre-existence of the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the Son’s role in creation: “All things came into being through Him, without Him nothing came into being which has come into being.”50
As in Deuteronomy the creation motif appears alongside a description of salvation. This is not accidental. If we say that the Son of God sovereignly created all that exists, then it is very difficult to evade the conclusion John draws in 1:12–13 regarding Jesus’ total control over salvation. “But as many as received Him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name….”
Some have read this verse to imply that we must first move our will to accept Jesus as our Savior, before God can make us children of God. This reading might be plausible, if one ignored all of the other passages which we have studied, and if this verse was taken out of its context. The next verse, however, explains who receives Jesus. “Those who were born, not by blood, nor by the will of man, but by God.”51
As in Romans 10:10 where we are called to believe and confess, and in Acts 16:31 to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”, John 1:12 does not answer the question of how we come to faith in Jesus. Verse thirteen does: by God’s will. John starkly contrasts the will of man with the decision of God. It will not do to try to wedge a little human effort in between the “receiving” of vs.12 and the being “born” of vs.13. First, as we will trace out shortly, John’s gospel teaches that we come to faith according to the decree of God prior to creation. There is no way to get behind God’s will.
The creation narrative of Genesis 1:2 is the background for Jesus’ discourse on the Spirit’s moving.52 This is a relatively frequent image in the Old Covenant Scriptures. The Spirit is said to reside over the Tabernacle.53 In this Spiritual sense, Israel as God’s people is a re-creation.54
In John 5:21 Jesus ties together the creation theme with His resurrection teaching. He illustrates God’s sovereignty in salvation by explaining His power over the resurrection. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also the Son gives life to whom he wills. Jesus, like Paul, begins from the premise that men are dead in sins and trespasses and must be raised to life through the supernatural, gracious, powerful, work of God’s Spirit. Dead men do not raise themselves. Ask Lazarus. Resurrection is a powerful and clear analogy to God’s saving work in the life of the sinner.
Salvation and the Spirit
Scripture says that we come to faith as a result of the work of the Spirit.55 We have seen that we are spiritually dead in Adam. It is when we are grafted onto Christ that we are made alive. This union with Christ is God’s gracious act through the means of faith.56 Do we obtain new life because we believe or do we believe because we have been given new life? The biblical answer is the latter. The faith that unites us to Christ is the fruit of the new life. Jeremiah 13:23 asks, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jesus agrees in Matthew 7:16–20, “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” In Adam, we are bad, dead, trees. Likewise, Jesus told His disciples regarding salvation, “with man it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”57 Paul says that though we are wasting away outwardly, inwardly we are “being renewed.”58 This renewal is something done to us, not by us.59 John’s gospel also reflects this idea that man’s basic disposition, because of the fall, is to sin. People do not come to Christ for fear of being exposed as hell-bent sinners.60
Second, John clearly teaches throughout his gospel that “faith” or “believing” is a result of the previous (prevenient) work of God’s Spirit. For John, we are not born because we believe, but we believe because we have been born. The reasons for this are many. In John’s gospel, the state before re-birth is like death and blindness.61 It is Jesus who gives sight to the blind. The blind do not give themselves sight, anymore than the dead raise themselves or the water turns itself into wine.62 Jesus’ explanation of the process of being “born again” in John 3:1-11 makes it clear that we do not give birth to ourselves, but we are delivered into new life by the sovereign, immediate, work of God Himself, through the means of faith. Sealing this understanding of the new birth is that fact that Jesus uses Genesis creation narrative as the background for His explanation of new life in John 3:1–21.
I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again…I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit (vv.3, 5, 6).
The pre-requisite for seeing and entering the kingdom is the new birth. The question is, how does one obtain that new birth? Are we born because God has seen that we believed? Not according to Jesus. Verse 6, “Spirit gives birth to spirit” seems pretty clear. Nicodemus will not be able to give birth to Himself, but rather, he must be born by the Spirit. Jesus continues,
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit (v.8).
Clearly, Jesus is presuming and teaching the sovereign work of the Spirit in bringing unborn (i.e., lost, blind, dead) to new life. This is the foregoing or prevenient work of the Spirit. One does not give birth to himself, rather he is begotten. The original language of John 3 emphasizes the sovereignty of the Spirit in giving new life. In the original Jesus says, “You must be born Anothen.”63 Everywhere else this word is used in the gospel of John it means “from above.” Later in this chapter Jesus refers to the one who “comes Anothen” (“from above”) and contrasts him with those of the earth. In 19:11, Jesus tells Pilate that he could not crucify Jesus unless it was “given to you from above.” In neither context does “again” make sense. Thus it is likely that the actual primary meaning of Anothen in 3:3 and 3:7 is “born from above.” If this is so, then it could not possibly mean “born again” in the sense that we are spiritually renewed when we chose to believe. If the new birth is “from above” then it is from without and something which is done to us.
Notice too, that Jesus says that no one can “see” or “enter” the Kingdom unless he is born. There are compelling reasons for understanding the words “see” and “enter” to be referring to belief. Hard after his explanation of the Work of the Spirit, Jesus equates this “entering” with “belief” in 3:12. In vss.15,16,18 everyone who “believes” has eternal life. According to Jesus, people do not come to faith, because (by nature) “they love darkness rather than light” (v.19). The entire gospel of John is an evangelistic call to faith in Jesus. John testifies that he wrote his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”64 Consistently, in John’s gospel, entry into the kingdom is something which happens to one.
Jesus also draws imagery from Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the dry bones.65 In Ezekiel, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” The answer, of course, is no. The entire point of the narrative is that God will sovereignly resurrect His people, through the moving of the Spirit over the dry bones. God says,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.66
These texts describe a change in man which is beyond his capacity. These are radical, Divinely worked, changes. It is God who sprinkles, God who gives the new heart, who gives the Spirit and move us. These promises are made to those dead. These promises are not conditioned upon our merit–as if dead men could bring themselves to life.67 For Jesus, these narratives illustrate not only of the regenerating (new life giving) work of the Spirit in the lives of individuals, but also his birth and resurrection. It is through the over-dwelling of the Holy Spirit that he was conceived and born of virgin Mary.68 It was also through the agency of the Holy Spirit that the Son was raised again.69
If God’s Spirit is said to have been one of the agencies of the Son’s resurrection, it is not too much to expect that sinful creatures also are totally dependent upon the Spirit for new life! It is through the work of the Spirit that humans are enabled to hear the Word with believing ears. Paul teaches this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 2:14,
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things of the Spirit because they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
When Paul says “spiritually discerned,” he is referring to the work of the sovereign Holy Spirit. His major point here is that we are dependent upon the sovereign Holy Spirit for our new life (regeneration) and for our understanding of the Christian faith.
Salvation as a Gift
In Philippians Paul speaks about the new life this way, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for Him.”70
The terms of this passage are those of a royal grant, a gift. Faith was granted and along with it, the privilege of suffering. In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul instructs the young pastor to be patient with those who oppose him, waiting for God to “grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”
The Book of Acts consistently speaks about the new life as though it were something God accomplishes in us. In Acts 16:14 Luke records the conversion of Lydia thus, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Note that Lydia did not open her own heart, but it was the Lord who performed the Spiritual cardiac surgery. In Acts 5:31 Peter is reported to have described repentance and forgiveness of sins both as gifts from God. In Acts 11:18 Peter again speaks of God granting repentance leading to life.
In his own commentary on his gospel, the Apostle John repeatedly describes new life as coming “from God.”71 As we have seen above, John uses creation as an analogy (as does Paul) to explain the origins of the new life. For John, in the prologue to his gospel, “in Him (the Word) was life….”72 Life is original and inherent in the Son of God. Life is something which is imparted to creatures by the creative Son of God. So too in the Epistle. The Son is the Word of Life.73 Eternal life is with the Father.74
Because spiritual life is original with God and ours only derivatively (it is given to us by God because we are fallen and dead) John describes Christians as those born “from God.”75 In 1 John 3:9 it is those who are “born from God” or “born by God” who do not “sin.” Further only those whose birth has God as its source cannot sin.76
There is a causal relationship between the spiritual birth and the abstinence from sin. The birth provided by God is demonstrated by not sinning.77 Only those who have God as their Father, who have been given the new birth by Him, love the brothers in Christ.78 Everyone who belongs to the class of called believers belongs to the class of those who are born of God.79 Those born from God are overcomers.80 Note the causal relationship in every “born” passage. Faith and love are fruits of birth!
The Protestant View of Grace
Another reason why we must reject any interpretation of John 1:12,13 which makes faith the cause of the new birth (as opposed to the sovereign work of God), is that such a view makes faith virtually a meritorious work and the ground or basis of our justification before God.
The crux of the Reformation was the question of the Bible’s teaching on salvation. Luther’s theology was revolutionized by Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” Luther came to understand that it was not baptism, the decree of the Church, or a habitual disposition which recommended us to God, but God’s grace alone. For Luther, this grace was a sovereign, predestined gift.81
As we have already seen above, faith, for Paul, is the gift of God.82 It is the means of receiving the righteousness of Christ.83 Faith is designed by God to apprehend some righteous object. Christ is the object of saving faith. We believe in Jesus. We trust in His obedience. It is Christ’s obedience and righteousness which is the righteousness which can stand before God.
To be sure, as we saw in our survey of John’s use of the word, faith plays an absolutely crucial role in our salvation. The key is to put faith in the correct place so that we do not ask of it more nor demand of it less than God does. God’s Word puts our sin problem and its solution in legal and economic terms, e.g., justification, condemnation, judgment, credit, righteousness etc. Scripture nowhere teaches that faith is the legal ground of justification. God’s Word unequivocally teaches that it is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer which is the legal basis of our justification before God.84 Scripture nowhere teaches that we are justified because we generated faith on our own. Time and again God’s Word teaches that faith is the God ordained instrument of receiving the grace of God.85
If we make faith a meritorious work then we have reverted to the Galatian error of saying, “grace plus.”86 In the Galatian case it was grace plus circumcision. If we are renewed and saved because we chose to believe, then how are we different from those Galatians who said that we justified because we believe and are circumcised? Faith is absolutely necessary, but it is not a work. It is the product of divine grace.
Does Jesus Have a People?
In John 6:37–39 Jesus gives us some insight into His eternal relationship with His Father.
Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and the one coming to me, I will not cast out…this is the will of the One who sent me, that I shall lose none of everyone whom he has given me, but (instead), I will raise him up on the last day.
The Father has given a people to Jesus to save and resurrect. These people are a gift from the Father to the Son. A gift does not give itself! The Son has come (v.38) to do the Father’s will. The Father’s will is that none should be lost. Verse 65 clarifies the whole matter of the order of salvation and the relationship between God’s eternal decisions, made before creation existed and our faith.87 Jesus’ teaching here is occasioned by the apostasy of some of His followers. God’s Word says,
…For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him…This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.88
The Lord is repeating what he has already said in vs.44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
The decision is God’s. He does the drawing. People don’t come to faith in Christ unless they are drawn. Jesus stated this proposition in terms of possibility and impossibility. It is impossible in the nature of the case, that dead and blind sinners should come to Jesus. Only those raised and given new life believe.
People are the objects of the Father’s drawing work. The people drawn are those whom God has chosen before the foundations of the world. Those whom God has drawn to Christ come to faith. They believe in Jesus. According to vs.65, it is only when we are drawn by God, led by the hand as it were, that we come to faith. It is the work of the Spirit of God to lead blinded sinners to sight and faith, as Jesus made the blind man to see.89
This closely knit chain of God’s grace is absolutely necessary to our salvation. Jesus came to accomplish the Father’s will, to seek and save the lost, to save those whom the Father has drawn. Should Jesus fail to accomplish the Father’s will, we are all lost! Every believer affirms that Jesus did not fail. Jesus said, “It is finished!”90
In John 10:14–16 Jesus describes the Good Shepherd’s knowledge of the sheep (saved people) by using an analogy with His Father’s knowledge of Him. Jesus says that he “knows” His sheep in the same way, with the same intimacy and eternality, that the co-eternal, co-existent, consubstantial Father knows the eternally begotten Son. This is not mere advance knowledge! Continuing with the Shepherd-Sheep metaphor, Jesus says,
I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them tome, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.91
According to Jesus, eternal life is neither earned nor deserved. It is a gift from the shepherd to the sheep, just as the sheep are a gift from the Father to the Son. Our salvation is as safe as the Father’s hand is secure.
In His High Priestly prayer, in John 17:2, Jesus again says that he has been granted all authority so that he can give eternal life.92 He does not say that he has been granted all authority with a view to waiting around to see who is smart enough to believe. Instead it is the Father who has given him believers, and to these same believers Jesus will give eternal life.93
The Apostle John in his epistles returns to the theme of election as he addresses either an individual woman or a congregation as the “elect lady” and refers to her “elect sister.”94 These references must be understood in the context of the theology expressed already in the gospel. Also in the Revelation Christ gives this promise to believers,
They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.95
The Lamb will overcome them because he is the sovereign Lord of all. He is not dependent upon or contingent upon the will of creatures.
Divine Sovereignty: Means and Instruments
It would be a mistake to conclude, because it is God who sovereignly decides to save and to bring us to faith and salvation, that God does not use means and instruments to achieve His purposes. Quite the opposite is true. The first example is the very incarnation of the Son of God Himself. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God is more than a means, but he is the “Way.”96 Taking on human flesh to achieve salvation for sinners shows an extreme willingness to use means! God also uses faith as a means, as we have already seen. The Spirit of God is the means or the agent of regeneration, life giving, so that dead people come to eternal life through faith.
In Romans 8:28 Paul speaks of those “called according to His purpose” and again in vs.30 of those whom God “predestined he also called; those he called, he also justified.” These verses are usually interpreted to speak of the “internal” call by God, through the Holy Spirit, of the believer to faith. I believe this is correct. This call is sometimes called the “effectual” or “effective” call. It is the effectual Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God, who has called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” Everywhere in the New Covenant, where God is said to do the calling, it is this effectual call which is in view. Two possible exceptions will be discussed below.
In the case of the Exodus, God chose to use the stuttering Moses. He might have skipped the painful process of the ten plagues. In His unrivaled wisdom, however, God chose to execute His decisions through the means of the Red Sea episode, and through the plagues.
In Revelation 17:14 is the “called” who are the elect.97 This must be an internal, effectual call, or else everyone who has ever heard the external call is included in the term elect. Such an interpretation makes nonsense of the Revelation’s teaching about hell. Hebrews 9:15, says “those who have been called…receive the promise of an eternal inheritance.” In Romans 1:6, believers are the “called of Jesus Christ…” The called are those who understand the wisdom of God.98 For Peter, our internal calling is synonymous with our election, and something we need to “make sure.”99
The Preaching of the Good News
Nevertheless, Scripture speaks a great deal about another, verbal, external, call. It is the gospel call. In the Old Covenant the prophets frequently made such calls for repentance and faith to Israel. For example, God complained about Israel’s rejection of his “call.” Then there was the promise that “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”100
It is this sort of call of which Jesus speaks when he says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”101 The same idea is found in Acts 17:30 where Scripture says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now God commands men everywhere to repent.” Jesus issues such a call to faith in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” and in John 3:16, …”whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This is also the way to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This refers to his external, vocal, verbal, call to repentance and faith. At the same time, it should be noted that those disciples whom he calls in this passage actually do come! The verbal, external gospel call is the instrument used by God to bring men to saving faith.
Paul summarizes the Good News in 1 Corinthians 15.1–5:
By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the Word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.
It is because God is sovereign that believers can joyously anticipate success in preaching this Gospel. Paul does not–and neither should we—preach out of mere duty. The Lord Jesus told Paul,
Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent, for I am with you and no one is going to attack you and harm you because I have many people in this city.102
The Good News is the exacting instrument of the Spirit to bring hearers to life. James 1:18 says, “he chose to give us birth through the Word of Truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” He ties together the motifs of God’s sovereignty in redemption and creation, as we have already seen done in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and in John’s gospel. The language in the original refers to the act of giving birth, ceasing to be pregnant.103 The instrument of this Spiritual mid-wifery is the gospel, the “Word of Truth.”
Paul routinely ascribes such power to his gospel message. In Ephesians 1:13 he explains to his readers how and when they came to faith. “And you were included in Christ when you heard the Word of Truth, the gospel of your salvation.” So also in Colossians 1:5-6 the News is, “the Word of Truth, the gospel” which is “producing fruit and growing.” In 2 Corinthians 6:7 Paul parallels the “Word of Truth” with “the power of God.”104 The exemplar passage is of course Romans 1:16 where the gospel “is the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes…..” Paul says that he became a father to the Corinthian church “through the gospel.”105 For Paul there is no dichotomy between God’s eternal decision to save and the use of the instrument of the gospel.
Because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel…106
In Romans 10:13-15 Paul explains in detail the relationship between the gospel and faith.
…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent. As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet are the feet of those who bring good news!’
As in Joel 2:32 and Acts 2 sinners must call upon the name of the Lord. But they cannot call until they have heard. There is a chronological priority and dependency. Lost sinners are dependent upon the message of the resurrection. It is through the instrument of the gospel that God saves sinners. Peter agrees: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God.”107
The Well Meant Offer of the Gospel
Some have concluded that if God has predestined those whom he will save through grace, then preaching is useless. Ignoring, for the moment, our just completed conclusive survey of passages which proves that God uses means, let us explore God’s revealed intentions. The assumption behind this complaint is that God does not deal with us in good faith, that if the Bible really does teach predestination, then God talks out of both sides of His mouth. This complaint and its assumption ignores what God’s Word has to say on the subject. When God offers salvation to all who believe, the offer is sincere. When the gospel is verbally preached to unbelievers (whether within the visible Covenant Community or in a purely missionary setting) God sincerely offers eternal life to whomever will come. This is the paradox, that in some sense, God desires what he has not decreed to happen, i.e., the salvation of all men.
An instructive Old Covenant example comes in Deuteronomy 5:29. Here, Moses repeats the Sinai commandments for those who were not there. Toward the end of his sermon, Moses relates the words of the Lord.
“O that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever.
What is significant about this verse for our discussion is that the Hebrew text uses a verb form (optative) which expresses emotion and which implies a desire which will not be fulfilled. Here God desires what he has not decreed and what will not actually come to pass. In Ezekiel 18:21-23 God says,
But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn away from their ways and live?
And a moment later God says again,
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!108
Say to them, ‘As surely as I live’, declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?109
God is not revealed to us as though he is emotionless. We know from God’s Word that he does not change.110 Yet God reveals himself to us as a God who sincerely desires to see everyone come to faith.
The New Covenant picks up this thread of God’s self-disclosure and takes it even further, applying it not only to national Israel, but to all men! In Matthew 5:44–48 Jesus teaches us about love for our enemies by appealing to the example of His Father.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The implication of this passage is unmistakable. Jesus wants believers to love unbelievers as the Father Himself loves them. This is what he means here by the word “perfect.”111
Jesus says in Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets, how often would I have gathered you as a hen….”. The Lord, who knew before the foundations of the world those for whom he was to die yet speaks of an unfulfilled desire.112
The entirety of Jesus’ public preaching and ministry is one sustained sincerely intended offer of salvation. The Gospel of Mark begins with a call to repentance and faith.113 Matthew 11:28 summarizes Jesus’ message, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
2 Peter 3:9,15 says,
The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some people understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation….
The context of the passage is about the second (and final) advent of the Lord Jesus. Some people are beginning to mock the second coming as a cruel joke played on believers. Peter’s response is to point out the Lord’s intentions.
Of interest to us right now is the reason for God’s patience. Jesus’ return is delayed, so to speak, for the sake of lost sinners. It is conceivable that Peter refers to the elect not yet come to faith. Still there is a universal tone to the passage. This is Peter’s application of Jesus’ principle taught in Matthew 5.43-48. Even though the World scorns God’s people, God is patient and gracious.
Perhaps nowhere else in God’s Word is this sincere offer of salvation put as wonderfully and beautifully as in the Revelation.
The Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him who hears say come, and let him come, and whosoever will may come and drink…”.114
Many well meaning, but misguided, Bible interpreters have inferred from the set of passages just reviewed that God is theoretically sovereign but practically impotent to bring about the salvation of those whom Scripture calls “elect.” This conclusion however, is not warranted by the texts we have surveyed. Rather it stems from a philosophical presupposition which says, “If God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, it must be hypothetically possible for everyone to be saved, or else God would be guilty of cruelty and unfairness.”
The immediate answer to this “problem” lies in our discussion of Romans chapter 9 above, to which I refer you. But the real answer is mystery. A mystery is something known to God but inexplicable by man. That God is One in three persons is true and must be affirmed by all Christians, at peril of the soul, even though no one can give an thorough explanation of how this is possible. Christ is both true man and true God. All Christians must affirm this too, at peril of the soul.
How we can be legally and morally responsible for Adam’s sin is a mystery, but one which must be affirmed. That God is actually sovereign actively in history and yet we are morally responsible for our own actions, is another mystery. These are true paradoxes where two sides of a matter must be affirmed in order to be faithful to God’s Word.
The paradox of the free offer of the Gospel is another. For our purposes here it is helpful to note that Scripture does not have a problem with this or the other paradoxes mentioned. As we have seen, Scripture very clearly teaches that God is just. God’s Word also teaches that he has decreed and predestined and sovereignly elected whomever comes to faith in the Lord Jesus.
All of this being true has not kept God from speaking about the lost in very powerful, sincerely meant ways. God intends to stir the believer’s heart to compassion for the lost, not to cause him to make cold (ungodly) calculations about whether a given (presently) unsaved person is elect or not. Our joy is to tell that person that Jesus was raised from the dead and because of the resurrection, there is new life in Christ!
Thus, evangelism is not a burdensome, dreary task dutifully carried out by grim harvesters of souls. The Good News really is good! Heaven rejoices over the repentance of a lost sinner, so should we.115 The Father rejoices when the prodigal comes home. The parable of the lost son means nothing if not that the Father Himself rejoices when the lost come to faith.116
Let us be found faithful in giving God His right as the sovereign Lord in His eternal decisions and gracious salvation. Let our hearts be filled with praise and gratitude for His mighty work and outstretched arm in delivering us from the bondage of sin! Let us respond to His grace with heartfelt thanksgiving. Let our so overflow that we cannot help but make known the riches of His grace to a world lost and dead in sin!
1 Isaiah 42:8.
2 See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Philippians 2:1–4.
3 I assume the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, that is, on essential matters the Scriptures are clear. I assume that biblical soteriology, or the biblical doctrine of salvation, is an essential scriptural teaching. This is not to say that all the passages under consideration are equally clear or that there is uniformity among Christian Bible scholars in their interpretation. Certainly this is not so. This paper is not, however, explicitly about hermeneutics or the science of interpretation, but actually engaged in the work of interpreting texts by relating them to one another.
4 My translation.
5 James 2:10
6 Romans 3:21.
7 Psalm 51:5.
8 Romans 3:10–2:23.
91 John 4:10.
10 Genesis 1:26–27.
11 Genesis 3 [all].
12 Genesis 1:26-27.
13 Romans 6:23.
14 Ephesians 2:1-2.
15 Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:5–6.
16 Genesis 8:21; Isaiah 53.6; Jeremiah 17:9.
17 1 John 4:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 5:12–21.
18 John 3:16; John 20:31.
19 Chen is used for grace 43 times in the O.T. Charis occurs approximately 141 times in N.T.
20 Romans 3:23; Ephesians 1:4.
21 Romans 11:6.
22 Acts 16:31.
23 Genesis 1:1–3
24 Hebrews 11:2.
25 Deuteronomy 4.33–36.
26 1 Peter 2:9–10.
27 2 Corinthians 5:17.
28 Deuteronomy 4:34.
29 Deuteronomy 7.6–7.
30 See Genesis 13:14–7; 15:1-21; 17:1–22.
31 Exodus 4:21, 7:3
32 Exodus 8:15, 19.
33 This is a very influential belief which many readers have brought to the reading of Scripture which is quite simply unsupported by text itself. It so controls one’s perceptions that it becomes almost impossible not to see it in Scripture. Yet, read on its own terms, Scripture never assumes that human moral responsibility is contingent upon freedom relative to God.
34 John 14:6
35 Romans 9:15–18
36 Romans 9:14.
37 Romans 9:20-1.
38 See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Cambridge, 1957).
39 Romans 9:13-4.
40 Jonathan Edwards, “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1976), 1.12, 21-3, 51–53.
41 Edwards, notes that even an allegedly free will is limited by the fact that it cannot choose to stop choosing, lest it cease to be a will at all (ibid., 1.12).
42 John 1:12,13; John 17:3; 20:31.
43 Compare Matthew 20.16; 24.22-31; Mark 13.20-7; Romans 8.33; Colossians 3.12; 1 Timothy 5.21; Titus 1.1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:4-9.
44 Ephesians 1:4,5; compare 2 Thessalonians 2.13; 2 Timothy 1.9; Titus 1.2.
47 See Genesis 4:1, 25.
48 Horismene boule.
50 John 1:1-3.
51 John 1:13.
52 “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
53 Exodus 40:34; Deuteronomy 32:10,11; Isaiah 31:5; 1 Peter 4:14.
54 Paul picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 5:17 when he declares, “You are a new creation in Christ!”
55 See John ch. 3 [all].
56 Ephesians 2:8-9.
57 Matthew 19:16-30.
58 2 Corinthians 4.16.
59 The verb used there (ἀνακαινόω) is in the passive voice. Compare Colossians 3.10; Romans 2.12; and Ephesians 4.23.
60 John 3:19,20.
6 1John 12:37–41; John 9.
62 John 11:33–44; 2:1-11; Matthew 19:29-34.
64 John 20:31.
65 Ezekiel 37:1–14.
66 Ezekiel 36:25–27. See Jeremiah 31:31–34.
67 See 1 Corinthians 2:14,15; Galatians 5:22; Romans 6.17–22.
68 Luke 1:35.
69 Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:45.
70 Philippians 1:29.
71 1 John.
72 John 1.4.
73 1 John 1:1.
74 1 John 1:2.
75 1 John 2:29.
76 As John narrowly conceives of sin in this Epistle.
77 1 John 5:18.
78 1 John 4:7.
79 1 John 5:1.
80 1 John 5:4.
81 Luther regarded his 1525 response to Erasmus, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will), as his most important. That the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, required the doctrine of predestination, was a commonplace in the Reformation.
82 Romans 6:23.
83 Ephesians 2:8–9.
84 Romans 5:12–21; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 11.
85 Romans 3:21–4:25.
86 Galatians 1.6-10; ch.3.
87 Ephesians 1:5,11; Romans 8.29; Revelation 13.8.
88 John 6:65.
89 John 9 [all].
90 John 19.30.
91 John 10:27–30.
92 Matthew 28.18-20.
93 John 17:6, 9.
94 2 John vv.1, 13.
95 Revelation 17:14.
96 John 14:6.
97 Kletoi and Eklektoi.
981 Corinthians 1.24.
99 2 Peter 1:10.
100 See Isaiah 65.12; 55.1ff; Joel 2.32.
101 Matthew 22:14.
102 Acts 18:9–10.
104 2 Timothy 2:15.
105 1 Corinthians 4:15.
106 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14.
107 1 Peter 1:23.
108 Ezekiel 18:32.
109 Ezekiel 33:11.
110 Hebrews 31:8.
111 See Luke 6:35–36.
112 Ephesians 1.1–15; Galatians 2:20.
113 Mark 1:15.
114 Revelation 22:17.
115 Luke 15:7, 10.
116 Luke 15:30–31.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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This essay was first written c. 1988. It has been revised several times since. Thanks to Larry Newman for his editorial help with this version.
It might be of interest to note that LCMS Lutherans refused to include Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in the first several editions of there hymnals specifically because of that verse containing the words,”…the hour I first believed…” It eventually was added to subsequent editions (in the appendix), but with that verse deleted.
This post is worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox. Instead of a “jab” containing an incompletely tried and tested substance to supposedly prevent a virus, our culture needs a pure and valid vaccination of these very words, include a great number of Protestant denominations who “think” they have it all figured out.
Thank you for this. I would add only that the elective purposes of God prove his love over and against any charges of being “unfair,” for as he told the Israelites in Malachi 1:2–3 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.”