In John 6: 36-45, there are many important lessons for us to learn about the saving work of the Father and the Son. Jesus has revealed these important truths against the backdrop of a quite telling statement in verse 36 of this chapter. Having revealed himself to his hearers as the bread of life, he has confronted them with their unbelief and that unbelief in the face of full revelation. He said to them, “. . .you have seen me, and have not believed.” They could not plead ignorance or lack of information. They had rejected him in the face of full knowledge. They had enjoyed the blessings but cared nothing for the one who had blessed them. The reality is that though they were quite willing for him to feed and bless them physically and materially, they had no appetite for him as the true bread that came down from God out of heaven. Jesus was not merely describing the condition of these sinners; he was describing the condition of every sinner in a state of sinful nature. Paul wrote, “. . .but the natural man does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him, neither is he able to know them because they are discerned spiritually.”
The logical question that would occur to any thinking person, in the light of this revelation, concerns the success or failure of Jesus’ earthly mission. It would seem that his best efforts would be destined to fail given the obdurate condition of men’s sinful hearts. Jesus later made it clear that everyone who commits sin is a bond-slave of sin and that such a condition could only be remedied by the Son himself. Only he can make sinners truly free.
It was to answer such a question that Jesus spoke the words we find recorded in verses 37-40; 44-45, of this chapter. He wanted his hearers to understand that his is work would certainly succeed because it did not depend on the fallen will of sinful people but on the sovereign will of an omnipotent God. Paul wrote, “Therefore, it [the bestowal of mercy] is not of him who wills [It is not based on human decision] or of him who runs [It is not based on human exertion], but of God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16). In John 6:37-45, Jesus made the following lessons so clear that only a person with an extreme philosophical bias against the truth of God’s sovereign grace would miss them. Please consider the following lessons that are on the face of this passage:
1. The success of Jesus’ redemptive activity has never been in doubt. It was a matter of absolute certainty that he would save and keep for eternity all those the Father had given him in his decreed will and was giving him according to that will. “All that the Father is giving me shall come to me, and he who comes to me, I will never by any means cast out” (John 6:44). It should be clear to anyone who understands the function of verb tenses in any language that the “giving” precedes the “coming.” Though the primary force of the Greek verb concerns the kind of action in view, the time of the action is not unimportant. The simple question one must ask is whether a verb in the present tense [time] precedes or follows the future tense. “Is giving” clearly precedes “shall come.” It is impossible to reason from this syntax that Jesus was saying his Father would give to him [future] those who were coming to him [present]. He was saying precisely the opposite.
2. It is clear that the accomplishment and application of redemption was to be carried out according to the will of God the Father. Jesus not only linked those the Father was giving him (v. 37) with those he had given him (v. 39), but he has also linked both these divine acts with the purpose of God the Father in sending him (v. 39). Additionally, he states this fact as the foundation that undergirded and established the absolutely certainty of the success of his redemptive work. “. . .I will never by any means cast him out, Because I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. . .” It is not surprising, then, that Paul wrote concerning God’s people that we are “the called ones according to his purpose.” Jesus was talking about those who are the “given ones,” and the “drawn ones” according to the Father’s purpose.
3. These verses help us to understand that Jesus’ work was not intended to turn the Father’s wrathful heart toward sinners by his work of propitiation. Instead, it was the Father who loved a people that he had chosen for himself, given as a love gift to his Son, and sent his Son to be the satisfaction for their sins. John wrote in his first epistle, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). Jesus came precisely to execute the Father’s desires for his chosen people.
4. Jesus made it clear in the words of verse thirty-seven that it was he who was to secure the eternal redemption of those the Father had given him. Though those given him could not come to him and would not come to him apart from the Father’s drawing (v. 44), it was not the Father who, in drawing them, would secure their eternal redemption. Instead, it was the Son whose work it was and is to secure the salvation of those the Father has given him. His negative phrase “I will never by any means cast out” is intended to strongly emphasize a positive truth. That point is that he, himself, will certainly save and keep all those the Father has give him to redeem. He has emphasized the certainty of the success of his ministry by stating three times in this passage, “And I will raise him up again at the last day.” That is simply another way of saying that his is a “love that will not let me go.” If the Father has loved us and given us to the Son, it is an absolute certainty that he will save completely those who draw near to God by him. If they are his now, they have always been his and will forever be his.
5. Jesus repeated the words “. . .and I will raise him up again at the last day” three times in this passage (vv. 39,40, 44) and in doing so he has identified those mentioned in each of those verses with those mentioned in the other two verses. These groups are co-extensive. Everyone in each of these groups is also in the other two. Those whom the Father has given to Jesus are the same as those who see the Son and believe on him, and those who see the Son and believe on him are the same as those whom the Father has drawn. This being true, the drawing about which Jesus spoke in verse forty-four does not extend beyond those the Father has given to Jesus and who have seen the Son and believed on him. It makes no sense to suppose that those who see the Son and believe on him are somehow different from those the Father has drawn to Jesus. When Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me should draw him, the clear implication that this drawing is always effectual is confirmed by the phrase “and I will raise him [the one drawn] up at the last day, i.e., every person who has been drawn will fully and finally be saved.
Some have attempted to blunt the force of this verse by citing John 12:32 in which Jesus said “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to me.” In this effort to show that everyone is drawn, there are several factors they have overlooked. In John 6 it is the Father who draws; here it is the Son who draws. The context of this verse is one in which certain Greeks were seeking an audience with Jesus. When Jesus learned of their request, he seemed to ignore it. Instead, he began to speak about the necessity of his death if ever there was to be harvest of souls. These Greeks would never be able to approach him on an equal basis with God’s covenant people unless Jesus was lifted up to glory by means of being lifted up on the cross, but if Jesus is lifted up, he will draw all peoples, both Hebrews and Gentiles to himself. If we should insist that the drawings in both these passages have the same referent and that “all” in 12:32 must refer to every individual on the planet, then we are shut up to the conclusion that Jesus will fully and finally save every person without exception, i.e., “raise him [the one drawn] up again at the last day.”
6. The word translated “draw” (ἐλκύω) was not used of gentle persuasion but of such actions as drawing water from a well, dragging a net full of fish to shore, and drawing a sword from its scabbard. That is not to say that the Father’s act of bringing sinners to Jesus involves force. No sinner is forced to bow to Jesus against his will. Instead, Jesus used the word to emphasize the effectual nature of the Father’s drawing.
7. In verse 45, Jesus continued to speak about the Father’s drawing and explains its nature in terms of prophetic revelation. D.A. Carson has written, “When he compels belief, it is not the savage constraint of a rapist, but by the wonderful wooing of a lover. Otherwise put, it is by an insight, a teaching, an illumination implanted within the individual in fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, ‘they will all be taught by God.’” These words are a paraphrase of Isaiah 54:13. Isaiah’s prophesy was about more than occasional and casual instruction; it referred to a person becoming a disciple. The prevalent teaching of the prophetic Scriptures was that in the Messianic age, every member of the true Israel of God would become a learner through the internal illumination of the Spirit. This understanding corresponds to the teaching of passages such as Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-26 where God promises to write his law on his people’s hearts, and give them a new heart and spirit. Everyone who becomes God’s disciple, in this sense, comes to Jesus. William Hendricksen has reminded us that in showing how sinners come to Jesus, the Scriptures never merely set predestination and human responsibility side by side without showing a causal relationship between them. On the contrary, it is always shown that it is God who takes the initiative and who is in control from start to finish. I would add that not only does God take the initiative but he does so effectually. Everyone who listens to and is taught by God in this way will come to Jesus.
Author Archive for Randy Seiver
In John 6: 36-45, there are many important lessons for us to learn about the saving work of the Father and the Son. Jesus has revealed these important truths against the backdrop of a quite telling statement in verse 36 of this chapter. Having revealed himself to his hearers as the bread of life, he has confronted them with their unbelief and that unbelief in the face of full revelation. He said to them, “. . .you have seen me, and have not believed.” They could not plead ignorance or lack of information. They had rejected him in the face of full knowledge. They had enjoyed the blessings but cared nothing for the one who had blessed them. The reality is that though they were quite willing for him to feed and bless them physically and materially, they had no appetite for him as the true bread that came down from God out of heaven. Jesus was not merely describing the condition of these sinners; he was describing the condition of every sinner in a state of sinful nature. Paul wrote, “. . .but the natural man does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him, neither is he able to know them because they are discerned spiritually.”
There is no more important issue than the precision of our gospel presentation. We may stumble in our understanding of secondary and tertiary issues without eternal consequences, but if we err in our gospel proclamation, we not only endanger the souls of those who hear us, but we will personally encounter God’s judgment. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8). Even a slight deviation from God’s message will be devastating. There is no margin for error.
Given this necessity for accuracy in gospel preaching, it is incumbent upon us that we be able to distinguish the authentic gospel from all its counterfeits. Though the modern religious world has been flooded with counterfeit messages, it is not difficult to distinguish the biblical message and the method of its propagation from the substitutes. I would like to suggest seven earmarks of the biblical gospel that will help us recognize any departure from it.
It is Built on the Foundation Laid by The Apostles
In his introduction to the Epistle to the Romans, Paul began with the words, “Paul, a bond slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.” He mentions his apostleship to establish his authority, conferred on him by Christ himself, to speak with certitude about the content of God’s good news. He made it clear in the verse I quoted above that the standard against which all other “gospels” are to be measured is “the one [gospel] we preached to you.” Any departure from that message must be a counterfeit gospel. We have no right or reason to preach any message that alters their message either by addition or subtraction. He wrote to the Corinthians, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder [wise architect] and someone else is building on it. . .” (1 Cor. 3:10). That foundation is Jesus Christ, and he tells his readers there can be no other. We must be careful how we build on that foundation. If we would know what the content of our message must be, we need only scrutinize the messages the apostles and early believers proclaimed. Their preaching must be our pattern.
It is God-Centered
The second characteristic of the biblical gospel is that it is a message about God. Paul wrote, “. . .separated to the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). This phrase “gospel of God” could be understood to mean the good news that has God as its author or the good news that has God as its subject. The difficulty is that both these meanings are true. If we understand the phrase in the first sense, the meaning is that there would be no good news for sinners if it were not for his salvation plan and his revelation of that plan in the Scriptures. Such a plan would never have occurred to us apart from God’s revealed truth.
The second sense in which we could understand this phrase is that God is the one who is the focus of this good news. That is to say, it is a message that is God-centered and not man-centered. Leon Morris wrote concerning the Epistle to the Romans whose central message concerns God’s universal salvific purpose, “Romans is a ultimately a book about God: How He acted to bring salvation, how His justice is preserved, how His purposes are worked out in history, how He can be served by His people.” To say this in a different way, the gospel is not primarily about the problems that have been produced by the existence of sin. It is not primarily about making people happy or repairing their broken relationships with other people. It is not even primarily about sinners going to heaven when they die. It is about the manifestation of God’s glory in the contrivance and execution of the plan of redemption.
It is According to the Scriptures
Paul wrote concerning this gospel, “. . .which he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2). It is important for us to remember that although God’s good news as it is disclosed in the New Testament Scriptures is more fully revealed than during the Old Testament period, it is not a brand new message. It is in full accord with God’s Old Testament promises. Additionally, the gospel call in the New Testament is essentially the same as the in the Old Testament. The essential difference between them is that the New Testament Scriptures reveal the fulfillment that only existed in type and promise during the Old Testament period. The New Testament gospel answers all the Old Testament questions regarding salvation.
It Concerns God’s Son
Paul’s continuing description of the gospel in Romans one defines the focal point of God’s good news. The gospel message concerns God’s Son in the two stages of his incarnate state. It is about his redemptive accomplishments during the period of his humiliation “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” and about his all-sufficient ability to save his people as the “Son of God with power” in his state of exaltation. It is as the enthroned conqueror that he now commands sinners to bow before his exalted throne and promises pardon based on the redemption accomplished during the period the writer to the Hebrews called “the days of his flesh.” First century preachers did not proclaim him as a Savior who would forgive our transgressions but who had no authority to rule our lives. God’s gospel does not invite sinners to kneel at the cross for forgiveness; It commands us to bow before the throne and promises that God will pardon our sins when we do.
It Excludes Boasting
God’s saving work and the gospel proclamation of that accomplishment will exclude all boasting in human ability or merit and will give all glory to God. In 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, after having described the sort of people God has called into the fellowship of his Son, Paul assigned a reason for his method of operation. He wrote, “. . .that no flesh [human being] should boast in his presence, but it is of his [God’s] doing that you are in Christ Jesus who of God has been made unto you, wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption in order that just as it is written, ‘he that boasts, let him boast in the Lord.” Any message that leaves the sinner any reason to boast about his contribution to the work of salvation is not God’s gospel. This seems to be a theme throughout Paul’s Epistles. In Romans three, after having explained the good news that justification is through faith alone and apart from the works of the law, he asks, “Where is boasting then?” He answers, “It has been shut out once and for all.”
It Produces Obedience in Those Who Receive It
The authenticity of the message we preach can be determined by the fruit it produces. The authentic message, when rightly received, will always teach its recipients to live soberly, righteously and godly in Christ Jesus (see—Titus 2:11-14. If the message we preach does not produce the fruit of holy living we must assume it has either not been received rightly or that our message is not the authentic gospel. Paul wrote to Titus that the salvation bringing [note he does not say “the salvation offering”] grace of God, teaches us to say no to impiety, and worldly desires, and live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age (see Titus 2:11-12). God’s saving grace does not pardon sinners and then leave them in their sins.
The object of Paul’s apostleship was to bring about “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5). It is difficult to know whether he was, in speaking of “obedience to the faith” referring to the obedience which is faith or to the obedience that results from faith. In either case, his message called for submission to Jesus’ Lordship. Douglas Moo has written,
Paul’s task was to call men and women to submission to the lordship of Christ (cf. 4.b and 7b), a submission that began with conversion. This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, but which was to continue in a deepening, life-long commitment. This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, both as an initial, decisive step of faith and as a continuing “faith” relationship with Christ. . .obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience. They should not be equated, compartmentalized, or made into separate stages of Christian experience. Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience–for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord. . . (Moo, 1991, 44-45).
It Produces a Sense of Amazement and Admiration
If properly understood, the revelation of the biblical gospel will produce in us a sense of amazement and admiration as we contemplate God’s great salvation. We must not miss the fact that the ultimate goal of Paul’s gospel proclamation is stated in three words in Romans chapter one verse five. Paul states that the purpose of all his evangelistic activity is “for [on behalf of] his name.” A purpose that is even higher than obedience to the faith is the glory of the Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal in all God’s salvific activity as well his purpose in creating the world is the manifestation of his own glory.
As he came to the close of the doctrinal section of his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul seemed to have been overwhelmed with a sense of wonder as he contemplated those great truths that no eye has seen, no ear has heard and have not entered into the heart of man. He wrote, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past tracing out” (Rom.11:33)? Having considered the depths of God’s riches in accomplishing the salvation of his people, he could only conclude that his judgments [most likely referring to his decrees] are unsearchable and his ways [most likely referring to this acts of providence in executing his predestined plan] are inscrutable. He stood amazed as he considered the profundity of the divine mind in contriving such a magnificent plan. There is no evidence of an arrogant self-sufficiency that presumes to fully comprehend God’s mind. Often those who have failed to grasp the depths of their own corruption are so bold as to question what God should have done and what he would have been unjust to have done. They feign the ability to understand his paths and even seek to impeach the unfathomable ways of Jehovah. They will gladly receive God’s revealed truth as long as they can reconcile his providential dealings with their standard of fairness. Robert Haldane wrote,
Multitudes receive the testimony of God only so far as they can satisfactorily account for all the reasons and grounds of His conduct, when measured according to the petty scale of their limited capacity. How unbecoming in such a creature as man! Shall he who is but ‘of yesterday,’ and ‘knows nothing,’ who is born ‘like a wild ass’s colt,’ pretend to penetrate the counsels of the Omniscient! (Haldane, 1966, 549).
By contrast, Paul asked, “For who has known the mind of the Lord or being his counselor has taught him?” In his decrees and providential ways, God is infinitely exalted above the oversight or management of his creatures.
A biblical understanding of God’s good news will invariably demolish any thought of bringing him under obligation. Paul asked, “Who has first given to him that it might be repaid him” (v. 35)? If our concept of the gospel leaves us believing we have offered anything to God that would obligate him to smile with favor on us, we have clearly misunderstood his message. Charles Hodge wrote, “The creature has neither merit nor power. His hopes must rest on sovereign mercy alone” (Hodge, 1953).
The authentic gospel, when rightly understood, will inevitably and invariably lead us to ascribe all glory to God because it will lead us to understand that he is the source of all that is good “for of him are all things.” He is the means through whom all good occurs both in nature and in grace. His everlasting glory is the end to which all things are moving. Charles Hodge wrote,
When Paul asks, Who hath first given to God? the answer is, No one, for of him, through him, and to him, are all things. It is for the display of his character everything exists, and is directed, as the highest and noblest of all possible objects. Creatures are as nothing, less than vanity and nothing in comparison with God. Human knowledge, power, and virtue, are mere glimmering reflections from the brightness of the divine glory. That system of religion, therefore, is best in accordance with the character of God, the nature of man, and the end of the universe, in which all things are of, through, and to God; and which most effectually leads men to say, Not Unto Us, But Unto Thy Name Be All Glory (Hodge, 1953)!
If the message we proclaim does not lead us to a sense of awe and admiration as we contemplate the manifold wisdom of God in the plan, accomplishment and application of redemption, then that message is not the authentic gospel. A clear understanding of the biblical gospel will lead us to ascribe honor and glory to God as the beginning, middle and end of all things.
Haldane, Robert, The Epistle to the Romans, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1966.)
Hodge, Charles, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,) 1953.
Morris, The Theme of Romans, 249-63
The broad conclusion we can draw from this study is that one’s doctrine matters. We act as we do because we believe as we do. The modern church has bought the lie that doctrine is unimportant, and this capitulation has rendered devastating effects. It seems many evangelicals are content if the message they hear from the pulpit bears a faint resemblance to biblical truth. As far as most are concerned, as long as the “praise songs” say some nice things about Jesus, it really does not matter whether they are theologically accurate.
We often hear that it does not matter whether we take a monergistic or a synergistic view of God’s saving work, since we all preach the same gospel. As I believe I have shown, this is simply not the case. Only one message conforms to the apostolic gospel; the other is a cheap and tawdry counterfeit.
The Synergists (Arminians) have been quite successful in conforming their message and methods to their doctrinal beliefs, and we commend them for their consistency. If we believe the issue of salvation ultimately rests in the hands of sinners, we are remiss if we do not use every trick in the book to bring them to a point of decision. If the outcome is now in the sinner’s hands alone, we should use mood music, emotional stories, psychological manipulation, high pressure sales techniques, long “invitations,” and whatever other clever innovation that pops into our heads to induce them to “decide for Christ.” All of that is consistent with the Synergist’s doctrine.
From the Arminian viewpoint, the best God can do is wish sinners well since he has already done everything he can to secure their willing compliance to his plan of salvation. In their view, if his attempts to save them were to go beyond moral persuasion [a gentle nudge] their compliance with it [love, faith, obedience] would not be meaningful. Their entire view stems from a philosophical view that is based on a handful of proof-texts that are ripped from their context. If God wants everyone to be saved, he cannot have decreed to save some and pass over others. For this reason, it is necessary for them to reinterpret the mountain of biblical texts that talk about God’s sovereign purpose in the sinner’s salvation. They must view God as a well-meaning but ineffectual deity who truly wants the best for every member of the human family but has done nothing to secure the eternal good of anyone in particular. In their view, he has sovereignly determined to leave the matter of salvation to the sinner’s free will. They are quick to resort to “mystery” when asked where the Bible mentions their brand of prevenient [preceding] grace. The only mystery is why, even after sinners have heard the gospel and been reproved by the Holy Spirit, they continue to regard the gospel message as foolishness and remain “stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.” It does not matter to the Arminian that the Bible nowhere hints that God performs such a work in which he neutralizes the effects of sinful corruption and grants every sinner the ability to respond favorably to the gospel. In their view, it must be true because it fits their philosophical view of God.
In keeping with their erroneous presuppositions they have developed a system of evangelism that bears little resemblance to the New Testament pattern. It is impossible to find in the biblical record the jargon to which Evangelicals have become so accustomed. Neither their message nor their methods conform to the biblical paradigm.
In closing, I would invite you to consider just a few of the differences between the authentic gospel and its counterfeit:
- The authentic gospel calls on sinners to leave their sinful ways and return to the Lord; the counterfeit gospel calls on sinners to leave their seats and come to the front of the building to be saved.
- The authentic gospel calls on sinners to bow before God’s throne in adoration and worship; the counterfeit gospel invites them to kneel at an “altar.”
- The authentic gospel addresses sinners who are helplessly and hopelessly lost and who must be carried to the fold or they will wander aimlessly forever; the counterfeit gospel addresses sinners who are a bit disoriented and need a nudge in the right direction so they can find their way back to the fold.
- The authentic gospel emphasizes the sinner’s impotence; the counterfeit gospel emphasizes his ability. In fact, according to it, the sinner alone has the ability to make the final decision.
- The authentic gospel represents sinners as stubborn rebels against God whose stony hearts must be replaced with hearts of flesh; the counterfeit gospel represents sinners [if people are represented as sinners at all] as those who are badly affected by sin and who need to make a decision to let Jesus give them a new direction.
- The authentic gospel represents Jesus as an all-sufficient Savior whose redeeming work has secured the everlasting salvation of an innumerable multitude; the counterfeit gospel represents Jesus as one who has made it possible for people to be saved if only they will effectuate his redeeming work by their free will decision. According to the counterfeit gospel Jesus’ death did not in itself procure the salvation of any.
- The authentic gospel is concerned with the sinner’s deliverance from the cruel reign of sin and death. It focuses on Jesus’ work of bringing many sons to glory and bringing them into conformity to the redeemer; the counterfeit gospel is solely concerned about sinners going to heaven when they die.
- The authentic gospel is focused on the manifestation of God’s glory through the grand Trinitarian work of redemption; the counterfeit gospel is centered on the sinner’s happiness and perceived well-being.
- The authentic gospel presents faith merely as the empty hand that receives God’s bounty; the counterfeit gospel presents faith as the stimulus that provokes God to action. It is the sinner’s contribution to the process without which God can do nothing more than he has done.
- The authentic gospel presents Christ as the actual Savior of the guiltiest sinner who will believe; the counterfeit gospel presents Christ as the potential Savior of all sinners without exception.
- The authentic gospel presents Jesus as a Savior who, on account of his redeeming work, has been enthroned in glory and is the embodiment of the salvation he has accomplished once for all in his redeeming work; the counterfeit gospel presents him as a forlorn stranger who stands helplessly at the door of the sinner’s heart with no power to save apart from the sinner’s free will choice to open the door.
- The authentic gospel calls sinners to leave their wicked and God dishonoring way and promises that if they repent God will abundantly pardon them; the counterfeit gospel often assures them that God will grant them pardon even if they continue in their hostile rebellion.
- The authentic gospel promises salvation from sin’s cruel bondage; the counterfeit gospel often promises deliverance from the meaninglessness of life. It aims at giving people purpose and contentment.
- The purpose of the authentic gospel is to transform rebels against God into worshippers; the aim of the counterfeit gospel is to make people feel better about themselves and their relationship with God.
It seems the contrasts between these two messages could not be clearer. These differences are not merely a matter of different emphases. Instead, they represent a radial difference in our understanding of salvation itself, and a fundamental dissimilarity in our conceptions of the salvific work of the Trinity. If we understand these issues at all, one matter should be clear; the differences between these two messages and approaches to evangelism are not insignificant or inconsequential. It is not the same gospel we proclaim at all.
In the body of this work, I have presented the major evangelistic passages in the New Testament Scriptures, and I have expounded the major doctrines that form the foundation for a biblical and meaningful proclamation of the gospel. Now, I want to leave you with a simple question. After carefully examining the pertinent passages, and these foundational doctrines, which of these messages do you find to be more in line with the biblical record? Which is authentic evangelism and which is the counterfeit?
It has been a common practice among some who call themselves “free grace” believers who teach the doctrine of OSAS [Once Saved Always Saved], to make the conferring of assurance on their evangelistic conquests a part of the evangelistic process. The purpose of this brief chapter is to examine not only that practice but also the biblical doctrine of assurance itself.
Let me say at the outset that I unequivocally believe the doctrine of OTSAS [Once truly saved, always saved]. Once a person is truly saved, that person is secure for eternity, but a person must be once saved to be always saved. The assumption among many evangelicals is that once a person confesses faith in Christ (They usually refer to this as “deciding for Christ,” “letting Jesus come into their hearts,” “praying to receive Jesus,” or some other utterly non-biblical expression), they are secure for eternity no matter what happens subsequently. The ones with whom I have corresponded have actually told me they believe once a person has made a decision to receive Christ, he is eternally secure even if he does not love God or continue to trust Christ to save him. He may convert to Islam or become an Atheist and still be saved.
This is not the first time controversy has arisen over the relationship between faith and assurance. In the early part of seventeenth century a controversy erupted in the Church of Scotland over a book entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Those who were called the “Marrow Men” taught that assurance was of the essence of faith so that it was impossible to have faith without having assurance.
Different Levels of Assurance
We could perhaps obviate much of the disagreement that swirls around this issue by distinguishing between the different “assurances” about which the New Testament speaks. For a more extended treatment of this question, I would refer you to an excursus I wrote on assurance in my commentary on Hebrews. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that there is an assurance or a confidence (παρρησἰα; πληροφορἰα) that accompanies faith (see–Hebrews 10:22) and belongs to every true believer, and there is an assurance that comes only through diligent perseverance in well-doing (see–Heb. 6:11). Before we can have a meaningful discussion about assurance, it will be necessary to identify to which of these types of assurance we are referring when we use the term.
Like faith, one of these types of assurance focuses on God’s revealed truth. The focus is on God’s faithfulness. The believer simply trusts God’s promises that if he is truly resting solely on the merits of his Great Priest, his full acceptance in God’s presence is guaranteed. His task is to be certain he is clinging to Christ and trusting only in him.
Like hope, the other type of assurance focuses on the future inheritance. Since that inheritance is not yet seen, we must wait for it with patience/perseverance. The question we must ask here is not whether everyone who belongs to the household of faith will inherit the blessings God has promised. That question is settled in every believer’s mind. The question I must ask is whether I belong to the household of faith. I am convinced that if God is for me, no one can prevail against me. What I must establish in my mind is that God is indeed for me. This understanding is not necessarily mine because I have begun my journey well. The focus of the Scriptures is not on the beginning of the race but on its end. Since I have not yet finished the race, it is necessary for me to examine my walk from time to time to discern whether it is characterized by “the things that accompany salvation.” This kind of examination is especially necessary when a person’s walk is contrary to his profession. When a person is living in a way that is contrary to God’s revealed will, God uses exhortations to self- examination as a means to produce the needed correction in the believer’s life. The warning and exhortation passages of the New Testament Scriptures are not intended to settle questions about whether or not a true believer can loose his salvation. They are intended to be used as the necessary means to bring about the diligent perseverance in faith without which we will never see God’s face in peace.
The Full Assurance of Hope Requires Diligence
It is important to notice that in Hebrews 6:11-12, the “full assurance of hope” about which the writer speaks requires diligence. Faith requires no diligence at all. Why would the writer suggest that his readers need to be diligent if assurance is of the essence of faith? Instead, he expresses a strong desire that they will continue to be diligent in the path they have been following so that they might obtain the full assurance of hope, and he desires that they follow the path diligently to the end. If they are going to inherit the blessings God has promised they must imitate those who through faith and longsuffering inherit what God has promised.
There are several important observations we need to make here:
- In neither of these passages is the issue one of trusting our works, our obedience, or our perseverance as the basis of our right standing before God.
- Nowhere in the New Testament Scriptures are we forbidden to pursue works of obedience to Christ. In fact, we are commanded to diligently pursue such a course of obedience. It is not doing good works but trusting those works to any extent to save us that the Scriptures forbid.
- The bases of the assurance of faith and the assurance of hope are different. The basis of the assurance of faith is God’s faithfulness (Heb. 10:23). Our full assurance of faith and our confident confession of our hope are firmly founded in God’s work for us and have nothing to do with our obedience to him. Our full assurance of hope rests on the confidence that we belong to God’s true people because he continues to work in us to will and work for his good pleasure. That we continue to pursue diligently the manifestation of his glory in our lives is the evidence [the things that accompany salvation] that we are among that blessed company who can say, “God is for us.
- One of the characteristics of the faith of God’s elect is that it continues. It is though faith and longsuffering [patience] that we are to receive what God has promised. To say that it does not matter what occurs after one has made an initial confession of faith one must deny, or ignore a mountain of biblical passages like this one.
- The assurance of hope is not intended for and will not be granted to those who are deliberately walking in disobedience to God.
Before we begin a discussion about assurance, it is important that we specify what kind of assurance is in view. Is the child of God assured that Jesus is able to completely save all who come to God by him? Absolutely! May he (and should he if he acting disobediently) from time to time question whether he actually belongs to the company of those who have come to God through Jesus’ priestly work? I believe the Scripture answer with an unequivocal “yes!” John Brown wrote,
. . .though the perseverance of the saints is certain, let us recollect that it is the perseverance of the saints that is thus certain. Many who seem to others to be saints, who seem to themselves to be saints, do “fall away.” and let us recollect that the perseverance of the saints referred to, is their perseverance not only in a safe but also in a holy course of disposition and conduct; and no saint behaving like a sinner can legitimately enjoy the comfort which the doctrine of perseverance is fitted and intended to communicate to every saint acting like a saint . . . (Brown, 1970, 296).
If assurance were of the essence of faith, John would not have written to those who were believing in Jesus’ name they they might know that they have eternal life (see 1 John 5:13). Would they not have known already? Additionally, we need to understand that “these things” refer not merely to the immediately preceding verses, but to the entire epistle. Again John Brown wrote,
It is as believers of the truth that we are secured of eternal life; and it is by holding fast this faith of the truth, and showing that we do so, that we can alone enjoy the comfort of this security. ‘The purpose of God according to election must stand,’ and all His chosen will assuredly be saved; but they cannot know their election—they cannot enjoy any absolute assurance of their salvation—independent of their continuance in the faith, love and obedience of the Gospel (Brown, 1970).
As we saw when we discussed the biblical doctrine of repentance, a denial that we should expect a behavioral change in those who have truly been converted betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s saving work.
Is the Granting of Assurance the Evangelist’s Taks?
Now, let us return to the question, Is the conferring of assurance part of the evangelist’s work? There are several considerations that would cause us to answer this question negatively.
- The most obvious reason is that there is no evidence of such a practice in early New Testament evangelism. If they did not assure those who confessed faith in Christ that they were eternally secure because they had responded positively to the gospel call, why should we?
- It is impossible to know infallibly that another person’s faith is genuine. The New Testaments bears sad testimony to the fact that all who began well did not finish well. We must not assume that all professed faith is genuine faith.
- Though God may grant an assurance of hope to true believers themselves, he will not give us such an assurance about another person.
- It is the work of God’s Spirit to bear witness with our spirits that we are sons of God, and he does so in conjunction with the God-pleasing works of obedience he produces in our hearts.
We have every reason to assure those who have confessed faith in Christ that if they are truly and fully resting on him and his merits, they have been declared righteous and have been granted full access to the Father’s throne, but that is altogether different from assuming that their faith is real and conferring on them an assurance that is never to be questioned no matter what happens subsequent to their confession.
Consider just a few examples of the way in which biblical writers couched their statements concerning the salvation of their readers. “. . .and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2). “And we are his house[hold] if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6). “For we have come to share in Christ, if we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
We must never forget that Jesus’ promise “. . .and I give to them eternal life, and they shall never perish,” was not made to goats. It was made to his sheep whom he described as those who “hear his voice and follow him.” We should never think this promise belongs to those who persist in their rebellion against God and ignore his voice speaking in the Word. “High degrees of true assurance cannot be enjoyed by those who persist in low levels of obedience.” (Sinclair Ferguson).
The Issues in This Discussion
Saved from What?
Since our evangelistic message calls sinners to repent and believe, it is essential that we understand the nature of repentance and faith. As a background for the subject matter I will cover here, I would suggest that you review the chapter on the nature and purpose of salvation. If we imagine that the purpose of God’s great work of redemption is simply to take people to heaven when they die, we are going to think of the gospel offer in a completely different way than we do when we understand that God’s purpose in saving sinners is to conform us to the image of his Son. God does not save us because we promise to get rid of our sins and follow Jesus. God saves us when we bring our sins to Jesus and confess that we are helpless to break the fetters that have bound us. If he does not break our chains, we are doomed to a life of bondage in sin. No one who rightly comes to Jesus for salvation would say, “I want to be forgiven, but I love my sins too much to leave them.” The issue in salvation is not heaven or hell; the issue in salvation is sin and righteousness. The purpose of Jesus’ death was not merely to take us to heaven when we die. His purpose was to restore God’s holy image in us. J.C. Ryle wrote,
He who supposes that Jesus Christ only lived and died and rose again in order to provide justification and forgiveness of sins for His people, has yet much to learn. Whether he knows it or not, he is dishonoring our blessed Lord, and making Him only a half Savior. The Lord Jesus has undertaken everything that His people’s souls require; not only to deliver them from the guilt of their sins by his atoning death, but from the dominion of their sins, by placing in their hearts the Holy Spirit; not only to justify them but also to sanctify them. He is, thus, not only their “righteousness but their “sanctification.” (I Cor. 1:30). (Ryle, 1952, 31).
If salvation involves no more than God’s pardon so that a person can go to heaven when he dies, then repentance is clearly unnecessary. The prodigal may remain in the pig pen and merely write a letter to the father asking his forgiveness. If we took that view of “salvation,” it would be necessary to define repentance and faith very differently than we do when we understand salvation to involve a radical transformation of God’s redeemed ones. The differences I am discussing in this chapter concern not only the nature of faith and repentance but the very nature of salvation itself. Salvation is not about being forgiven while in the pig pen; it is about returning to the Father’s house and being freely pardoned. William Bates wrote,
The most universal hinderance of men’s complying with the conditions of pardon by Christ, is, the predominant love of some lust. Although men would entertain him as a Saviour to redeem them from hell, yet they reject him as their Lord. Those in the parable, who said, “We will not have this man to reign over us,” expressed the inward sense and silent thoughts of all carnal men. Many would depend on his sacrifice, yet will not submit to his sceptre; they would have Christ to pacify their consciences and the world to please their affections. . .they would have Christ to die for them but not to live in them. . .they lean on his cross to support them from falling into hell, but crucify not one lust on it” (Bates, 1832, 217).
This is Not a Discussion about Justification
I want to make it clear that this is not a discussion about the nature of justification before God. Those on both sides of this debate state that justification before God is through faith alone and is based on the work of Christ alone. One of the chief proponents of “Lordship Salvation” has made the following statement about justification.
Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God. God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing He sees in them — not even because of His own sanctifying work in their lives — but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is reckoned to their account. ‘To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness’ (Romans 4:5). That is justification (John MacArthur on justification by faith).
I do not believe it would be possible to give a clearer statement on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and based on Christ’s righteousness alone. One may only conclude that anyone who argues that “Lordship preachers” are adding good works to the gospel is simply presenting a straw man argument.
The Relationship between Regeneration and Obedience
If we believe that sinners who have been granted “prevenient grace” determine, by their free will decision, whether they will be saved or not, it should be clear that we believe regeneration is unnecessary. If we have the ability to obey one of God’s commands, the command to believe the gospel, we should be able to obey any other command. Incredibly, many who would take the “autonomous will” position do not even think believers need to be obedient to Christ at all. Once they have come to a moment of clarity that enables them to give intellectual assent to the historical facts of the gospel, nothing that occurs subsequent to that “decision” is of any importance. According to the OSAS [once saved always saved] Arminians who like to call themselves “free grace” believers, though a person has made “a decision for Christ,” he may have no love for God or desire to follow Christ and may even stop believing the gospel. In their view, as long as a person has been “once saved,” he is eternally secure no matter what.
Those who hold this view must give a different definition to the biblical words “repent,” “repentance,” and “faith” than those who believe repentance and faith are the result of God’s sovereign, regenerating work in sinners’ hearts. In their view, faith is nothing more than a momentary decision and repentance is simply a change of mind about Christ. Although they are correct in their assertion that a sinner’s justification before God is received through faith alone and apart from the works of the law, their message goes astray because they misunderstand the nature of faith and repentance and, ultimately, they misunderstand salvation itself. The often discussed passage in James chapter two, had nothing to do with the basis of justification before God. The question James was addressing was not whether that basis was faith or works. Instead, the question concerned the nature of that faith that justifies. Paul’s message was identical to that of James. He wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). The NIV translates this verse as follows, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Genuine faith is working faith. Regeneration produces a faith that produces obedience. We should remember the words that characterized the Protestant Reformers’ thinking on this issue— “Justification before God is by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone.”
Would any reasonable person think that steam coming from a tea kettle was either producing the heat under the kettle or was the direct product of the kettle itself? Of course not! Yet, some allege that if we tell people genuine faith, produced by the free grace of God, will generate evidence of itself in works of obedience to God, we are telling them they must produce good works that will cause God to save them. This is not the case. What we believe is that when the fire of God’s regenerating grace is applied to kettle of our souls in the production of genuine faith, the result will be the steam of heart-felt obedience.
Repentance and Faith—The Results of Free Will or Free Grace?
If the OSAS Arminians were correct in their view that faith and repentance are the result of the sinner’s “free will” decision, they would be correct in their assertion [read accusation] that those who believe and proclaim that repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of life are preaching a “works salvation.” But, as we have seen, there is no obedience, including the obedience of faith, that grows in the soil of corrupt nature. The performance of every act of obedience the gospel demands results from God’s work. When we preach that sinners must believe and repent, we are not calling on them to do something that will prompt God to act on their behalf. Instead, we are calling on them to perform acts they cannot perform unless those acts are effected by the sovereign grace of God. Apart from the implantation of a new governing principle of life in a person’s inner man, there will neither be faith nor obedience. This order becomes abundantly clear in God’s promise of regenerating grace in Ezekiel 36:25-27. God said,
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 [disposition] 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.”
It seems clear that Paul was thinking of this passage when he wrote to Titus about “the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (See Titus 3:5-6). It should not escape our notice that these passages are not about pardon alone or even primarily, but about cleansing and renewing.
One issue we need to examine is the idea that the believer is constituted of two “men” or two natures, neither of which is capable of change. Florida Bible College has been one of the chief purveyors of the “free grace” teaching. The following is taken from its statement of faith:
We believe a true child of God has two births: one of the flesh and the other of the Spirit. The flesh nature is neither good nor righteous. The Spiritual nature does not commit sin. This results in warfare between the Spirit and the flesh, which continues until physical death, or the return of the Lord. (The new birth cannot change in any way the flesh nature of man, but the flesh nature can be controlled and kept subdued by the new man.) (https://www.floridabiblecollege.us/what-we-believe.html).
Such a view would make repentance not only unnecessary but also impossible. It would involve no removal of the “stony heart” at all. The stony heart remains along with the addition of a heart of flesh. Additionally, it would make growth in grace unnecessary and impossible. The “flesh nature” cannot and will not change, and the “Spiritual nature” does not need to change. One would think the “Spiritual nature” would not even need exhortation since that nature is perfect and cannot sin. Since it is perfect, could the “Spiritual nature” desire to subdue the “flesh nature” any more than it does? The “flesh nature” cannot repent or believe; the “Spiritual nature” has done nothing for which it needs to repent. Furthermore, those who espouse the “free grace” view believe that sanctification (becoming a disciple) is a separate and optional act of the believer. In their view, every believer should become an obedient disciple but not all will. One wonders what changes within the believer when he becomes a disciple. Does the “flesh nature” improve in some way? According to their doctrine, that nature “cannot change in any way.” In their view, it is incapable of improvement. The “spirit nature” certainly cannot improve because it is perfect and sinless already.
If we perceive of faith as being in any way pleasing to God, and the Bible seems clearly to state that it is, one has to question how a being that is “neither good nor righteous,” could produce faith. Paul stated, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” How can a being that is “neither good nor righteous” ever desire that which is both good and righteous? It would seem that faith would be impossible unless some previous change had occurred in that nature. Hear C.H Spurgeon’s words, “Do not sit down and try to pump up repentance from the dry well of corrupt nature. It is contrary to the laws of mind to suppose that you can force your soul into that gracious state.”
In contrast to this view, Paul described the work of conversion as nothing less than the crucifixion of the old man. He wrote, “We know that our old self [man] has been crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). When Paul wrote about the “old man,” he referred not to a part of what we are as believers, but to everything that we were prior to conversion in union with Adam. Our pre-conversion life has been crucified with Christ. This is true not only in terms of the divine reckoning in the believer’s forensic union with Christ. That is, this is not only true in the accomplishment of redemption but also in terms of the application of Christ’s death in the believer’s conversion. The purpose of this crucifixion is stated clearly. It was “. . .in order that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” For this reason, he has stated that we who have died to sin, can no longer go on living in it. We should not think that Paul was drawing a contrast between the body as evil and the spirit as good. Such a dualistic idea is nowhere to be found in his theology. Instead, he was speaking of the body [and its members] as the instrument that is often employed by sin as its weapon.
Paul was not describing an action a believer must perform, but an action that God has performed that will inevitably and invariably affect the believer’s actions. Conversion is God’s work. There is not a single command in the first ten verses of this chapter. Instead, Paul was describing the work God has accomplished in uniting the believer with Christ. There is no “ought to” in these verse. God has liberated the believer from the reign of sin and death, transferred him into a new realm and placed him under a new reign. He does not say, “We who have died to sin ought not to continue in sin.” Instead, he asks quite emphatically, “How shall we who have died to sin, go on living any longer in it” (v. 2)? If believers commit sin, it is not because we are being held captive to it. We will only commit acts of sin if we willingly yield our members to the temptation to do so. In verses eleven through thirteen, Paul did not exhort believers to stop being slaves. Instead, his exhortation is clear. We should stop acting like slaves since we have been emancipated from sin’s bondage. There is a tendency for those who have been set free from slavery to continue to act like slaves. Paul’s exhortation “Therefore, do not allow sin to reign in your mortal bodies,” was simply the exhortation necessary for the implementation of their freedom from sin’s bondage. He followed this exhortation with the assurance that if we are true believers “Sin will not have dominion over us, because we are not under law but under grace” (v.14).
What is Repentance?
It might be helpful at the outset to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer to this question. In answer to the question, “What is repentance unto life?” the Catechism answers, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” A thorough understanding of the component parts of this definition will go a long way in enabling us to understand what the biblical writers meant when they used the word “repentance.” Consider the following four aspects of this definition. It teaches that repentance is 1. a saving grace which results from an understanding that we have strayed from God’s way (“out of a true sense of his sin. . ., with grief and hatred of his sin”). 2. It is encouraged by an understanding of God’s promise to pardon those who return (“an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ”). 3. It involves a return to God (“turn from it to God”). 4. It involves a heart-felt desire and purpose of heart to obey God’s commandments in the future (“with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience”).
It is important to understand that nothing in this definition speaks of the sinner doing anything to merit God’s favor. Like the lost son in the pig-pen, he feels no sense of worthiness. His only hope is his “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.”
It is impossible to say whether faith is prior to repentance or visa versa. John Murray has suggested that not only is this question impossible to answer but it is unnecessary that we answer it since “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance” (Murray, 1955, 113). The interplay between faith and repentance is intriguing. Embedded in this definition is a clear statement about the mercy of God in Christ. The sinner does not turn back to God’s way primarily because he fears God will damn him if he does not, but because he becomes convinced that God’s promise of pardon is reliable. Consider the words of C. H. Spurgeon,
While I regarded God as a tyrant, I thought sin a trifle. But when I knew Him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against Him. When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good (C. H. Spurgeon, # 2419).
Misconceptions about Repentance
There are many misconceptions about the nature of repentance. There are also many faulty ideas about what “Lordship preachers” teach about it. For this reason, I would like to consider a few of the ideas we must exclude when we teach the biblical command to repent.
- Repentance is not, in itself, sorrow for sin. When people hear the term “repentance” they often think about feeling sorrow for some sin they have committed, but repentance is not, in itself, sorrow for sin. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul mentioned two different kinds of sorrow. He wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” There is little doubt that Judas regretted his decision to betray Jesus into the hands of sinners, but there is no evidence of true repentance. There is no doubt a connection between the sorrow for sin that God effects in the sinner’s heart and his resolve to return to the Father’s house, but repentance goes beyond sorrow.
- Repentance is not a promise to stop sinning in exchange for which God will grant a person eternal life. Repentance does not involve striking a bargain or contract with God in which the sinner promises to stop sinning if God will grant him eternal life. God would never enter such a contract since he knows full well that a sinner does not exist who could fulfill the terms of such a contact. Additionally, sinners who have been taught by God’s Spirit the depths of their own guilt and sinful corruption understand that they are unable to “rid their souls of one dark blot.”
- Repentance is not penance. The gospel summons to repentance is not a call to self-flagellation or a call to make reparations for our misdeeds. We must never give sinners the idea that they must clean up their lives before they can return to the Father’s house. The is no reason to believe the prodigal bathed and changed his clothes before he returned home. There was no thought of making himself worthy of the father’s acceptance. Repentance is not leaving our sins behind so God will accept us; it is bringing our sin to him so that he might break its chains and set us free. William Bates wrote, “The saints who now reign in glory, were not men who lived in the perfection of holiness here below; but repenting, believing sinners, who are washed white in the blood of the Lamb” (Bates, 1832, 216).
- Repentance is not a work that merits God’s favor. Repentance is no more meritorious than is faith. Just as the Bible never tells us that sinners are justified before God on account of our faith, so it never tells us we will be forgiven because we have produced enough evidence of leaving our sins that we merit pardon. In answer to the question raised by the title of his book, How Shall I Go to God? Horatius Bonar wrote, “It is with our sins that we go to God—for we have nothing else to go with that we can call our own” (Bonar, 1977, 1). There is no merit the sinner can plead apart from the merit of Jesus Christ.
- Repentance is not a work a sinner must perform before he can return to God; it is a change of mind that produces a return to God. Isaiah wrote, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the Lord. . . (Isaiah 55:7).” As Paul stood before King Agrippa, he made it clear the commission Jesus had given him involved more than the proffer of pardon. Consider his words— “[I] declared . . . that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). I want to consider the entire context of this verse later in the chapter, but for now it should be clear that repentance produces a change in one’s behavior.
When we engage in evangelism, it is essential to remember that we are not approaching people who are inclined toward God or even neutral toward him. Instead, we are presenting his terms of peace to obdurate and recalcitrant rebels who are hostile toward him and prefer to continue in their own sinful life-styles. The Scripture describes such rebels as “those who are out of the way [misled, deceived, astray]” (Heb. 5:2), “. . .turned to his own way. . .” (Isa. 53:6), “sheep going astray” (1 Pet. 2:25). In describing the salvation of such rebels, Peter wrote, “But [he used a strong adversative] you have been returned to the shepherd. . .” Any message that proclaims a supposed “salvation” that pardons rebels and straying sheep without returning them to the Shepherd is a counterfeit gospel.
New Testament Words for Repentance
New Testament writers used two words that are translated “repent” or “repentance” in our English versions. The first is μετανοέω (verb) repent μετἀνοια (noun) repentance. It simply means a change of mind or heart.
The second is μεταμέλομαι. It is used for a feeling of regret that one feels after and act has been performed. It can mean to be sorry for a deed or attitude. Judas regretted his betrayal of Jesus after the deed had been done.
The issue between so-called Free Grace teachers and so-called Lordship teachers relative to the meaning of repentance does not revolve around the lexical meaning of the word. Both agree that the word μετἀνοια (metanoia) means a change of mind or heart. The issue concerns the arbitrary limitation of its meaning to a change of mind about Christ. Such a limitation would make repentance synonymous with faith. Yet, there seems to be no effort on the part of those who hold to the “free grace” position to justify that arbitrary limitation. They simply assume it to be valid. Even if the word metanoia had never occurred in the Scripture, it would be clear that God’s gospel purpose is to turn sinners from their own ungodly way back into his way.
A Universal Change of Mind
God’s work of regeneration causes a universal change of mind or heart. When a person repents, there are at least six matters about which he changes him mind. Repentance is a change of mind about God, about oneself, about sin, about merit, about Christ and about obedience to God. “Conversion turns the balance of the judgment, so that God and His glory outweigh all carnal and worldly interests” (Alleine, 1989, 13).
A Change of Mind about God
Sinful rebels will never trust God’s promise of pardon and restoration as long as they continue to have wrong thoughts about him. It is for this reason the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. . .” (Isa. 55:7). Sinners may harbor any number of wrong thoughts about God that will keep them from returning to his way. Perhaps they think that he is a tottering old grandfather in the sky who wishes them well no matter what they do. Maybe they think he is a wicked tyrant whose design is to spoil all their fun. It could be they think he can be no more merciful and compassionate in forgiving them than they are in forgiving their enemies. As long as sinners harbor wrong thoughts about God, they will, like Adam and Eve, seek to hide their sinful nakedness with the fig leaves of human ingenuity.
No wonder Paul described the purpose of his ministry as he did. Consider his description of the life long process that begins with initial repentance. His aim was to cast down imaginations and every high thing [pretension] that exalts itself against the knowledge of God and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (see-2 Cor. 10:5).
A Change of Mind about Oneself
When God makes himself known as he does in the gospel and when he causes the light of his glory to shine into the hearts of dead sinners, they will inevitably begin to think differently about themselves. Consider Job’s words. He said to the Lord, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen of you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5). When Isaiah beheld the beatific vision of Jehovah in his glory, his response was “Woe to me! I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).
Consider this matter specifically as it relates to God’s work of regeneration. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, Jehovah makes the well-known promise to cleanse and renew his elect people by removing hearts of stone, replacing them with hearts of flesh, putting a new spirit [disposition] in them, and putting his Spirit in them. One of the results of that divine work is self loathing because of sin. “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations” (Ezek.36:31).
If the message we have heard causes us to feel good about ourselves and what we can do instead of making us feel good about the Savior and what he has done and is doing, it is a substitute product that will have no saving effect. “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” will be the cry of every repentant sinner.
A Change of Mind about Sin
Peter told the Jews to whom he was preaching “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each one of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). God’s salvation is salvation from sin. There can be no turning to light without turning from darkness. There can be no turning to God without turning from the power of Satan. Consider Paul’s words as he stood before King Agrippa.
And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles-to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26: 15-20).
There can be no turning to God without turning from idols (see-1 Thess. 1:9), and there can be no outward turning from sin without a radical change of mind and purpose. Joseph Alleine wrote the following about the change in the sinner’s mind that occurs in conversion.
Before conversion he had light thoughts of sin. He cherished it in his bosom, as Uriah his lamb; he nourished it up, and it grew up together with him; it did eat, as it were, of his own plate, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was to him as a sweet daughter. But when God opens his eyes by conversion, he throws it away with abhorrence, as a man would a loathsome toad, which in the dark he had hugged fast in his bosom, and thought it had been some pretty and harmless bird. When a man is savingly changed, he is deeply convinced not only of the danger but the defilement of sin; and O, how earnest is he with God to be purified! He loathes himself for his sins. He runs to Christ, and casts himself into the fountain set open for him and for uncleanness. If he falls into sin, what a stir is there to get all clean again! He has no rest until he flees to the Word, and washes and rubs and rinses in the infinite fountain, laboring to cleanse himself from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit. The sound convert is heartily engaged against sin. He struggles with it, he wars against it; he is too often foiled—but he will never yield the cause, nor lay down the weapons, while he has breath in his body. He will make no peace; he will give no quarter. He can forgive his other enemies, he can pity them and pray for them; but here he is implacable, here he is set upon their extermination. He hunts as it were for the precious life; his eye shall not pity, his hand shall not spare, though it be a right hand or a right eye. Be it a gainful sin, most delightful to his nature or the support of his esteem with worldly friends—yet he will rather throw his gain down into the gutter, see his credit fail, or the flower of his pleasure wither in his hand—than he will allow himself in any known way of sin. He will grant no indulgence, he will give no toleration. He draws upon sin wherever he meets it, and frowns upon it with this unwelcome salute, ’Have I found you, O my enemy!’ (Alleine, 1989, 18-19)
A Change of Mind about Merit
Perhaps the classic New Testament passage that deals with merit before God is Philippians, chapter three. In the first few verses of that chapter, Paul warns his readers of a group know as Judaizers. These folks claimed to have recognized Jesus as the Messiah but insisted that circumcision and adherence to Mosaic Law were necessary to justify sinners [in this case, especially Gentiles] before God. Paul refers to these people as dogs of the street and as members of the mutilation party. He basically challenged them to a boasting contest and states that if anyone had a reason to boast about what sinful humanity is able to accomplish, he had more reason than they. He then followed that assertion with a list of virtues in which he had trusted to merit God’s smile. John Blanchard, in his book Right with God, suggested that Paul had trusted in four factors to make him right with God. He had received the right ritual— “Circumcised the eighth day.” He was a member of the right race— “Of the people of Israel, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He was respectable— “Of the tribe of Benjamin.” He was religious— “regarding the law, a Pharisee.” To these four, I would add that he was rigorous— “concerning zeal, persecuting the church, and he was righteous as far as external obedience to the law was concerned— “As for legalistic righteousness, blameless.”
Prior to his conversion, Paul had trusted in these qualities to merit God’s favor. He had regarded them as a “gain” in that regard. “But those things I considered to be a gain. . .” After God’s grace became operative in his heart, his attitude toward these assets was completely and continuously different. Not only did he come to consider these matters as a complete loss in terms of his standing before God, but went on counting them as loss, even to the extent that he considered them as refuse. He wrote, “. . . I have considered [those assets] to be one big loss and I go on considering them as a loss. . .and I consider them as rubbish. . .”
A Change of Mind about Christ
Before God produces repentance in a sinner’s heart, there is, for him, no form nor comeliness, no beauty in Christ that he should desire him. He despises and rejects him as an imposter. To him, the gospel is foolishness and he does not wish to come to him that he might have life (see Isa. 53:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:18; John 5:39-40). But, when God moves on his heart by the power of renewing grace his entire view of Christ is altered. Christ to him is now altogether lovely, the most handsome of the sons of men; he stands head and should among ten thousand others (see Song of Solomon 5: 10,16; Psa. 45:2). There is sufficient beauty in him to render him the desire of every nation (see Haggai 2:7). The believer wishes to say to everyone he meets, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psa. 34:8).
A Change of Mind about Obedience to God
Prior to conversion, the sinner’s hostility toward God was manifested in his obstinate refusal to subject himself to God’s law (see Rom. 8:7). He was led captive by the cruel prince to whom he had willingly yielded himself and all his members. He lived consistently according to the course of this dark world (see Eph. 2:2). He delighted in the darkness of his dungeon, and embraced sin’s shackles that held him captive as if they were diamond studded jewelry. His voice could be heard among the servants that cried out “We will not have this man to reign over us” (see Luke 19:14).
Once converted, there is one goal to which he presses. It is now his all-consuming desire to lay hold of that for which God has laid hold of him. He presses toward to mark and will not be satisfied until the victor’s laurel crowns his brow (see Phil. 3:12-14). I quote again from Joseph Alleine’s classic work on conversion. He wrote concerning the genuine convert,
He takes not holiness as the stomach does the loathed medicine, which a man will take rather than die—but as the hungry man does his beloved food. No time passes so sweetly with him, when he is himself, as that which he spends in the exercises of holiness. These are both his nutriment and element, the desire of his eyes and the joy of his heart (Alleine, 1989, 14).
This is not to suggest that any believer walks in perfect obedience to Christ, or that his halting obedience forms any part of the foundation of his righteous standing before God. It simply means that the object of his delight has changed. Whereas prior to conversion sin was his primary pursuit, now God’s glory is his chief pursuit and obedience to his revealed will is the jewel that he highly treasures. He can say with John Newton,
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
Such is the nature of true repentance. God’s basic terms of reconciliation and peace have not changed since Isaiah wrote, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:6-7). I have provided a fuller list of verses dealing with repentance in chapter four of this work.
What is Faith?
In addition to the words translated “faith,” “believe,” “trust,” and “confidence,” Jesus used several different terms to express the idea of faith in him. The following are some of them: 1. Come to me, 2. Eat my flesh and drink my blood, 3. Come to me and drink, 4. Hear my voice, 5. Follow me, 6. Know me. Paul also speaks of “calling on the Lord’s name” as an act of faith.
The New Testament writers also used the following words to express faith, confidence or persuasion. Πίστις–pistis (noun) faith, confidence, πιστέυω pisteuo (verb) believe, trust, have confidence, πείθω peitho to pursuade, obey–Paul used the word in the perfect tense in the sense of pursuaded or confident. John used the word in the negative form (ἀπειθέω—disobeying, not confiding in) in John 3:36 in contrast to believing.
When we think of the biblical command to believe the gospel, whatever terms may be used for that faith, we must never think in terms of a decision we make that is our contribution to the work of salvation or that in any way completes God’s saving work. The Bible does not teach that sinners are justified before God “by faith” or “on account of faith.” It teaches that we are justified through faith. In truth, it is not accurate to say sinners are justified by faith or even by faith in Christ. It is not faith that justifies but Christ who justifies through faith.
The Nature of Faith
Faith is more than a decision. It is more than a knowledge of and an assent to certain biblical propositions. I am not suggesting that such propositions are not essential to faith but that intellectual assent is not, in itself, what the biblical writers meant when they wrote about faith. All genuine faith involves three elements. There must be comprehension of truth, conviction that it is true and that its provisions correspond to our deepest needs, and there must be confidence in the one whose truth it is.
Though faith involves more than comprehension of biblical truth, it cannot exist where there is no biblical understanding. How can I trust someone of whom I know nothing? Why would I trust a person to deliver me from a predicament of which I am unaware? The gospel apprises us of such information before it calls on us to believe. I must first believe that certain matters are true before I can believe in or into Christ. Though it is not necessary to know everything the Bible teaches in order to become a believer, a person must comprehend certain basic facts about the nature of God, the nature of sin, the nature of salvation, and the nature of Christ’s person, work, and his session at the Father’s right hand as the embodiment of the saving merit he has accomplished once and for all.
Not only must one understand certain biblical truth proposition, but he must be convicted and convinced that they are true. Additionally, having been convinced of their truthfulness he must embrace them as truth. The more an unregenerate man knows of biblical truth, the more intensely he will hate it. The more sinners understand of God’s sovereign reign, the more they will gnash their teeth in defiance of him. An unconverted man may give mental assent to the idea that God’s Word declares him to be a sinner and that he can be forgiven by grace, but such is not the faith required by the gospel.
Faith also requires a conviction that God’s grand work of redeeming sinners directly corresponds to our deep needs as mendicant rebels against God. John states in his Gospel that his purpose in writing is that his readers might believe [or go on believing] that Jesus is God’s Anointed One. Throughout that Gospel he has recorded several of Jesus’ statements about who he is and what he is in his capacity as the Messianic redeemer. Faith’s proper response should be clear and in clear correspondence to that revelation and others like it. In terms of his spiritual needs the awakened sinner says the following:
- I am a spiritually thirsty vagabond wandering in an arid and parched desert, but Jesus gives abundant and ever-flowing water (see John 4:10-14; 7:37-39).
- I am a starving man surrounded by beggars, but Jesus is the bread of life, the true bread that came down God out of heaven (see John 6:31-32).
- I am groping in spiritual darkness, but Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12).
- I am a blind beggar sitting in the shadow of death, but Jesus can give me sight (John 9:6-8).
- I am a wandering sheep, but Jesus is the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-14).
- I am alienated from God, but Jesus is the door (John 10:7).
- I am dead in trespasses and sins, but Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25; 14:6).
- I am lost, but Jesus is the way (John 14:6).
- I am ignorant, but Jesus is the truth (14:6).
- I am a barren and withered branch that cannot bring forth fruit to the glory of God, but Jesus is the true vine; united to him I can produce abundant fruit to God’s glory (John 15:1).
In short, faith sees in Jesus God’s abundant provision to meet the sinner’s deepest needs.
Finally, faith is confidence in Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Savior and confidence in God that he will be faithful to pardon us for Jesus’ sake. Faith is clearly the belief that all the gospel’s pronouncements are true, but it is more than that. It is faith in, on and into Christ. It is through faith that sinners are united to Christ in whom they are blessed with every spiritual blessing. In this way, all the virtue of his saving work becomes ours.
It is in union with him that God pours his unsearchable riches into the empty hand of faith. John Murray wrote,
. . .the essence of saving faith is to bring the sinner lost and dead in trespasses and sins into direct personal contact with the Saviour himself, contact which is nothing less than that of self-commitment to him in all the glory of his person and perfection of his work as he is freely and fully offered in the gospel (Murray, 1955, 112).
Faith is the transference of the sinner’s confidence in himself and in his best efforts to Christ in all his fullness as the all-sufficient Savior. It would be difficult to find a clearer expression of this truth than we find in A. Toplady’s well known hymn, “Rock of Ages.” He wrote,
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Characteristics of Faith
I would like to mention and briefly comment on the characteristics of genuine faith as the biblical writers present them to us. Jesus clearly distinguished between a mere historical faith that was prompted by what people saw and the faith of God’s elect (see–John 2:23-25). Though we do not know what is in people’s hearts as he did, we can examine our own hearts to discern whether our faith matches the biblical criteria. If, for example, our faith does not resemble the faith of Abraham, the father of the faithful, and that of those believers about whom we read in the Scriptures, we have no reason to believe it is the sort of faith that unites sinners to Christ.
- Faith rests on the naked promises of God in the face of circumstances that appear impossible and hopeless. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope [confident assurance] believed, and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him. . . (Rom. 4:18; see also v. 17 “as it is written,” v. 20,”the promise of God,” v. 21 “what he had promised” as well as similar expressions throughout Hebrews, chapter eleven). To expect faith to be begotten in the stony hearts of sinful rebels is as “contrary to hope” as the conception of an heir in the barren womb of Sarah. Jesus said, “with men, it [salvation] is impossible” (Matt. 19:26).
- Faith faces head on the reality of the impossible. “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was a good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead” (Rom. 4:19).
- Faith is strengthened in giving glory to God. “He was strengthened in his faith as he gave glory to God” Rom. 4:20). To give glory to God is not to in any way augment his glorious character; it is to ascribe to him the glorious attributes he has revealed to us in his Word. As we worship him in this way, our faith in him and in his promises is strengthened.
- Faith is the persuasion that God is faithful and able to do what he has promised. “. . . being fully persuades that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21).
- Faith looks away from itself; it has no merit of its own. Abraham’s faith did not rest on any ability he possessed or on his faith in God’s ability. Instead, it rested on God’s faithfulness and ability to accomplish what he had promised. Faith is never faith in faith. Any “faith” that rejoices in itself is not the faith that unites sinners to Christ.
- Faith excludes boasting in ourselves, in our obedience, or in our “decision.” “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded [it has been shut out once and for all]. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith” (Rom. 3:27).
- Faith promotes glorying/boasting in the Lord. “He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; see also Rom. 5:2, 11; 15:17; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 6:14).
- Faith is always empty handed, but looks to the fullness of Christ. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. . . (Phil. 3:9). Donald Macleod has written, “Our faith needs a solid rock. It cannot itself be that rock. . .Faith cannot look to faith or to repentance, or love or obedience. Scarcely conscious of itself, it can look only to the Lord our Righteousness, and to his one great all-accomplishing and all-securing sacrifice (Gibson, 2013, 433).
- Faith perseveres. It is striking to read in Hebrews chapter eleven, “These all died in faith” (Heb. 11:13). That is to say, “All of these were still living by faith when they died.” When we consider that the writer’s purpose in this chapter was to illustrate and explicate the nature of faith, this statement becomes very significant. He had ended the previous chapter by stating that we [true believers] are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed but of those who go on believing to the saving of the soul (10:39). This has been his emphasis throughout this book. Consider his words in chapter three, verse fourteen where he wrote, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had a first.” There is no suggestion here that those who have been truly justified in union with Christ are able to lose their right standing before God and be lost. This is simply a warning that we should never imagine that we have been united to Christ by faith if the confidence we had at the beginning does not continue. This does not mean that believers must struggle to maintain their initial level of faith. We did not struggle to obtain this confidence and we do not need to struggle to maintain it. Though the responsibility is ours to continue believing, it is the indwelling Spirit who maintains genuine faith.
It should not escape our attention that when Jesus described faith as “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” (see John 6:54), not only did he use the present tense [signifying continuing action] as was his custom in describing genuine faith, but he used a word [τρώγω] that was used of munching, nibbling, grazing and in the present tense indicates a continuing appropriation. The idea of a faith that was a mere temporary assent to propositional truth was foreign to the apostolic mind.
- Faith provokes the believer to action. As one reads the so called faith chapter (Hebrews 11) it becomes clear that the writer has a much to say about works/obedience as he does about faith. For example, “By faith Noah . . .built an ark” (v. 7). “By faith Abraham. . .obeyed” (v. 8). Such is always the case with genuine faith. A faith that does not act is not biblical faith.
The apostle Paul made it very clear that “Faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Since, in this life, our faith will never be perfect, the obedience that is prompted by it will never be perfect, but any “faith” that leaves a person indifferent to the commandments of Christ, is not the faith that flows from having been born again.
The Warrant of Faith
One issue that has direct bearing on our presentation of the gospel concerns the warrant of faith. What must sinners know before they rest on Christ for salvation? How can they be assured that God is willing to pardon them and that if they embrace God’s good news, he will receive them? Perhaps it is best to consider this issue negatively before we answer it positively. There are points of truth with which sinners do not need to concern themselves in order to be assured that God will receive them. Though we have considered this issue in chapter five of this work in regard to the free offer of the gospel, I would like to make a few additional comments in reference to the warrant of faith.
We do not proclaim the gospel to sinners as elect sinners, or effectually called sinners or to sinners for whom Christ died. None of this information is necessary as the warrant of faith. As we have seen, there is no evidence in the inspired record of early evangelism that any preacher assured unrepentant sinners indiscriminately that Jesus died for them. That is information that rebels do not need to be concerned about. No New Testament evangelist ever suggested that if sinners could show evidence of their divine call to salvation they would be warranted to embrace Christ in faith. We do not limit the gospel invitation to those who can give evidence that God has chosen them for salvation. Our message is directed to guilty rebels who have persisted in pursuing their own sinful delights contrary to the revealed will of their Creator.
In Peter’s second Epistle, he exhorted his readers to make sure for themselves of their calling and election (See 2 Pet. 1:10). His use of the middle voice indicates that he was not instructing them to make these acts of God any more certain than they are. Instead, he was telling them to make sure for themselves that they are among those whom God has called and chosen. It was not without reason that he phrased this exhortation to his readers as he did. One might have expected “election and calling” since election is logically and chronologically prior to calling, but he had something else in mind. He was concerned with the order in which a person can discover and make sure for himself whether he is among those God has chosen. Such knowledge is not directly available to sinners. I cannot know that God has chosen me and that Jesus has redeemed me in accordance with that divine plan (See John 6:38) without first knowing that he has called me according to his electing purpose. I cannot know that he has effectually called me unless I have a credible faith in Christ. To rest on Christ as he is offered in the gospel, sinners do not need to know anything about these secret things that belong to the Lord.
There are two important and clearly revealed truths that should give believing sinners confidence that God will pardon and receive them. The first is God’s universal proffer of mercy; the second is the fitness and fullness of Christ the exalted Savior.
God’s universal proffer of mercy
Sinners need nothing other than God’s universal proffer of mercy in Christ to assure them that he will receive them if they return and receive his offer. Paul wrote, “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. . .” (1 Tim. 1:15). The invitation is to everyone who wishes to come (See Rev. 22:17). The offer is to people of every nation. It is to people of every condition. It is to the immoral as well as to the moral. It is to the poor as well as to the rich. It is to the uninfluential as well as to the powerful. There is but one stipulation. One must come as an empty handed sinner.
The fitness and fullness of Christ
Sinners should never think of faith in Christ as a decision that enables Jesus to be our Savior. He is no pandering politician who must stand in helpless silence while the electorate “decides for [or against] him.” He sits in sovereign majesty on an unshakable throne as the quintessence of saving virtue and power. Not only is he a willing Savior, he is also an able Savior. The gospel presents him in all his regal majesty and in the fullness of his saving power. He is the one who is enthroned as both Lord and Christ. Sinners will either bow before his holy throne and “kiss the Son,” or they will perish in their sinful way (see Psalm 2:12).
The gospel authorizes sinners to approach him in our emptiness, helplessness, and brokenness to receive of his fullness and fitness as our all-sufficient Savior. Additionally, it promises that all who come to him in this way will receive of his fullness. John wrote, “. . .out of his fullness we have all received and grace on top of grace” (John 1:16). Emptiness is the only requirement for coming to him. All the fitness and fullness is his. John Murray wrote,
The sufficiency of his saviorhood rest upon the work he accomplished once for all when he died upon the cross and rose again in triumphant power. But it resides in the efficacy and perfection of his continued activity at the right hand of God (italics mine). . .When Christ is presented to lost men in the proclamation of the gospel, it is as Saviour he is presented, as one who ever continues to be the embodiment of the salvation he has once for all accomplished. It is not the possibility of salvation that is presented to lost men but the Saviour himself and therefore salvation full and perfect (Murray, 1955, 109).
Repentance and faith are more than a change of mind about Christ and a temporary, mental assent to a list of biblical propositions. If we believe our “faith” grows out of a corrupt nature that is hostile toward God and aided by some sort of prevenient but ineffectual grace, it may be consistent to entertain such a superficial view of faith and repentance, but we cannot do so if we understand that both faith and repentance result from God’s renewing work. This is true not only of the initial acts of faith and repentance but also of their ongoing activity. Our continued obedient responses to God’s commands result from God’s ongoing work in our hearts.
Repentance is a purpose of heart to leave behind both our course of sinful rebellion against God and the very best acts of obedience we might have offered him as the ground of our acceptance. Faith is an empty handed reception of Christ as the personification of all the goodness, righteousness and merit that poor sinners need.
In this chapter, I want to examine what place, if any, the preaching of God’s law has in the proclamation of the evangelistic message. What do we find in the biblical record concerning this question? Did the apostles first proclaim God’s law in their evangelistic message? If so, did they always do so?
We should never engage in a discussion of the law without first identifying in what sense we are using that term. I want to list a number of different ways in which the terms “law” (nomos) is used in the Bible. It is my view that a large part of the difficulty surrounding this issue [and every issue for that matter] results from a lack of accurate definition of terms. I believe it will become clear as we proceed that “law” cannot simply be used as a synonym for the Ten Commandments.
- God’s universal and perpetual standard of righteousness–The word “law” may be used of God’s universal and perpetual righteous standard that exists by virtue of the righteous character of the Creator and Governor of the universe. It is this overarching righteous standard that provides the foundation for every other expression of law.
- Natural law–God’s universal law is expressed in what some might call “natural law.” Human kind possess an innate understanding that certain actions and attitudes are right and others are wrong. Even those who proclaim their autonomy and freedom from moral constraints most vociferously still suffer from guilt for having violated universally accepted norms. Paul wrote concerning Gentiles who do not have the law [Mosaic law], “. . .they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law [Mosaic]” (Rom. 2:14). We should not understand “a law unto themselves” according to common usage. Generally, when we say a person is “a law unto himself,” we mean he is lawless and acts as though there is no law. He simply does as he pleases. Instead, what Paul seems to mean here is that though they do not have the Mosaic law, they, through their innate knowledge of God’s righteous norm, perform the function of the law for themselves. When he says they “do what the law requires” he does not mean they live in complete conformity to the law, but that they practice certain righteous requirements of the law. His point is that these people obey certain aspects of the law, not because it comes to them in codified form but because they possess an innate sense that certain actions are right and others wrong.
- Law as Covenant or Mosaic Law—It is important to understand that when the New Testament writers refer to the Old Covenant, their reference is to the Mosaic law, specifically, to the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Whenever we find the phrase “hupo nomon” (under law) in the New Testament Scriptures the reference is always to law as covenant. The contrast between being “under law” and “under grace” is not an existential contrast, but a covenantal contrast.
Moses wrote, “and he wrote on the tablets [the two tables of stone] the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments [or ten words]” (Ex. 34:28). The Ten Commandments are the words of the covenant. This was the document that officially constituted Israel as a nation. It is clear, or should be clear, that this law was neither perpetual nor universal. Paul makes it clear that “it was added” 430 years after God granted the promises to Abraham. This indicates it came into being long after the creation. Additionally, he stated that it was to endure only “until the Seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3:19).
The law as covenant was a conditional covenant of works that promised the continuation of life in the land of promise to all who observed its commandments. It foreshadowed the eternal life and everlasting rest of all those on whose behalf its rigid demands were met. Additionally, it provided the stage on which the drama of redemptive history would be played out. It is interesting that in Romans 5:20 Paul wrote, “WHERE sin increased or overflowed, grace overflowed all the more.” It was in the very place, “under law,” WHERE sin took on this intensified character, namely, “trespass” or “transgression” that grace entered and superabounded in establishing the reign of grace in Christ.
God’s intention in giving the law/covenant was to give sin an intensified character. There are several phrases in the Pauline corpus that lead to this conclusion. For example, he wrote in Romans 5:20, “but the Law came in alongside (presumably alongside the imputation of the Adamic transgression) so that the offence might overflow or be multiplied. Jesus won our redemption on a stage where the definition of sin had been honed to a fine point and sin itself had been given the character of transgression. It was not in the nebulous atmosphere of natural law but in the intensified milieu of codified covenant that Jesus wrought the work of redemption. No one, having read the law, could ever have a question about the kind of behavior God loved and the kind of behavior he hated. In Galatians 3:19, Paul stated that the purpose of the law was to give sin the character of transgression. Many of our translations render his words “because of transgressions” as though the law was given so that transgressions that were already in existence might be curbed. But this cannot be Paul’s meaning. Paul writes in Romans 4:15, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” Transgression is a deliberate overstepping of a clearly defined boundary. Such an overstepping cannot occur in this case apart from codified law. It is better to understand Galatians 3:19 to mean that the law was added for the sake of transgression, i.e., to more clearly define sin and righteousness and give sin the character of transgression—deliberate rebellion against God.
Apart from the emotional attachment people have to the Ten Commandments and the belief that apart from the Ten Commandments believers would “be left without a moral compass” [perhaps someone should put in a good word for the Holy Spirit and the New Testament Scriptures here], it should be obvious to any thinking person that God never intended the Ten Commandments to be a universal and perpetual document. It would require extreme prejudice in favor of the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments/Old Covenant to produce sufficient blindness to cause one to ignore Paul’s clear teaching in 2 Corinthians. Verses three and following. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a full exposition of that passage, but I wish to call your attention to one aspect of that passage that is pertinent to our point here. Paul contrasts that which is permanent, the New Covenant/gospel, with “that which is being brought to an end,” the Old Covenant/law, and identifies that covenant as “the ministry of death, CARVED IN LETTERS ON STONE.” What part of the law was “carved in letters on stone?” Clearly, it was the “ten words.” If the Ten Words have perpetuity, how can it be that they are “being brought to an end?” It is not merely the civil and ceremonial commandments necessary for the implementation of the covenant that have been fulfilled and brought to an end. The covenant itself [the Law as a covenant in Ten Commandments] has been fulfilled and replaced with a New Covenant.
Of course, there will be those Reformed folks who will have a visceral reaction to what I have just written and accuse me of being an Antinomian, but nothing I have written should give the slightest impression that I am against the law or that I believe Christians should live as libertines. I honestly believe some of these folks are more concerned with being faithful to their confessional standards than they are with being faithful to the Scriptures.
- Law as Torah—At times “nomos” refers to Moses’ writings– E.g., John 1:45— “we have found him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets wrote.”
- Law as Old Testament Scriptures—E.g., Psalms 19:7— “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. . ..” “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18). See also Ps. 119:70, 72, 92, 97, 113, 174.
- Law as the Law of Christ—Paul wrote that he was “. . .to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).
- Law as a principle or rule of operation—At times, “law” refers to the way things work. Paul wrote, “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Romans 7:21). “What then becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law [principle or rule of operation]? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom3:27).
God’s Law as the Standard of Justification
It seems clear that God’s law must be the standard of justification. If we deny that perfect obedience to the law is the standard of justification before God, we must be prepared to answer what that standard is. Since justification is a forensic declaration, how else could one define it if not in terms of law? If righteousness is not to be defined in terms of law, how would one ever know if God is pleased with him? Micah wrote, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 5:8)? How can one know if he is “doing justice” if there is no judicial standard of righteousness? Was not law the standard by which one was to know if he was indeed “doing justice?”
I am not arguing that the Covenant that God established at Mt. Sinai is the universal standard by which God will judge all humanity. That covenant is but one expression of God’s eternal standard of righteousness. Biblically, when we think of the Ten Commandments, we should think of the temporary covenant God made with the nation of Israel. It did not exist before God established it on Mt. Sinai and it lasted only until Christ came. Paul wrote, “it was added [it did not exist when God made the Abrahamic covenant], until Christ came [to fulfill it and establish a new covenant].” As a codification of God’s overarching righteous standard, it gave sin the character of transgression. The Bible does not teach that sin does not exist where there is no law. It teaches that transgression does not exist where law is not explicitly stated in a codified form.
The Scriptures clearly teach us that there are some who “have sinned without the law” (Rom. 2:12). Verse fourteen of that chapter also tells us that the Gentiles do not have the law. Does that mean there is absolutely no standard of righteousness for them? Of course not! It could mean they do not have the Scriptures, but it most likely means they are not under the Covenant God made with Israel. The commandments of that covenant are not God’s standard of righteousness for Gentiles. For this reason, I believe the standard of righteousness for justification is not Mosaic Law, but the two commandments on which that covenant depends.
We read in Matthew’s Gospel,
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:35-40).
Jesus does not say that the Decalogue “is summarily comprehended” in these two commandments, but that the Law and the Prophets “hang on” these two commandments.
Law Preaching to Prepare for the Gospel
Must We Preach the Decalogue?
One area in which my understanding of the evangelistic message would depart from that of many in the Reformed camp is that I find no biblical and theological evidence that we must preach the Decalogue to sinners before we preach the gospel to them. I will come back to my exegetical reasons for that conviction in a moment.
Several years ago, Pastor Walter Chantry wrote a book entitled, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic. In that book, he argued that a person cannot rightly proclaim the gospel without first proclaiming the law as Jesus did when a rich young ruler approached him seeking eternal life. It seem clear in light of other books he has written that by “law” he was referring to the Ten Commandments. Though his book is helpful in many ways, its major flaw is that it fails to take into account other examples of Jesus’ evangelism that do not follow the same pattern. We cannot argue that we must do what Jesus and the Apostles did not always do. The fact is we have not a single biblical example of gospel preaching in which the preacher told sinners of their responsibility to keep the Sabbath or upbraided anyone for failure to do so. This is significant since the fourth commandment was the ceremonial sign of the covenant (see Ex. 31:13, 17; 34:28;), not a perpetual, universal, moral commandment.
There are two primary verses on which the proponents of law preaching in preparation for gospel proclamation base their view. One is Romans 3:20, “for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.” The other is Galatians 3:24 which in the A.V reads, “Therefore, the law was our school master to bring us to Christ.”
In the case of Romans 3:20, the apostle is merely stating that it was not the function of the law to justify any sinner. It was the function of the law to demonstrate the depth of human guilt, not to remedy man’s sinful condition. The law was not intended to justify sinners but to magnify the nature of sin. The codification of God’s eternal righteous standard gave sin the character of transgression. Where there is no [codification of] law, there is no transgression (see Romans 4:15). That is to say this passage is descriptive of the law’s function and not prescriptive relative to gospel preaching. I have argued elsewhere that Israel’s experience under the law was intended to show the full depravity of the entire race. In The Fullness of Time: A biblical-theological study of Galatians, I wrote,
It is obvious that Israel enjoyed privileges that the nations of the world knew nothing about. But, along with these privileges came great responsibility. Israel as the servant of Jehovah had as her task to reflect the light and glory of the Lord to the pagan nations around them. One of the ways in which Israel was to function in this witness bearing capacity was to be dealt with by God as a representative sample, a sort of microcosm, of the entire race. Thus, Israel’s failure under that covenant mirrors the failure of all. Because of this failure, every mouth is stopped and all the world becomes guilty before God.
T.L. Donaldson has made an important and insightful observation in relation to this function of the Mosaic law. He wrote,
Israel, the people of the law, thus functions as a kind of representative sample of the whole. Their plight is no different from the plight of the whole of humankind, but through the operation of the law in their situation that plight is thrown into sharp relief. Being under νόμος [law] is a special way of being under τὰ στοιχεῖα το κόσμου, [the elemental principles of the world] because only under the former can the true nature of the bondage to the latter be clearly seen (Donaldson 104, 1986).
Douglas Moo seems to be sounding the same note when he writes, “Perhaps it is best to view Israel’s experience with the law as paradigmatic of all nations (Moo, 213, 1988).
The experience of Israel and the experience of the Gentiles is the same as far as their sinfulness is concerned. The difference is that Israel was being dealt with in terms of more specific and more clearly revealed requirements than those imposed on the Gentiles. Since the boundaries were more clearly defined for Israel than they were for Gentiles, the people of Israel had greater responsibility.
Israel’s rebellion against God’s law (see for example, “My people are like a heifer that backs away from the yoke” (Hosea 4:16)), tells us how all of us would have reacted had we been subjected to the same law. For this reason, the apostle Paul wrote, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, (“under law” in the New Testament Scriptures always refers to God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel), so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). In demonstrating the culpability of God’s covenant people, the law shuts everyone’s mouth so that no one can boast of his own righteousness. In condemning those under the law covenant of Sinai, God condemned us all.
Galatians 3:24-Three Interpretive Issues
The other text, Galatians 3: 24, has been understood to mean that the law is the school teacher who instructs us individually about our sin so that we will flee from our sin and be justified by grace through faith. There are at least three factors that have led people to understand the verse this way. The first is the failure to understand the text in a redemptive-historical way and not in an individualistic, existential way. The second is related to the first and results from the third factor. The second is the mistranslation of the verse. The third is the failure to take the context into account. Perhaps it would be best to consider these factors in reverse order since it seems it is in that order the misunderstanding has occurred. By that I mean if the translators had considered the context, they would not have translated the text as they did and we would have understood it in a redemptive-historical sense and not in an individualistic sense.
The apostle is answering the question “Why then the law?” If the law could not alter the promise made to Abraham in any way, then why did God give the law? He answers, “It was added. . . until the Seed should come to whom the promise had been made” (v. 19). In verse twenty-three we read, “Now before faith came [I understand this as a reference to THE FAITH in terms of the full-blown revelation of God in Christ as opposed to our subjective act of faith in God’s promises], we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” In verse twenty-five he wrote, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The word translated “guardian” was used of a slave whose task it was to discipline a minor child. This guardian represents the law. What Paul is saying is that the law covenant has come to an end now that Christ has come. The law was our guardian until Christ came, but we are no longer under that guardian. That is the clear teaching of verse twenty-four. Everything in the context would point us to the conclusion that the law produced an uneasy confinement. Verse twenty-two speaks of “imprisonment.” Verse twenty-three speaks of being “held captive” and “imprisoned.”
Because of the failure to note the context, the text has been misunderstood by the translators. The word translated “school master” in the A.V. speaks of the same uneasy confinement. A friend of mine who attended Catholic school said that when he understood the real meaning of that word, it made him think of a nun with a ruler. It referred to a slave whose task it was to discipline an underage child until he came to his majority. When necessary, he was hard and harsh so that he might keep the child in line. His task was not to instruct, but to discipline. Understanding that, if we remove the italicized words “to bring us,” and understand eis in a temporal sense, i.e. “until” Christ came, the verse fits perfectly into the context. A better translation would be “the law was our child trainer until Christ came.” It was the function of the law to provide the stage on which Christ would redeem his people “that we might be justified by faith.”
Redemptive Historical Understanding
Paul teaches the same idea in Galatians chapter four and expands the idea of the law as disciplining slave. Though the believer in Israel under the law was heir to the Father’s entire inheritance, he was no better off than a slave since he was under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the Father, at which time the heir would be placed as a son, i.e., be adopted, and receive his inheritance. Verse four “when the fullness of the time had come” corresponds to the phrase “the time appointed by the father” in verse three. It follows that “the fullness of the time” refers to the time of fulfillment in contrast to the period of Israel’s nonage, a time of promise and expectation. As a sign that our inheritance has been granted and as a pledge that the full inheritance will be ours, God has send forth his Spirit into our hearts, crying out Abba, Father (cf. Romans 8: 23-25). The contrast between being under the tutelage of the harsh taskmaster and no longer under that taskmaster is clearly redemptive-historical, and not existential in nature. That is to say, Paul’s focus was not on what God is doing in us but on what God has accomplished in Christ. If we consider this as an existential reference to our coming to personal faith and thus no longer being under the law, we will have great difficulty explaining Paul’s statement that the law was added, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made. He was speaking about the law as covenant, and that covenant was expressed in Ten Commandments. He was not saying the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law were added until the seed should come. He knew of no such artificial theological distinction.
I would conclude that there is not sufficient exegetical evidence to induce us to proclaim the Decalogue to every sinner before we can witness the gospel to him or her. This is especially true since we do not find evidence in the biblical record that the apostles included an exposition of the Decalogue in their evangelistic messages.
God’s Righteous Standard in Apostolic Preaching
In Romans 1:18, the apostle Paul begins to explain why he is delighted with God’s method of putting sinners right with himself. He begins to explain why sinners are in need of his saving grace. He writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” This verse speaks to us of the sinner’s two most serious problems in their relationship with God. The word translated “ungodliness” focuses attention on our sinful hostility against God. The word translated “unrighteousness” focuses attention on our wrong relationship to our fellowman. Hodge wrote, “The first represents impiety toward God and the second injustice toward men.”
This verse also indicates that our proclamation of the gospel must not gloss over the vast gulf that separates the sinner from God. A message that begins by assuring sinners that God loves them and that Jesus has died to pay for all their sins proclaims peace where there is no peace. If we would pattern our evangelism after the example of the apostles, we must begin where they began. I cannot find a single example of New Testament preaching that began with a proclamation of God’s universal, redeeming love. Instead, New Testament evangelists began their messages by telling their hearers that God’s wrath was engaged against them because they were both unrighteous and hostile toward him. Romans 1:18 speaks of the sinner’s impiety. This indicts the sinner for his guilt in breaking the first and great commandment— “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deut. 6:5). As evidence of this impiety, the apostle shows that in the face of all God’s self-revelations, in spite of all his benevolent goodness and patience, and in defiance of his proffers of mercy, sinners remain recalcitrant and obdurate in their rebellion against him. Here it is patently clear again that the sinner is not inclined toward God and goodness. One could not even draw from the New Testament Scriptures that he is neutral toward God. Instead, the apostle alleges that the sinner hates God and is at cross purposes with him.
Sinners are Ungodly and Unrighteous
In the indictment that follows Romans 1:18, Paul, the apostle presents cogent evidence of the sinner’s failure to love God. Consider the following statements.
- “For although they knew God (from his revelation of himself in the creation), they did not glorify him as God” (v. 21).
- “. . .or give him thanks (v. 21).
- “. . . exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and bird and animals and creeping things” (v. :23).
- “. . .they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, . . .” (v. 25).
- “. . .they did not see fit to acknowledge God, . . .” (v. :28).
- “They are . . .haters of God. . ..” (v. 30).
In the same way, Paul indicts sinners for breaking the second commandment. In consequence of their impiety in breaking the first commandment, God gave them over to unrighteousness in breaking the second commandment. Consider these verses:
- “Therefore, God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity, . . .” (v. 24).
- “Therefore, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . ..” (v. 26).
- “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness. . ..” (vv. 28-31).
It is important that we understand that when the text tells us God “gave them over to unrighteousness,” it does not mean he made them worse than they were already. It merely means that, as an act of judgment, God withheld from them his restraining grace and allowed them to act out their natural sinful desires. Apart from God’s hand holding us in check, we are all capable of the most heinous sins imaginable.
Sinners are Unrighteous Because Impious (Ungodly)
The order in which Paul places these terms is significant. All our problems with our fellowmen stem from our impiety toward God. A brief survey of Romans one makes this order quite clear. Verses nineteen through twenty-three concern the sinner’s impiety toward God that is evinced by his suppression of God’s self-revelation. These verses speak of the sinner’s failure to glorify God as God and his failure to show him appropriate gratitude for his gracious benevolence. Additionally, they charge the sinner with idolatry since he has exchanged God’s glory for images of created beings. Verse twenty-four describes their unrighteous acts in dishonoring their bodies between themselves. This verse is connected with the foregoing passage by the word “therefore.” The meaning is clearly that God gave them over to unrighteousness as a result of their impiety toward him. Likewise, verse twenty-five describes impious behavior toward God in exchanging his truth for a lie and in worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason, God gave them up to unnatural relations between themselves (vv. 26-27). This behavior was unrighteous. Notice the words “For this reason.” They indicate that these acts of unrighteousness resulted from their impious behavior toward God. We observe the same order in verses twenty-eight through thirty-one. Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, he gave them up to a debased mind. The result was that they were filled with all manner of unrighteousness. All our unrighteous actions result directly from our rebellion against God.
It should be clear that we should never consider proclaiming a message to sinners that is not calculated to deal with their great plight in sin. Any message that skims lightly over the sinner’s grave predicament that has resulted from his persistent rebellion against God will heal the sinner’s wounds “slightly saying ‘Peace, Peace’ where there is no peace.” For this reason, we must confront the sinner with his failure to love God and his neighbor. It is in this sense that the good news of Christ’s victorious redemption, must be preceded by a clear proclamation of the sinner’s guilt as a transgressor of God’s law. The cross cannot be understood properly apart from the context of God’s wrath that is revealed against impiety [refusal to love and glorify God] and unrighteousness [refusal to love and do good to our neighbor]. Additionally, any biblical presentation of God’s good news must include a clear call for sinners to leave their rebellious way that is characterized by high handed insurrection against the Lord of heaven and earth and return to him in humble submission to his revealed will. It is clear that the good news of redemption in Christ and the demands of the gospel cannot be adequately understood and appreciated apart from a clear explication of God’s holiness and righteousness and our consequent duty.
How, then, do we answer the question, “Must we preach God’s law in preparation for gospel preaching?” The answer depends on what we mean by “law.” If by “law” we mean the Ten Commandments, it seems to me we face an insuperable problem if we answer that question in the affirmative. We do not find a single example of a New Testament gospel preacher upbraiding any sinner or group of sinners for failure to observe the Sabbath commandment. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that nothing prohibited in the other nine commandments is permitted under the New Covenant. If this commandment were a universal moral commandment, as we are told it was, would it not have been important for first century preachers to have informed their hearers of their duty to observe it and their sin in failure to do so? Certainly, there must have been many in the pagan world who knew nothing of the fourth commandment. The preachers of the first century were bold in crying out against other sins; why not this one? It is my view that this commandment was not “moral” in nature at all. Instead, it was the sign of the covenant (See Exo. 31:16-17) just as the rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
If when we ask this question about preaching the law we are asking whether we must press upon the unconverted their duty to love God and neighbor as that duty is clearly set forth in the New Testament Scriptures, the answer is clearly that we cannot preach the gospel unless we do so.
Donaldson, T.L. (1986) “The ‘Curse of the Law’ and the Inclusion of the Gentiles: Galatians 3. 13-14,” New Testament Studies 32, pp.94-112.
Moo, Douglas, 1988. “The Law of Moses or the Law of Christ,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.
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Many have posited what they call the doctrine of prevenient grace which, according to their view, universally grants the power of “libertarian free will.” Many in our day who posit a synergistic view of conversion are not even aware of the concept of prevenient grace but believe sinners possess the ability in themselves to respond positively to what they call “Holy Spirit conviction.” Others who would use the term do not seem clear about what they mean by it or how prevenient grace works. The more intelligent of them will actually attempt to define what they mean by “free will” as enabled by prevenient grace. They define it as “a person’s ability to choose other than he has chosen.” If I choose to eat chicken, I have equal ability to choose to eat steak. I have no issue with the idea that God has granted people freedom of choice. Even the vilest sinner is free to choose to leave his sins and follow Christ if he wishes. If he should choose that option, he would do so because he had chosen to do so freely and apart from external constraint. God sets life and death before sinners and calls on them to choose between these two options. The question of the sinner’s ability to choose anything he wants is not at issue here. Everyone agrees on that point. What is at issue is whether a sinner possesses either the innate ability or the ability granted by prevenient but ineffectual grace to choose that for which he absolutely no desire and to which everything in his being is absolutely averse. If I am able to choose to eat steak, does that mean I have equal ability to choose to dine at the local sewage treatment plant? The issue is not whether we are free to choose what we want. The issue is whether we have the ability to desire what we ought to desire. Can we choose what we abhor?
Those who tout prevenient grace are quick to resort to “mystery” when anyone begins to press them on the particulars of that doctrine. For example, if we should ask them why the Scriptures never say a word about an ineffectual preceding grace, they will tell us this doctrine must be drawn from inference. Apparently they reason that if God has expressed his sincere desire for the salvation of sinners, he must give everyone a chance. How and when all this happens is a “mystery.” That is their way of saying they have no idea at point the ability to believe is actually but ineffectually granted and we should be ashamed of ourselves for being so bold as to actually ask them to defend their indefensible view. With the understanding that those who believe in salvific monergism also believe in prevenient grace, I would like to pose a few “philosophical” questions about their position.
- If the will is free to choose other than it has chosen, would that not suggest that it is as inclined to choose what it does not want as it is to choose what it does want? Would that not suggest that, according to this view, the sinner is in a state of absolute neutrality? In this case, his reason or reasons for what he has done or chosen would be the same as would have been his reason or reasons for choosing to do what he did not choose.
- Unless some sinners have virtues others lack, if God grants prevenient grace equally and universally, what is it that for some tips the scale toward God and leaves others in their state of neutrality? If sinners are all born in the same state of depravity and prevenient grace elevates all of them to the same state of neutrality or “libertarian free will,” it seems to me there are only two choices: A. Some sinners must naturally possess a virtue or purpose of heart that others do not possess, or B. There must be some external influence in addition to prevenient grace that tips the scale one way or the other. Clearly such an influence could not come from God without violating the sanctity of the human will.
- Since those who believe in ineffectual* prevenient grace, affirm with the monergists that sinners are born in a state of sinful depravity or inability, when, in their view, is this power of free will granted?
- If prevenient grace is granted at birth, why are the wicked described as going astray as soon as they are born? If you should answer that this passage is not speaking about every person but only about “the wicked,” are you not arguing that some are born in a state of total depravity and others are born in a less depraved state? Or perhaps you are arguing that as soon as they are born they consciously choose to be wicked.
- If prevenient grace is granted in God’s universal revelation of himself as he is clearly seen in his works of creation, why is it that the apostle Paul does not say, “some sinners suppress the truth about God they see in creation, while others freely receive it, rejoice in it, thank God for it, and glorify him because of it?”
- If prevenient grace that grants “free will” to sinners is conferred in God’s universal grants of benevolence to his creatures, why did Paul describe the hearts of those who had received the benefits of God’s goodness as “hard and impenitent?” (see Rom. 2: 5). That doesn’t quite sound like neutrality does it?
- Perhaps you would argue that prevenient grace is universally granted through the preaching of the gospel. Would that not mean that those who do not hear the gospel do not receive this grace? Additionally, why is it that even those who have been confronted with the clear light of the gospel are not neutral about it. John tells us in regard to the clearest revelation God has ever given of himself, “This is the condemnation that light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. And everyone who does wicked things hates the light, and does not come to the light lest his works should be exposed”(John 3:19-20). That some come to the light is not at issue here. Of course some come to the light and embrace Christ in faith. The question is not if some believe but why some believe. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that those who have heard the gospel clearly and faithfully proclaimed in its fullness continue to regard that message as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). It does not appear that gospel preaching is in and of itself accompanied by prevenient grace?
- Perhaps you will suggest that God grants prevenient grace in Holy Spirit “conviction.” The problem is that the reproving work of the Spirit seems to be integrally related to the preaching of the gospel. It is not that he presses on sinners who have never heard the gospel, the sin of rejecting Christ as he is offered in the gospel and only in the gospel. If that is true, prevenient grace could not be granted universally in the Spirit’s work of reproof unless the gospel is proclaimed universally. If the gospel is not preached to every individual on earth, the prevenient grace of the Spirit’s reproof could not be universal. Additionally, their proof-text in Acts 7:51 does not merely tell us that sinners resist [the word means to fall against or to hurl oneself against] the Holy Spirit as he presses the evidence of the gospel against them. It tells us they ALWAYS resist.
Wesley wrote concerning prevenient grace,
Yet this is no excuse for those who continue in sin, and lay the blame upon their Maker, by saying, ‘It is God only that must quicken us; for we cannot quicken our own souls.’ For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural; It is more properly termed, preventing grace.”(Wesley, 1986, 6:512) He continues saying, “Every one has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath. Therefore, inasmuch as God works in you, you are now able to work out your own salvation. (Wesley. 1986, 6:512).
There are several insights we can gain from Wesley’s statement. First, it is clear that he is concerned that no one blame his sin on the fact that God has not granted him enabling grace. This grows out of the classic Arminian presupposition that responsibility implies ability. It is the belief that God cannot hold a person responsible unless he also gives that person ability. We can show this to be false by appealing to Romans 8:7. God clearly holds sinners responsible for obeying his law, but Paul tells us that those who are in the flesh CANNOT do so. Wesley tries to answer his inability/responsibility dilemma by saying that every man has some measure of the grace of God. The monergist would argue that every sinner is responsible for his own sin whether he has been given grace or not. That God who gives grace is to be praised when he restrains us from sin relieves us of none of the blame if he does not restrain us. The sin is ours alone.
Second, what Wesley called “prevenient grace,” we would call “common grace,” which at times is restraining grace. The consistent witness of Scripture is that in spite of God’s common grace and restraining mercy, sinners continue to presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead them to repentance. But in spite of all this kindness, the hearts of sinners remain hard and impenitent. All God’s patience apart from his effectual grace does nothing to soften his hard heart and produce repentance.
Third, even he did not seem to see this “prevenient grace” as having been granted equally to all since he wrote, “. . .which sooner or later, more or less (italics mine) enlightens every man that cometh into the world.” Additionally, he apparently believed some sinners had escaped the benefits of prevenient grace since he wrote, “And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron (Italics mine), feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience.” One would have thought that prevenient grace would have granted free will to these as well.
One would think that if God loves every sinner equally and in the same way, he would have granted this grace equally to all. It seems likely that John, in 1:9 of his gospel, had in mind the enlightenment of people from every nation through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ as opposed to the enlightenment of every individual who has ever been born whether he has heard the gospel or not. Whatever the meaning of that verse, there is not the slightest hint that John had in mind that this enlightenment restored free will to the sinner. That concept must be read into the text; it cannot be drawn out of it. It is important to remember that sinners need more than light; we must have sight. This God’s common grace does not grant. What Wesley called “prevenient grace” only gives light. What monergists call prevenient grace gives both light and sight.
Fourth, this statement of Wesley’s implies that God has given to every sinner sufficient grace to enable him to avoid sin. He offers this as the reason why there “is no excuse for those who continue in sin, and lay the blame upon their Maker.” His clear implication is that if God had not granted this prevenient grace to all, his creatures could rightly blame him if they continued in sin. One wonders why one needs the grace of regeneration if prevenient grace has enabled all to put away their sins and rest on Christ. It would seem logical if sinners have been enabled by prevenient grace to obey one command of God, they should be able by prevenient grace to obey every command of God. Where is the evidence that all the universal blessings of God’s common grace put together have caused one sinner to put away his hostility toward God and rest on God’s promise of mercy? The effect of a mind controlled by the flesh is hostility toward God (see Romans 8:7), and our minds continue to be controlled by the flesh until he by his free grace replaces our stony hearts with hearts of flesh.
Fifth, it is biblically impossible to argue that God has granted equal revelation of himself to all. Even common sense should tell us that that a blind man does not enjoy the same revelation of God’s glory in the night sky as a sighted individual does. Some are born into Christian homes and hear the gospel taught regularly; others are born into an environment of pagan darkness. It seems incontrovertible that he grants greater grace and privilege to some than he does to others (see for example Matt. 11:20-24). If God loves everyone equally and in the same way, why does he not grant to everyone the same light and opportunity? Is this inequality in God’s dealings with different individuals a random occurrence or has he previously determined to grant greater light to some than he does to others? We are often told that God would be unfair if he called and enabled some to believe according to his purpose and not others. Why does this charge not equally apply to the fact that he has granted greater revelation and privilege to some than to others?
Sixth, tt is often suggested as a proof of ineffectual prevenient grace that there are those in the Gospels and in the book of Acts who showed evidence of a desire to know God in a saving way prior to coming to faith in Christ. If only they had improved on this grace and used their freed will properly, they would have been saved. We do not deny that there are those who show interest in the kingdom and may even come to a temporary faith and receive the gospel with joy, but this is no evidence of any more than a self-serving desire to enjoy God’s blessings in one’s own way. Those who showed evidence of a desire to be right with God on his terms and not on theirs ultimately came to genuine and lasting faith in Christ. We do not deny that God’s Spirit awakens sinners to their need and to the glories of the gospel prior to the consummating act of effectual calling. He may woo some for an extended period of time before he at last converts them. Additionally, we do not deny that some may feel their guilt and fear their condemnation as the Spirit presses the evidence of their sin and doom on them. These may or may not come to conversion. Still, this is no evidence that prevenient grace has granted them the power of free will.
*[I use the term ineffectual prevenient grace to distinguish it from that preceding grace that actually unites sinners to Christ].
One issue about which synergists and monergists agree is that sinners in a state of sinful corruption are unable to come to faith in Christ apart from divine enablement. The difference between their beliefs concerns whether that “grace” is effectual in bringing sinners into union with Christ or not. Those who believe in ineffectual prevenient grace ultimately have to confess that such grace leaves the issue in the sinner’s hands. As I will show, nothing short of effectual grace could removes the sinner’s disposition to resist all God’s overtures of grace and turn recalcitrant rebels into grateful worshippers. This enabling grace is what we refer to as effectual calling.
“Without Me You Can Do Nothing” (John 15:1-5)
As I begin to write this I am painfully aware of the plethora of opinions concerning the correct interpretation of this passage. It has been used as support for views along a broad continuum. In my view, this is not true because Jesus lacked clarity in his teaching, but because there is a universal tendency to read one’s theology into biblical texts. I would not dare to suggest that I am immune to that tendency. With that consciousness, I would like to offer a few remarks about Jesus’ teaching in this passage.
In my view, one of the more important considerations in the interpretation of any passage concerns the issue the writer or speaker is discussing. If we fail to understand the question being discussed, it is almost inevitable that we will misinterpret the answer. For example, if we believe Jesus is answering the question, “How can I leap from the carnal Christian life to a life of fruit bearing?” we are going to understand the passage differently than we would if we believe he is showing it is possible for a believer to lose his salvation. Or, perhaps the issue is something else altogether.
It seems to me the key to understanding this passage is to understand Jesus’ “I am” statement with which the passage begins. To understand that statement it is crucial that we comprehend the way in which he and John used the words “true” and “truth” in the fourth Gospel. They did not use these terms in contrast to that which is false or in error but in contrast to that which is typical. For example, when John wrote “. . . the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), there is not the slightest suggestion that John means what Moses wrote was false or in error. Instead, John means Jesus brought the fulfillment of what Moses wrote. In the same way, Jesus said he was the true bread who came down from heaven. He was not suggesting the manna God gave Israel in the desert was not real bread. When he said I am the true bread, he meant he was the fulfillment of that of which the manna was but a fleeting and fading shadow. Just as Israel was sustained physically by feeding on manna, so believers are sustained spiritually as we go on feeding on Jesus by faith. When he says we must worship God in truth, Jesus does not mean we are to worship according to the Scriptures, though it should be clear to anyone that worship that is contrary to Scripture will not be acceptable to God. He means that the time has come when his people will no longer worship God according to the types and shadows of the Mosaic system. They must now worship God according to the reality of fulfillment.
Now the question is this. If Jesus is the true vine, who was the typical vine and what is his reason for introducing this teaching to his disciples? There are several passages in both Testaments that put the answer to the first question beyond doubt. Consider Isaiah 5; Psalm 80: 8ff; Matt. 21: 33; Luke 20: 9ff; Mark 12. It is clear the vine was the nation of Israel. God not only planted this chosen vine on a fruitful hill, but he clearly had a right to expect fruit from this vine. He built a wine press in his vineyard because he had a right to expect fruit from his vine. Yet, when the time of harvest arrived, the vine brought forth sour grapes.
What Jesus is saying is that he is the true Israel who, by his perfect obedience to God’s covenant, has produced the fruit God had the right to expect from Israel but did not receive. Additionally, he is saying that not only has he produced good grapes [the fruit of obedience] but also that in union with him his disciples would also produce fruit that is pleasing to God. They were not to trust their physical heritage to enable them to produce fruit. They, like Nicodemus, needed to be born again. They needed to be called into union [fellowship) with Jesus Christ. Only in union with the true vine would they be able to produce any fruit at all, much less “much fruit.”
Their duty was very simple. It was not that they were to try to produce fruit, but that, through faith, they were to remain in union with him. For most people “abiding” is a word they can only say in a hushed and holy tone. For them it is some sort of mystical, ethereal experience that is reserved for only the most holy. In reality, abiding [the word simply means to remain] must be the experience of every child of God. Jesus is teaching us there is never a time when it will be safe for us to give up our confident reliance on him. Genuine faith is persevering faith. There are those like Judas who have never had a vital union with Jesus. These are to be cast into the fire and burned.
Now, I have said all that to say this. The context is all about union with Christ. When Jesus says, “. . .for without me you can do nothing” (A.V.), he does not mean without my help you can do nothing, although that is certainly true. He means that just as a branch cannot produce any fruit if it is severed from the vine, you cannot bear fruit if severed from me. Apart from me you can do nothing. In other words, he is saying that the person who is not in union with him cannot produce a single work of obedience to God and is incapable of pleasing God in any way. I quote now from the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, Article 3, “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is).”
To me, that would mean that as long as a person is in union with Adam and not in union with Christ he has no ability to produce any obedience that is pleasing to God. That inability “to do anything that is truly good” would include the sinner’s inability to believe the gospel. Now, mind you, this is not the statement of a rabid Calvinist, but of the original Arminians.
My question is a simple one. When and under what circumstances does Jesus teach us we are able to produce fruit (including faith) that is pleasing to God? It seems to me the only answer one can give to this question is that we can only “do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is)” if we are united to Christ.
Now the question remains, how does a person come into union with Christ? The Scriptures do not leave us to wonder about the answer to that question. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship [participation] of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Throughout the chapter Paul writes about God’s call as that which distinguishes believers from unbelievers. It separates those who continue to view the message of Christ as foolishness and a stumbling block from those to whom Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God. Paul’s use of the word “call” cannot be a reference to the outward proclamation of the gospel—the universal call. Those Jews and Greeks who went on regarding the message of Christ as a stumbling block and folly are the very ones who had been called outwardly by the preaching of the gospel. It would make absolutely no sense to say “These who have heard the outward call of the gospel continue to consider this message as a stumbling block and foolishness, but to those who have heard the outward call of the gospel, Christ is the wisdom and power of God. Instead, there is a clear contrast in these verses between those who have heard the message of the gospel and those who have also been “called.” It is God’s call that distinguishes between those who believe and those who continue in their rebellion.
In agreement with this, Paul wrote in verses twenty-nine and thirty, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness, and sanctification and redemption,”
It must not escape our attention that Paul did not write that it is by your cooperation with the universal prevenient grace of God that you are in Christ, or by your libertarian free will you have distinguished yourself from the rest of mankind who continue in unbelief though they have been given equal grace with you. Paul seems to have had no difficulty expressing himself. I am fairly certain he could have formed such a sentence had he wished to do so.
Charles Hodge wrote,
It is to be referred to him [God] alone that ye are in Christ. Your conversion or saving union with Christ is not due to yourselves; it is not because you are wiser, or better, or more diligent than others that you are thus distinguished. This which is the turning point in theology, and therefore in religion, is here most explicitly asserted. And it is not only asserted, but it is declared to be the purpose of God to make it apparent, and to force all men to acknowledge it. He so dispenses his grace as to make men see with regard to others, and to acknowledge with regard to themselves, that the fact that they are in Christ, or true Christians, is due to him and not to themselves (Hodge, n.d.,46).
Nothing but union with Christ delivers from sin’s bondage. Paul’s argument in Romans six is that believers are no longer under sin’s reign, because we have been united with Christ in both his death and resurrection. He wrote, “We know that our old self [all that we were in union with Adam] was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6). It doesn’t seem to me that bondage under the dominion of sin is a very good way to describe libertarian free will. In truth, it is not until God calls us into union with his Son that he breaks sin’s tyranny and enables us to receive Christ gladly and freely as he is offered in the gospel. “Apart from him, you can do nothing.”
Two Types of Calling
There is no question but that there is a general and universal call of the gospel. It is a sincere and bona fide offer of salvation in Christ and all who respond positively to this call in faith and repentance will assuredly be saved. It is this call Jesus spoke of in Matt. 22:14 when he said, “. . .. for many are called, but few are chosen.” The problem is, this call is always ineffectual unless it is accompanied by God’s internal and effectual call. We refer to this internal call as “effectual” because it effectively brings sinners into partnership (union) with Christ. Paul wrote, “God is faithful, by whom you were called in to the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). This is clearly not true of everyone who is invited by the gospel. In keeping with this, he wrote in verse thirty of the same chapter, “Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus. . ..” In other words, the fact that we are in Christ is the result of God’s activity and not ours (see–1 Cor. 1:30). John Flavel wrote,
. . .the external voice is evermore ineffectual when it is not animated by that internal spiritual voice. It was marvelous to see the walls of Jericho falling to the ground at the sound of ram’s horns. There was certainly more than the force of an external blast to produce such an effect: but more marvelous it is, to see at the sound of the gospel not only weapons of iniquity falling out of sinners hands, but the very enmity itself falling out of their hearts. Here you see is a voice within a voice, an internal efficacy in the external sound, without which the gospel makes no saving impression (Flavel, 1689, 218).
Unless the Father Draw Him (John 6:37-44).
It seems likely that “calling” in Pauline literature refers to the same work of God as “drawing” does in John’s gospel. In both calling and drawing, it is clear that it is God, the Father, who calls/draws. In both, the result is faith in Christ. Apart from calling or drawing, sinners cannot or will not come to Christ. Jesus said, “No one can (is able to) come to me unless the Father who has sent me should draw him, and I will raise him up again at the last day.” In this same context (v. 37), Jesus has told his hearers that all the Father is giving him (he uses the present tense to indicate action that is going on) will come to him and that he will never by any means reject those who come. This should be distinguished from what he teaches in verse thirty-nine where he speaks of those the Father has given him with the continuing result that he still has them. This was an action completed in the past. The latter donation speaks of God’s decree before the world was. In accordance with that decree, the Father is, by drawing them to Jesus, giving them to him. Jesus tells us that all he “draws” in this way will come to him. “Every person therefore having heard and having learned of the Father comes to me” (45b). In other words, this drawing is an effectual drawing. This teaching clearly accords with what the apostle Paul wrote about “calling.”
“Calling” in the New Testament Epistles
A careful examination of the New Testament Epistles will reveal there is not a single occurrence of the words, “called,” “call,” or “calling” in which it refers to the universal call of the gospel. The New Testament writers consistently used it to refer to that effectual call by which God the Father unites his chosen people to Christ. So much is this the case that at times they refer to believers as “the called ones,” for example, see Rom. 1:6 and 8:28. I would like you to consider two passages in which it is clear that “calling” cannot refer to the external call or invitation of the gospel. They are Romans 8:30 and 1 Cor. 1: 22-24.
In the first of these we encounter what some of the old writers referred as “God’s golden chain of redemption.” This chain began to be forged by God in eternity past and stretches into eternity future. It should be clear that every link of this chain has reference to the same people. Those who are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ are the same as those who are glorified. The first link of this “golden chain” is God’s predetermination of the elects’ full conformity to the image of his Son. He determined to restore his image in his redeemed people even before that image was lost in the early days of human existence. Then, Paul informs us that those, only those, but all of those he thus predestined, he also called. It is important that we understand the identification of the ones called with those he predestined. If God’s predestinating activity means anything, it assures us that all he has planned will certainly occur. Every one of those God predestined will be glorified or conformed to Christ’s image. Each link of this chain concerns the same group of people. He does not write, “Some of those he predestined, he also called” or “some of those he called, he also justified,” or “some of those he justified, he also glorified.” The entire purpose of this argument, which he began to pursue in chapter five, is that those whom God has justified, may “rejoice in hope [the confident and settled assurance] of the glory of God [again becoming reflectors of his glory by bearing his image, i.e., glorification]. His specific argument in this immediate context is that God’s eternal purpose guarantees the believer’s glorification. Since this is true, it is impossible that “calling” in this verse refers to the universal call, i.e., invitation, of the gospel. If that were the case, everyone invited by the gospel would be included in those God predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son– “whom he predestined THEM he also called.” Additionally, we would have to argue that everyone who has been invited by the gospel is also justified– “whom he called, THEM he also justified.” This clearly cannot be the case. We must conclude that “called” in this verse refers to God’s activity that effects faith in those who are outwardly invited by the gospel. Otherwise, apart from faith, they could not be justified.
1 Corinthians 1: 22-24
In 1 Cor. 1: 22-24, Paul describes the prevailing attitude and recalcitrant rebellion of those to whom he preaches the gospel. He informs us that the Jews to whom he preaches go on requiring a sign and the Greeks to whom he preaches go on seeking wisdom or philosophy. Instead of tickling their ears or trying to produce signs to authenticate his message, he goes on proclaiming to them the naked, unvarnished truth that God’s anointed one has been crucified on a Roman cross and now stands as the crucified one. Then he describes the reaction of both Jews and Greeks to this message. As far as the Jews are concerned this is an offensive message. The idea that their expected Messiah would die as a vile criminal by crucifixion was more than they could tolerate. Left to themselves, they routinely rejected this message. To the Greeks, this message was moronic. They, too, roundly rejected it. When we read these words, one of our assumptions in the case of both Jews and Greeks must be that they had heard the gospel. They could not regard it as an offense and foolishness if they had not heard it, could they? To state the matter differently, both the Jews and Greeks to whom Paul proclaimed the message of Christ had been “called”, i.e., invited by the outward call of the gospel. But, in contrast to those who persistently rejected this outward call Paul wrote, “BUT TO THOSE WHO ARE CALLED, BOTH JEWS AND GREEKS, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. What effected such a change? How is it that Christ and the message of his crucifixion which before was offensive and foolish is now power and wisdom? The answer can only be God’s internal and effectual call. If we insist that the call must refer to the external invitation of the gospel, we would have to believe the passage teaches something like the following: Both Jews and Greeks persistently reject the gospel invitation every time they hear it, but to those who are invited by the gospel, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is now God’s power and wisdom. That is pure nonsense.
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