By John G. Reisinger
God and man must both do something before a man can be saved. Hyper-Calvinism denies the necessity of human action, and Arminianism denies the true nature of the Divine action. The Bible clearly sets forth both the divine and human essential in God’s plan of salvation. This is not to say, as Arminianism does, “God’s part is to freely provide salvation for all men, and man’s part is to become willing to accept it.” This is not what we said above, nor is it what the Bible teaches. In order to understand what God’s Word really says, and to try to answer some straw dummy objections, we will establish the subject one point at a time.
ONE: A man must repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved. No one was ever forgiven and made a child of God who did not willingly turn from sin to Christ. Nowhere does the Bible even hint that men can be saved without repentance and faith, but to the contrary, the Word always states these things are essential before a person can be saved. The one and only Bible answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
TWO: Every one who repents and believes the gospel will be saved. Every soul, without any exception, who answers the gospel command to come to Christ will be received and forgiven by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Philip Bliss put the truth to music when he said, “Who-so-ever will, forever must endure…” If we can be absolutely certain about anything, we can be sure that Christ will never void His promise to receive “all who come to Him.” As old John Bunyan said, “Come and welcome” is the Savior’s eternal word to all sinners.
THREE: Repentance and faith are the free acts of men. Men, with their own mind, heart, and will must renounce sin and receive Christ. God never repented and believed for anyone – and He never will. Turning from sin and reaching out in faith to Christ are the acts of man, and every man who so responds to the gospel call does so because he honestly desires to do so. He wants to be forgiven and he can only be forgiven by repenting and believing. No one, including God, can turn from sin for us, we must do it. No one can trust Christ in our place, but we must personally, knowingly, and willingly trust Him in order to be saved.
Now someone may be thinking, “But isn’t that what the Arminian teaches?” My friend, that is what the Bible teaches–and teaches it clearly and dogmatically. “But don’t Calvinists deny all three of those points?” I am not talking about or trying to defend Calvinists since they come in a hundred varieties. If you know anyone that denies the above facts, then that person, regardless of what he labels himself, is denying the clear message of the Bible. I can only speak for myself, and I will not deny what God’s Word so plainly teaches!
“But haven’t you established the doctrine of free-will and disposed of election if you assent man must repent and believe and it is his own act?” No, we have neither proven free-will nor disproved election since it is impossible to do either. We have merely stated exactly what the Bible says a man must do in order to be saved. Let us now look at what the Scripture says a sinner is able to do and what he is not able to do.
FOUR: The same Bible that states man must repent and believe in order to be saved also emphatically states that man, because of his sinful nature, is totally unable to repent and believe. All of man’s three faculties of mind, heart, and will, which must be receptive to gospel truth, have neither the ability to receive such truth nor even the desire to have such ability. In fact the exact opposite is true. Man’s total being is not only unable to either come, or want to come, to Christ, but every part of his nature is actively opposed to Christ and truth. Rejecting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not a passive non-action, but a deliberate volitional choice. It is deliberately choosing to say “No” to Christ and “Yes” to self and sin. No one is neutral in respect to God and His authority. Unbelief is just as much a deliberate act of mind, heart, and will as is faith. This is what Jesus meant in John 5:40 when He said, “You will (you are deliberately making a choice) not to come to me.” Yes, unbelief is an act of the will. In fact unbelief is active faith, but unfortunately it is faith in myself.
To believe and preach points one, two, and three, without also preaching number four is to grossly misrepresent the gospel of God’s grace. It is to give a totally false picture of the sinner and his true need. It shows only half of the man’s sin. It misses the most crucial point of a lost man’s need, namely, his lack of power or ability to overcome his sinful nature and its effects. The gospel which is concocted out of this view is only a half gospel. It is at this point that modern evangelism so miserably fails. It confuses man’s responsibility with his ability, and falsely assumes that a sinner has the moral ability to perform all that God has commanded. The cannot texts of scripture are either totally ignored or badly twisted by this perversion of the true gospel of God’s saving grace.
Please note a few texts of Scripture that dogmatically state some things that a lost man cannot do:
Man cannot see – until he first be born again. John 3:3.
Man cannot understand – until he first be given a new nature. I Cor. 2:14.
Man cannot come – until he first be effectually called by the Holy Spirit. John 6:44,45.
We do not have space to go into all the cannots, but these three are sufficient to show that a sinner absolutely cannot (notice it is not will not) come to Christ until God first does something in that sinner’s nature. That something is what the Bible calls regeneration, or the new birth, and it is the exclusive work of God the Holy Spirit. Man has no part whatever in regeneration.
FIVE: The new birth, or regeneration, is God giving us the spiritual life that enables us to do what we must do (repent and believe), but CANNOT DO because of our bondage to sin. When the Bible says man is dead in sin, it means that man’s mind, heart, and will are all spiritually dead in sin. When the Bible speaks of our being in bondage to sin, it means that our entire being, including our will, is under the bondage and power of sin.
We indeed need Christ to die and pay the penalty of our sin, but we just as desperately need the Holy Spirit to give us a new nature in regeneration. The Son of God frees us legally from the penalty of sin, but only the Holy Spirit can free us from the power and death of our depravity in sin. We need forgiveness in order to be saved, and Christ provides complete forgiveness and righteousness for us in His death. However, we also need spiritual life and ability, and the Holy Spirit provides it for us in regeneration. It is the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration that enables us to savingly receive the atoning work of Christ in true faith.
God is a triune God, and no person can understand “so great salvation” until he sees each blessed Person of the Godhead playing a distinct and necessary part in that salvation. No man can declare the “glorious gospel of grace” and leave out the Father’s sovereign electing love and the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power as essential parts of God’s work in saving sinners. To speak of God’s part in salvation as only being one of providing forgiveness and man’s part as being willing to accept it is to ignore both the Father’s work of election and the Spirit’s work of regeneration. This not only makes man a full partner with God in the work of salvation, it credits man with playing the decisive roll in the deal.
How dreadful, and ridiculous, to give Christ the glory for His work on the cross, and then give sinners the credit for the Father’s work in eternity (election) and the Spirit’s work in our hearts (regeneration). It does great dishonor to the Sovereign Spirit to say, “The Holy Spirit will perform His miraculous work of quickening you unto life as soon as you give Him your permission.” That’s like standing in a graveyard saying to the dead people, “I will give you life and raise you up from the grave if you will only take the first step of faith and ask me to do it.” What a denial of the sinner’s total spiritual inability. Amazing!
The root error of the Arminian’s gospel of freewill is its failure to see that man’s part, repentance and faith, are the fruits and effects of God’s work and not the essential ingredient’s supplied by the sinner as man’s part of the deal. Every man who turns to Christ does so willingly, but that willingness is a direct result of the Father’s election and the Holy Spirit’s effectual calling. To say, “If you will believe, God will answer your faith with the New Birth,” is to misunderstand man’s true need and misrepresent God’s essential work.
SIX: The Scriptures clearly show that faith and repentance are the evidences and not the cause of regeneration. Suppose a man who had been dead for twenty years greeted you on the street one day. Would you conclude that the man had gotten tired of being dead and decided to ask a great doctor to perform a miracle and give him life? I’m sure you would, instead, exclaim in amazement, “Man, what happened to you? Who brought you back to life?” You would see he was alive because he was walking and breathing, but you would know these were evidences of a miracle having been performed on him from without and not the results of his own power or will. Just so when a spiritually dead man begins to perform spiritual acts such as repentance and faith; these spiritual fruits show that the miracle of the new birth has taken place.
Let me illustrate this with a biblical example. Acts 16:14 is a clear proof of the above. By the way, as far as I know, this is the only place in the New Testament that uses the phrase opened heart, and the Bible gives the whole credit for this opening to God’s power and not to man’s will. Modern evangelism does the exact opposite and credits the opening of the heart to the power of man’s free will. Remember that we are not discussing whether man must be willing to open his heart. We settled that under points One, Two, and Three. We are now looking for the source of power that enabled man to perform that spiritual act. Arminianism insists that man’s free will must furnish the willingness or power, and the Bible says that the Holy Spirit of God furnishes that power or ability in the new birth.
Let us examine the one text in Scripture that uses the phrase “opened heart” and see if it agrees with our previous points:
And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. (Acts 16:14)
The NIV says:
The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
First of all we note that Lydia did indeed attend or listen to the words of Paul. She gladly heard and willingly believed his message. As we have already shown, she had to do this in order to benefit from the gospel and be saved. Lydia’s attending, or hearing and believing, illustrates points One, Two, and Three above, and refutes Hyper-Calvinism (which says the elect will be saved regardless of whether they hear and believe the gospel or not). Lydia did indeed choose to believe, and she did it only because she wholeheartedly wanted to. She did not do it unwillingly nor did God hear and believe for her. It was her own response and it was a most willing response.
Next, we notice exactly what God did. We see here demonstrated what God must do before Lydia can be saved. (l) He provided a salvation of “by grace through faith” that could be preached. Obviously the things spoken by Paul were the gospel facts concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and surely this Lamb is God’s gracious provision. (2) God also brought the message of His provision to Lydia. He sent a preacher to tell her about this great plan of salvation. God went to a lot of trouble to provide such a gospel – He gave His only begotten Son. He went to great ends to provide such a preacher as Paul – read about it in Paul’s testimony in Act 22.
It is at this point that Arminianism departs from the Bible and proceeds to apply human logic to the above truths. They tragically fail to look at the rest of the biblical text and see that God must do something else. (3) God must open Lydia’s heart (or give her spiritual life) so she will be able to believe. Her natural mind is blind, her natural heart is averse to God, and her will is in bondage to sin and spiritual death. Only the power of God can free her from this graveyard of spiritual depravity. The giving of this life and power is solely the work of God. Notice that the Bible explicitly gives God alone the credit for Lydia’s heart being opened. If you do not see that in this text then you simply cannot read:
….whose heart the LORD OPENED…
Notice also how clearly the Holy Spirit teaches us the relationship between the cause and the effect in the conversion of Lydia. God was the One Who opened Lydia’s heart, that is the cause, and He did so in order that she might be able to attend to the truths that Paul preached, that is the effect. Now that is what the Word of God says! Do not bluster about dead theology or throw Calvin’s name around in derision, just read the words themselves in the Bible. If you try to deny that the one single reason that Lydia understood and believed the gospel was because God deliberately opened her heart and enabled her to believe, you are fighting God’s Word. If you try to get man’s free will as the one determining factor into this text, you are consciously corrupting the Word of God.
God’s grace not only provides salvation, but His power also gives us the ability to both desire and receive it. He works in us both to will and to do. His working in us to will is the new birth, and, I say again, this work of regeneration is totally the work of the Holy Spirit.
The moment we lose sight of this distinction between being saved by faith (the act of man) and being born again by the Holy Spirit (the act of God), we are heading for confusion and trouble. We will be convinced that man is able to do what the Bible emphatically states he is unable to do. The necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work being thus theologically denied, it will not be long before it is ignored in actual practice. This is the plight of modern day evangelism. Since they are convinced that the new birth is within the power and ability of man’s will, their man made methodology has become far more important than the theology of the Bible. Organization and advertising become the absolute essentials to success while the necessary work of the Holy Ghost is all but forgotten. It is true that lip service is given to the need to “Pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance,” and cards asking people to promise to pray every day are always sent out months in advance of the big campaign. However, some people are not sure if the promise to pray or the other pledge (to give money) which is always included (only your gifts can make this great campaign possible) is the most important to the success of the campaign.
But that’s another subject for another day.
Copyright 2004 John G. Reisinger