Last time, as we considered one of the most foundational aspects of one of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, I ended the post talking about the moment of conversion -- that moment when spiritual life is given to a dead heart. The eyes of your heart are finally opened, and you can finally evaluate reality as it is, and not how it looks to someone who's blind. Namely, you see sin as disgusting and repulsive as it is, and more importantly you see Christ as He is: gloriously compelling and supremely desirable. And you prefer Him over your sin.
I wrote about that event very carefully in the following string of sentences. I want to repeat these because they get at another foundational aspect of this wonderful doctrine of regeneration. I said, "And because you finally see Him, He is so sweet to you. You love Him! You can't resist Him!"
You can't resist Him.
What I spoke about last time -- and what I sort of recapitulated above -- is why we Calvinists describe the new birth as Irresistible Grace. It's not because somebody forced it down our throat, but because the grace that we were given was grace that opened our eyes so that we could actually see the gloriousness and pleasantness of Christ and the total absence of any gloriousness or pleasantness of sin! And so seeing rightly, we can never choose anything but Christ! It’s not against our will… at that point. It’s that our will has been changed [by grace] to want what we now see as most desirable!
Calvinism & Arminianism
But do you know what? There is a teaching that is very popular in evangelicalism -- perhaps more popular than the one I just laid out -- called Arminianism. And Arminianism teaches that grace is resistible. They almost certainly wouldn't articulate it this way, but essentially they teach that God can open your eyes enough that you can see Jesus for who He is and that you can see sin for what it is, and that you could still choose to remain in sin. And many people that we know – many people in our churches, and many teachers, and bible study leaders, and apologists that we like to listen to – believe this. And they are wrong, dear friends. They're wrong.
But the reason they say this is because they say that God chooses to "respect" our "free will." Now, I know why they want to say that. But love for them and love for others requires that we explain why that is unbiblical.
First of all, God is not a respecter of persons (Ac 10:34, KJV) that He would respect our "free will." Instead, the Scriptures teach that God chiefly regards Himself in all He does. Ephesians 1:11 says that God "works all things after the counsel of His will."
Secondly, our will is not free, nor has it been since Genesis 3:7. It’s in bondage to sin (spiritually dead, remember?). So this is not even an issue of human autonomy. It’s not about whether or not we have a choice. The issue is: You can see now! You can see Christ for who He is! To say that we can see this Christ and choose anything but Him demeans His Glory. And so this is not a minor issue. This is not just some abstract, impractical, heady, theological discussion. The glory of God is at stake. And we want to glorify God in everything (1Cor 10:31; Eph 3:21). We need to get this right!
Monergism & Synergism
Now these two views – that I referred to as Calvinism and Arminianism – really have more precise names than that. (Because both of those theological systems involve more than a view of regeneration.) The view of regeneration consistent with Calvinism is called monergism, which is a big word that means “one agent is working.” Synergism, on the other hand, is the opposing view which encompasses many theological 'camps.' Synergism just means that there is more than one agent working, that there are multiple agents working in cooperation with each other.
So, which one is the right view? Is regeneration monergistic or synergistic? Well, back in John 3, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus asks Jesus how it’s possible for a man to be born again. "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?" In response to this, Jesus says, most interestingly, "The wind blows where it wishes."
So this idea of irresistible grace brings up the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And in this passage, Jesus makes it plain that this act of regeneration is entirely a work of the Spirit, conditioned upon absolutely nothing about us.
John 3:5-8 - Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
In other words: The Spirit (which, in Greek, is the same word for breath or wind) doesn’t submit to any man. He is not subject to the will of man, but blows where He wills! The wind blows where it wishes. Jesus is teaching that the miracle of regeneration is just that: a miracle. We don't cause ourselves to be born again any more than we can make the wind blow. We indeed must be born again, but this new birth is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God (Eph 2:8).
The question this all comes down to is this: Are we free, or is God? Does the Spirit submit to our will, or do we submit to His? Does the Spirit blow where He wishes, or where we wish?
Consider these passages (mouse over the references):
- Ezekiel 36:25-27 – God says, "I will" five times. In these three verses, there are eight active verbs where God is the subject. There are no active verbs where man is the subject.
- Ezekiel 37:1-14 – We’re dry bones. The point of Ezekiel’s hesitance to answer the question about whether they can live shows that he thinks they can’t live, but struggles to say something can’t happen in front of an omnipotent God.
- Acts 16:14 – God opened her heart to respond, which was otherwise closed.
- James 1:18 – His will is exercised and He brings us forth.
- 1 Peter 1:3 – He causes us to be born again according to His great mercy.
- John 1:12-13 – Not of the will of man, but of God. Also, notice the backwards progression: Children of God <-- Receive Him <-- Believe in His name <-- Born of God.
- John 6:44-45, 65 – None come unless drawn by the Father, which means the people who don’t come are not drawn. The Father “gives” the elect to Christ. And their identity as the elect – a specific group of people known by the Father – is further testified to by John 6:45, in which Jesus quotes Jeremiah 31, thereby identifying those who come to Christ as the elect of the New Covenant.
A word about this verse. The word translated "draw" in verse 44 is far from an ineffectual wooing. It's the Greek word helkō, which means to drag, as one hauls in a fishing net (John 21:6, 11), as one draws a sword from a sheath in the midst of battle (John 18:10), as angry men who just lost their money drag a foreigner before their court (Acts 16:19), and as Jewish men drag a traitor out of their city, intending to kill him, believing that he preaches against the Law of God and has defiled the holy place (Acts 21:30).
Apart from Him, You Can Do Nothing
We often quote John 15: "Apart from me you can do nothing." What does that actually mean? Can we do nothing? At least we recognize that we can do nothing good. Nothing of spiritual significance. But do we really believe that? Specifically, do the implications of the truth of that verse control our theology of humanity's natural condition as it relates to our theology of evangelism?Let me ask you this, Christian. Considering this verse – "Apart from me you can do nothing" – I ask you, Can we believe apart from Jesus Christ? I don’t mean, "Can we get to heaven without Jesus Christ." We’re all going to agree with a resounding, "No!" to that one. What I mean is, can we as sinful human beings, come to a point in our lives and in our understandings, where we can, without already having Jesus and the Holy Spirit, decide to put our faith and trust in Jesus or accept Him as our Lord and Savior?
I’m going to assume that the answer to that is no. So what I think we’d all agree upon is that it takes a work of the grace of God for anyone to believe in the Gospel. So the question is: What is this grace like? Who receives this grace? There are two possible answers: 1) Everybody, 2) Only those who believe, the elect.
If everybody receives this kind of general grace, why doesn’t everybody believe? If God determines that He will give every human being throughout history enough grace that they can make the choice to believe in or reject Christ, why doesn’t every single recipient of that grace (i.e., everyone) believe in the Gospel? If we’ve all received the same grace – the same kind of grace and the same amount of grace – what is the difference maker in salvation? Ultimately, the answer must be something in us.
But if the nature of this grace that we receive is an effectual, efficient, powerful, effective grace, then we must say that the only people who receive it are those who believe. Now, remember! They don’t receive it because they believe. That’s backwards. They only can believe by this grace. This grace has to come before belief, otherwise John 15 isn’t true and we can do something apart from Him. So if the only people who receive it are those who believe, we must say that the determining factor is the grace, and the results are the believing. Faith is a result of having received a special, effectual grace from God.
That grace is called the new birth, or regeneration. And just as a baby’s will is not consulted before being born, so are we born again, "not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13).
1. The Theology of the New Birth
1.1. Man's Spiritual Death (Total Depravity)
1.2. The Dead Cannot See
1.3. The Wind Blows Where it Wishes: The Freedom of God and Irresistible Grace
1.4. Regeneration and Faith: Temporally Simultaneous but Logically Distinct
2. Implications for the Christian Life
2.1. God Grants What He Requires
2.2. The Impossible is No Longer Burdensome
2.3. The Means of Justification is the Means of Sanctification