By Grace Through Faith: The Path of Saving Faith

Desiring God 1988 Conference for Pastors

By Grace Through Faith

Tonight’s subject is the path to faith. We thought in our first study of the grace of God calling sinners to faith, overcoming our natural inability to believe, our fallen perversity, which prompts us to say “no” to God every time. Then we moved on this morning to think about the nature of the faith to which God in grace brings us. And I trust that the thoughts we explored together this morning helped to enlarge our sense of the greatness of God’s gift of faith. It is a marvelous gift, and it does transform the life.

Our Commission to Evangelism

Now, this evening, under the heading The Path to Faith, we are to think about evangelism. We are pastors, and this is the concern regarding the path to faith that we must have. We are concerned to lead focus God enables us down the path to faith, and evangelism is the name for that procedure. And so it’s Reformed evangelism, sovereign-grace evangelism, that is going to occupy our minds for this next hour. And the goal of what I’m going to say to you is simply to try and mark out some guidelines for the practice of evangelism from which you came to this conference and to which you’ll go back, and I too as I return to Vancouver.

We need not spend much time, I think, over the definition of evangelism or the commission to evangelize. For definition, surely it suffices to say evangelism is communication with a view to conversion. Here’s a definition adapted by Pecker from something which the Church of England produced as long ago as 1918. Here is the definition: “Evangelism is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men may come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Savior, and to serve him as their King in the fellowship of his church.” We won’t improve very much on that definition.

Regarding the commission to evangelize, we can take to ourselves in the terms in which it was given to the apostle Paul. Just let me remind you how Paul himself described that commissioning from the Savior’s own lips on the Damascus Road:

Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me . . . I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Acts 26:16–18, NIV).

That was Paul’s marching orders and the same words may well be quoted to express our marching orders too. Go and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18). This is how it was applied to Paul, and this is how it must apply to us. And note here the striking fact that the way Jesus expressed this commission. Paul was to go and do the converting. That’s said and said in those terms in order to make the human agent in evangelism realize his responsibility. We are sent to go and turn men and women from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.

Shortly, I shall set before you a whole string of Scriptures which fill in the other side of that particular story. Though we are sent to turn them, it is in fact God who turns them. As we shall see shortly, God in the final analysis is the evangelist, but we are commissioned to go out and work with a view to turning folk to God. Scripture doesn’t damp down. It’s called a human endeavor in order to crack up the grace of God, which alone gives fruitfulness when the endeavor is made. But we return to that shortly.

What Is the Message?

We’re looking for guidelines tonight to help us in our sovereign-grace evangelism, and we shall follow this sequence of themes. We shall take three questions and think our way through them in order. First, what is contained in what Paul calls “the word of faith,” the gospel that we’re sent to communicate? What is the message? We’ll remind ourselves of that. And then second, we will ask, what is involved in coming to faith? What is conversion? What has to happen to those to whom we speak as they come under the word which we bring them? That involves picking up on some things that we said last night, but the line of thought tonight requires that we do that. And then thirdly, what is the path by which folk come to faith and how may we help them into the reality of conversion? Let’s follow out those three questions and see where our thoughts bring us.

First, what is contained in the message that we are to take? We do, I think, need to reflect on this just a little because our day is one in which the gospel message is habitually foreshortened and truncated. We think we are preaching the gospel, and in fact again and again, we are only preaching half the gospel. We think we have preached the gospel systematically to our people, and again and again, key truths of the New Testament have been left out.

Let me give you my analysis, my grid, whereby I try to check my own instruction to make sure that I am saying what I should in one sermon and another. You can’t say it all in one, but you can so plan your preaching to make sure that all these themes get adequate treatment in their proper place. I have this grid in my mind to help me see whether in fact I am preaching the full gospel or not. There are five themes it seems to me that have to be handled and handled thoroughly, and the changes rung on them over and over again if we are to dare to claim before God and men that we preach the gospel. And here they are.

1. God and His Ways

Theme number one is the theme of God — who and what he is, what he claims, and what he demands of us right now. I take my cue here from the apostle Paul who, when he went to Athens, began at the beginning. People have often misunderstood Paul’s address at Athens recorded by Luke in Acts 17. They have said that in Athens, Paul tried to be a philosopher among the philosophers, and his Areopagus address shows this. And because it was the wrong thing for him to be attempting to do, God not surprisingly withheld blessing so that there was only very little in the way of response.

All you have to do is to read the speech at Athens to see what nonsense that idea is. What Paul did at Athens was, as I said, to begin at the beginning. The Athenians were polytheists. That meant that they divided their allegiance among many gods. No God had an absolute and comprehensive claim on them. They worshiped many, and if Paul hadn’t challenged their polytheism, all they would’ve done with his message about Jesus would be to set Jesus, so to speak, on the mantelpiece alongside a whole raft of other gods whom they worshiped already. In polytheistic countries, still, that’s what tends to happen. In India for instance, where polytheism still goes strong, the point has to be made over and over again that there’s only one God, and only one Savior. Christianity makes an exclusive claim, and people with a Hindu background find it very hard to hear that.

Well, at Athens, I’m not surprised to read that when the polytheists found themselves challenged, their enthusiasm for the new doctrine began to drain away. When Paul got around to talking about the resurrection of Jesus, they interrupted him, they howled him down, they whistled, they booed, and they cat-called, and he wasn’t able to go on speaking. You must not take it as if it were a full statement of the gospel. Paul was in fact attempting to state the whole gospel. He got to the point where the cross would’ve come in, but he was howled down before he could say anything about it. And people who wanted to hear more of what he had to say had to meet with him on another occasion.

The flow of thought in the Areopagus address is this. “There’s a God whom you don’t know,” says Paul. “I saw an altar inscribed in a way that proclaims that. I have come to tell you about that God whom you don’t know. Listen, he’s the creator. He made everything. Everything that we know, and ourselves alongside everything that we know, depends on him, though he doesn’t depend on us. He has life in himself. He is eternal. He doesn’t change. But we are his creatures. He made us. And he made us to seek after him. If we did that, we would find him, but we haven’t done it,” says Paul.

“And God forbore for centuries while we, his creatures, were ignoring him. But the time of his forbearance has come to an end now. He has an absolute claim on us, for he made us. He is, you might say, our owner. He has a right to tell us how we should live. He has a right to command us as he does command us, as he commands all men everywhere to repent, to change our way of godlessness, and to seek him and find him and serve him. And we had better take this call to repentance seriously because he has appointed a day in which he’ll judge the world. None of us can escape him forever. One day, all of us must appear before his throne and give account of ourselves. He’s set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he’s appointed for the purpose, and he has given proof of this to all men by raising that man from the dead.” That was the point at which they howled him down. That was as far as Paul had got.

2. The Reality of Sin

Can you see what he’s doing? First he teaches who God is. In light of that, he’s able to explain what sin is. Sin is failure to meet God’s absolute claim on our life, the claim which is there in virtue of the fact that he’s our maker. When you’ve explained what sin is and shown that God has a right to tell us how to live, then you are in a position to speak about repentance and make it sound relevant. We are in the wrong with the God who is one day going to take account of us. He had a right to claim us. He still does have a right to claim us. If we defy his claim, we cannot expect anything except disaster and judgment.

So this is an urgent issue. This is an issue for decision. And had Paul been able to go on a little further, he would most certainly have talked about the way of forgiveness, and he would’ve talked about the reality of commitment to this risen Savior and Lord and Master and coming Judge. And it would’ve been evangelistic preaching of a kind which you find elsewhere in Acts, but he wasn’t able to get that far.

But you see what he’s doing. He started with God and God’s claim and God’s judgment, and it seems to me that unpopular as these themes are today, and hard as we have to work to get people to keep awake and listening while we talk about them, there’s nowhere else for us to start in North America in 1988. It’s up to us to work to find ways of saying these things that will make people listen. Otherwise, we shall be up in midair, as it were, when it comes to speaking about Jesus. And our hearers will be up in midair also. They won’t understand that the God who made us calls all men everywhere to repent, and that that repentance is to take the form of turning to Christ. They will suppose that we are in the same position as peddlers of other religions. They will think what we are saying to them is, “Take the Jesus trip. Try it, you’ll like it.”

And if that’s all that they hear us saying, they still are thinking of themselves as the focus of interest, and they haven’t realized that they’ve got to reckon with the living God who has appointed a day of judgment. And unless we get folk to reckon with the living God who has appointed a day of judgment, we are not preaching the gospel to them. So I urge and I invite you to agree. We have to tell folk about God in order that we may then tell folk about sin, and we tell folk about sin in a way which is understood as it should be, not simply as a diagnosis of trouble parallel to the physicians or the psychiatrist’s diagnosis of trouble in the body or in the mind.

Establishing God-Centered Focus

When the physician or the psychiatrist diagnoses, you, the patient, are still the center of interest, the center of attention, and you still are thinking — and so is this professional man thinking — in terms of you as the person of supreme importance. I say again, we’ve got to establish a God-centered focus and change that assumption that the individual to whom we’re speaking is the person of supreme importance, who is rightly central in his own attention. God has to be central. We are not calling people to repentance at all unless — among the other things that we’re saying to them — that henceforth they must put God, the living Lord, at the center of their lives and learn to see themselves as made for him and his glory, not therefore as central in the life of the universe as they had hitherto supposed themselves to be.

Sinners play God to themselves. All of us think and behave as if we were God, really. That’s the natural way for a fallen man to act. And then we try to make the whole of life revolve around us and suit our convenience. That’s the mentality of Eden after the fall, and that’s something with which we’ve got to break and teach others to break from if there’s going to be real repentance and returning to Christ with all our hearts.

There are lots of people in the churches, you don’t need me to tell you this, who if you analyzed it right down are simply seeking to use Jesus Christ as an insurance policy to guarantee them eternal life. And having Jesus Christ in that category, so to speak, they think of themselves as free to go on being egocentric almost as much as they did before. Many of those folk are counted among North America’s 40 million professed evangelicals, but this isn’t the real thing, friends. I need not labor the point any further. You know it’s not the real thing.

We have to teach God-centeredness. In light of God-centeredness and only in light of God-centeredness, the God-centered perspective, can we diagnose sin as what sin really is — that is, playing God to yourself and pushing the real God almost or entirely out of your life.

3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ

Only when we’ve diagnosed sin adequately and shown the guilt of not living to God and having him at the center of everything, only then can we speak about our third theme, the Lord Jesus, in a way that is going to constitute true gospel communication.

We should speak about the Lord Jesus as the gift of the Father’s love, as the one who came down from heaven to do the Father’s will of saving sinners, as the one whose grace has as its background the outrage that we have done to God’s rightful claim, and the ill desert that we have in the sight of the Judge. Whether you think of the Father or the Son as the Judge here doesn’t really matter. Ill desert is what we have in the sight of both, and it’s against the background of that ill desert that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

In talking about Jesus, let us see to it that we focus on both his person and his work. It isn’t enough to simply teach people that Christ died for their sins or for the world’s sins or whatever you think it right to say, when you haven’t really told them who Christ is. That’s in truth no better than doing as the liberals do and focusing entirely on the glory of the person of Jesus — his perfect character, the perfect man, even the divine man, though not many liberals will say that — and then saying nothing about his atoning work. Presenting Christ means focusing on both his person and his work.

And once again, it has to be said if we don’t do that, if we don’t take folk through the Gospels where you see the Lord Jesus in action and discern what kind of person he is, as well as take them through the Epistles and explaining to them from the Epistles the doctrine of the atonement, we are not fully preaching Christ.

I said some rude things this morning about the people who attack Lordship Salvation. One of the things that has to be said about them I think is that they in this sense don’t preach Christ. They preach a Christ who is, shall I say, a figure not really focused on as a person, who died for sins. And then all the emphasis is on believing that he died for sins. But that has to be supplemented by focusing on his person, focusing on him as he walks through the pages of the Gospels, and then making plain that it is with that Jesus who all through his earthly ministry was calling folk to repentance and holiness and discipleship that meant a break with the world and the old pattern of self-centered living. It’s to that Jesus, and no other Jesus, that you come in faith. If that emphasis is properly made, then I don’t see how the anti-lordship salvation view can survive. I really don’t.

That incidentally is the strategy of the book by John MacArthur, to which I made reference this morning. He, I think very wisely, chooses to pile up a case against this perspective by studying Jesus dealing with people whom he called to be his disciples in the pages of the Gospels. Well, that’s theme number three, and that it seems to me is how it must be dealt with — God, sin, Christ.

4. Repentance and Faith

Next is repentance and faith, that is, the summons to turn and trust. It must be expounded. “God commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), so says Luke in his summary of Paul’s speech. Have you ever noticed that in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke regularly alternates expressing the gospel call as a summons to believe — “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31) — and as a summons to repent? And in the reports of the evangelistic sermons and messages that were given, sometimes the summons is to repent and sometimes the summons is to believe. I think it’s a literary alternation — a movement from one word to the other — based on Luke’s confidence that all his readers will understand that “repent” includes “believe,” and that “believe” includes “repent.” I think a little concordance work will show you that is what Luke certainly is implying, and this is just the way he expresses things.

Well, these are the themes, repentance and faith, which have to be expounded in order to make the way of salvation clear. And we should be saying more about that as we go along. For the moment, let me simply say, in 1988, we need to preach on both words and express as clearly as we can the fact that repentance implies and entails that you turn from sin to Jesus as your Lord and Master, just as you must explain that faith, in its Christian sense, implies turning to Jesus and casting your hopes and your confidence upon him on the ground of his atoning work. There’s no legalism here. It’s simply dealing with the Lord Jesus, approaching the Lord Jesus, and embracing the Lord Jesus as what he really is, Savior and Lord. So we repent and believe.

5. A New Community

And then theme number five, which certainly ought to come in any adequate preaching of the gospel in these days, is the theme of the new life of community. Do let us remember, do let us realize this year of grace, 1988 in North America, is a time of loneliness and alienation. Family life has become a very poor and thin thing, and people in their own families are lonely. Families are broken up, and the world is full of people who really have no close friend to turn to anywhere, no one in their own family, no one else either.

And in that situation, one of the things that needs to be said loud and clear is that when you come to Christ, you come into a family that really is a family. When you come to Christ, you are among brothers and sisters who are learning, by the grace of God, to love and care in a way that earthly families hardly ever succeed in doing. In that family, there are responsibilities and there’s mutual ministry to be rendered. Every member ministry in the body of Christ is part of the pattern. But just as you’ll never be alone in the vertical dimension because the Lord Jesus will be with you, so you’ll never be alone in what we may call the horizontal, social dimension. Your brothers in Christ will be with you.

In some of our churches, we’ve hardly yet entered into this in the way that we need to do. Some of us, I guess, would be a little tardy at this point because on the one hand, the Charismatics make so much of this vision of the Christian family and we don’t want to sell out to the Charismatics. Some of us, of course, are very happy to do that, but others are not. And I’m not laying down any standards here. I’m only describing. And then again, in our churches, in many cases I’m sure there is a great tradition of the ministers leading and lay people simply sitting in the pews and paying their dues and cheering the ministers on. But the ministry is being left to the clergy, and this is bad news.

Clericalism is the name for the situation that I’m describing. And clericalism, friends, is a conspiracy between two parties. One party, either the clergyman or the lay folk — it doesn’t matter which speaks first — says, “Spiritual ministry is the responsibility of the ministers,” and the other party says, “Yes, that’s right.” And so you have your conspiracy.

But just as in Christian worship, everybody is meant to join in, so in Christian ministry — and that emphasis we get constantly and rightly from the charismatic end of the evangelical front — all have been given gifts for ministry, abilities to serve in Christ, and abilities to minister Christ to others. Those gifts must be found and used. That is a truth which should be controlling family life. I mean Christian family life, and I mean the Lord’s family life in all our churches. And if we need to move from where we are in order to get there, well, for God’s sake, let’s start moving. And part of the proclamation of the gospel, as it seems to me in an age of loneliness and isolation and alienation like ours, is to hold out the prospect of community life, of equality, which those who don’t yet know Christ and his people simply don’t know.

So this I suggest to you is the message broken down into its main component parts, and I would urge that we acquire the habit of checking our preaching over a period of months to make sure that all these themes are getting a fair crack of the whip. I think I’ll let that phrase stand.

You know how all of us are tempted to harp on one or two favorite themes and so to win ourselves the reputation of being preachers who can preach the same sermon from any text. Well, I know it’s funny, but it’s also the very opposite of funny. It’s tragic. Let’s see to it that we expound the whole counsel of God as we preach the gospel. And the whole counsel of God as we preach the gospel involves at least these themes that I’ve mentioned.

A Family Secret

Perhaps I ought to slip in this question. Supposing that you are a Calvinist and you believe in the sovereignty of God and salvation, what can you say in preaching the gospel about election? My answer to that question is nothing at all, brothers, nothing at all. Election is a family secret for the Lord’s children. You have to come into the family before the thought can mean anything to you, and therefore it’s best to save it when you’re instructing people until they are in the family.

And then you tell them, “Now you’ve come to faith, and that’s marvelous, and here’s something yet more marvelous: it was God who brought you in. Do you know that? And he brought you in accordance with a purpose to save you that he formed before you were made and before the world was made. Do you know that? And God isn’t the kind of person who leaves his plans incomplete. And if he started to fulfill his purpose of saving you, he will most certainly complete it.”

And there are New Testament texts you’ll be turning up as you say this. And you’ll ask them, “Do you know that?” “Now,” you say, “You’ve got something to rejoice in, haven’t you now?” And it’s all of course in the second half of Romans 8, and that’s the place to teach people to cast anchor and live their lives once they’ve come to Christ. But don’t muddle them while you’re explaining the gospel to them by bringing in the theme of election. It can’t help them. Stress, rather, what is very clear in the New Testament, that the Lord Jesus who died to save his own elect and who does through the Spirit save his own elect, also offers himself in a bonafide invitation to all who hear the gospel. He says, “Come unto me, you who labor, you who are struggling, you who are heavy-laden, and I’ll give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Note how it goes on. He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. Become my disciple. Start the new life in a double harness with me. Then, thus you’ll find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). But that’s what he says. And that’s what we are to relay in his name and on his behalf. That’s still his word to all the world. The invitation is a bonafide invitation, and the truth of what we Calvinists call “particular redemption” doesn’t affect that.

You could sum it all up by saying that in our preaching and our teaching, our communicating of the Christian message — writing it and communicating it one-on-one as we counsel — our business is to do as Philip the evangelist did in his encounter with Ethiopian eunuch, he preached to him Jesus (Acts 8:25). Do you remember? That’s what’s said. And that phrase really covers it all, but each of the things that I mentioned has to be explained before you’re able to say with a good conscience, “I have preached Jesus to these people,” or this person, or whoever.

Well, that’s my answer to the question, “What’s contained in the word of faith which we preach, the gospel that we are charged to communicate?” And as I said, if we are in the habit of communicating less than this and then telling ourselves, “Well, we’ve preached the gospel,” we ought to think again.

What’s Involved in Conversion?

But let me move on quickly to my next question: What’s involved in coming to faith? What’s involved in conversion? I don’t think I need to say very much about this because after all we’ve been thinking about this in my two previous addresses, and I think that most of the lines have been drawn and the blanks have been filled in. But let me just tell you one or two things. Did you know that John Calvin has a strong doctrine of conversion? Yes, he has. Let me read you a paragraph that I once wrote about that. I would like you to know what Calvin has to say about conversion.

Calvin, who once referred intriguingly to his own sudden conversion (that’s his phrase, subita conversio) by which, as he says, God subdued and made his hard heart and gave him some foretaste and knowledge of true piety. This man, Calvin, develops in his Institutes a concept of conversion as the practice of lifelong active repentance, which is the fruit of faith and springs from a renewed heart.

And here’s a quote from Calvin, in which he says it himself:

The whole of conversion to God is understood under the term repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is derived from “conversion” or “return” (shuv), the Greek word is from “change of mind and purpose,” that’s metanoia. And the thing itself fits each derivation, for the essence of it is that departing from ourselves we turn to God, and putting off our former mind we put on a new one. So I think that repentance may well be defined as a true conversion of our life to God, issuing from pure and heartfelt fear of him, and consisting in the mortification of our flesh and old man, and in the vivification of the spirit.

And now here’s another quote:

When we call it “a conversion of life to God,” we are requiring a transformation not only in outward works but in the soul itself, which can only bring forth fruits answerable to its renewal when it has put off the old nature.

And here is another quote:

When God converts us to zeal for what is right, all that is of our own will is abolished, and what replaces it is all from God. I say that our will is abolished but not as will, for in man’s conversion, what belongs to his original nature remains intact. No, I say that it — that is, the will — is newly created, not so that it may thus begin to be a will, not having been such before, but so that it may be thus turned from a bad will into a good will.

Daily Renewal

Well, that’s how Calvin explains conversion, and really you could hardly say it more clearly than that. You can see, by the way, can’t you, from the way that he phrases this, that he thinks of conversion not simply as an initial event but as a process of turning which must be lifelong. And he defines repentance in exactly the same terms. There is an initial repentance for sure, but he says the process of repentance must continue and be lifelong. And in that, he’s just following Luther, who in the first of those 95 Theses that he nailed up on Wittenberg Church door, said, “When our Lord Jesus Christ called on men to repent, he meant the whole of their life to be a practice of repentance.”

That was Calvin’s view too, and surely it’s right, surely it has to be. We don’t regularly talk that way nowadays, and I think we are the poorer for it. A very simple basic understanding of the Christian life is to say, “Now each day, I am called to renew my turning from sin to Christ, from the way of the world to the way of God. Lord, help me this day to turn to you with all my heart.” Well, I mustn’t say anymore about Calvin.

Key Points of Conversion

Let me summarize for you the key points in the understanding of initial conversion, the beginning of this lifelong process, according to Calvin and according to those who came after Calvin and entered into Calvin’s heritage, namely — and I bracket them all together — the English Puritans of the 17th century (some of whom were exported to America), and the Dutch pietists of the 17th century, who of course were Calvinistic in their theology and who learned a great deal themselves from the English Puritans.

The Dutch pietists read the Puritans and express the doctrine of conversion very perfectly in step with the Puritans, so that I can generalize about this whole group of people as if they were one. Well, here are the main points, just get them clear in your mind as a kind of checklist of the factors in conversion, none of which we dare forget.

1. The Necessity of Conversion

First, the event called, in the 17th century, “conversion,” “regeneration,” “new birth, and “effectual calling,” in the 17th century, were synonymous. They are a necessity for salvation. No one is justified who doesn’t believe, and faith is the essence of this fourfold reality, whereby we are changed and renewed and brought into God’s family as his justified children and given the Holy Spirit so that we begin a new life. Well, that’s point one, conversion is necessary.

2. The Impossibility of Self-Conversion

Second, self-conversion through our own initiative is impossible. The word inability is a reminder of that. We haven’t got it in us to turn to God, not until God himself turns us to himself. The Westminster Confession says:

A natural man, being altogether averse from spiritual good and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereto. Conversion is the expression of God’s work of new creation inside.

3. The Whole Person

Third, conversion involves the whole person. I labored this this morning so I don’t need to say anything new about it now. Faith starts in the mind, blossoms into volitional acquiescence or joyful embrace of the gospel truth, and that issues in turn in hearty trust in Christ, whence flows real turning from sin into a new life of discipleship. Some conversion processes, as we know, are sudden, others are gradual, some are turbulent, others are smooth, but the inner shape of them all is as stated. Conversion in that sense is a characteristic work of God. The same elements appear every time.

4. The Centrality of Christ

Fourth, conversion centers on Christ and cannot take place where he has not been made known. That I’ve said already about a quarter of an hour ago.

5. The Preparation of the Heart

Fifth, conversion requires preparation of heart in the form of a radical humbling and contrition for sin. I know that that’s not a fashionable thing to say, and lots of people in the trade of evangelism simply don’t believe it, but I think that Scripture makes it evident that it’s so and that evangelistic ministry is rendered something of a leaky bucket if this point isn’t grasped and the radical humbling for sin isn’t preached for, counseled for, worked for, and waited for in our dealing with souls.

But understand why conversion does require this preliminary humbling for sin. It’s not because sorrow for sin has intrinsic spiritual value or that it merits grace. Puritan preparationism, as it was called, has been accused of believing and expressing that view, but in fact it never did. It’s a misunderstanding. The reason why what they called “a law work of contrition” was demanded was rather this, that through it our corrupt love of a life of anti-God independence — the love I mean that is shown in the unresponsiveness to God’s word and misbehavior in the world, which mark our lives before conversion — withers, and desire for a new life of reconciliation to God and righteousness before men blossoms in its place.

In other words, through this preliminary work of humbling, God brings us to the point where we are no longer in love with sin but are desirous from our hearts to embrace Christ, to serve God, to love him, to worship him, to trust him, and eventually in heaven to enjoy him. It’s a deep-seated, radical change of disposition. This of course is a new creation in its decisive stage. And God, who made us rational and deals with us in a rational way, leads us to that by the humbling process of showing us the nastiness of the life we’ve been living so that we fall out of love with it. It is his rational way of bringing us to the point where our hearts are free to fall, as you might say, in love with Jesus Christ.

When sin has become repulsive to us, then and then alone, Christ can take possession of our hearts. As long as our heart still loves them, Christ may claim them, but he can’t effectively possess them. We’re talking thus you see about one aspect of the work of God changing our hearts, and it’s an aspect which has to precede that decisive embrace of the Lord Jesus on which nowadays we tend to focus our exclusive attention. You are not free to love him until you’ve ceased to love that which you loved before.

Well, this is the preparatory work that has to be done in us. It may take the form of clear understanding of the sinfulness of sin as an offense against the God who claims our total loyalty. It may take the form of perceiving the ugliness and the nastiness of sin as the barren thing that it is, keeping us from God, impoverishing us, as well as dishonoring him. But whatever the precise form of it, it has to be done. Folk who are moving towards the kingdom in my experience have different ways of verbalizing what’s coming home to them, so I suppose that the Lord is leading them by slightly different paths, according to the dictum of Richard Baxter, the Puritan, who said, “God breaketh not all men’s hearts alike, though he does break them all one way or another.” But however it’s done, it has to be done. Otherwise, that heartfelt, hearty, wholehearted closing with Christ that is faith and repentance just can’t take place.

Hostility to one’s pre-Christian ways is thus necessarily involved in entering upon peace with God. This is what preparatory conviction of sin, misery, and need is all about. Of course, the point isn’t peculiar to the Puritans any more than it was peculiar to the creatures of the Great Awakening and the evangelical revival in England who came after the Puritans but at this point walked very firmly in their footsteps. The thought goes back to Luther, who insisted that the law must show us our need of Christ. Luther said that is what God gave it for, and he took his stand on texts in Romans and Galatians, which tell us that through the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). And he understood that as meaning, not simply that through the law we know in a detached act of cognition what sin is, but that through the law we come to know what sin is in us, a guilty, vile, ugly, nasty, repulsive thing.

Well, the point I think is clear, I’ve labored it a little, excuse me for doing that. I did so because I think that there’s a need to labor it in these days where the point is hardly ever made, and now I go on. That’s the fifth point in our checklist of key points about conversion.

6. The Proof of Conversion

Sixth, the only proof of conversion is a changed life, a life of convertedness, as you might say, a life in which you are continually turning from the calls of carnal self to God and to Christ and to their service. Persons loving and trusting and following Jesus in this way are certainly converted, whether or not they can tell you when and how it happened, as in some traditions in the church they most certainly wouldn’t be able to do. But persons not living this way have no right to claim to be converted, even if they did go forward at a meeting and they were counseled and they prayed the Jesus prayer and they filled up the form and went through beginner classes for the next few weeks, and whatever else they were asked to do at that time.

You can go through all those motions and jump through all those hoops and not be converted. The church, one fears, has in it many folk who went through all those motions and were not converted. And the world perhaps has in it more such, who have abandoned the church because after the first few weeks it all went flat on them. That’s not surprising. They never were really into it in the first place. They were just folk in trouble and distress, folk perhaps with weak egos who came under the sway of a strong Christian talker. They were doing what they’ve been told to do, but it isn’t a change of heart.

7. The Reality of False Conversions

Seventh, there are such things as false conversions. That is, there are folk who in the Puritan jargon become temporary believers. They start, or they appear to start, like the stony ground hearers in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. The seed springs up quickly in them and seems to be producing a very spectacular result almost overnight. They’re thrilled, they’re excited, and they’re jumping around, but they don’t last. They have no root in themselves. It does happen, and it happens because of spiritual superficiality whereby people go through the motions of embracing Christ, as I said, without fully seeing their need to seek and find the radical change of heart described above, which means that they never at any stage come to the point where they are out of love with sin, so that their acceptance of Christ is a real wholehearted commitment to him, a love commitment to him, which is going to last for all their life.

Calvin already speaks about this, and he has a phrase for it. The phrase will startle you when you hear it, but as you reflect on it, I think you’ll see you can’t really express it any better than this. They receive the gift of reconciliation, and in one sense they do. They go through the motions that they’re told to go through. They receive the gift of reconciliation in a confused way and without sufficient discernment. The best pastoral safeguard against false conversions is depth and intensity of contrition as described above. Surely, that’s obvious, and we in our preaching of the gospel need to remember that this is a feature of the wisdom of yesterday, which hasn’t been passed down very effectively to our time.

And when we start to do it, people will be surprised and it will seem strange and it won’t at first be appreciated and we shall be criticized for slowing the conversion process down, and we need to be prepared for all that. What we’re actually trying to do is to save people from false conversions, and that is the most responsible way you can imagine to conduct an evangelistic ministry. But we must be doing it that way is not in fashion, as I said, and consequently, we may expect to get a certain amount of flack if this becomes an emphasis in our ministry.

God’s Work in Conversion

Well, these are the seven points of my checklist as I seek to answer the question, “What’s involved in conversion?” Remember what I said earlier, God is the evangelist. We are at best the midwives who assist in the birth. God is the one who changes hearts. God is the one who brings people to real faith. We simply minister and apply the gospel and do so rationally in terms of our understanding of what conversion involves and how, therefore, the word must be applied in order to lead people into it with God’s blessing. I said I would be speaking of this sooner than now I am, but here I do want to spend just a moment making this point.

Whereas in Acts 26:18, Christ’s commission to Paul, and in some other verses of Scripture also, the task of bringing people to conversion is spoken of as our work — “Go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) — there is a whole category of other Scriptures which shows as clearly as can be that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the true evangelist. The work is his work, and in this work we are only at best fellow workers with him. Here are some of those sample Scriptures.

In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul is talking about the conversion of those who are converted. He says:

God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

He did it through the preached word, sure, but he did it. Acts 16:14 is a verse I quoted in an earlier talk. It’s about Lydia, “whose heart the Lord opened so that she attended to the things being spoken by Paul.” The Lord did it. Then there’s 1 Corinthians 12:3:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can (truly) say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

And here are verses which speak specifically of the risen Christ as the evangelist. John 12:32 is about Jesus in the days of his flesh, looking forward:

And I, when I am lifted up (lifted up on the cross and thereby exalted in a much more profound sense than any of those who crucify me will ever dream) from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Link with Ephesians 2:17. Paul says that Christ united Jew and Gentile to himself in one new man, so making peace, and he came after his cross, whereby he made peace for us. The passage says:

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

How did he do that? Is Paul talking about some mission personally undertaken by the risen Lord in those 40 days between his rising from the tomb and his ascending to glory? No, it’s nothing like that. What Paul means is, “He came through my coming and my preaching. I spoke to you in his name, and thereby he came and claimed you for himself and brought you his salvation. He came and preached peace. He came and called you into the kingdom. He came and did it through me. He’s the real evangelist.” So Paul, looking back on his own ministry in Romans 15:18, says this:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed . . .

The thought is clear and the theology is plain, God is the evangelist. I haven’t piled in all the texts that I might have quoted either, but quite enough I think to make this point. God is the evangelist, and we are at best the midwives who assist in the birth.

What’s the Path of Faith?

We understand then what conversion is. We understand that it’s a work of God. We understand what sort of instruction from us, the midwives, is calculated to lead to the reality of true and lasting, genuine and authentic conversion.

And now finally, question number three: What then is the path whereby folk come to faith, and how may we help them along that path stage by stage? I think I can best deal with this theme by raising some of the questions that are raised and giving you thumbnail sketch-type answers to them.

The Knowledge Needed

Question number one: How much knowledge of Bible truth do people need in order to be converted? The answer to that question, I think, must be given in two stages. First, it must be enough to make them certain through the Spirit’s convincing and convicting action that they need a new life that’s right with God, and that the only way to have such a life is to trust themselves absolutely to the mercy and direction of Jesus as living and personal Savior and Lord. We must try to give them adequate knowledge on all those points.

And second, it is a fact that as in human relational contexts, there’s constantly more cognitive awareness of things than people can verbalize, so we need not wonder at instances of genuine faith and repentance resulting from amazingly little, and we would say, quite inadequate knowledge. You see it, for instance, in the ministry of Jesus. People come to a real commitment to him, and it’s clear that they know amazingly little.

That doesn’t mean that we can allow ourselves, after all, to go easy on the basic instruction. The thrust of what I’m saying is that we need to teach people more than they are commonly taught in what we would call “evangelistic circles.? The fact that God in his sovereignty does sometimes bring people to real faith when they know far less than we are trying to teach them must be understood as the prerogative of his sovereignty and not treated as an incentive for us or a tip to us that we may warrantably lay off this labor of instruction and not bother to teach people as much as I’ve been saying that we should be trying to teach them.

But in fact, God is sovereign in conversion and just as there are folk who know it all, whom we can’t by any means we devise allure into the kingdom, so there are folk who come into the kingdom knowing amazingly little, and then a lot of the teaching has to be given afterwards. Really, they know more deep down than they can verbalize. That’s the truth. It’s in their heart even though it’s never gotten into words, so they seem to know less than they really know. But God is sovereign in this business, and we mustn’t let his sovereignty lead us astray, however, in forming our own ideals.

The Preparatory Work We Pursue

Here’s another question: What preparatory action, in terms of our teaching ministry, should we be trying to take in order to lead folk up to the point of conversion with God’s blessing assumed? One, we should preach and teach and explain about sin and try to bring them to contrition and humbling for sin. Contrition was the Puritan word. That’s why I’m using it. It’s the best word, I think, in our Christian vocabulary for the state of actually falling out of love with sin and coming to wish from your heart that you weren’t in it the way you have been.

That’s the first thing we have to do. The second thing we have to do is to show them the glory from all different aspects of the Christian life into which we’re trying to allure them. That’s the other side of it.

And thirdly, we need to challenge them to a willingness to be convinced, a willingness to change, and a willingness to be different according to the terms. Jesus himself effectively throws out the challenge in John 7:17. I’m sure you know the text, and you probably use it in your ministry to people. “If anyone is willing to do God’s will,” Jesus promises, “he will know of the doctrine, whether it comes from God or whether I speak of myself in a way that is not of God.” If you’re willing to find that the doctrine is of God, you will know.

That has been verbalized in some traditions of Christendom by saying that there are moral preconditions of conviction and certainty about the truth of the gospel, and I think we understand that from the other end. We’ve all tried to deal with people of whom it was necessary to say he won’t be convinced, and he’s resolved not to be. Pride prompts that sort of attitude. One of the things that we have to do as we counsel and teach people is to urge them to be willing to find that it’s true and to be changed accordingly, because there is the promise that if you’re willing to do God’s will, you will know, and what you will know is truth about the way of life.

Following on from that, this was one of the staple elements in 17th century Puritan counseling, and I think it would be a good thing if it came back into our evangelistic counseling. We should be urging people to ask God even when they’re not too sure about the reality of God, “God, if you’re there, open my heart, open my mind, convince me, change me.” We make so much of the thought that we are calling people to a decision that we hardly ever tell them that for the decision to be truly made, the Lord must help them to make it. It isn’t part of our counseling pattern, but it’s part of the truth of Scripture and I think it would be healthy to tell folks this.

Wait Upon the Lord

In 19th century Scotland, this was a major feature of the preaching at the time of the 1859 revival. You must wait on the Lord. You must come to Christ, and you can’t come to Christ. Ask the Lord to enable you to come to Christ and to bring you to Christ. This was also the way in which folk were counseled in the 18th century evangelical revival in England. John Wesley, the professed Arminian, wasn’t in the least Arminian at this point. He linked up with George Whitfield in the way that he counseled souls. He said, “Wait on the Lord. Cry to Christ to come to you and turn you to himself. Seek to give yourself to him until you know that you have given yourself to him. He will tell you. The witness of the Spirit in your heart will assure you.” And that was how folk found their way into the kingdom in that 18th-century situation.

Then, it seems, not all certainly, but most of the converts stuck. Now that we do it the other way around — following the pattern of procedure that was established by Finney and confirmed by Moody and has been the pattern of procedure in evangelistic missions ever since — we stress that it’s your decision. God is waiting for you to make that decision. That’s the sort of thing that only an Arminian should be found saying. It’s a sad thing if a Calvinist ever talks that language because it isn’t true, you see. We say that and we try to get them to make the decision, and you know perfectly well, as well as I do, what the statistics tell us. Over 90 percent of those who make the decisions are not in the churches one, two, three, and five years down the road. Now, they went through the motions, but well, whatever they did, they didn’t come into the reality of conversion.

I, for this reason, am very skeptical, as I told you earlier, about the long-term value of the production line counseling pattern, which is part of the evangelistic practice, which we are all of us familiar with. It can be saved from some of its worst excesses, but even so, I don’t think on balance that it’s gain for it to be there at all. And I would say to you, who pastor in congregations where you are preaching to the same people pretty much week by week, you have no need to devise this kind of device.

If people say, “What should I do?” tell them, “You are to focus your prayers on Jesus the Savior and go on asking him to show himself to you as your Savior and Lord until he does, and you are to wait on him in the means of grace, which means that week by week you come to church and you sit under the word with the prayer that the Lord will bless the word to you.” That’s the old way of doing it. It did produce sound conversions, so I commend it to you as a way which still is worth following. It is wisest actually to follow that today.

God’s Work and Our Responsibility

Well, I’ve made my points. I’ve overrun rather grievously, but I stop now. What have I said? I have said that conversion is God’s work and we are the midwives. I have said that the way we serve our God in the ministry of conversion is by faithfully delivering the whole counsel of God as it relates to conversion. I have said that it is for us to proclaim the word with a view to persuading people to respond to it in conversion. I have urged that in addition to proclaiming and persuading, we should urge people to pray and seek the Lord for themselves.

I would add as I close that I hope that in addition to laboring in evangelism ourselves, we are seeking to train our converted people in the same practice. It seems to me that this is an activity in which many members of every congregation ought to be specializing. And for all of us who engage in it, our hope is in the Holy Spirit. Our confidence is not in ourselves and our methods and our cleverness and our eloquence, nothing of that sort. Our confidence must be in the Lord.

And let me end, really end, by reading you these words from Paul as my last words to you. They’re well-known words. They come from 1 Corinthians 2:2–5:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Questions and Answers

Let’s have 20 minutes of dialogue about some of these things. I dare say I’ve been provocative and perhaps even unpleasantly provocative. No holds barred. Ask me any questions you wish. I’m fair game. Sir?

Could you take just a few minutes to give an assessment of some of the contemporary visitation-evangelism kind of programs?

I can’t give you a full-scale assessment of the visitation programs that are available today, which is what the questioner asks me to do. I can only say that there is one I know fairly well. That’s the EE program, Evangelism Explosion. In any church where I was on the pastoral staff, I would be happy with that program and would feel no need to look any further. Of course, no program is magic, that needs to be said, and one of the things that you have to tell lay folk who come to training classes over and over again is that people are people, and they can’t expect this technique of opening and pursuing conversation about Christ to act as magic.

God has blessed it much more in some places than in other places. How he blesses it in your congregation will depend entirely on factors beyond human control. It isn’t magic, it’s simply a tool, but I believe it to be a good tool. As you know, the person who put it all together was Jim Kennedy, working in those days with a man named Archie Parrish. Well, they, both of them, were five-point, Presbyterian Calvinists. And so you can't help but wonder that I’m happy with their work. But even if you don’t judge by those standards, I think you will still feel it’s a fine program and has been very widely used. So I recommend that one.

You said election need not be preached in evangelism. It’s a family secret, but I gather you don’t think perversity and moral inability and the need to know of Christ’s effectual call is a family secret. And my first question is about whether I’m interpreting you rightly that people need to be apprised of their inability along the way. It sounded like that, both from Nicodemus in John 3 as well as tonight.

But my second question, if I’m right there, is whether the sermons in the New Testament, which appear to be evangelistic, would warrant that, or whether we are inferring that from the wider doctrinal knowledge that we have from the New Testament. Theologically, I’m prone to think that people must believe Christ for the forgiveness of the perversity of sin in order to be saved. And yet I don’t find the New Testament preachers doing that. And especially when you say you should say to people, “Wait,” where is there a New Testament evangelistic sermon that says, “Wait and pray for the enablement to come”? They all say, “Come, believe, trust.” So are you saying that it’s the person who says at that moment, “I can’t, and I don’t feel like it,” then you say, “Pray”? Or does evangelism include from the outset this informing of inability and then telling them that before they come, they should cry for help?

I’ve been asked a number of questions by the minister of this church. He, of course, has the prerogative in this matter, and he can go on asking questions as long as he likes and none can say a nay. Question one, has he heard me right? Has he heard me right in saying that folk need to be told of their perversity in sin and their inability to come to Christ by their own unaided powers? I believe that should be said. It’s part of the message, and in my own ministry, I try to alert people to the fact that is where they are. So you did hear me right.

Second question, how is it then that the evangelistic sermons of the New Testament don’t highlight this theme? My answer, I think, is that the evangelistic sermons that are reported in the New Testament are all, as a matter of fact, in the Book of Acts. And the sermons, summarized as they are in the Book of Acts in two or three-minute units, took far longer to preach. They are summarized by Luke from the standpoint of his particular interest, which is the evangelizing of Jew and Gentile to form a single new world church.

So you have sample sermons preached to Jews, showing how the gospel was applied to Jews, and you have sample sermons preached to Gentiles, showing how the gospel was applied to Gentiles. But it wasn’t part of Luke’s concern to highlight in the preaching anything that was said about human perversity. And therefore, you can’t infer anything from the fact that he doesn’t dwell on that theme in his summaries. Whenever you’re summarizing a discourse that may have taken 30 or 60 minutes to give in two or three minutes and you have 200 or 300 words, you have to leave a good deal out. But I don’t think that the omission signifies anything on this point one way or the other.

Going, as John Piper also goes, to the theology of the New Testament, I with him am inclined to think that inasmuch as man’s condition in sin is analyzed in terms of ability, it must be necessary as part of honest communication of the gospel to explain this and to tell people that their plight is worse than they thought because they cannot heal themselves.

But then the final point, the last question was put, in effect, like this: What warrant does one find in the New Testament for telling people to pray and wait for Christ before they come to him? And that actually represents a mishearing of what I was trying to say, though I dare say that I didn’t speak clearly enough to make that plain. Coming to Christ begins, as I would expound it, with looking in his direction and saying, “Lord, have mercy on me.” It begins with saying, “Lord, have mercy on me and change my heart.” It begins with saying, “Lord, I’m in terrible trouble. I need your grace,” and starting with Christ from there. So that’s what I’m talking about when I speak of waiting on the Lord, or crying for him to show some token of his love and his acceptance, and to give some assurance of his forgiveness. That’s all part of what’s involved in coming to Christ. That’s how I would expound, “Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28).

Again, we’ve been influenced by the conventions of modern evangelistic procedure. We have been encouraged to conceive the meaning of coming to Christ in terms of Christ waiting for our approach and our making the approach as if we had power to do it. It’s just been put to us that way. But it isn’t true. He’s the one who moves. He’s the one who comes to us. Our coming to him is a matter of drawing near in the sense of desiring his presence and fellowship. But he comes and takes us into fellowship with himself. And in the reality of spiritual experience, adults who are converted at age, if they give their testimony, and if they’re asked at least about this point and speak, they will say, “The Lord approached me. The Lord addressed me. I knew he was speaking to me. He had come to me. The hound of heaven was after me.”

C.S. Lewis has a memorable phrase to express how that became a reality in his life when he was being drawn back to the first genuine entry into the form of religion that he’d had in his teens, but which had never been more than skin deep. He comments rather caustically on the way that some people talk about this stage of coming up to conversion as man’s search for God.

(1926–2020) was an English-born Canadian evangelical theologian and writer in the low-church Anglican and Calvinist traditions. He is remembered for the book Knowing God, written in 1973, as well as his work as an editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He was a member on the advisory board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and his last teaching position was as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.