By Grace Through Faith: The Source of Saving Faith

Desiring God 1988 Conference for Pastors

By Grace Through Faith

I would like to thank you for the welcome, which John Piper gave me in your name. He was absolutely right when he said that I’m here because I am concerned about the state of the church and I am here because I know no greater privilege in any of the things that I do in the course of my ministry than seeking, in one way or another, to encourage pastors. I think of myself as a pastor. I tell folk when they ask me that I’ve had a double calling from the Lord. First I was called to be a Christian and then I was called to be a pastor. And such teaching as I’ve done in various places, and such writing as has come out of that, I see as specific ways of fulfilling my pastoral ministry.

So when I have the opportunity of ministering to pastors, I feel that I’m coming home. And I rejoice in this opportunity of fellowship with you folk here in this conference, and it’s going to be my joy to share with you on the subjects which you’ve set me and it was that way round. I am speaking on what I was asked to speak about and tonight’s topic, as you know, is the source of faith. And without more ado, I would like to lead you into it.

The Source of Faith

This is going to be a topical address. A good deal of Scripture will come into it, but it isn’t strictly a sermon. By sermon, I understand the taking of a text and seeking to make it talk and deliver its own message through you, its agent. I’m not quite doing that, but I do want to put what I’m going to say to you under the authority of the written Word, and therefore, I would like to read Scripture to you before I begin to speak on my own account. So turn with me if you will, to the passage from which the overall title of our conference comes. This is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I’m going to read Ephesians 2:1–10:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:1–10, all Scripture references from the NIV).

That’s a marvelous statement of the truth about the saving grace of God. May it be blessed to our hearts. May it bring joy to us, encouragement, and may God give us insight into the implications of all that Paul is saying here.

Keywords in the New Testament

My title is The Source of Faith and that title takes us right back to basics. Faith is a New Testament keyword, just as grace is a New Testament keyword. The New Testament is developing a vocabulary of what we would call “technical terms,” in order to deal with the things that are really central to the gospel. Grace and faith are two of the words which have been picked up from the Greek language, given a quite new sense of significance, defined in a very precise way, and used as technical terms by the New Testament writers.

Faith is a very vital term because it points to the salvation of sinners, bad and guilty people, for whom God prepared a salvation, which faith lays hold off. Grace also is a vital term, for there would be no laying hold of this salvation apart from grace. Just as without grace there would have been no salvation won on the cross, so without grace there would be no salvation seen, trusted, and received. That, we’re going to see tonight before we’re through. So were it not for grace and faith, there simply would not be any Christians. You and I would not be believers tonight and neither would anyone else.

It’s important then that we understand grace and faith. Otherwise, we hardly know who or what we are, and certainly as pastors we are scarcely qualified to preach the gospel and minister to others. We pastors, as surely we all of us have found over and over again in our own experience, are constantly being exposed to the temptation to preach and teach not grace and faith, God saving sinners, but religion, sinners working to save themselves. We are tempted, in other words, to lapse from preaching the gospel to the kind of preaching which marked the ministry of John Wesley for nearly 20 years before he came to understand the gospel. He preached religion and eventually a Moravian friend told him, in words which deserve memorizing, “Preach faith, until you have it and when you have it, then you will certainly preach it.”

Well he took that advice and he was preaching faith as best he could, before he came into the assurance of faith himself. And then for 50 more years of magnificent ministry, he preached faith up and down the length and breadth of Britain, as you know, and was marvelously used by God in doing it. As we are constantly tempted to fall back into preaching religion, so our people who listen to us are constantly tempted to mishear what we say as if we were preaching religion. The natural man turns the message of grace and faith into a message for his own heart about religion, and we tell him to believe and he goes off and tries to do. He doesn’t get the message. It takes, as I shall be saying over and over before I’m through, the power of the Holy Spirit illuminating to teach folk as the hymn says, “to cast their deadly doing down” and enter into God’s salvation by grace through faith.

The Old Problem of Pharisaism

And this is of course no new problem. It was the problem when Jesus himself was preaching the gospel in Palestine and he pinpointed it on one occasion when he said to the Pharisees that the tax collectors and the street women go into the kingdom before you do. Why is that? Because you Pharisees are engaged in religion. And you’re so concerned with doing things to commend yourself to God, so concerned to work for your salvation and to practice religion, that you never stop to face the depth of your own real spiritual need, nor the inadequacy of the things that you’re doing. So the things that Jesus was preaching could not get through to those Pharisees.

You see, no one enters into the reality of salvation, by grace through faith, until they know themselves as lost sinners. And the Pharisees did not know themselves as lost sinners and nothing that Jesus could say to them, whether he spoke gently as he did sometimes, or whether he spoke cutting as he did at other times, would get through to them at that point. And in our congregations, there are folk who present us with equal difficulty of communication. We cannot get through to them about their lostness, so we cannot get through to them with the message of grace and faith. We, ourselves, I trust, can say and indeed sing from the heart with John Newton, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

And I trust we all of us would be found giving our testimony very much in those words. I was a lost sinner and Jesus found me. I was converted at age 18, but I had two years of thoroughgoing Pharisaism before the Lord showed me that I was a lost sinner, and it may be that some of you had a similar experience. You don’t know that you are a sinner until you have faced God’s holiness. And it’s only God himself who will bring you to the point of facing his holiness. We are back where we were five minutes ago. It’s through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, through the ministry of the Lord himself in human lives that conversions result, that people come out of darkness into light, and that folk are saved by grace through faith.

And as I speak tonight, quite specifically about faith as I’ve been asked to do, I shall try not to forget that and I shall try to make the connection at every point where the connection needs to be made. And perhaps you will feel when I finished my message that it was more a message about the Holy Spirit than it was about faith. I don’t mind if that’s the conclusion you come to, because really that’s my strategy, it has to be. That’s how the Bible forces you to square up to a subject like this.

Faith is not a human work. Faith is not an ingredient in man-made religion. Faith is a gift of God. Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives. And everything that I say, if it’s said right, must underline that. And if I say anything, which sounds as if I’ve forgotten that, well I tell you now I shall be speaking wrongly and you must forget my mistakes, all right?

Grace is Christ

Now tomorrow morning I should be talking in detail about the analysis of what faith is. And tonight I shall only give you a provisional definition, just a few phrases which I throw at you without very much explanation. But we must have a provisional definition, otherwise we won’t be able to get into our subject with any clarity at all. So let me say faith is a conscious response to grace. And here let me say, just as Christianity is Christ, so grace in the final analysis, is Christ. Oh, I know that grace is more than Christ, but grace focuses on Christ and the grace which evokes faith is Christ most precisely, most specificum.

Just think of John chapter 20. It was the first Easter Sunday evening. There the disciples huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. The Jews had recently disposed of their master, and now the disciples were terrified that the Jews would be after them. They were men in a state of inner panic, men without any hope or prospects, men who could think of nothing better to do with the rest of their lives than to keep out of sight. They were men then in need in their immediate situation, and men who were carrying with them, quite certainly, a deep sense of guilt because of the way in which they’d all undertaken to stand by their master whatever happened. And then, having given that undertaking, they had all of them forsaken him and fled. And Peter in particular had denied him in the most spectacular way as we know.

Well through the locked doors comes Jesus. He “stood in the midst” (John 20:21) says the text. He said to them, not words of recrimination, not words of censure, but words of mercy. “Peace be with you,” he said. And though of course we know in other contexts this was a casual way of greeting someone whom you knew as our wave of the hand and saying, “Hi,” is at this present time.

On Jesus’s lips, at that time, those words were very, very far from being a casual greeting. John points it out by the next detail in his story when he said this, John says, “He showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:20), not I think for purposes of identification, because they knew already who he was, but to remind them of what he had suffered in winning for them peace with God, the peace of forgiveness, the peace of acceptance, the peace of knowing that God’s hand is on you, and the peace of knowing then that you can face the future boldly because the Lord is with you. Jesus is showing them what he had suffered, reminding them of what he had suffered to win for them that peace which he was now bringing them. And when he said, “Peace be with you,” that was his word of blessing as he brought them the peace that he died to secure on their behalf. And that’s grace.

Who Is a Pardoning God Like Thee?

My one sentence definition of grace these days is Jesus coming into human lives, into lives that are hurting and lives that are scared and lives that are guilty and lives that are lost, to bring peace. And faith is a response to precisely that grace, the living Lord who comes offering peace. John, in that same chapter of his Gospel, tells how Thomas who wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared, was actually in mercy given a repeat experience of that meeting between Jesus and the disciples a week later. And John narrates how the effect of this was to bring Thomas to faith and he said, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), and I guess that he was on his knees as he said it. And that was faith. Faith is a response to grace.

In wonder lost, with trembling joy We take the pardon of our God; Pardon for crimes of deepest dye, A pardon bought with Jesu’s blood: Who is a pardoning God like thee? Or who has grace so rich and free?

That’s the precious verse of Samuel Davis’s hymn, which for some reason I can’t conceive was left out in the version that we sang just now. Those words shouldn’t really have been left out brothers now, should they? But there it is, I’ve filled them in now. And that’s the grace to which faith is a response.

So faith involves recognition of one’s need and of Christ’s mercy extended to meet that need. Faith involves realization that the Lord is personally addressing you. Faith involves your response of relying on Jesus Christ, his person to be your mediator, his work to secure your peace — peace with God for time and for eternity. Faith means what the acronym that we teach at the Sunday School says — F.A.I.T.H., which means “forsaking all I take him.” And faith then becomes the root from which springs the fruit of heartfelt worship and wholehearted obedience. Let that do as a definition of faith for the time being, that I think is sufficient to make vivid to our minds what it is that we’re talking about.

More than a Decision

I have been asked to explore with you the source of faith, and this I now move into. Someone says, “I don’t know what the problem is. Why should you prepare to spend two thirds of a whole address talking about the source of faith? Isn’t it obvious? Faith comes from the heart. Faith is an act of the will. Faith is a human decision. What more needs to be said?”

Well of course that’s true as far as it goes, but there is something more that needs to be said. There is more to faith and the source of faith than just saying that. Because one has to raise the further question, how does it happen? How does it come about that a person from the heart makes this decision and commitment? I appeal to you as converted persons. What does your heart say to you in answer to that question? If your heart says, “Well, there came a day when I thought it would be a good idea to take the Jesus trip, so I took it,” I would seriously wonder whether you were a real believer at all. I think there are a lot of people in our churches who couldn’t say more than that.

But then I think we do well to wonder whether they’re Christians because the heart of a truly converted, truly regenerate, truly born again person does not speak in those terms at all. What a truly converted heart says — I don’t think any of you are going to contradict it — is, “Thank you Lord for saving my soul.” Who did it? “Lord, you did it. I didn’t do it. I made a decision, sure. I made a commitment, that’s true. I moved out of sin into a new life, but that was because you moved me. It was grace that brought forth faith.” That I believe is the spontaneous testimony of every Christian heart.

The Human Problem

Now let’s dig into this and try to understand it properly. Let me spend a little time speaking to the human problem — the problem, I mean, of the human heart — as it’s presented to us, first by the Lord Jesus himself, and then by the Apostle Paul. It’s the problem which theologians have sometimes labeled with the word “inability,” the problem of our being morally and spiritually unable as we are to receive and respond to the gospel message. You could call it in a term which other theologians have used in this century, perversity, because it isn’t a physical inability. A physical inability is not something for which a person can be held guilty.

The fact that I can’t jump six feet into the air in the way that some athletes can, is not a morally reprehensible thing, at least I don’t think so and I hope that you don’t think so either. But this is not a physical inability, it’s a moral inability. That’s why perversity is actually a better name for it, I think. It’s a perversity that we indulge.

It’s an inability which we cherish. It’s an unwillingness to turn to God, which is very much part of us. That’s our fallenness, but it is also a part of ourselves which we cherish and which we like, or putting it in other terms still, we don’t want to turn to God and that’s why we don’t. That’s the natural state of fallen men, set in the mold, spiritually speaking, of the first sin of Adam, our first father, from whom this twist of our spiritual nature is inherited, in the final analysis.

The New Testament has different ways of expressing the thought that we haven’t got it in us by nature to respond positively to the call of God, neither to his law nor to his gospel. The New Testament talks, as we shall see in a minute, about our being blind and about our being dead. Those are two pictures of incomprehension and unresponsiveness, but see this first, as Jesus states it.

Nicodemus Comes by Night

I turn you for a moment to John 3 and the beginning of Jesus’s famous conversation with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. You remember how it went? “By night,” says John, and I’m sure he had a little grin on his face as he wrote those words because, of course, this is a perfect example of the double meaning that John likes to put into his phrases. It was by night literally, in the sense that the sun had gone down and the streets were dark. It was also night spiritually, and John wants us to understand that it was night in that second sense, as well as in the first sense.

Nicodemus came in spiritual darkness, but he came as a senior man. He is a Pharisee. He’s a ruler of the Jews, that is, a member of the Sanhedrin. He probably is twice the age of this young preacher from the country, Jesus. So naturally, as the older man, he expects to open the conversation, and in fact he does. He says, “Rabbi,” now that’s honorific. He’s being very polite and affirmative towards Jesus. “Rabbi, teacher,” he says to him, “We know . . .” Who’s the we? Well, it’s Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisaic theologians, the members of the Jerusalem Theological Society, as we might call them. He says, “We know that you are a teacher who’s come from God. We know that because no one could perform the miracles, the miraculous signs you are doing, if God were not with him.

It’s Nicodemus saying to Jesus, “Of course, being here in the big city, having just come up from the country you are wondering what we think about you. You are feeling a bit uncertain of yourself. You are feeling a bit of an outsider.” “I want you to know,” says Nicodemus, “That we would love to have you as a member of the Jerusalem Theological Society. I’ve come on behalf of my friends and colleagues to invite you in. Please come to our meetings and share your views with ours,” and he thinks that he’s paying Jesus a great compliment.

What he’s actually doing, of course, as you can see, is patronizing the Son of God, and in light of that fact, you can’t wonder that Jesus’s response to him isn’t a grateful appreciation of Nicodemus’s courteous words, but an utterance which strikes a completely new note and knocks Nicodemus off balance. He doesn’t know what to make of it.

The young man, who he’s just called, “Rabbi,” looks at him and instead of, as I said, the sort of response that Nicodemus expected, he simply says, “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he’s born again” (John 3:3). Nicodemus, as I said, is thrown. He doesn’t understand. He stumbles and he fumbles. “How can a man be born again when he’s old?” Nicodemus asks, “Surely he can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?” (John 3:4). Probably the words, “when he’s old,” are Nicodemus talking about Nicodemus. I’m supposing that as Jesus was about 30, so Nicodemus was about 60.

“I’m an old man,” he says, “What do you mean? Are you asking me to enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born? Sorry, Rabbi, I have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about?” And perhaps he frowned a little, feeling that Jesus’s words had been very much less than courteous.

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes

Jesus’s response is to repeat in fuller form what he said already:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:5–8).

In relation to folk who are not yet born of the Spirit, everyone who is born of the Spirit is mysterious, inexplicable. You know that something is going on in their lives, but you can’t understand it because you yourself are outside it. Jesus is saying, “Just as when the wind blows, you can see plenty of evidence that it’s blowing. You see the branches fallen under the trees, you see the leaves whirling around in the streets, but you don’t know where the wind’s come from. You can’t tell where it’s going. The wind is beyond your understanding, and so it is with born again Christians.”

Well, you can see what he’s doing. He’s confronting Nicodemus with the reality of what we called a moment ago, human inability. He’s saying no one can see the kingdom of God, no one can enter the kingdom of God, without being born again.

Water and the Spirit

When He speaks of being born of water and the Spirit, by the way, let me tell you what I think those words mean. I am persuaded that all exegesis which opposes the water to the Spirit are on the wrong track. Here’s a point of Greek grammar which is actually weighty. If you know Greek, you’ll pick it up straight away. The article would’ve needed to be repeated, if it was one birth of water and another birth of the Spirit. The article before would’ve needed to be repeated before the second noun and it isn’t. So I think that what is happening here, is most certainly that Jesus is talking about a single renewing bud, which has two sides to it, one pictured by water, the other pictured by the Spirit.

I am confirmed in thinking that, by the fact that very shortly Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not understanding. He says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you don’t understand these things?” (John 3:10). What that means surely is that Nicodemus, as an Old Testament scholar, a teacher of Israel in the law of God, should have understood it because it’s there in the Old Testament all the time.

So one looks into the Old Testament, and indeed it is there. It’s there in Ezekiel 36:25–27, where God is predicting what he will do in the day when he sets up his kingdom among his people. He makes the prediction through Ezekiel in these terms. Ezekiel 36:25–27 says:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

That’s water and Spirit. That I think is what lies behind Jesus’ phrase, and he expected Nicodemus to be able to pick it up, and it was to Nicodemus’s shame that as an Old Testament student he couldn’t pick it up.

Well, we mustn’t take it further. Suffice it to say that here, as clearly as can be, you have Jesus pointing to inability. There is inability to enter the kingdom of God, which is the realm of salvation, the new relationship with God, which means life. It’s the relation of faith and submission to God, faith and repentance as we would call it. Then you are under God as your king. That means you’re in the kingdom, and that’s eternal life.

But Jesus says, “No one sees the kingdom, no one perceives it intellectually, and certainly no one enters the kingdom by taking the action that brings you in without being born again. God has to renew a person inwardly if ever they’re to see and enter the kingdom of God.” So says Jesus in John 3.

The Bread of Life

Now turn to John 6, where you have parallel teachings given. This time it’s the hungry crowd, the 5,000, or a good section of the 5,000, whom Jesus had fed miraculously the day before. Now they followed him across the lake, and they are asking him in that roundabout way, which is characteristic of the East, to give them some more free meals. And that’s the point of John 6:30–31, when they say, “What miraculous sign will you give us that we may see and believe you, what will you do? Our forefathers ate manna in the desert, as it’s written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” They are dropping a very broad hint, you see, that they want some more free food, and Jesus has just said something to them in answer to their question.

In John 6:26, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the meal I gave you as a sign of who I am, and of the spiritual life that I bring. You are with me because you ate the loaves and had your fill, and I know your hearts, and now you want some more.” And he says in John 6:27, “Don’t work for food that spoils, work for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

They string along with what he said. In John 6:28, they ask, “What must we do then, to do the works God requires?” Jesus says, “The work of God is this: believe in the one whom he sent” (John 6:29). Hence this reaction. They don’t want to pick up on that. They want to go back, and they do go back to their original thought: “Please give us another free meal” (John 6:30–31). In John 6:32–33, Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

He’s trying, as you can see, to make them focus on himself and put their faith in him, but they aren’t getting the message. “Sir,” they say, “From now on, give us this bread” (John 6:34). Then John gives us a flow of utterance from the Lord Jesus. I think there are some gaps in it, which I shall fill as I read it. I don’t think that I’m twisting the sense. I think I’m bringing it out. Follow through with me, and come to your own opinion about it:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).

He looks at their faces, and they’re still rather glum. This isn’t what they’ve come for. So he says to them:

But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe (John 6:36).

All Those the Father Gives

Then there is another pause. And now he says something which is both information for them, and encouragement, I think, to himself. It’s what he wants to say in order to remind himself of the purpose of God for which he came, and which is certainly going to be fulfilled. He says:

All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37).

That’s a word of marvelous encouragement for folk who are laboring, as they seek to find their way to Christ and his cross. And then he says:

For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day (John 6:38–39).

The Jews hear him say these things, and they begin to grumble (John 6:41). They grumble about him because he said, “I’m the bread that came down from heaven.” They grumble first, because he isn’t giving them the further free meal that they’d hoped for, but they’re grumbling now because he’s saying things that they don’t understand, and instead of realizing that the fault is in them, they grumble at Jesus for saying something which still leaves them puzzled, as if it was an insult to them for him to do that. And they say, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, ’I came down from heaven?” (John 6:42). He’s being offensive, and they’re offended. That’s as far as they get in response to Jesus’s words.

A New Inward Influence

And now, I’ve run through all this, so that you’ll see the real force of what is said in the next two verses, where Jesus responds to their grumbling. “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered, “No one can come to me (there’s inability again) unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:43–44). Then he says, “​​It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me” (John 6:45).

Do you see what’s happening? Once again, Jesus is testifying to the need of a new inward influence, a new inward transformation, which he describes as the Father drawing. Otherwise he says, “No one will come to me. No one will come into the kingdom. No one will see the kingdom. No one will enter it, because faith in Christ is the way in.” It’s a statement parallel to the statement Jesus made to Nicodemus. Well, that’s Jesus and his testimony to human inability is as clear as could be, is it not?

Paul and Human Inability

Now, let me back that up quickly with Paul, who also bears the same testimony to the natural state of the human race. Here we are in Romans 8, where first of all, you meet the “cannot” in Romans 8:6–8, where Paul is talking about the natural state of the one whom the King James Version, at any rate, called the “natural man.” He says:

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

There’s the “cannot.” It’s plain, clear, emphatic, and unambiguous. Until we are renewed, renewed by God working in our hearts, we cannot respond positively to anything God says to us. We cannot respond to his law and obedience. The law says love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. We can’t do that. We can’t even from our hearts want to do it. The gospel says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you’ll be saved,” and equally, those who are in the grip of sin cannot do that either.

Inability is the only word that fits. It’s a perverse inability, but it’s a real inability, and it’s not something we can change. It’s a guilty inability, because our heart is in our rejection of God and his way, but it’s no less real an inability for that. Well, that’s Paul saying we cannot do what God calls us to do. But then Paul has the answer to that and in fact, it’s in this same eighth chapter, and we read it as our responsive reading this evening. Just glance on, glance on to Romans 8:29–30, and let me show you one point about them. He says:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified . . .

That link shows that when Paul says, “he called,” what he means is not simply that he caused them to hear the invitation of the gospel with their outward ears, but he also caused them to respond to it. He changed their hearts in such a way that they received the invitation, they trusted the Savior, and they came to faith. They saw, they entered the kingdom, and they came to Christ.

How do I know that? Well, because of the logic. He says, “Those he called, he also justified . . .” Paul in the first half of the letter has beaten the drum about God justifying sinners through faith, and justifying nobody apart from faith. Those whom he called, all of them he justified. He called then means that he brought them to faith. And that actually is how Paul uses the verb call regularly in his letters. Five minutes with a concordance will convince you of that if you haven’t already seen it.

The Natural Man

Another example may be found in 1 Corinthians 1–2 give you the same conjunction of thoughts. As in Romans 8, we read that God overcame human inability by calling, so we do in these chapters also. In relation to inability, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Whenever you meet that word “spiritually” in the New Testament, the reference is to the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t mean the human spirit, as distinct from the human hands and feet. It has reference to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as distinct from anything that we can do when left to ourselves. And here is Paul saying that, “The man without the Spirit cannot understand the things of the Spirit, cannot understand the gospel, cannot understand the grace of God holding before us the hope of glory and working to bring us to that glory. No, these things are spiritually discerned. If the unregenerate man is confronted by testimony to those things, he just gets bored and scoffs and walks away. He thinks they are pie in the sky and nonsense.” So here is Paul once again testifying to human inability, intellectual inability. Romans 8 was an inability to do, and this is inability to know.

The Only Remedy to Human Inability

But now you look back to 1 Corinthians 1:26–28, and you see Paul talking about the calling which overcomes human inability as it had worked out in the case of the Corinthian believers. He says:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong . . .

Think of your calling, brothers. It was through God’s calling that you came to understand the gospel and your need of it. It was through God’s calling that you came to actual response, actual faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior. And how did it come about? Well, it came about because God changed your heart. That’s how. So this is how the human problem of inability through sin is overcome by the grace of God. An inward work of renewal takes place, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, and out of that comes seeing, where previously there was no understanding, and entry, where previously there was no movement of response at all. Folk come into the kingdom by coming into a personal relation with the living Lord Jesus.

The Divine Procedure

That leads us to the second thing of which I’m to speak and of which indeed I’ve been speaking. And that’s a good thing because my time is nearly gone. Some of the material from the second section got into the first section just because the exposition took me that way.

But heading number two is the divine procedure, again, according to Jesus and Paul. Here I just want to add one thing to what I’ve said already, namely that we should understand that it’s through the action of the Holy Spirit, that the Father and the Son work to renew the human heart, to bring about what theologians call regeneration and to lead unbelievers into the reality of what the Bible itself calls new birth.

It’s a two-level work of God. There’s the illuminating of the mind to understand, and there’s the deeper level work that is the changing of the disposition of the heart, so that one comes to love what previously one disliked and to dislike what previously one loved. Previously, one loved the self-centered way of living and chose it. Now one falls out of love with the self-centered way of living. And what one wants to do is to choose Christ, choose God, choose life, choose worship, choose service, choose heaven, and choose to glorify God and enjoy him forever as the whole of one’s destiny henceforth.

It’s as much a choice when one chooses not to as it's a choice when one chooses to. But when the heart is changed, you see it’s a different choice that’s now being made. It’s not a meritorious work, the Christian knows that. The Scripture teaches the Christian that, “I did it, but I only did it because the Lord worked it in me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And the Reformers expressed that, as I guess we all know, by their image of the empty hand outstretched to receive. And they talked about faith not as the meritorious cause of salvation, but the instrumental cause of salvation, simply the means of receiving.

By working at these two levels, the level of giving understanding and the level of changing the heart in such a way as to produce a new choice, God the Holy Spirit, as the agent of the Father of the Son, calls sinners to faith. Thus, God draws men and women to Christ. Thus, it comes about that sinners are born again and enter the kingdom.

The Plenteous Testimony of Scripture

Oh, there are plenty of other testimonies to it in the New Testament besides the ones that we’ve referred to, but here’s just two or three more for samples. Paul =, in 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14, says:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel . . .

There it is. You see there’s the sequence. He’s talking to “brothers loved by the Lord,” as he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. The expression of the Lord’s love is that he chose these folk for salvation to be saved through the work of the Spirit, sanctifying them, and through the belief of the truth to which he called them through the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13–14). He says this was that they would share “in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). That’s the plan of salvation. It’s the same plan of salvation as in Romans 8:28–30. The testimony surely is very clear indeed.

Or take Acts 16:14, where Luke is talking about the conversion of Lydia and he simply says, “The Lord opened her heart.” It’s an aorist tense. It’s a decisive divine action to which Luke is referring. It says, “He opened her heart so that she attended to the things spoken by Paul.” Or as the NIV expresses it, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” It was God’s work. He moved her, and so she moved into faith.”

In the New Testament, it is made very plain that there are no spiritual responses without the new birth, and there is no new birth without spiritual response of the kind that you see in Lydia. We’ve already seen that there are no spiritual responses without new birth, and I need not say any more about that.

A Necessary Spiritual Response

But let me confirm the other side of the statement, the complimentary statement that there’s no new birth without spiritual responses from things that are said in 1 John. You remember the apostle is writing to a rump church. Folk have withdrawn and are saying, “You lot who won’t go a step beyond what the apostles taught you, are very much in spiritual twilight. We are the people who’ve got the real understanding. We see things much more clearly than you do. We are tired of your stick-in-the-mud conservatism. We are moving on.” And they’ve gone. And the rump church is wondering whether those who left were in the right and whether those who remained were in the wrong.

John writes to them to assure them that they are the people who are in the right and that staying with the apostolic gospel was the proper thing for them to have done. And they are in fact, says John, the ones who are born again. And the folk who’ve gone out for them are not people who’ve been born again. And their claim to be “men of faith” and “of the Spirit” and to know God is a phony claim. And the proof of it is in their lives. So as part of his argument to reassure the true believers who are still faithful to the apostolic message and to show them what to think about the people who left them, John says things like this:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God . . . (1 John 5:1).

And again, he says:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning (as a course of life), because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister (1 John 3:9–10).

Now, love is one of the signs of new birth too, as he says in 1 John 4:7–8:

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God . . .

Every New Birth Shows a New Life

Well, we haven’t time to dwell on this. I only want to say that though, as a Reformed theologian, I would like to defend everything that my brother Reformed theologians have said, I cannot defend the idea which some Dutch Reformed and Dutch-type Reformed theologians embrace, namely, that there is such a thing as regeneration in infancy which doesn’t show itself until years after. A little reflection on the teaching of 1 John would show, I think, that is not a biblical way to think.

Now, don’t suppose that by saying this, I am telling you that I’m preparing to become a Baptist. That’s another question altogether. But I am saying that I’m much embarrassed that some of my paedobaptist friends embrace this doctrine of latent infant regeneration of which there isn’t a word in Scripture, and which it seems to me 1 John plucks up at the roots. We have no right to suppose that anyone is born again unless the signs of a changed life in faith, in love, and in the righteousness which sets its face against habits of sin, are apparent in that person’s life.

The thought is that we should be quite clear that if a person is born again, a person is regenerate, that person will show it by believing the apostolic faith (1 John 5:1), and loving his brothers and the Lord’s family (1 John 4:7); and practicing righteousness (1 John 3:10 and 1 John 2:29); and setting his face against any and every habit of continuing sin, which would destroy the pattern of righteousness (1 John 3:9), as he says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.”

That present tense, by the way, is correctly translated here by the NIV as pointing to continuance. Our English present tense doesn’t do that in the clear way that the Greek present tense did. It’s not “he that is born of God will never sin even once.” It’s rather that he who was born of God will not continue in the way of sin as he did before. It’s the same thought as Roman 6:1–2, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer is, “God forbid, you can’t do it. How should we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?” Your nature has been changed. If you’ve really been born again, you can’t continue in sin as you did before. Your heart revolts against the very idea. And if your heart doesn’t revolt against the idea, that of course suggests that you are a phony. And there are pastoral implications in that which we can’t pursue now.

Like Newborn Infants

The born again person, like a newborn infant — this is following through the image of birth — will cry, that is to say, will pray. We shall cry to God as our heavenly Father and we shall want to pour out our hearts to him. And that will be the first sign that we’re born again. The newborn Christian infant then will cry. The newborn baby Christian, like any other newborn baby, will feed and will feel a hunger for the Word of God, and will love to take it in and masticate it and digest it and make it part of themselves. Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Well, he’s saying that to call into consciousness a desire which he knows is already in them as those who are born again. But sometimes it’s advisable to call desires, which you know are there, into active expression by saying something about them.

It is natural, however, to the born again child of God to feed and to want to feed on the Word. It’s natural for the newborn child to move. The limbs move, the child wriggles, and he soon rolls, crawls, and eventually walks. So, too, the newborn child of God will naturally and spontaneously want to move for God and do things for God. And again, it’s a very bad sign that suggests phoniness if that desire isn’t apparent and the new pattern of activity for God isn’t seen as establishing itself in that person’s life.

And finally, the newborn child in the human family will rest in mother’s arms, and the newborn child of God will rest in his or her Father’s love whatever the pressures that are on from outside, so that you will see in the life of that person that inward peace which remains even when the pressure is on and the strain is great. So those are the signs that a person is really born again. I garbled them a little because I’m running over time now and I must close in a couple of minutes.

But this is what I wanted to say about the divine procedure of bringing folk into new life through a change of heart, which produces faith and faith that expresses itself in this new way of living. You may want to cry out at this point, “What about repentance?” I’ll talk about repentance tomorrow, friends, but I don’t intend to raise the subject tonight.

Evangelistic Practice

Thirdly and very quickly, here is my last heading. We’ve looked at the human problem in this matter of coming to faith. We’ve looked at the divine procedure as by which God brings us to faith. Now, let’s look at evangelistic practice. Again, this is according to Jesus and Paul specifically. They are the model for all Christian communicators amongst whom you and I are also numbered. Learn from them how to communicate the gospel in light of their understanding of how it is that people come to faith.

The formula is very simple. One, instruct; two, invite; and three, intercede. In Mark 1:14–15, Jesus came preaching the gospel, giving instruction:

The time has come and the kingdom of God has come near.

That’s gospel proclamation. Paul gave instruction. He speaks of that explicitly in Colossians 1:28. I’m sure you know the words. He’s very fulsome and comprehensive in the way that he puts it:

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

He says, “We admonish and teach everyone with all wisdom.” That’s instruction. Instruct was my first word, and invite was the second word. Jesus invited. Having said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), the verse ends by telling us that Jesus said, “Repent and believe the gospel.” That’s an invitation. Matthew 11 also ends with invitation. He says, “Come to me, you who labor under heavy laden and I’ll give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). That was his word to the world then, and that’s his word to the world still.

Paul also was a man who, having given instruction, moved to invitation. And evidently from the way he talks about it, it was a most passionate and emphatic invitation. He says, “Knowing therefore what the fear of the Lord means, we try to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). He says, “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19), and further, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). That’s an invitation. There’s nothing in what I’ve said to discourage the giving of gospel invitations. There is everything to encourage the giving of such invitations, for it’s through the giving of such invitations that God works in men’s hearts. So you instruct and you invite and you intercede.

Backing the Word with Prayer

If it were not for the grace of God, there would be no Christian in the world, not now, not ever. And Jesus and the apostles knew that. And therefore, they’re insistent that the word be backed with prayer. Jesus prayed, as we know. And Paul prayed and begged others to pray with him. And do you remember how he expressed it in 2 Thessalonians 3:1? He says, “As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.” Oh, what a jejune translation that is.

What the Greek says is “that the word of the Lord may run.” That’s vivid now. He prays that the word of the Lord may run and triumph, just as it did among the Thessalonians, where Paul ministered for less than three weeks and he saw the fruit and was able to leave a church behind him. He is saying, “Pray that the word will run and triumph in other places as it did among you.” Back the Word with prayer.

This I think is the point where many of us fall down. I put it to you that unless we talk to God about men (in prayer) just as earnestly as we talk to men about God (when we are preaching), we are not really understanding nor fulfilling our proper role as a minister of the gospel. See, we can’t convert anybody. We can’t change hearts. Only the Lord can do it. It’s to the Lord, therefore, that we must look to do it. If we preach and don’t pray, well then it looks for all the world as if our own deepest thought is that when folk come to faith, it’ll be our eloquence, and our ability to teach and expound and convince that has produced the results. It will look, in other words, as if we are expecting that the glory for their conversion should go to us. We cannot expect God to honor us if that’s the way we behave.

So let us, now that we understand these things, make conscience of earnest prayer alongside our earnest preaching. And that will show that we’ve learned the lesson which Scripture teaches us for our guidance in the ministry concerning the source of faith.

Questions and Answers

Where do regeneration and conversion come into Romans 8:30, where Paul says, “Those whom he called, he justified”?

Well, regeneration and conversion are all contained in the single verb called. That’s the answer. And that’s why in that 17th century document, which is part of my Anglican heritage, namely, the Westminster Confession) — though you as Baptists, of course, may not be very interested in it — doesn’t have a chapter on regeneration. But it’s a superb statement of faith. It was produced by Anglicans and it’s been claimed by Presbyterians. But as an Anglican, I’m claiming it back, you see. In the Westminster Confession, there isn’t a chapter on conversion and there isn’t a chapter on regeneration, but it’s all expressed in the chapter on effectual calling. By a happy accident — or was it an accident? — I brought the Westminster Confession with me, just in case.

And would like to read you the first paragraph of Chapter 10 “Of Effectual Calling.” It says:

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ: enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so (in such a way) as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

See, it’s all there. As far as the precise definition of terms is concerned, conversion means turning to God. I haven’t talked yet about repentance, which I hope to do tomorrow. Repentance I would take as part of the definition of conversion. Repentance itself, as I shall be trying to say, is the fruit of faith. God calling a person — that is, bringing a person to the point where he or she actively and consciously believes — is the very core of the fundamental dimension, shall I say, of turning to God. And as for the word regeneration, you may have noticed I deliberately didn’t use it as a technical term. I find that that often confuses. Because in the New Testament, it seems to me as an exegete, that the language of new birth and new begetting is not used with the sort of precision with which the words faith, grace, and justify (Paul’s verb) are used.

In other words, they’re much more terms of illustration than they are technical terms to be used for the defining of doctrine. So I try to say all the things that I’ve said without using the word regeneration as one of my technical terms. In that, I’m declining to do something which the theology textbooks are in the habit of doing, and I may be unwise, but at the moment it seems to me better that our technical terms in our systematic theology correspond to the technical terms of Scripture. And where a scriptural term isn’t a technical one, I would rather not make it into a technical term for our use. Otherwise, people are going to have exegetical problems, as has actually happened over regeneration. Sometimes people are thinking in terms of a moment of regeneration and then asking how that relates to the coming of faith.

Well, I don’t think that the question can be very clearly answered when it’s asked. I would rather talk about God’s calling. That’s Paul’s technical term. God’s calling is a single complex operation involving the coming of the word through the ears into the mind, the coming of the Spirit into the mind to give understanding, the coming of the spirit into the heart (the core of the personality, as we all know) to change the basic disposition of the heart, so that now you are made willing and, indeed, made desirous to embrace the new life in Christ and get away from the old life of sin. And then the Spirit calls that desire into action, and you do believe, and thus you are called. It’s a complex operation, but I find it more convenient in explaining these things to stay with Paul’s concept. Now that’s what I was actually doing in my talk.

Would you be able to expand on what you said about invitation? I have some uncertainty and hesitation in giving invitations. Coming to Christ is a spiritual thing, rather than a physical act like making a physical gesture, like coming to kneel at the altar or something like that.

Well, let me say, when I spoke of inviting people to Christ, I wasn’t thinking of calling them to make any immediate physical response at all. I think that there’s more to be said against calling for immediate physical acts of response than there is to be said in favor of it. You may have a different view, but that’s mine. It’s a pros and cons business. I don’t think that you can say that all the spiritual arguments are against doing it. There are considerations in favor, as well as considerations on the other side. But when one is preaching regularly to the same congregation, I think the arguments against doing it are more compelling than the arguments for doing it.

So let me make it quite clear that when I said invite, I was simply meaning “deliver verbally the invitation which Christ issues.” But now having said that, let me say further that I take my cue in this matter from the Parable of the Great Supper, where all things had been made ready and the invitation went out, “Come to the supper.” And the only reason why folk didn’t get the benefit of this wonderful meal that had been prepared for them, was that they made excuses and weren’t willing to come. By parity of reasoning, I now argue that in the ministry of the gospel the invitation which is delivered in Christ’s name to everyone who hears, is a bona fide invitation.

The questioner said that he was a Calvinist. Well that was good hearing because you see, so am I. But, another thing in the Reformed tradition which embarrasses me, is that so many Calvinists — and it really is the majority — have settled for a rationale of these comprehensive invitations, which stop short at saying, “We don’t know who the elect are. We can’t pick them out to invite them personally. So we issue invitations generally and leave it to the Holy Spirit to pick the elect out.”

It seems to me that that’s inadequate as a warrant for the universal invitation because that doesn’t go so far as saying that the invitation is a bona fide summons to a Savior who would save you if you came to him. And that needs to be said. Christ really is there saying, “You come to me.” And if you think forward to the day of judgment, quite certainly all who heard the gospel and said, “No,” will have their mouth stopped. They won’t be able to say, “Well, it was all a plant, God, as far as I was concerned. I was never one of your elect. You never had any mercy for me. The invitation was a phony. I would’ve been a goon to try and respond to it.” Nothing like that can be said.

So when I’m talking about the atonement, as a Reformed man, I always formulate my view like this. The first achievement of the cross was to undergird the offer of salvation in Christ as a bona fide offer to everyone who hears it. The Christ of Calvary is there to receive everyone who is invited to come to him. Although in fact they don’t come, but that’s not because there wasn’t mercy there for them; they rejected it. Then further, I say the further effect of the cross was to guarantee the effectual calling and final salvation of all those whom, specifically, the Father gave to the Son to save. That’s how I express particular redemption within that wider context. And I conceive that in saying it that way, I’m catching in my statement, the thrust of every single New Testament statement about the cross that is named.

So I offer that to you. Try it on for size. See if you find yourselves believing what I have come to believe. It isn’t quite the conventional Reformed way of speaking, but I think it’s biblically proper and indeed biblically obligatory to say that much. Now in light of that view of the cross, I think it is right for us to do as George Whitfield and Charles Spurgeon before us used to do, and really make a big thing of pressing the invitation. It’s not about pressing it in the manner of an Evangelist impersonating the Holy Spirit. Charles Finney started that, and evangelists ever since Finney have been carrying it on.

You know the jargon, “I now give you an opportunity to respond to God.” When you think, that’s an appalling thing for a man to say. He is not the Holy Spirit, and he is not the Lord Jesus. “I give you an opportunity.” That’s such nonsense. But what I’m talking about, how would one say it? I’m talking about the kind of pleading of man’s need and Christ’s mercy which is calculated not to draw out of your hearers a response to you, the preacher, but a response to him, the Savior. And the angle of your application ought always to be pointing to him, the Christ whom you so badly need, and who so graciously offers himself to you.

George Whitfield, as I can prove from historical data, would spend up to half an hour at a time doing this, after he’d spent the three quarters of an hour or a full hour expounding the doctrine of his sermon. Then you would get a real heavyweight application. He refers to it in his own writings about his ministry, and there are three transcribed sermons which exhibit it. So one knows exactly what he did.

Well, there was nothing wrong with that other way round. That was absolutely right and the fact that he spent his strength in pointing people to Christ in this way was surely directly linked with the fact that, as John Wesley said in Whitfield’s memorial sermon, “No one in our time has been used anything like so much in bringing sinners to faith in Christ.” Well, I’ll leave it to you to make the application, but that’s my mind about invitations.

How do you explain moral inability in such a way as to convince people that they are accountable for the things that they do and cannot shift the blame or get out from under their guilt?

I try to make that point by hammering away at the fact that we like our sins. We like to keep God at arm’s length. We like our self-indulgence. The fact that we like the wrong things we do, and that therefore we are choosing to indulge ourselves in doing what we know to be wrong when we do these wrong things, that that makes us guilty for having done it. Here’s a parallel case. It is no defense if a child abuser says in court, “But you ought not to condemn me for the things that I’ve done because I’m made that way. It’s my nature to abuse children, or to steal from shops, or whatever it is. You ought to understand that and see it as sufficient reason for letting me go.”

Well, in a court of law, you know what the answer to that one would be. If anything, that kind of barefaced protest increases the guilt, rather than diminishes it. Remember, ever since the Garden of Eden, the sinner has been trying to shift the blame for his or her sin. It’s one of the syndromes of our fallen human nature. Shift the blame at all costs. And this I think is another place where we try to do it.

But if you can hold people to the thought that they know it’s wrong and yet they like doing it, and they continue to do it although they know it’s wrong and they don’t even try not to do it — which is the story when people simply shake their head at the preaching of the gospel and say, “No, I’m not going to turn to God, I don’t want to do that” — then it’ll take conviction from the Holy Spirit as well. But you are saying something which, rationally, when the Spirit begins to work in their consciousness will make plain, I think, their accountability to God. At least that’s the best I can do. And it has Scripture precedent, that approach. Sinners are censured in Scripture because they love unrighteousness.

(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.