We live in an American Christian culture that places a premium on decision making. We have a proud heritage of individual rights bestowed by our founding fathers that enshrines freedom as the defining feature of our government. We carry this mindset into the church when it comes to how we conduct religious affairs, particularly evangelism and theology. The flagship magazine of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is named “Decision.” Bill Bright developed a little gospel brochure called “The Four Spiritual Laws” for Campus Crusade for Christ that provides a step-by-step procedure for accepting Christ. “Evangelism Explosion” by Dr. D.James Kennedy lays out a similar, more detailed methodology for evangelism. Our theology also emphasizes free will and individual autonomy over the sovereignty of God in all matters pertaining to salvation.
The very words, “accept Christ as Lord and Savior” summarize the evangelical concept of salvation. It is characterized first and foremost by an act of the will on our part. It is a choice we make, a personal decision that takes place at our initiative. But is it really our decision to make? Is salvation a matter of us choosing Christ or Christ choosing us? The doctrines of Reformed Theology would teach the latter.
In John 15:6, Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…”
Consider the call of the disciples and Paul in the New Testament. In every case, Jesus issued the call to follow. Matthew was a despised tax collector, a tool of the Roman occupiers, an enemy to his fellow Jews and outcast from the temple. He was just going about his business extorting exorbitant taxes from his countrymen when Jesus passed by one day and said, “Follow me.” He certainly wasn’t seeking Jesus out.
Paul was on his way to Damascus to round up some believers and bring them back to Jerusalem to stand trial for their faith when suddenly a bright light appeared and a voice said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7). Not only was he not seeking Jesus, but he was breathing out threats against the believers. And what did the Lord say about Saul? “…this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel.”
Jesus told Nicodemas that in order to enter the kingdom of God one must be born “from above.” A new spiritual life must be bestowed upon him from the source of all spiritual life — the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ is the source of all natural life and the birth of every living creature begins with his creative act, so the Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual life and the birth of every living spirit begins with his creative act. John 6:63 says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” John 3:6 says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In 1 Cor 15:46, Paul says, “The first man, Adam, became a living person; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
There is no choice before birth – either natural or spiritual. Choice always comes after birth. From a spiritual standpoint, regeneration comes first and then repentance and belief. Unless the Holy Spirit gives life to our dead spirit, we cannot choose Christ. Dead men don’t choose.
The Apostle Paul said, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” and, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?” (Eph 2:4; Rm 5:8-10).
Notice the order here. Christ took the first step in our direction by giving his natural life as a sacrifice for our sins. His death reconciled us to God. His resurrected eternal spirit is what saves us as he imparts his life to us.
This makes all the difference in how we approach faith. When Paul says we are not saved by works but by grace through faith, he means salvation begins with the grace of God. He goes on to say “So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.” Spiritual life comes from the Holy Spirit. God produces through that new life both the desire and the effort to bring about our salvation. Salvation encompasses everything from reconciliation through justification and sanctification to ultimate glorification. So faith, desire, and effort all work together, through grace, to produce salvation – the fullness of God’s gracious work in our lives.
Faith is produced by grace alone. Works play no part. But works do play a part in our salvation. They are just not our works. They are the works produced by God through the new life that was implanted by the Holy Spirit at the time of rebirth. The reason Paul says to work out your salvation with awe and reverence is that we marvel at the work of God in our lives as it produces what we were unable to accomplish on our own.
When the Holy Spirit imparts new life He immediately produces an awareness of sin and a sense of remorse that we have offended a Holy God. He creates an earnest and heartfelt desire to abandon the old life for the new. It is at this point that the will is set free for the very first time. Formerly the only option was to serve self and all its sinful desires. Now there is a new option and that is to serve Christ. The one we choose is the one who becomes our master. Like the man who found the pearl of great price (Mt 13:45), the new believer is prepared to forsake everything that was precious to him in order to follow his new Master. He is willing to take up his cross, despising the shame for the joy that is set before him (Mt 16:24).
Realizing that there is absolutely nothing we can do to alter our eternal destiny apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, a deep and abiding gratitude for His saving grace should fill our hearts. Suddenly those passages where the Apostle Paul soars to heights of praise for the riches of God’s grace (like Ephesians 1-3) become ours in a new way. For the first time, we can join together with him in praise as our hearts rejoice in His saving grace, for we know how perilous our condition had been and how hopeless we were to do anything about it. We have escaped a life of hopelessness under the power of a sinful nature that controlled us and doomed us to Hell. All the addictions and frustrations and emptiness that characterized our life before have been replaced by a deep and abiding peace and love. Instead of being constantly enslaved to our own futile and unsatisfying desires, we are free to seek those things that truly satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.
Jesus becomes everything to us. We are willing to give up anything that stands in the way of drawing closer to Him. We long to know Him better, to share in the fellowship of His sufferings in order to strengthen our bond with Him. For just like soldiers who fight side by side build an unbreakable bond that makes them a band of brothers, so we become more intimately bonded to Christ by taking part in His sufferings. We rise to defend Him when others disparage His name. We openly choose sides with Him in public places. Like Paul, we fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus by standing in His stead to take the abuse that is intended for Him.
The study of God’s Word takes on new meaning as we realize that we endeavor to learn about the book not for its own sake but in order to become more familiar with the Author. Unlike the writings of many contemporary Christian authors that spell out techniques for spiritual growth, the Bible is a love letter from the One who made us for Himself and wants us to know Him better. So, as with any love letter, we can read it over and over again always looking for nuances we might have missed.
Salvation is not something that happens only on the inside. There is always external evidence of new life. Like a newborn child, growth begins immediately and changes gradually become more and more perceptible. There is growing evidence of spiritual fruit – peace, joy, love patience, kindness, goodness, meekness etc. (Mt 7:16b-20; 12:33, Joh 15:12). Christ transforms our affections, our thoughts, and our desires. (Rm 12:2, 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17, Eph 4:24, Lk 5:33-39, Gal 5:22). If a person has made a genuine profession of faith in Jesus Christ, it should not be necessary to confirm that faith on his or her deathbed. It should be abundantly apparent that his or her life has been undergoing transformation from the very first day he or she came to faith.
I love the science program called NOVA on PBS. This week I watched an episode on lights under the sea. It dealt with the phenomena of biofluorescence and bioluminescence, the means by which sea creatures emit light to disguise themselves, attract mates, and catch food. Deep sea divers cannot see this light with the unaided eye. But if they dive deep enough to where all but blue light is removed, they can view it through a yellow filter. When they do, the entire ocean lights up like a fireworks display. They have discovered that ninety percent of sea life emits light through either the process of biofluorescence or bioluminescence. One form of light is created internally in the organism by a chemical reaction and the other form converts blue light back into the entire spectrum of the rainbow by reflection. Suddenly sea horses turn bright red, sting rays and sharks light up with green spots, a creature called the Japanese lantern produces an array of lights that look just like its namesake, and coral reefs explode into brilliant colors. Sea creatures can see this wonderful kaleidoscope of color because their eyes are covered by a yellow film like the filter the divers use.
The doctrines of Reformed Theology are like this pair of yellow lenses. As my wife and I become more familiar with the teachings of men like Saint Paul, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, Steve Lawson, and R.C. Sproul, suddenly passages of scripture which had little significance for us or did not move us to adoration take on profound meaning and fill our hearts with praise. We can rejoice with Paul when he describes the riches of God’s grace and with the Psalmist when he extols the steadfast love of the Lord. We crave ‘fat and rich food’ from the Word of God, as my wife likes to say (Ps 63:5). Bible study is not so much about learning whatever lesson God has for us today, but about knowing Him better and drawing closer to Him.
Now for the first time I can join with the Apostle Paul in heartfelt prayer saying:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”(Eph 3:14-19)
It is this ‘strength to comprehend’ that I have begun to experience as I delve into the precious riches of scripture through the new eyes given me by the reformed tradition.