If you’ve been following along here the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed The Sinners Prayer and subsequently how God works His plan of salvation in men. We began that series with The Sinners Conversion: The Chosen, followed by The Gospel Call. Today, we’re going to answer the questions that we left off with in that post. There we asked, “Faith is necessary and being born of the Spirit is necessary, but which comes first?” and “Does faith trigger rebirth or does being born again instill faith?”
With this in mind, let’s return to our passage from Ezekiel 36 where in our first point we looked at God choosing his elect. Next we see, in Ezekiel 36:25 God’s cleansing of the sinner, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” As the old hymn says God “cleansed my soul from sin’s corruption.” What’s being described here in Ezekiel is the first part of regeneration by the Holy Spirit that we looked at in The Sinner Neither Willing nor Able. There we saw how this passage corresponds with Titus 3:4-5, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Ephesians 3:5 states that “we were dead in our trespasses”, so God begins His work by retrieving the sinner from their spiritually dead, rotten corpse-like state and cleanses them.
Next in the passage from Ezekiel our LORD moves to renewing the heart and spirit, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” It wouldn’t be necessary to remove the heart of stone if each of us hadn’t been born with a heart of stone. This is an oft-neglected truth, but critical to understanding how it is entirely impossible for man to ever make the first move towards God. Not only is the sinner dead in their sin, but as we’ve seen, the sinner’s heart is both unwilling and unable to choose God. In fact, as we read in Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Similarly in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jesus speaking in Matthew 15:19 says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Those passages alone should be enough to convince the most ardent supporter of man’s free will in salvation that given his natural state man cannot and will not choose God. This is precisely what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Which brings us back to the Gospel Call. If the natural man is unable to understand the things of God, how can he respond to the Gospel when he hears it?
Remember last time we learned that hearing the Gospel preached is necessary for salvation. God is working His plan of redemption through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the Gospel going out to the nations. The Spirit is moving like the wind (John 3), everywhere the Gospel is preached faithfully, drawing men unto Christ. Puritan great John Owen adds,
“…According to Pelagianism, the preaching of God’s word [apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit] is quite sufficient as an outward means to bring a person to repentance and faith. The revelation made of God and his mind is quite sufficient to teach men all they need to believe and do, that they may be converted to God and begin to obey him. [in the Pelagian view] …regeneration is the result of responding to the Word preached. Yes the Word of God is powerfully persuasive in itself, but until born again, unregenerate men cannot and will not be persuaded by it. The unregenerate must be persuaded that these are not ‘cunningly devised fables’ (2 Pet 1:16). Things in Scripture are not just truths, but divine truths. These are things that ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken’. And only when a person is born again will he believe that.”
The Pelagian heresy taught men to believe that simply hearing God’s Word preached was enough to enact repentance and faith in the sinner and subsequently bring about rebirth. This later laid the foundation for preacher’s attempts to merely convince the hearer of God’s Word, through eloquent speaking or an entertaining delivery, that they were saved, apart from any supernatural regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely the category that the Sinner’s Prayer falls into. In the quote above, Owen is alluding to exactly what we discussed in The Gospel Call, where we saw how God uses the preaching of His Word as the necessary instrument in salvation, but it must be the Holy Spirit that takes the Word and applies it internally in the unbelieving sinner as He cleanses then renews the heart and spirit.
We read more about this internal call of God in Romans 8:30 “And those who He predestined He also called, and those whom He called, He also justified, and those who He justified He also glorified.” The “Golden Chain of Redemption” proceeds from foreknew (Romans 8:29, a loving relationship established by God with His elect before the foundation of the world), predestined (God’s elect, predestined to be conformed to Christ’s image, Romans 8:29 and to adoption as sons Ephesians 1:5), called (externally by the Gospel and internally by the Spirit), justified (by way of Christ’s death and imputed righteousness, believers are legally in good standing with God; i.e. salvation), and glorified (eternity with Christ). Additionally we see this calling or drawing by God in John 6:44 as Jesus states plainly, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” In this verse Jesus is reiterating what He has just stated in verse 37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out.” In this same chapter of John, Jesus offers a summary statement, “But there are some of you who do not believe. (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray Him.) And He said, ’This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father.” John 6:64-65 The idea that Jesus is conveying here is that it is God who draws/calls men unto Himself and not everyone believes because not everyone is called. In John 15:26 we read of the role of the 3rd member of the Trinity that we alluded to earlier, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.” Summarizing our passages here, God the Father draws men to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, Who Himself bears witness to Christ. This is just a brief look into the Trinitarian nature of salvation, but what we have just walked through describes the ‘inward call’, drawing, or ‘effectual call’ of God’s elect, by the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel.
Quite frankly this is a lot for our minds to digest, especially since God’s sovereign work in salvation is largely ignored in the Western Church. Our key points for this lesson were that 1) The Holy Spirit cleanses and renews the elect of God upon their hearing of the Gospel, which is called regeneration. 2) Prior to regeneration the sinner is dead in their trespasses and sins both unable and unwilling to seek God. 3) The sinner’s heart of stone is continually bent towards sin and requires a supernatural work of God to replace it with a heart of flesh, which is then inclined to understand and pursue the things of God. 4) The internal call or drawing by God of the sinner occurs simultaneously with the general Gospel call.
We will build upon this next time when we look at The Sinners Conversion: The Response – Repent and Believe
“To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages.” – John Owen