Man’s role in conversion is to believe.
The answer to the jailor’s classic question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” is still the same, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31; italics added).
What must man do? He must believe.
But can he believe? Today, many give a negative answer to this question. Man, they say, is constitutionally incapable of faith since he is totally dead in sins. This answer, however, overplays the metaphor of deadness.
In addressing the Ephesian Christians, Paul reminds them that they were once “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). But Paul pushes beyond the limits of the metaphor in the very next verse. He writes: “in which you once walked” (Eph 2:2; italics added). Can a dead man walk? On a literal level, obviously not! On a literal level, if I say, “That man is dead in the mud and filth of his own back yard,” I cannot go on to say, “He is walking in the mud and filth of his own back yard.” That would be a transparent contradiction.
The expression “dead in trespasses and sins” can be explained by a parallel statement in Eph 4:18 where Paul describes unsaved people as “alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” Unsaved men are dead in the sense that they do not have God’s kind of life (eternal life) and thus do not know God on a personal level. This is certainly confirmed by John 17:3, “and this is eternal life; that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (italics added). Eternal life brings the knowledge of God (see the discussion of 2 Cor 4:4, 6 in the last issue). Those who have never known God at all are dead toward God.
But it is wrong to push this metaphor to an unbiblical extent. Deadness towards God signals one’s need of God’s life (eternal life). But, like all figures of speech, this figure cannot be pressed beyond its basic biblical application. In other words, the fact that man is “dead in trespasses and sins” tells us nothing about such issues as “free will” or man’s “capacity to believe.” Those who think that it does, are guilty of forcing the metaphor into a framework it was never intended to fit.
In fact, God holds man responsible for not believing. The Lord Jesus said, “He who believes in Him [the Son] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18; italics added).
If God condemns men for not believing, and men have no capacity whatsoever to believe, then the justice of God is called into question. How can a man be held responsible for what he is incapable of doing? On that basis, why could not God cast babies who die in infancy into hell? Why not also the mentally impaired? When man’s capacity to believe is totally denied, what is left behind is a horrible, even monstrous, conception of God.
Such is the penalty for wrongly pressing a metaphor beyond its proper parameters!
Of course, we are not saying that men can come to God without any divine assistance at all. As we pointed out in the July-August issue, God has a revelatory role in conversion (2 Cor 4:6). No conversion occurs until God breaks through the blindness induced by Satan and enlightens the heart with His truth. But where this enlightenment has occurred, it may be said to the believer that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17)
Thus the Bible does not say that man is constitutionally incapable of faith, only that faith cannot occur without divine illumination. In every realm of life, man cannot believe in what he regards as untrue. Only when he realizes the truth of any matter, only then does he believe it. The ability to believe things, we should say, is a capacity that man possesses, just like he possesses the ability to think or to speak. Only “ignorance of the truth” or “deception about the truth” stand in the way of man believing the Gospel. (As pointed out last time, Satan knows this and acts accordingly: 2 Cor 4:4.) But once a man realizes the truth of any matter, at the moment of realization he has believed it.
Consequently, saving faith occurs when it dawns on our hearts that Jesus Christ saves us forever the moment we believe that He does. (See John 11:25-27; John 20:30-31; 1 John 5:1.)
What then is the bottom line? Two things. (1) Man has the capacity to believe and is held responsible if he does not do so. (2) Man’s faith can only occur in response to divine illumination.
Therefore, what should unsaved men be doing? They should be seeking the God who is revealed in creation (Rom 1:20-21). Since God rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6), the search for God will lead to an examination of the claims of Christ. This, in turn, will lead to salvation truth since Jesus affirmed, “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (John 7:17).
Paul’s statement that “there is none who seeks after God” (Rom 3:11) may seem to contradict this, but it doesn’t. This famous text does not say that man cannot seek God! He can and should seek God (Acts 17:26-27)! But he doesn’t (unprompted by the Spirit) and, therefore, is responsible for not doing so.
Man’s failure to believe, therefore, is something for which he can be held accountable by his Judge. If he had sought the truth, he would have found the truth!
But those who do find the truth are drawn to it, and thus taught, by God. The Savior declared:
- No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be
taught by God.
- ” Therefore everyone who has heard
- from the Father comes to Me (John 6:44-46; italics added).
As we evangelize men, we can become part of this drawing/ teaching process until God illuminates the unsaved heart so that a response of faith results. But let us remember, even though God uses us in this process, it is still God- not us-who commands the light to shine into man’s darkness (2 Cor 4:6). It is God who saves the lost!