The Issue: God’s Part and Our Part in Salvation
What is God’s part and what is our part in salvation? There are few more difficult subjects than this one.
One extreme is to so emphasize God’s sovereignty as to totally eliminate any human role in salvation at all.
Reformed theology does this. It suggests that unbelievers are like rocks, totally incapable of responding to God. How then can an unbeliever come to faith in Christ and be saved? Their answer is that logically (but not temporally) God regenerates unbelievers before they believe the Gospel. Many Reformed theologians teach that regeneration precedes faith. Since all born again people are saved, logically this means that unbelievers are born again and eternally saved before they believe the Gospel. It also means that people whom God has not chosen to regenerate are doomed to eternal condemnation even though they were totally incapable of responding to God in any way.
Another extreme is to so emphasize our role in salvation as to undercut God’s sovereignty. Arminian theology does this. It suggests that an unbeliever is like a man drowning in a small lake. While he can’t save himself without some help, he can save himself if he is given proper instructions on how to swim. He is capable of swimming safely to the shore. He just needs someone to show him how. In addition, Arminian theology teaches that regeneration is not necessarily permanent. A person is initially born again by choosing to follow Christ in obedience. He will only stay saved if he continues to follow Christ obediently.
The proper biblical position is somewhere in between. Regeneration doesn’t precede faith. Unbelievers are capable of responding to God. However, no unbeliever would seek God on his own initiative (Rom 3:11, “There is none who seeks after God”). God is drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself”). Because of that, they can respond. All of this can be seen in the verse for this study, Acts 16:14. It reads, “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.”
First, let’s consider God’s sovereign role in the salvation of Lydia.
God’s Role: He Drew Lydia to Himself
And He Opened Her Heart
Using a miraculous vision, the Macedonian vision (Acts 16:9), God sent Paul, Timothy, and Luke to the city where Lydia was living and doing business. If someone had not come and shared the Gospel with her, Lydia would not have come to faith in Christ.
God had been drawing Lydia to Himself since she was old enough to consider the general revelation of nature (Rom 1:20-21). At the time reported in Acts 16, He sent Paul to bring the Gospel to her. When Paul shared the Gospel with her, the Lord opened her heart so that she might heed the things spoken by Paul. Clearly if He had not opened her heart, whatever that means, she wouldn’t have been able to believe the Gospel of Christ which Paul preached.
What exactly, then, does the expression the Lord opened her heart mean? Clearly symbolic language is being used. This has nothing to do with Lydia’s literal heart. In Scripture the word heart (kardia) is normally used to refer to the inner person. It is the seat of intellect and emotion. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Vol 2, s.v., “Heart,” p. 182) says, “A striking feature of the NT is the essential closeness of kardia to the concept of nous, mind… Heart and mind can be used in parallel (2 Cor 3:14f.) or synonymously (Phil 4:7)… Thus it is the person, the thinking, feeling, willing ego of man, with particular regard to his responsibility to God, that the NT denotes by the use of kardia.”
Imagine a person who has a mental block. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get them to perceive that what you were saying was true. For example, people tend to have strong convictions about the death of Vince Foster. If you find someone who is absolutely convinced that Vince Foster committed suicide, it may be impossible to change their mind by pointing out all the evidence which might suggest otherwise. They can understand everything you say. They can repeat all of the points you make. Yet they aren’t convinced because they have already made up their mind. They—or you!—have a mental block. Until that block is removed, they are incapable of believing that Vince Foster might have been murdered.
Similarly, unbelievers are convinced that the Gospel is not true. Until God opens their eyes, they won’t believe that Jesus freely gives eternal life to people and that the sole condition is trusting Him for it. Compare 2 Cor 4:3-4 (“But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded…”) and 1 Cor 2:14 (“For the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”). When God opened Lydia’s heart, He removed that mental block against the truth of the Gospel.
This doesn’t mean, however, that unbelievers can’t understand the Gospel. You’ve probably had the experience which I’ve had where you’ve explained the Gospel to someone and he or she was able to explain it back to you clearly and yet they didn’t yet perceive it to be true.
Every year GES is audited (or reviewed) as part of our fiscal accountability. A few years back I gave some of our materials to the woman who was doing our audit. Later we spoke briefly on the phone and I was able to talk with her about the Gospel. She was a practicing Catholic and found what I was saying to be different than what she believed and had been taught. One year later, another auditor from the same firm came for the next year’s audit. In passing he mentioned that the woman I had spoken with had commented to him at the time that we at GES believed some strange doctrine—that all you had to do to be saved was to trust in Christ and Him alone for eternal life! She understood what I said; but she didn’t believe it. The Lord had not yet opened her heart. Interestingly, the young man to whom she confided this is a believer and he had a chance to tell her that what we are teaching is in reality true!
It may sound like I’m advocating the first position I described above. I am not. Unbelievers, as we shall soon see, are not incapable of seeking God. And, as we have already seen, God’s work in the life of unbelievers does not wait until He opens their hearts. He is continually drawing people everywhere to Himself.
Yet there is some truth in the Reformed position. God is indeed sovereign. No one comes to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44).
There is a second aspect of this conversion we need to consider. It is the part Lydia played.
Lydia’s Role: She Sought God and Believed the Gospel
Like Cornelius in Acts 10, Lydia was anything but unresponsive to God. She was clearly seeking God before He opened her heart. Of course, as mentioned above, she was able to seek God only because He had been drawing her to Himself.
Paul and his company went to the riverside on the Sabbath day to find people with whom they might share the Good News (v 13). The reason they weren’t in a synagogue is because there was none in Philippi. Jewish synagogues required the attendance of at least ten men. There weren’t ten men in Philippi who were God-fearing Gentiles or devout Jews. There were, however, some God-fearing Gentile women. Lydia was one of these: “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there.”
Lydia was not even from Philippi. She was from Thyatira (v 14). Evidently she was in Philippi in order to sell her purple dye. Yet she went out of her way to find a prayer meeting that met by the riverside. The fact that only women were present did not deter her. Neither did the fact that the meeting was outside the city.
Almost certainly Lydia regularly attended synagogues and prayer meetings. This is suggested by Luke’s remark that she “worshipped God.” That most likely refers to the fact that she was a God-fearing Gentile (compare Acts 17:17). Her attitude may well have been that of the one expressed by the man of the Macedonian vision: “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v 9).
God has determined that anyone who diligently seeks Him will ultimately find Him: “He has made from one blood every nation …so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27); “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6); “In every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35).
Lydia was not totally uninvolved in the matter of coming to faith. She was not like a rock which has no spiritual sensitivity whatsoever. She had been responding to the light which God gave her. She was seeking God and was worshipping Him. And when He opened her heart, she believed the Gospel and was born again.
Let’s see if we can put this all together. On the one hand, God was drawing Lydia to Himself. He sent someone to bring the Gospel to her. And He opened her eyes so that she could believe the Gospel and be saved. If any of those things had not occurred, Lydia would not have been born again. On the other hand, Lydia was a God-fearing Gentile who responded to the light she received, and when God opened her heart, she believed the Gospel.
This explains how an unbeliever can hear the Gospel and explain it back to you, yet without believing it. God has not yet opened his eyes to see that the Gospel is true, that it is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). It appears as foolishness to him.
This also explains how people’s eyes can light up when you explain the Gospel to them. At that moment the Lord has opened their eyes. They get it! The grace of God which had eluded them now makes perfect sense.
The question of God’s role and our role in eternal salvation is a very difficult one. However, God has given enough information for us to know both that God is sovereign and that we are capable of responding to Him. No one is saved apart from God’s drawing him and opening his heart. Yet God doesn’t force anyone to be saved and He doesn’t hold anyone responsible for something which he can’t possibly do. All who are born again have freely responded to God’s drawing and have trusted in Christ and Him alone for eternal life.
Some practical applications of these truths to the believer come to mind: pray for and witness to the lost, and, rejoice that God has drawn you to Himself and that He has opened your heart.
Dr. Bob Wilkin is the Founder and Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.