Last Sunday we looked at this passage, noting that Jesus’ point to Nicodemus was this: The only way to be saved is for God to give a person spiritual new birth. We have to be born, not only of water, indicating natural, human birth, but also born of the spirit, indicating regeneration.
The main point we made last time was to answer the question, “Who chooses who first?” Do we choose to believe in Jesus Christ first, and then God chooses to save us? Or does God choose to save us first, and then we believe in Jesus Christ?
And we saw that the Bible’s answer to that question is that God chooses us first. It’s only after God chooses to give us new birth, that is, to regenerate us, that we’re able to have faith and to believe in Jesus Christ. Being born again, being regenerated, is not something that we can do under our own power, any more than we can be born, physically, under our own power. Birth is something in which we’re always passive.
Now, there are some Arminians who would object and say, “I don’t believe that regeneration is of human effort. Of course, God alone regenerates a person. Of course, salvation is 100% of God, by grace.”
But then ask them our simple question: “Which comes first? God’s regenerating a person, or that person deciding to accept Christ?”
You’ll get two possible answers from the Arminian: 1) God regenerates a person after that person decides to accept and believe in Jesus Christ, or 2) God looks ahead and foresees who’s going to accept and believe in Jesus Christ, in their own strength, and then God regenerates those people on that basis.
Either way, according to the Arminian, man’s salvation is based on man’s choice. Man chooses God first.
But you might ask, “Aren’t we commanded to choose to believe in Jesus Christ? Didn’t Joshua tell Israel to choose ye this day whom ye will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord? There, you see? Man must choose God.”
Now hear me very clearly so you don’t get confused: The Bible does command men to “choose” to serve God. The Bible does command all men to “believe” in Jesus Christ or they won’t be saved. But the point that Jesus was making to Nicodemus is that no man is able to choose to serve God – no man is able to choose to believe in Jesus Christ, apart from God’s first bringing him from death to life and giving him new birth!
What Jesus wants Nicodemus, and all of us today, to know is this: God alone decides who’s saved and when, not man. God gives faith as a gift, just like birth is given to a helpless baby, without any help from that baby. You can’t decide or choose to be born! You can’t do anything to be born! And when it comes to spiritual birth, the same is true. You’re completely at the mercy and grace of God!
That means that if you’re a believer today, it’s only because Jesus Christ, in His grace, through one of His ambassadors, preached the Gospel to you. It’s only because He gave you eyes to see, and ears to hear, and a heart to understand. If you’re a believer, it’s because God chose you first. It’s because God chose to give you faith, period!
So you see, it makes all the difference in the world who chooses who first. If we chose to believe in God first, and then God chose to save us, our salvation is at least partly, if not primarily, due to something we did.
Such a salvation is not all of grace. It’s only part grace, and part something that we do.
No, only God can change a person’s heart to make him believe in Jesus Christ. Man can’t do that. Men can’t change another person’s heart, and men can’t even change their own hearts.
The Arminians, using their manipulative methods, can often get people to “make a commitment,” or to “make a decision” for Christ, but they can’t manipulate a person into becoming a true believer. They can’t change a person’s heart. All too often such professions of faith are not true faith at all, but are false professions of faith. As Ian Murray puts it [quoted in James Adams’ book, Decisional Regeneration], “A man may make a profession without ever having his confidence in his own ability shattered” [p. 6].
All too often such a person will then be counseled by the “soul-winner” that now that he’s made his “decision,” and now that he’s taken the simple, humanly prescribed steps of walking forward, or praying a prayer, or raising a hand, or whatever it might be – now, he may be assured of his salvation. He may even be told that to doubt his salvation would be to doubt God’s Word!
But what if this person has never been born again? That is, what if he’s never been regenerated? What if he’s never had his heart changed by God, and he’s never received a new nature where he now loves God and wants to please Him? What if he’s never repented of his life of sin? What if he’s never entered into covenant with God by being joined to Christ’s body, the church?
He’s been told by an evangelist that because he took a few humanly prescribed steps, now he’s saved. I shudder to think of the millions of men, women, and children who are on their way to Hell today, duped into thinking that everything is fine, simply because someone told them they were saved, based on their coming forward at a crusade!
Now we certainly don’t deny that some of these people might really be regenerate. Some of them might truly believe the Gospel. But I believe that such evangelists and such manipulative, evangelistic methods do far more harm than good. For every person that God might choose to save through these sinful means of evangelism, many others are being sent to Hell with the false hope that everything is all right, now that they’ve “decided to let Jesus come into their hearts!”
James Adams gives us some good advice in his book, Decisional Regeneration. He says [p. 15]
It is not a time to be silent; it is time to speak out. We have kept quiet too long, somehow feeling that if we opposed these unbiblical practices we might be hindering the good work of evangelism, believing that among the multitudes of ‘decisions’ there are some genuine conversions. But with every passing week thousands are being counseled into false hope!
Well, Jesus gave Nicodemus no such false hopes. He cuts right through the self sufficiency and pride of this Pharisee. The Pharisees believed that they could decide whether or not to follow Jesus. But Jesus said, in John 3:56, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
In slightly different words, Jesus said the very same thing in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit.”
“OK,” you might ask, “if that’s the case, then why preach? Why even bother to do evangelism?”
“What good does it do to command people to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved, if they can’t believe anyway unless God first regenerates them?”
Well, the reason is very simple: We preachers preach because God commands us to preach. And God uses the means of preaching to change men’s hearts. It’s through preaching that God gives men faith to believe.
In a May 31, 1997 TV interview, the Reformed Church of America preacher, Robert Schuller, interviewed Evangelist Billy Graham. Both of these men believed in decisional regeneration. In other words, both of them believed that men have the ability to decide to believe in Jesus Christ, before God regenerates them. And both of them also denied the Biblical teaching that the preaching of the Gospel is a necessary means unto salvation. Here’s part of their conversation:
GRAHAM: And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.
SCHULLER: What I hear you saying is that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you're saying?
GRAHAM: Yes, it is, because I believe that – I've met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations – that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.
SCHULLER: [Here, he trips over his tongue for a moment, his face beaming, and then he says] I – I’m so thrilled to hear you say this. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
GRAHAM: There is. There definitely is. Well, we’d certainly agree that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. But that doesn’t mean that people who never hear the Gospel are saved, just because they believe that there’s a God, and because they try to live differently from other men. Our WLC #60 addresses this very issue and it has quite a different view from that of Mr. Graham or Mr. Schuller:
Q. 60. Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?
A. They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Saviour only of his body the church. So no, people can’t be saved simply by believing in a God, and trying to live good lives. Romans 10:14-17 tells us how God gives faith to people. He gives them faith through the preaching of the true Gospel.
Romans 10:14-17 says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe the one from whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent [that is, “How can they preach unless they’re authorized and sent by God to speak as His ambassadors?”]? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
Don’t misunderstand. Preaching, all by itself, doesn’t save people. If it did, everyone who has the Word of God preached to them would be saved. But God has ordained the means of preaching as the method He uses to save His chosen and elect people. It’s through the preaching of the true Gospel that God, and God alone, gives faith to those whom He’s chosen to be saved.
One last question: “If God alone decides whether or not I’ll have faith, then why should I worry about it? If I’m chosen by God, I’ll be saved. If I’m not chosen, I can’t believe anyway. So why shouldn’t I just sit and wait to see whether or not God gives me faith?”
Here’s the answer: You, along with every other man, woman, and child, are responsible to believe in Jesus Christ. If you don’t, you’ll be eternally lost. But only when you realize that faith is a gift of God, not something you can just decide to do, any time you want – only then will you begin to see your great need for God’s grace. Only then will you begin to see that you’re at God’s mercy. And it’s this very teaching of God’s Word that’s designed to lead you to cast all your hopes on the Lord, alone, for your salvation.
Once you know how God works – once you know that He saves people through the preaching of His Word, the Bible – once you realize that He’s revealing Himself to you through that preaching – it’s often then that your eyes are opened and you see Jesus – it’s then that you’re made alive to God and are given a desire to join yourself to Jesus Christ in faith and enter into covenant with Him.
It’s through the preaching of the true Gospel that God regenerates people’s hearts and gives them faith to believe. God chooses us first and gives us faith, and only then do we choose to believe in Him and in Jesus Christ.
May God choose to grant to all of us faith in Him by His Word and Spirit.
And if God has already given you the faith to believe this Gospel, then you must be sure to give Him all the praise and all the glory! You must remember that God didn’t choose to save you because you happened to be better than all those others who don’t believe. God chose to save you while you were still an unbeliever, while you were still an enemy of God, while you were still dead in your sins. God chose to open your eyes and give you faith to believe so that you could be saved. So God gets all the glory and all the praise for your salvation. Give Him the glory, and the worship, and the obedience that He deserves!