IV. Called by Grace.
So far, we’ve looked at the role of the Father in planning salvation; we’ve looked at the Son and His securing of it. In this post, we want to look at the role of the Holy Spirit in one aspect of our salvation, namely, our entering into it.
There are whole movements which focus entirely on the Spirit, but our Lord said that the Spirit’s work isn’t to emphasize the Spirit or to give believers something to be proud of because they have a particular gift. It’s to emphasize and glorify the Lord Jesus, John 16:4, and it’s emphatic, “Me [the Lord Jesus], He shall glorify….”
There are some who focus almost entirely on the work of the Father. Every message must be about or at least include a reference to the sovereignty of God. Even in the midst of appeals for people to believe on Christ, they will have to insert, “if you’re one of the elect, you will be saved.” I’ve had this happen. That may be doctrinally true, but no lost person in Scripture was ever told that. Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus that he had to be one of the elect.
Without doubt, the Father and the Spirit are important to our salvation. Indeed, they are essential to it! Without them, there would be no salvation! However, the focus of our faith is to be on the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus: Who He was and what He did. The Philippian jailer was told to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” Acts 16:31.
We’re told the same thing.
At the same time, we’ll never do that without the work of the Spirit. There are more than 75 references to “calling” in Scripture. Not all of these, of course, refer to the Spirit, but verses like John 6:44; 2 Timothy 1:9, 10; Titus 3:5, etc., are clear that “calling” is a work of the Spirit which infallibly brings an elect and redeemed sinner [the work of the Father and Son] to faith in Christ.
Another word used to describe the Spirit’s work is “efficacious.” It is “effective,” that is, it gets the job done.
The word most commonly used is “irresistible,” because it fits the particular acronym which inadequately summarizes these doctrines, This word is usually rejected as being something coercive: God saving people against their will. However, even in daily life, there are many instances of people being saved against their will. People who are drowning sometimes struggle against their rescuers and have to be subdued before they can be rescued. People trying to commit suicide are sometimes prevented from doing this, and some of them might never “forgive” their rescuers. Still, such people are looked on as heroes. It is only God, Who rescues from a far greater danger than anything this world knows about, Who is told that He can’t do that. We must be “willing,” or He is helpless.
There is, however, another way of defining the word, “irresistible.” It is food to someone who is starving. It is water to someone who is dying of thirst, Our Lord used both of these figures in His own teaching: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Matthew 5:6. See also John 4:10-14; 6:35, 48. That’s the Spirit’s work – to make us hungry and thirsty.
In this post, we want to look at two men who experienced God’s call: Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus. Two words broadly summarize our topic: regeneration and reconciliation. Nicodemus gives us great insight into the first and Saul into the second.
A. Nicodemus: You must be born again, John 3:7.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why Nicodemus?” Why not the woman at the well, or any of the other people Jesus dealt with? Why is Nicodemus the only one given that message? It’s never mentioned in the Book of Acts, either. If Jesus and the Apostles had been like some modern preachers, it would have been in every message.
1. The man, Nicodemus.
Who was Nicodemus? In the first place, he was a Jew, and as such already identified with the people of God. This brought him and them great advantage: Romans 3:1, 3; 9:4, 5. Second, he himself was a leader of those people: the teacher of Israel, John 3:10, perhaps signifying a unique place among his people. This would have brought him great prestige, honor and wealth. Third, he was a Pharisee, a bad thing in our day because of those who abused their position, but something highly respected in his own day. Fourth, simply as a Jew, he would have believed that righteousness before God was something which he could accomplish himself.
Scripture seems to support that idea. In Deuteronomy 6:25, Moses told Israel, “Then it shall be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.” However, even Moses himself, and God, as well, recognized that Israel would never do that. There isn’t a single verse in the Old Testament to indicate that they would actually be obedient, even though they twice agreed to do all that the Lord commanded. Moses wasn’t even down from Sinai before the people had violated the first and seventh commandments in a wild orgy in front of the golden calf.
So, Nicodemus thought it was up to him. As far as he knew, he was already “in”. Our Lord’s message, as it were, blindsided him.
What was the message?
2. The message to Nicodemus.
a. He needed something he didn’t have.
For all that he had, he didn’t have the one thing necessary: life. That’s what “birth” is all about: life. Without getting into the abortion debate, birth is the evidence of life, not its beginning. A “dead birth” is a contradiction in terms. (If you, or someone you know, have suffered a “stillbirth,” I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to add to or make light of that loss and grief.)
b. He needed something he couldn’t do.
John 3 is the story of one very likely who thought that his heritage, his position, his keeping of the Law – who he was and what he did – were more than enough for him to “enter the kingdom”. After all, he was a member of the family of Israel, God’s chosen nation. However, our Lord said to him, “Nicodemus, that’s not enough. You must be born into God’s family.”
In addition, Nicodemus was and had done this and this and this. Yet the Lord in effect said, “Nicodemus, that’s not enough. You need something you can’t do. Even if you could return to your mother’s womb, it would do no good. All that the flesh can produce is ‘flesh’. You need something the flesh can’t do; you need a spiritual birth, a birth produced only and solely by the Spirit of God,”
Boiled down to one sentence, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he, Nicodemus, needed God to do something for him that he himself couldn’t do. He needed a second birth, a spiritual birth, something that was not, and could never be, the result of anything he could do. He needed something that could not be done or started by “the flesh”.
Modern error has turned that exactly around. Now we’re told that God needs us to do something for Him that He Himself cannot do: “God’s done all He can do, and now it’s up to you.”
That is not what the Lord told Nicodemus.
So many folks today are just like him, trusting in what they are or have done. They are quite content with their religion or church, or lack thereof, thank you. They have walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, had a few drops of water on their foreheads when they were infants. Their father or mother or grandmother was a Christian. They have been baptized. Confirmed. Seen a vision. Do their best, Pay their bills. Take care of their family. And on and on.
They are secure in their belief that God will welcome them into “a better place,” but have no understanding that they are under His condemnation because their sins have never been dealt with, and they have no righteousness He will accept. They are dead in trespasses and sin, Ephesians 2:1, and need a life they can neither generate nor initiate.
The Lord rebuked Nicodemus because, as “the teacher in Israel,” he should have known the OT references to “a clean heart,” “circumcision of the heart,” etc., found in verses like Psalm 51:10; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 18:31; 36:36. The promises made to Israel in the New Covenant go far beyond anything human nature or effort can produce. Yet Nicodemus, like the rest of us apart from the grace of God, missed the message. We “must be born again.”
Without regeneration, or the new birth, you and I are “in the flesh,” that is, we’re just ordinary human beings with a sinful nature and the corrupted faculties – mind, emotions, will – that go along with it. Those who are the flesh cannot please God, Romans 8:8. Repentance and faith in Christ are surely pleasing to God; yet things which are pleasing to God are impossible for the flesh to produce. “Flesh” cannot produce “spirit,” nor can fleshly efforts have spiritual results. One can “make his decision,” or do any of a multitude of other things men say will save them, every day for the rest of one’s life and not be saved, because that which is born of – that which comes from – the flesh is flesh.
The new birth is as impossible to mankind as the Virgin birth; both must be of God.
B. Saul, called…out of darkness into His marvelous light, 1 Peter 2:9.
In 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul wrote, …for this cause I obtained mercy, that in my first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them who should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting (KJV).
Paul wrote that he was a “pattern,” a “schematic” for believers. This doesn’t mean that we’re to travel our world starting churches, though some are called to do that. Nor does it mean that we receive and write down new revelations from God. Some have claimed that, some still claim that, and they are all wrong. God calls no one to deliver further revelation – of any kind – from Him.
What Paul meant was that in himself we can see how God works in every believer, not exactly, of course, because we’re all different, but generally. There are many ways we could develop this.
1. The surprise of his conversion.
The last thing on Saul’s mind on the morning of that fateful trip to Damascus would have been that before he got there, he would be a disciple of the very One he was determined to destroy!
In John 6:44, 45, the Lord Jesus gave a capsule summary of the problem we all have. It is that not one of us, on our own, has the ability to come to God. He must “draw” us before we will or even can come to Him. Some make a great deal out of the fact that the word the Lord used in John 6 for “draw” is the same word used to describe Paul being “dragged” out of the city and left for dead in Acts 14:19. They just simply cannot conceive of the idea that God would or could, for that matter, “drag” people into the kingdom.
However, in reading the Book of Acts, it seems to me that Paul was indeed “dragged” kicking and screaming to the very edge of salvation. This leads us to our second thought for this post.
2. The “stages” of his conversion.
It seems to me that Paul passed through four stages, the first two not necessarily consecutive, in his journey from darkness to light.
a. resistance, Acts 6:10 (KJV). Though not specifically mentioned, we believe that Paul could well have been one of those from Cilicia, cf. Acts 22:3; 23:34, unable to resist the witness of Stephen, yet unwilling to receive it. Cf. Acts 9:5; 26:14.
b. rebellion, cf. acts 26:9. Paul was certainly present at the stoning of Stephen, Acts 7:58. From that time, Paul did all he could do to stamp out what he considered blasphemous heresy, and at the same time drown out the conviction coming from the testimony of those whom he was persecuting, Acts 9:5 (KJV); 26:14. Cf. Romans 1:18, of those who suppress the truth.
He was breathing out threats and murder against Christians. He wasn’t asking God to show him the right way; he thought he had it. He was convinced that he was serving God. Cf. John 16:2. Jesus didn’t come to him and ask him if he’d like to be saved. The Holy Spirit didn’t try to “woo” him or in some way “cooperate” with Saul’s will, as is so often taught today that He must do with our wills. Saul’s will was to kill Christians! That was his “decision.”
In his testimony before Agrippa, Acts 26:11, 12, he says that it was while he was thus occupied in persecuting and killing Christians, being exceedingly enraged against them(!), that the Lord appeared to Him. Paul didn’t even know who this One was Whose brightness he saw. This leads to our third point.
c. realization. Paul must have been shocked beyond belief to hear a voice from the brightness saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” He thought he had been persecuting blasphemers and heretics, thus being obedient to the OT teaching about such things – and thus to God. Now, this “voice” from what must have been the Shekinah glory accuses him of persecuting its owner! in effect, of persecuting God! The fourth point follows closely.
d. reception. We mentioned earlier that we believe Paul was indeed “dragged” kicking and screaming to the very edge of salvation. However, when he found out what was involved, and who “Jesus of Nazareth” really is, he willingly walked over the border, as it were. He asked, “What do you want me to do?” and then he went out and did it.
We’ll deal more with this in our final post, Lord willing, but for now, there are multitudes of people just like Paul – and Nicodemus, firmly convinced of their standing before God. They’re members of the church, perhaps even active in it or leaders in it. They’ve gone through the proper ceremonies or rituals, sprinkled as unknowing infants or walking an aisle or praying a prayer. Why, they’re not heathen, they believe in God! They have their “docs” (doctrines) all in a row and can recite the Catechism from start to finish. They’re thoroughly orthodox, and thoroughly lost, because they’ve never come to the point where they ask the Lord what He wants them to do.
For far too many others, “faith” is about God doing what they want Him to do.
Where are you in this progression? Resistant to the truths of the Word, though perhaps you’ve heard them all your life? Rebellious against them, wanting nothing to do with Christ, even though perhaps you come to church? Realizing that you do need something only Christ can provide? You’re a sinner justly under the condemnation of God and you know that only Christ can do something about it, having died for sinners. Don’t stop there. You must go through the last step: receiving. Coming to Him as your Lord and Savior, trusting Him to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Believing on Him, resting in Him, relying of Him in every area of life. Following His leadership.
There is another possibility. Paul grew up with his beliefs. So did Nicodemus. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever heard, or read, these things. What will you do with them? Now that you’ve heard them, where will you start on this progression?
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…, Acts 16:31.
1. What does “efficacious grace” mean?
2. What is another way of looking at the term “irresistible” beside “coercive”?
3. Why is Nicodemus the only recorded person told about the new birth?
4. What four things did Nicodemus have “going” for him? Can you think of any others?
5. What was the meaning of the message he was given?
6. What was God’s purpose in saving Saul of Tarsus?
7. Would Saul have “accepted” Jesus? Why or why not?
8. What is the significance of the first two “stages” of his conversion?
9. What is the significance of the final two stages of his conversion?
10. At which stage are you? You don’t have to write, just something to think about.