There is only one way for you or me to be made righteous (justified) in the sight of God—and that is by turning to the Saviour whom God has sent: the Lord Jesus Christ. However, such is the condition of sinful human beings, that not one of us will turn to Christ of our own free will. Repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ are not in our fallen nature (see Isaiah 53.1-3; John 3.5-8,19; 5.40; 14.6; 15.18; Acts 4.12; Romans 3.10-11; 8.7).
When we understand these things in the light of the Scriptures referenced above, and many more that teach these same truths, then we can only conclude that God himself must have worked in a soul when any man or woman, boy or girl actually turns to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, and repents of their sins before God, and develops a real love for the Lord and his people.
There would be no real Christians without this saving work of the Holy Spirit.
The saving work of God in the soul is what Calvinists call irresistible grace1 (or effectual calling). With irresistible grace, God’s unconditional election in eternity past becomes manifest in the lives of his people.
Fallen human beings always resist the gospel. Therefore, this gracious calling from God, in order to be irresistible (and therefore accepted by any fallen human being), must be accompanied with a transformation of the soul. God must first implant a new nature within us, with which we will then believe in his Word and repent of our sins against him.
As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see2 the kingdom of God…Ye must be born again” (John 3.3,7).
It was not only the Lord Jesus Christ who taught the necessity of being “born again.”
The prophet Ezekiel wrote metaphorically of a spiritual heart transplant performed by God, where a “heart of stone” was removed and a “heart of flesh”3 was put in its place, enabling the Lord’s people to walk in his statutes (Ezekiel 11.19-20; 36.26-27).
In the Acts of the Apostles we are given record after record of Jews and Gentiles who:
- Repented of their sins and started a new, godly life because God granted them the ability to repent (Acts 11.18);
- Believed the gospel because they had been ordained by God to believe (Acts 13.48);
- Gave heed to the preaching of the apostle Paul because the Lord had opened their heart (Acts 16.14); and
- Joined themselves to the Church because the Lord added them to the Church (Acts 2.47).
It is by God’s irresistible grace, that his unconditional election in eternity past becomes manifest in the lives of his people.
The case with the fallen, spiritually dead human beings is as the Lord Jesus Christ declared: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6.44,65).
- Does God fail to bring to Christ any of those whom he draws to him? No.
- Does God draw all mankind to Christ? No.
- Do only “wise” people choose to believe in Christ, as some proud church-goers may imply? No.
- Or, do only “unintelligent” people believe in him, as Christ-rejecters allege? No.
The answer to all these questions is no because of the truth of the Lord Jesus’s doctrine here: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6.37).
That is precisely what we mean when we say that God’s sovereign grace is always irresistible, and that his inner calling of people to turn to Christ is always effectual.
You should know that God “giveth to all life, and breath, and all things…and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17.25-26). This means that God has providentially organised the whole of your life—all that has ever happened, both good and bad. It is God who has given you your parents, upbringing, education, friends, employment, spouse, children—or whatever you have in your life—even all the minutest details.
By means of some events and encounters in the lives of those people whom God brings to Christ, God brought his Word to their attention and he made them to think upon it and to be persuaded by it. At some point in time, before they knew that it was the Holy Spirit who brought these things into their minds, they were made aware of their sinful state before God, and they were made aware that they really deserved to be condemned to Hell on the Day of Judgment—and they were made to understand that this is where they too would be going, if they never turned to Christ for salvation.
Christian reader, do you really think that you, of your own internal resources (which you know are full of sin; see Romans 3.10-18; 7.18)—that you could have turned to Christ if you had willed to? Do not avoid this issue by saying, “I don’t know; I am not sure what really happened in my own heart.” Jesus says, “No man can come to me [Christ], except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6.44). Believe the words of Jesus, your Saviour: you would not have turned to him unless the Father drew you.
Non-Christian reader, do you think that you can turn to Christ of your own “free will”? Then do it! No? No, you will not—because you cannot, and because you do not will to turn to Christ. But if you ever do turn to Christ, for real, then you too will also come to understand that it is because God the Father changed your heart and enabled you to do so.
In other words, what will have happened to you is the same what happened in your heart is the same as what happened in the heart of Lydia of Thyatira when she heard the gospel from the apostle Paul: “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God [as a proselyte], heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16.14).
This is what happens in the souls of all the Lord’s people. God’s gracious, irresistible work in their souls grants them real faith4 in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, and real repentance5 toward God.
But that is not the whole of the matter. We need more than an inner persuasion from the Holy Spirit to cause us to repent of our sins and to believe the gospel.
In the apostle Paul’s writings he teaches us that the spiritual and increasingly godly life of Christians is due to:
- God working a “new creation” within them (2 Corinthians 5.17; Ephesians 2.10);
- God delivering his people from the power of darkness and translating them into the kingdom of his dear Son (Colossians 1.13);
- God irresistibly and effectually summoning people to himself (Romans 8.30); and
- God the Holy Spirit regenerating and renewing those who are saved (Titus 3.5).
As Paul explains: “And you hath he quickened,6 who were dead in trespasses and sins…But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus…For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.1,4-5,8).
The apostle Peter likewise teaches us that it is God alone who originates the new birth in Christians, and that is the reason why he praises (blesses) God alone for it: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again…” (1 Peter 1.3; and see also 2 Peter 1.3).
And the apostle John in his first epistle repeatedly teaches that Christians are they who are “born of God” (1 John 2.29; 3.9; 4.7; 5.1,4,18).
The new birth, the quickening, the heart of flesh that replaces the heart of stone—is a God-wrought transformation that sets people free from enslavement to their spiritually dead, sinful nature and gives them the ability to believe the Word of God, the Bible.
Regenerate souls are not only now teachable and persuadable by the Holy Spirit to believe—it is now in their nature to believe God’s Word. God’s grace in our experience is irresistible grace.
Only born-again souls turn to Christ in faith and repent toward God for all their sins. People who have no part in the kingdom of God do not have this repentance or this faith. They have no personal experience of these saving graces (John 3.3).
Irresistible grace is the name given to the fourth of the five points (tenets) of Calvinism. ↩︎
This failure to “see” the kingdom of God means to have no part in it (compare “see life” in John 3.36; “see death” in John 8.51). ↩︎
To avoid confusion, it should be noted that Ezekiel’s “heart of flesh” does not mean the same thing as the apostle Paul’s usage of the word “flesh” but the opposite. Ezekiel means the regenerate heart, i.e. the “new man” in Paul’s terminology (see Romans 8.3-9; Ephesians 2.3). But Paul’s “flesh” is the “old man,” or equivalent to Ezekiel’s “heart of stone.” ↩︎
A good Biblical explanation of what real faith (i.e. belief) in Christ is can be found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to question 86: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” ↩︎
A good Biblical explanation of what real repentance is can be found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to question 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” ↩︎
The words “hath he quickened” in v.1 have been added by the translators of the KJV to assist us, as is indicated by the italics. The added words are copied from the later expansion in v.5. In v.5 Paul spoke of “we” (including both Paul and his first intended readers) who were previously “dead in sins” but who had now been “quickened…together with Christ.” ↩︎