By Rev. Lance Filio
Albert Einstein was broadly credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Insanity, according to Einstein, applied the wrong solution to the right problem. The famous scientist, even though not a professing Christian, understands the importance of applying wisdom in solving problems. And because he learned the value of proper thinking, he was able to solve one of the biggest mystery in cosmology.
The 3rd and 4th points in the Canons of Dort (CD) focused our attention on applying the right solution to the right problem. The 3rd point states the problem properly and the 4th point reveals to us the appropriateness of the solution. Properly understood, it showed us that the problem is sin and the solution was grace applied. It invites us to consider that the problem was not skin deep but a fundamental distortion of our nature. And only by a radical application of regenerating grace can we finally be truly free.
This was how God solved the problem of sin. He called us by his Word and applied to us his Spirit. All these are from God and by God. He sovereignly accomplished and applied his work of redemption to his people. This evangelical truth brings to life a dead sinner and enables him to trust God and turn away from his life of sin. God solved the problem of sin by restoring us to the image of Christ. (Col 3:10) When this image was lost in the garden by the disobedience of one man Adam, God determined to renew his people into the image of God by the obedience of one man, Christ. (Romans 5:9).
This theme of God rescuing sinners from their sin can be properly understood when we acknowledge the Scriptural witness of our sinful state. The Old Testament showed us man’s depraved trajectory since the beginning when Adam plunged all men to sin. Cain killed his own brother. Lamech killed many who opposed him. They built the City of Man as a testament to their opposition to God. The story of the tower of Babel revealed to us the total depraving effect of sin when left on it own would eventually destroy everything in the world. On the other hand, even those who were called by God was not exempted from the taint of sin. The sons of Noah sinned in spite of being preserved by God in the ark. The patriarchs were not without sin. Abraham doubted God and lied about who Sara was. Jacob deceived his family to get what he wanted. Joseph was prideful in his youth. Israel, as a nation, sinned against God. They disobey him when they built and worshiped the Golden Calf. They murmured against God and cursed his provision. They continually worshipped the false gods of their neighbors. They were an adulterous nation unfaithful to their sovereign God. This is why when Paul wrote about the sinful state of man, he concluded with such an encompassing statement (Romans 3:9-18):
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Scripture tells us that we are all sinners without exception (Old Testament examples) and without distinction (New Testament understanding). It is only by this witness from God’s special revelation we can only acknowledge the gravity of the problem. We are not only sick to our sin but dead to everything in relation to God. Moreover, It was also Paul who wrote our inability to choose for ourselves the things of God:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. ~ Eph 2:1-3
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:14)
Our total inability as sinners was the third main point of the CD. We are not utterly depraved as we can be due to the restraining work of God towards sin but we are totally unable to save ourselves from our sin because we are not neutral but totally opposed to God. This why the CD concluded on this point:
Article 3: Total Inability
Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.
If this is the right problem, what is the then the right solution? The CD made concessions pointing to two wrong solutions. Article 4 pointed to the inadequacy of general revelation or by arranging our behaviors based on common sense of decency. While in Article 5 explained the inadequacy of the law or the moral requirements of God in Scripture. According to the CD, it only reveals our helplessness and highlights our inability to completely obey them all. Rather on Article 6, it stated:
Article 6: The Saving Power of the Gospel
What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
The preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner are two main things that saved believers. So how did God apply this work to his people? He did so by calling and regenerating them since the beginning of creation then individually when the gospel was preaching to them and the Holy Spirit regenerated their will. This is the order of salvation as taught by the reformers and this is what we will we be discussing next.
Order of Salvation
Is there an order of Salvation? Because the work of redemption is from God, it is reasonable for us to ascertain that such work followed his will and purpose (Romans 8:28). The application of redemption, which was accomplished by God in Christ on the cross, is expected to follow a certain order. And because our God is a God of order and not chaos (1 Cor 14:33), we can discern a revealed pattern of order. This pattern is grounded in who God is and how he accomplishes his purpose. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s Word when he wrote:
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. ~ Isaiah 46:8-11
Our God is a sovereign God. This was why in Romans 8:28-30; John 3:30 and 5; John: 112, Ephesians 1:13 and others, we can plainly and reasonably conclude that the same God who promised these words from the Old Testament was the same God who accomplished the order of our salvation in the New Testament. We can be assured of such order because it was the accomplishment of God’s purposes in salvation.
I will not be able to completely discuss all the ten logical steps in the order of salvation. My purpose here is to present to you the relationship between regeneration and conversion. We ask thing question to clarify: Which came first our act of faith and repentance or the regenerating work of God in changing our will, mind, and affections? The CD explained that it was the latter. In Article 10, CD established that conversion was not through human effort but by the free work of God. And when asked how did it happen? In Article 11, CD stated that it was by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit:
Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in the elect, or works true conversion in them, God not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, through the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, God also penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant. God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.
There were a lot of Old Testament promises mentioned in this statement. The circumcision of the heart can be read in Deuteronomy which was the promised Spirit of the law. The powerful vision of Ezekiel was also mentioned here to illustrate the new heart of flesh which will be given to his people. There were also good references in the fulfillment of the New Testament in Christ. It mentioned a good tree producing good fruit.
But the question whether or not regeneration (work of the Holy Spirit changing the disposition of the sinner) precedes faith in conversion was personally settled to me when I understood the passages of Scripture in John 3:3 and 5:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
These verses settled for me that the condition set after the term “unless” had to satisfied first in order for the “seeing” and “entering” the kingdom to happen. It plainly teaches that new birth or the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit happened first then faith and repentance occurred after. This makes faith and repentance as a gift from God rather than a result of man’s effort.
Of course, such claim was made plain by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, when he wrote:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Our redemption was a result God’a gracious act of kindness toward us sinners. It is all by God’s grace alone. And here we can clearly see that even our faith is from God; it is a result of his regenerating work. Faith, defined in this way, is simply resting and trusting on the what God has accomplished in Christ’s atoning work. We understand that individually all those whom God has chosen will believe. They did not enter the kingdom God kicking and shouting because it is against their will. On the contrary, we because God applied his Spirit to them they become disposed to receive the merits of Christ.
This was how Dr. John Murray, Professor from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia explained it in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied:
“Regeneration is inseparable from its effects and one of the effects is faith. Without regeneration, it is morally and spiritually impossible for a person to believe in Christ, but when a person regenerated it morally and spiritually impossible for that person is not to believe. Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me John 6:37), and he was referring in this case surely to the giving of the Father in the efficacious drawing of the Father mentioned the (John 6:44,65). Regeneration is the renewing same context the heart and mind, and the renewed heart and mind must act of according to their nature.”
Let us consider what the CD wrote about this matter:
Faith is, therefore, to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because He who works in man both to will and to work, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.
This leads us then to our last final point. Faith is accompanied by repentance. Like two sides of one coin, faith and repentance occur when a sinner is regenerated and becomes converted. Faith is the laying hold of God while repentance is turning away from sin and evil. Then the former occurs, the latter follows logically. Several Scriptural references demonstrate this truth:
“(Paul)…testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Acts 20:21
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God..” – 1 Thes 1:9
Conclusion: Our Union with Christ
In summary, the problem is sin and the solution is grace. We not just sick because of sin but considered dead and unable to choose God and life. The work of the Holy is to regenerate our will, hearts, and minds and turn us from our darkness into light. These are all from God; it is pure grace. And reasonable considered even our faith was from a divine source and not man-made; it is a supernatural gift of God. And because faith is laying hold of God’s work in Christ, it is accompanied by repentance as an act of turning away from sin and living unto God in holiness.
These are the benefits we receive from Christ. Christ accomplished our redemption and the Holy Spirit applied it to his people. All things follow from our head, Christ and his body, the elect people of God, his church, his bride. Because we are united to him by faith, nothing we have which does not flow from him. This is the indissoluble bond we have in Christ. In eternity past, at the cross, and even when we’ve been converted, Christ bestows all these life-giving benefits to us for what has procured by his death, he gives as an inheritance to his people. For this we rejoice, we glory and praise for while none of these deserve, yet we enjoy now. Even in the midst of trial and suffering we can rest and be assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39