"When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways." Acts 3:26
"A man can receive only what is given him from heaven." John 3:27
I often find myself debating with Christians who believe that both man and God play an equal role in regeneration (synergists) and that it is our choice that is the sine qua non of the new birth. They will argue that God gives everyone prevenient grace but man must exercize his autonomous free will to make that grace effectual. These teach that man can choose Christ apart from his desires and that this is what makes his will free. To choose other than what one desires constitutes true freedom for them since the will is above and independent of all other influences. But is this what the Bible teaches?
The primary aim of this paper is to prove from the Scriptures that we always choose what we want (desire) most and that this is based on our natures. We choose something because we desire it. In other words, we believe in Christ because our desire for Christ becomes greater than our desire for sin. A secondary aim is to explore where these desires come from. Does it come from our unregenerate nature (as synergists believe) or are they the unconditional gift of God? My synergistic friends say that by utilizing God's grace, apart from our desires, our autonomous will ultimately determines our final destiny. I will argue that this position is fatal to their entire theological system.
We Choose What We Desire Most
Let's begin with some biblical texts that teach that our nature determines our desire and our desires determine our choices. Christ says:
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks." Luke 6:45
What Jesus says here is plain - that water does not rise above its source. Our decision to say something good or bad is solely determined by the condition of our heart. There is further evidence for this same concept in Matthew 7:18:
"A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit."
Jesus is here teaching that it is the nature of the tree that determines that which comes out of it. Only one who has a good nature is capable of creating a right thought, generating a right affection, or originating a right volition. Jesus again hammers the same concept into the unbelieving Jews when they discussed whether or not they were Abraham's descendants:
"Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies... He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God." John 8:43-44, 47 (emphasis mine)
The Jews, in the above passage, could not hear the word of God because they were of the devil (their nature) and this gave rise to their wanting to do his desires. Their nature rendered them morally impotent to hear the words of Jesus. Furthermore Jesus teaches that before one can hear the words of God they must be of God. In other words, one will not understand the gospel as long as one remains in their fallen unregenerate state.
God Demands Perfection
In the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus tells the man that if he obeys the commandments he will have eternal life. We all know that the story was told to expose his inability to do so. But the man (mistakenly) had confidence that he had kept them from his youth. Jesus, knowing his heart and where he would stumble, told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. In other words, repentance from his covetousness and faith in Christ are what Jesus told him he still lacked. But he went away sad. Jesus then tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel through the eye of a needle. "Who then can be saved? the disciples asked, knowing that Jesus meant that the way to heaven is blocked to all men - a holy standard that no one could possibly reach. The answer Jesus gives is "that what is impossible with man [repentance and faith] is possible with God." The rich young man's desire for riches and his sin of coveting was greater than his desire for Christ. His nature could not rise above his desires and Jesus said that such was impossible with all men. God alone has the ability to make it so. The Bible is filled with such examples. It is really a myth that man in his natural state is genuinely seeking God. Men may seek a god, but they do not seek the true God for who he is, as revealed in the Scripture. Apart from the new birth, no one comes into the light of the true God but suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
The Bible, therefore, teaches beyond any doubt that we act or choose according to our greatest desire which is based on our natures. Jesus, as noted above, teaches that it is impossible to do otherwise. Furthermore, as a consequence of physical death to Adam and his descendants (Gen 2:17) there are several other problems with man's nature in his unregenerate state including his inability to understand God (Psalm 50:21;Job 11:7-8; Rom 3:11); to see spiritual things (John 3:3); to know his own heart (Jer 17:9); to direct his own steps in the path of life (Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12); to free himself from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10); to receive the Holy Spirit (John 14:17); to hear, understand or receive the words of God (John 8:47; 1 Corinthians 2:14); to give himself birth into God's family (John 1:13, Romans 9:15-16); to produce repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9; John 6:64, 65; 2 Thessalonians 3:2; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:25); to come to Christ (John 10:26; John 6:44); and to please God (Romans 8:5, 8, 9). These consequences of Adam's disobedience on his descendants are what theologians often refer to as the total depravity of man. Without a change of disposition, the love of God and His law is not the natural man's deepest animating motive and principle.
What does all of this have to do with John 3:16?
Synergists will often say to me: "Predestinarians believe in a God who would, indeed, require more than he enables or allows men to achieve. That is the kind of God they believe in." In this they are partly correct, but the fault is with man, not God ... because Gods nature did not change, ours did. God's law is perfect because He is. He cannot lower His standards for us or He would no longer be God. He, therefore, has a specific purpose in requiring moral perfection of us and this includes the command to believe in Christ. Statements in the Scripture like "If thou art willing" and "whosoever believes, choose life" like in John 3:16 are in the subjunctive (hypothetical) mood. A grammarian would explain that this is a conditional statement that asserts nothing indicatively. In this passage, what we "ought" to do does not necessarily imply what we "can" do. The Ten Commandments, likewise, speak of what we ought to do but they do not imply that we have the moral ability to carry them out. The commandments of God were never meant to empower us but to strip us of trusting in our own ability so that we would come to an end of ourselves. With striking clarity, Paul teaches that this is the intent of Divine legislation (Rom 3:20, 5:20, Gal 3:19,24). If anyone is tempted to argue that belief is merely an invitation, not a command, read 1 John 3:23: "And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ..." So I believe that those who hold to the idea that since God commands the fallen unregenerate man to do something he therefore has the ability to do so is imposing an unbiblical assumption on to the text. A command or invitation with an open ended hypothetical statement such as John 3:16 does not imply the ability to fulfill it. This is especially true in light of texts such as John 1:13, Rom 9:16, John 6:37, 44, 63-65; Rom 3:11; Matt 16-26' 1 Cor 2:14 and many more which show man's moral inability to believe the Gospel in the fallen state. In our unregenerate nature we do not want God but rather love darkness and "will not come into the light".
In The Cross God Gives To Us What He Demands From Us
How can this be good news, however, when men are never found naturally willing to submit in faith to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ? (Rom 3:11; John 6:64,65; 2 Thessalonians 3:2) Because God gives to us freely, what he demands from us. In the gospel God reveals the same righteousness and faith for us that God demands from us. What we had to have, but could not create or achieve or fulfill, God grants us freely, namely, the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21) and the faith of Christ. He reveals, as a gift in Christ Jesus, the faith and righteousness that was once only a demand. Faith is not something that the sinner contributes towards the price of His salvation. Jesus has already paid that price in full for us. Faith is our first gasp of breath in our new birth, so to speak. It is a witness of God's work of grace already haven taken place within us (Eph 2:5, 8; 2 Tim 2:25).
Romans 3:11, 12 says "there is none who seek God, no not one" and 1 Cor 2:14 says that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit, they are foolishness to him and he does not accept them because they are spiritually discerned. Even Peter had to have the Father reveal that Jesus was the Christ. The Arminians and we agree that whosoever believes has eternal life ... but the question goes back further than that - what causes one to believe?
C.H. Spurgeon, in his sermon Human Inability, explained this with great clarity:
"Oh!" saith the Arminian, "men may be saved if they will." We reply, "My dear sir, we all believe that; but it is just the "if they will" that is the difficulty. We assert that no man will come to Christ unless he be drawn; nay, we do not assert it, but Christ himself declares it--"Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life;' and as long as that "ye will not come' stands on record in Holy Scripture, we shall not be brought to believe in any doctrine of the freedom of the human will." It is strange how people, when talking about free-will, talk of things which they do not at all understand. "Now," says one, "I believe men can be saved if they will." My dear sir, that is not the question at all. The question is, are men ever found naturally willing to submit to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ? We declare, upon Scriptural authority, that the human will is so desperately set on mischief, so depraved, and so inclined to everything that is evil, and so disinclined to everything that is good, that without the powerful. supernatural, irresistible influence of the Holy Spirit, no human will ever be constrained towards Christ. You reply, that men sometimes are willing, without the help of the Holy Spirit. I answer--Did you ever meet with any person who was?... "
I would argue that is why Jesus stresses the new birth in the entire passage of John 3. Nicodemus could not understand Jesus language: Flesh gives birth to flesh and Spirit gives birth to spirit. Just as in our first physical birth we were passive so also in our spiritual birth we are the same. We do not actively participate in either birth with our efforts. The Spirit is likened to the wind in the passage where we do not know if it is coming or going - so it is everyone who is born of the spirit. The work of the Spirit is sovereign and supernatural. Just as a blind man will not see if you shine a light in his eyes, command him all you want. It isn't light he needs but an entirely new set of eyes. That is what the new birth is like. Prior to regeneration Satan has taken us captive to do his will. He has blinded us to the truth. We must be freed from our own base desires and captive will which can only be accomplished by the finger of God through the finished work of Christ.
In John 3:19, 20 in the same context of 3:16 (three verses later) Jesus qualifies His "whosoever believes" statement: "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (emphasis mine). (That's all of us prior to regeneration).
But we all know that some do come to the light. Read what John 3:20-21 says about them. " But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God." So indeed there are those who come to the light; those whose deeds are the work of God. "Wrought in God" means worked in and by God. Apart from this gracious regenerating work of God all men hate the light of God and will not come into it.
Instead of hanging our hats on a verse that fits our particular system of theology we must interpret scripture with scripture, especially in the context of the passage. Now that we view the entirety of John 3 the true meaning of the text becomes clear. John 1:10-12 is also a favorite of synergists when sharing the gospel:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--."
Great passage, I also love to use this verse but we cant stop there. We should recognize that we must add the qualifier in verse 13:
" children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." John 1:13
I find it peculiar many leave this verse out in their gospel presentations: These verses all go together. This repeats a constant theme in the Scriptures: that we are required to repent and believe the gospel, but additionally, that we are morally unable to do so without the quickening work of the Holy Spirit. The offer of whosoever believes John 3:16 is to all men and truly offered to all men, but no natural man desires God. ALL reject his offer, but what we cannot do for ourselves God does for us. Those who do come to God give Him the glory because He has prepared their heart, giving them a desire for Christ that is greater than their desire to remain in sin. This is what He did for Lydia through the preaching of Paul in the book of Acts: the Lord opened her heart [Lydia] to give heed to what was said by Paul"(Acts 16:14). What happened to Lydia is what happens to everyone who comes to faith in Christ. If the Lord opens our heart we willingly believe, and no resistance is given because we wouldn't want to resist. Our new natures made alive by the Holy Spirit have new desires and dispositions that we could not produce on our own. If the Lord opened Lydia's heart to give heed and she resisted, it would be a contradictory statement. Note that God opened her heart "to give heed". If God disarmed Lydia's hostility so she would believe then there should be no further debate as to whether He does this in everyone else that has faith. Although we do the actual believing ourselves, however, in the synergistic scheme, man turns his affection and faith toward God while still in his fallen, unregenerate stony-hearted nature. But man must first have a new nature to believe - i.e. the Scripture teaches that the man without the Spirit does not desire, understand, nor is able to obey or turn to God (1 Cor 2:14, Rom 8:7, Rom 3:11). If we are to believe, God must first make our heart of stone into a heart of flesh:
"Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Synergists believe that the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies sinners, belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness. But the Apostle Paul says, "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And again, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). Furthermore they teach that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his regenerative grace, we believe, will and desire, but do not confess that it is by the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we even have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things; If they make the assistance of grace depend on our humility or obedience but don't agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, they contradict the Scripture which says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10).
So lets ask our Synergistic friends why does one man believes and not another?
In the Arminian scheme, God gives man enough grace to put him in a position to decide for himself whether or not to believe. Then is the one man smarter, wiser, and more humble? If this were the case then God would be saving us on the basis of our self-generated character and not by grace. Ask them how did their eyes turn to God. One man utilizes the grace given him and the other doesn't. What in man determines this choice and why? This leaves us with salvation of merit since one man, who has good thoughts and affections for God choose Him while the other does not. We have already proven that the Scripture teaches that we make our choices based on what we desire most? Where did the one man get the wisdom and inclination toward God while the other remains hardened? How did one man create a right thought, a right affection, or originate a right volition? If it did not come from his desires then where is it from? The choices we make are based on who we are. A natural man would never choose God on his own without regenerative grace. So God supernaturally exerts the regenerating work of the spirit to awaken the faith of His elect.
So why do some men reject God?
Very simple answer: Because they are wicked. "...Those who perish [do so] because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved." (2 Thes 2:10) They hate God and do not want Him, as is the case of every person without the Spirit. Christ says "you do not believe because you are not my sheep." Jesus again clearly shows that the nature of the person determines the choices we make. He does not say "you do not believe - therefore you are not my sheep no, He says your are not my sheep (THERFORE) you do not believe. The Bible clearly states why some believe and others do not. Our nature determines our choices. Unbelief is due to wickedness, according to the Scriptures. Belief is due to God mercifully changing the heart's disposition (towards God) through the quickening work of the Holy Spirit. The synergist's scheme leaves each person to decide for themselves while still in their natural fallen condition. Man in his unregenerate state decides based on a principle within him. Our will itself is not autonomous but is controlled by who we are by nature. We never choose what we do not want or hate. In our unregenerate state we are still hostile to God, love darkness, are blinded by the devil, being taken captive to do his will, and do not desire or want spiritual things.
If the previenient grace of the Arminians only makes the heart neutral, as they admit, then man is neither inclined nor disinclined toward either belief or unbelief - therefore the only option is that it is by chance that one believes or not. They will vehemently argue against this but will not provide another Scriptural alternative. Our choice, however, is based on our inner character, not chance. One man chooses and not another because one has been renewed by the gracious work of God. Only this gives all glory to God for salvation.
"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe." ... He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." John 6:63-65
In conclusion, it is my prayer that the church of the 21st century would finally get the doctrine of grace alone right. Oh! that we would understand the depth of mans lost condition and that gloriousness of Gods mercy and grace and we would not be afraid to proclaim it. I believe it would go a long way in creating a God-honoring posture of worship where His people think right thoughts about Him and set the stage for true revial. This has been a long drawn out battle through the history of the church (Augustine/Pelagius, Luther/Erasmus, Calvin/Arminius, Wesley/Whitefield) but I remain very optimistic for the future growth of Gods kingdom.
Related Articles or Questions:
God's Love, the World, the Extent of the Atonement and John 3:16 New! John Hendryx
This article is a response to a letter I received regarding the above article.
Biblical Regeneration and Affectional Theology by John Hendryx
Do We Account For the Apparent "Good" That Comes From Those Who Have
Not Been Regenerated? by John
Human Inability by Charles Spurgeon, 1858
Limited Atonment in light of John 3:16 by Ra McLaughlin
The Consistency of Divine Sovereignty and Human Accountability by Matt Perman