by John Hendryx
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). A command or invitation with an open ended hypothetical statement such as John 3:16 ('whosover believes') 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 come to faith or believe the Gospel in their fallen state. In our unregenerate nature we do not want God but rather love darkness and "will not come into the light" * (John 3:19, 20).
If men are never found naturally willing to submit in faith to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ, then how can it be good news? (Rom 3:11; John 6:64,65; 2 Thessalonians 3:2) Because in Christ Jesus, 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 living faith that unites to 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; 1 John 5:1; John 6:63, 65).
Notice that 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 (Matthew 16:17). We affirm with Arminians 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. (John 3:8) IN other words, 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 single verse read in isolation that fits our particular system of theology we must interpret scripture with scripture.. 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 can’t 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 (Deut 29:4, 30:6), and no resistance is given because, our hearts having been renewed, we wouldn't want to resist. Our new natures which are 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. This is even true for Arminians who affirm "prevenient grace" because those who are granted prevenient grace are not regenerate or they would already be Christians. men and women 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.” - Ezekiel 36:26-27
Arminians and other synergists believe that the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies sinners, belongs to us by nature and is not 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 some wrongly teach that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his regenerative grace, we believe, will and desire, but fail to 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 believe the gospel; 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).