The Effectual Operation of the Blessed Spirit in the Regeneration or Conversion of Sinners

by John Owen

“To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages.” - John Owen

All men can be divided into two groups. They are either regenerate or unregenerate. All men are born unregenerate (John 3:3-8).

...Spiritual darkness is in all men and lies on all men until God, by an almighty work of the Spirit, shines into men’s hearts, or creates light in them (Matt 4:16; John 1:5; Act 26:18; Eph 5:8; Col 1:13; 1 Pet 2:9). ...The nature of this spiritual darkness must be understood. When men have no light to see by, then they are in darkness (Exod. 10:23). Blind men are in darkness, either by birth or by illness or accident (Psa. 69:23; Gen 19:11; Acts 13:11). A spiritually blind man is in spiritual darkness and is ignorant of spiritual things. 

There is an outward darkness on men and an inward darkness in men. 

Outward darkness is when men do not have that light by which they are enabled to see. So outward spiritual darkness is upon men when there is nothing to enlighten them about God and spiritual things (Matt 4:16; Psa 119:105; Psa. 19:1-4,8; 2 Pet 1:19; Rom 10:15, 18). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to remove this darkness by sending the light of the gospel (Acts 13:2, 4; 16:6-10; Psa. 147:19,20). 

Inward darkness, on the other hand, arises from the natural depravity and corruption of the minds of men concerning spiritual things. Man’s mind is depraved and corrupted in things which are natural, civil, political, and moral, as well as in things which are spiritual, heavenly and evangelical. This depravity is often held back from having its full effects by the common grace of the Holy Spirit. So, man’s mind being darkened, he is unable to see, receive, understand or believe to the saving of his soul. Spiritual things, or the mysteries of the gospel, without the Holy Spirit first creating within the soul a new light by which they can see and receive those things, cannot bring salvation.

However brilliant the mind may be, and however brilliant the preaching and presentation of the gospel might be, yet without the Holy Spirit first creating this light in them, they cannot receive, understand and agree with the truths preached, and so will not be led to salvation (Eph 4:17, 18). 

So the unregenerate ‘walk in the futility of their mind’ (Eph 4:17). The natural inclination of the unregenerate mind is to seek those things that cannot satisfy (Gen 6:5). It is an unstable mind (Prov. 7:11-12). The unregenerate understanding is darkened and cannot judge things properly (Jhn 1:5). The unregenerate heart is blind. In Scripture the heart includes the will also. Light is received by the mind, applied by the understanding and used by the heart. ‘But if the light within is darkness,’ said Jesus, ‘how great is that darkness.’

...Even though the unconverted mind is highly educated and talented, yet it is utterly unable to receive and understand spiritually those things needful for its eternal salvation. It will not respond to the preaching of the gospel until renewed, enlightened and enabled to do so by the Holy Spirit: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor 2:14). The subject of this verse is the natural man. The natural man is quite opposite of the spiritual man (1 Cor 15:44; Jude 19). 

Paul tells us that the first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor 15:45). The natural man comes from the first Adam and the spiritual man comes from the last Adam. The natural man is one that has all that is or can be had from the first Adam. He has a rational soul and is well able to use it. The natural man trusts in his reasoning powers and sees no need for any spiritual help. He does not see that God has given him a soul in order that it might learn and receive what he, God, has to give. Man is never made to live independently of God. Eyes are beautiful and useful, but if they try to see without light, their beauty and power will be of no use and the eyes might even be damaged. And if the unconverted mind tries to see spiritual things without the help of the Spirit of God, it will only end up destroying itself. 

In verse fourteen [1 Cor 2] we see things put to the natural man. These things are ‘the things of the Spirit of God’. Now what are these things of the Spirit of God which are put to the natural man? Here are some of them, all from 1 Cor chapter 2, ‘Jesus and him crucified’ (v.2). ‘The hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory’ (v. 7). “The things that are freely given to us by God’ (v.12). ‘The mind of Christ’ (v. 16). 

These are the things of the Spirit of God. These are things that cannot be received except by sovereign, supernatural illumination. These are the things that ‘eye has not see, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him’ (v.9). They are things from God’s eternal counsel. These are the things which the mind of man at his first creation had no idea existed (Eph 3:8-11). 

Two things can be said of the natural man and the things of the Spirit of God. Firstly, he does not receive them: secondly, he cannot know them. 

In this double assertion we learn firstly that the power to receive spiritual things is denied the natural man (Rom 8:7). He cannot receive them because they are spiritually discerned. We learn secondly that the natural man willingly rejects them. This is implied in the words ‘does not receive the things of the Spirit of God’. And he rejects them because they appear to him to be foolish. 

The natural man cannot, will not and does not receive the things of the Spirit of God. He can know the literal sense of the doctrines presented to him. He can know that Jesus Christ was crucified. But there is a wide difference between receiving doctrines as mere statements presented to him and knowing the reality which those statements present. 

The natural man can know the way of righteousness as a mere statement (2 Pet. 2:21). Other things he can know, merely as ideas presented to him (Titus 1:16; Rom 2:23, 24). But these truths have no transforming effect on his life. The spiritual man, on the other hand, knows them in reality and they have a transforming effect on his life (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:22-24). 

Now before spiritual things can be received two things are necessary. It is necessary that we understand them, agree with them and receive them because they agree with wisdom, holiness and righteousness of God (1 Cor 1:23, 24). It is also necessary that we see how well adapted they are to glorifying God, the salvation of sinners and bringing the church to grace and glory. The natural man cannot do this. He can, however, receive exhortations, promises, commands and threatenings in the gospel (1 John 5:20). But to him the wisdom of God is foolishness. Paul says that the ‘foolishness of God is wiser than men’ (1 Cor 1:25). But to the natural man they are foolishness.... He cannot [receive them] because they are spiritually discerned. The natural man by the natural light of reason can discern natural things. The spiritual man by a spiritual light received from Jesus Christ discerns spiritual things.

Paul teaches us the Christ ‘has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love’ (Col 1:13). 

[Due to the corruption of nature] ...the darkness fills the mind with enmity against God and all the things of God ( Col 1:21; Rom 8:7). If God is great in goodness and beauty, why do men hate him? This hatred arises from this darkness which is the corruption and depravity of our nature. 

This darkness fills the mind with prejudices against all spiritual things, and the mind is utterly unable to free itself from the prejudices. The darkened mind sees first the things that it lusts after. Then, later, it recognizes those lusts in itself. But when men are called to seek God above all other desires, then this is considered to be foolish, because to the unconverted mind things that are spiritual things will never bring contentment, happiness and satisfaction. In particular, the unregenerate mind has a special bias against the gospel.

The gospel...shows that obedience can arise only from a regenerate heart that is no longer at enmity with God. It also shows that the whole purpose of obedience is to being glory to God. It shows that we cannot obey until we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. All these things put moral duties into a new framework, the framework of the gospel. Secondly, by giving us his Spirit, God strengthens and enables us to obey according to the gospel framework. 

The eye is the natural light of the body. By means of the eyes, the body is led safely round dangerous obstacles, and so is kept from hurting itself. But if the eye is blind, or is surrounded by darkness and so cannot see, then the body has no idea where it is going and will inevitably bump into objects to trip over obstacles. What the eye is to the body, the mind is to the soul. If the mind sees the glory and beauty of Christ and his salvation presented in the gospel, it will excite the heart to desire them as truly good and the will to receive and embrace them. 

If the mind is ignorant of the gospel, or is blinded by prejudice, then the heart will not be roused to desire Christ, nor the will be urged to embrace him. ...We see, therefore, how important are the words of Jesus when he said, ‘You must be born again.’

...As the body cannot live without the soul, so the soul cannot live to God without spiritual life. Without the spiritual life the soul becomes morally corrupt (Rom 8:7,8; John 6:44; Matt 7:18; 12:33; Jer. 13:23). 

As the body has only passive power to receive life, for it cannot give life to itself and raise itself from the dead, so the soul also has only a passive power to receive spiritual life, for it has no power to regenerate itself from spiritual death to spiritual life. Exhortations, promises and threatenings in Scripture do not tell us what we can do, but what we ought to do. They show us our state of spiritual death and our inability to do any spiritual good. God is pleased to make these exhortations and promises the means by which we can receive spiritual life (James 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23). 

This inability to live to God is due to sin (Rom 5:12). Unregenerate persons are able to do something towards regeneration, but this they neglect to do, so they wilfully sin. Though they cannot live to God, they can and do resist God, because their depraved minds are alienated from the life of God. Unregenerate persons freely and wickedly choose to disobey God. 

Jesus complained, ‘You will not come to me that you might have life’ (John 5:40). There is in this death a ceasing of all vital activities. Unregenerate persons cannot do any vital activity that could be called spiritual obedience. True spiritual obedience springs from the life of God (Eph 4:18). 

...God is the origin of all life and specifically spiritual life (Psa. 36:9). So our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3).

Our spiritual life differs from every other kind of life. It does not come to us directly from God, but it is first deposited in all its fullness in Christ our mediator (Col. 1:19). So it is out of his fullness that we receive this life (John 1:16). So Christ is our life (Col 3:4). It is, therefore, not so much we who live but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20). We can do nothing of ourselves but only by Christ’s power and virtue (1 Cor 15:10). 

The origin of this life is in God. The fullness of this life is in Christ. And it is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. We experience it as a new power and ruling principle in us (Rom 8:11; Eph 4:15, 16). Christ is our life and without him we can do nothing (John 15:5) [including believe the gospel with our own natural resources]. This spiritual life imparted to us by the Holy Spirit is still also in Christ. So, by this life we are joined to Christ as a branch is joined to the tree, derives its life from the tree and can never live independently of the tree (John 15:4). 

This spiritual life is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit in order that we might be enabled to obey the terms of God’s holy covenant. By this new life, God writes his law in our hearts and then we are able to walk in obedience to his commandments. Without this ruling principle of spiritual life there can be not spiritual obedience. To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages. It does not matter how powerfully we are motivated and encouraged, without regeneration we can do no good works which are pleasing and acceptable to God. A religious, decent, moral life, derived from self and not ‘born of God’ is as sinful as the worst of sinful lives. 

Preachers of the gospel and others have sufficient warrant to press on all men the duties of repentance, faith and obedience; although they know the unregenerate have no ability to do these things. They must show the unregenerate why they are unable and that it is their own fault they are unable to do these things. It is the will of God and the command of God that the unregenerate should be told his duties. We are not to consider what man can or will do, but what God says they should do. There are two good reasons why these duties should be pressed on the ungodly. The ungodly must be stopped from going further into sin and being more and more hardened, and these duties are the means appointed by God for their conversion. God’s grace working in due time …

...According to Pelagianism, the preaching of God’s word [apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit] is quite sufficient as an outward means to bring a person to repentance and faith. The revelation made of God and his mind is quite sufficient to teach men all they need to believe and do, that they may be converted to God and begin to obey him. [in the Pelagian view] ...regeneration is the result of responding to the Word preached. 

Yes the Word of God is powerfully persuasive in itself, but until born again, unregenerate men cannot and will not be persuaded by it. The unregenerate must be persuaded that these are not ‘cunningly devised fables’ (2 Pet 1:16). Things in Scripture are not just truths, but divine truths. These are things that ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken’. And only when a person is born again will he believe that. 

The unregenerate must be persuaded that the things preached are good, lovely and excellent. They must be persuaded that only faith in God can bring them to the height of all happiness. They must be persuaded of the sinful depravity of their souls and their utter inability to do any good acceptable to God without first being born against by His Spirit. All these truths are divine truths, and therefore the person hearing them must be convinced that they have been revealed by one who has divine authority. Not only must the mind be persuaded but also the heart must be activated to desire and the will heartily to embrace these things for salvation. 

If the preaching of God’s Word is done with great eloquence and ability of speech, then men will be persuaded to repent and believe, say the Pelagians. But Paul utterly rejects this in his ministry. He says, “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Cor 2:4). 

...The real effectiveness of preaching does not lie in the clever oratorical ability of men, nor in the ability to back up the preaching by doing miracles. It lies in the following two things. Firstly, the preaching must have been instituted by God. He has appointed the preaching of his Word to be the only outward means for the conversion of the souls of men (1 Cor 1:17-20 Mark 16:15, 16; Rom 1:16). Secondly, the power that makes preaching effective in the hearts of men for their salvation is in God’s hands alone. To some, preaching is made effective for salvation, to others for damnation. God also gives his appointed preachers special spiritual gifts and abilities to preach his Word (Eph 4:11-13). So the power to persuade a person to repent and believe the gospel by preaching lies in the sovereign will of God. 

The Pelagians and all who believe that sinners must first repent and believe before they are born again say that the only work the Holy Spirit does in preaching is to persuade by motives, arguments and reasons put to the natural unconverted mind, and that by these alone the sinner is convinced and persuaded to repent. The sinner therefore repents and believes of his own free will and choice.

But we have shown that the mind of man is so corrupt and depraved, that unless preaching is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration no sinner will be persuaded to repent and believe. The outward means of conversion then is the preaching of God’s Word. The inward work necessary to persuade men to respond to the preaching is regeneration, which is a transforming, not merely a persuading work done on the souls of men by the Holy Spirit....

If the Holy Spirit does nothing more than present reasons, arguments and motives to conversion, the will of the unregenerate person will remain unmoved. If it is up to the unregenerate first to repent and believe before the Holy Spirit will do his work of regeneration, then this denies salvation to be of the sovereign grace of God. It is indeed true that the will of the unregenerate can resist and refuse the gospel and the grace that accompanies its preaching. But it is false to say that God is unable to effect a work of grace in us that cannot be resisted and will infallibly lead to conversion. It is false to say that the only work of grace God can do in us is that which can be resisted and rejected. It is false to say that the will of the unregenerate can make use of that grace of God or not, as it chooses. It is false to say that the power of conversion lies alone with the sinner, and that God cannot regenerate the sinner and bring him to conversion without the sinner first giving his consent. This is Pelagianism. 

These things are false because this gives all the glory of our regeneration and conversion to ourselves and not to the sovereign grace of God. It is false also because it leaves man to decide who will be in heaven and who will not. In spite of God’s purpose to save, and in spite of Christ’s incarnation and redemption, nobody could be saved and God would be frustrated and disappointed of his sovereign will and purpose. 

These things are false because this teaching is contrary to Scripture, which tells us that conversion is from first to last dependent on God’s grace (Phil 2:13). God works in us to will our conversion, and by his sovereign power brings it about.

If regeneration is nothing more than persuading a person to be good, then no new, real, supernatural strength has been conferred on the soul, though prejudices may have been removed from the mind. According to this teaching, man has no need to such supernatural power, because he has been able by his own power, the power of his own will, to overcome his depraved, sinful, corrupt nature, remove all errors and prejudices from his mind and bring himself to such holiness of life as to make himself wholly acceptable to God. This is the power of free will which some have believed and taught. Such people deny that man must first be born again before he can do anything pleasing and acceptable to God. 

Some teach that grace enlightens the mind, and that all man has to do is to choose the good which God’s grace has shown him, and then that grace will work along with his choosing and willing and so bring the soul to new birth. But all the grace of God is doing here is enlightening the mind, exciting the desires and helping the will, and this only by persuading the person to repent and believe. No real strength is imparted to the soul. The will is left perfectly free to cooperate with this grace or not, as it chooses. This also denies the whole grace of Christ and to make it of no use at all in salvation. It ascribes to man’s free will the honor for his conversion. It makes a man give birth to himself which is nonsense. It destroys the analogy between the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the natural body of Christ in the womb and the work of the Holy Spirit in the forming of his mystical body in regeneration. It makes the act of living to God by faith and obedience to be a mere natural human act and not the result of Christ’s mediation. It allows the Spirit of God no more power in regenerating us than is in a minister who preaches the Word or an orator who eloquently and feelingly persuades a person to turn from evil to doing good. 

We do not pray to God for anything but for what he has promised to give us. Does anyone then pray that God would merely persuade him or others to believe and obey? Do people pray to be converted or to convert themselves? The church of God has always prayed that God would work these things in us. Those who are truly concerned for their souls pray that God will bring them to true repentance and faith, that he will graciously work these things in their hearts. They pray that he will give them faith for Christ’s sake and increase it in them and that he will work in them by the exceeding greatness of his power both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. 

To think that by all these prayers, and with all those examples of prayer given in Scripture, we desire nothing more than that God would persuade, excite and stir us up to act by our own power and ability to bring about the answers to our prayers by our own efforts, is contrary to all Christian experience. For a man to pray with importunity, earnestness and with fervent zeal for that which he is quite able to do by himself, and which cannot be done except he will it to be done by his own free choice, is ridiculous. They mock God who pray to him to do for them what they can do for themselves. Suppose a man has ability to believe and repent. Suppose that his ability to believe and repent lies only in his free will and that God cannot by his grace work in him, but only persuade him to repent and believe, and to give him good reasons why he should do so, what would be the purpose of praying to God. Why ask God to give him faith and repentance? 

It is because many believe that they have it in their own power to repent and believe when they so choose, that they think Christian prayers are useless and foolish. But it is as easy to persuade a person to regenerate himself by persuading himself to repent and believe as it is to persuade a blind man to see, or a lame man to walk normally or a dead man to rise from the grave. Conclusion: The work of regeneration is not the Holy Spirit [merely] persuading sinners to repent and believe.

How Regeneration is Accomplished

In regeneration a person the Holy Spirit makes use of the law and the gospel. There is not only a moral but also a direct nature-changing work of the Spirit on the minds or souls of men in regeneration. This is what we must hold on to, or all the glory of God’s grace is lost, and the grace which comes to us by Christ will be neglected. Paul tells us of this direct work of the Spirit: “That you may know ... what s the exceeding greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the work of his mighty power which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph 1:18:- 2). The power here mentioned has an exceeding greatness attributed to it, because by this power Christ was physically raised from the dead. Paul would have us know that the same mighty power which God worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead is the same mighty power which the Holy Spirit works when he raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration. By this same mighty power we are kept by God to the day of salvation. It is because of his mighty power continually working in Christians that they are kept from ever falling away so as to be eternally lost. 

...Where any work of grace begun in a person does not result in regeneration and the salvation of that person, it is because God never intended to regenerate that person, and so did not work that work in him. There is an important doctrinal principle to learn here. When the Holy Spirit intends to regenerate a person, he removes all obstacles, overcomes all resistance and opposition, and infallibly produces the result he intended. can this be done without forcing and compelling the will? ..the work of regeneration is an internal work, transforming our very nature. This work of regeneration is not preached to the will and so it not resisted by the will, but it works effectively on the will, wonderfully renewing it. The will, in the first act of conversion, does not will or choose to act first and then is regenerated. Rather it is first renewed by regeneration and then it wills or chooses. The will lies passive or inert until roused by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. There is an inward, almighty, secret act of power producing or working in us the will to be converted to God. This act of power so works on our wills [affections] that we freely and gladly will what God wants us to will and choose, which is to do his will. 

God Works in Us What He has Promised to Do

Before the work of grace the heart is ‘stony’. It can do no more than a stone to please God. A stony heart is obstinate and stubborn. But God says that he will take away this stony heart (Ezek 11:19). He does not say he will try and take it away, or give us some power so that we can take it away ourselves, but that he will take it away. When God says he will take it away, he means that he will infallibly take it away and that noting can stop him taking it away. He promises to give us a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:26).

There is an 'eye' in the understanding of man. This eye is the ability to see spiritual things. It is sometimes said to be blind, darkness, shut. By these descriptions we are taught that the natural mind cannot know God personally for salvation, and nor can it see, that is, discern spiritual things. It is the work of the Spirit of grace to open this eye (luke 4:18, Acts 26:18). He does this, firstly, by giving us the spirit of wisdom and revelation. Secondly, he gives us a heart to know him (Jer 24:7).

We are enabled to obey God firstly by an inward, spiritual, ruling principle of grace ... by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ according to the terms of the new covenant... by which God writes his laws in our hearts and enables us to obey them by the Holy Spirit.


Excerpt from The Holy Spirit by John Owen - Also avaialble as a free eBook

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