John 3:16, Man's Desires and the New Birth

"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

When debating with Christians who believe in the equal role of man and God in regeneration (synergists), the question arises: is our choice the sine qua non of the new birth? Synergists argue that man must exercise their autonomous free will to make prevenient grace effectual. In their view, true freedom lies in choosing Christ irrespective of one's desires, for they believe that the will is self-governing and above all other influences. But, one must ask, does this align with what the Bible teaches?

This paper aims to prove that our nature and desires dictate our choices. Our desires drive our choices, and we choose what we want most. In other words, our desire for Christ must be greater than our desire for sin for us to believe in Him. The secondary aim is to explore the source of our desires. Do they stem from our unregenerate nature, or are they an unconditional gift from God? My synergistic friends believe that our autonomous will determines our destiny, apart from our desires. However, this position is fatal to the very foundation of their theology.

If our desires are simply a product of our fallen nature, can we truly be said to have free will? The Bible teaches that we are slaves to sin before Christ sets us free. Therefore, our desires must come from an external source, such as God. Without His unconditional gift of grace, our desires will always be enslaved to sin.

To illustrate this point, consider the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. His deepest desire was to persecute Christians, but God's grace transformed his desire to follow Christ. This change in desire drove his choice to follow Christ.

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:

"A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit." Matthew 7:18

“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

Luke 6:45 is a profound verse that Jesus uses to teach his followers about the relationship between the heart and the words that come out of a person's mouth. Jesus says that a good man brings good things out of the good that is stored in his heart, and an evil man brings forth evil from the evil stored up in his heart. This means that whatever is in the heart will ultimately come out in a person's speech and actions. In other words, we cannot say or do anything that is not already present in our hearts.

Jesus uses a simple analogy to reinforce this truth in Matthew 7:18 when he says, "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit." This means that a person's nature is what determines the character of their thoughts, emotions, and actions. If a good nature has been wrought in a person by God, they will produce good fruit, and if they have an evil nature, they will produce bad fruit. Therefore, we need to examine the state of our hearts to ensure that we are keeping in step with the Spirit who produces good fruit in our lives.

This concept is not new to the teachings of Jesus. He had previously addressed it when he spoke to the Jews in John 8:43-44, 47. In this passage, Jesus points out that the reason the Jewish leaders could not understand his teachings was that they were of their father the devil. They were morally impotent to hear the words of Jesus because their nature rendered them incapable of understanding the truth. Jesus goes on to say that only those who are of God can hear his words because they have a nature that is capable of understanding the gospel.

This means that until a person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, they will not be able to understand the gospel. It is only when a person's heart is transformed by God that they can hear his words, believe and produce good fruit in their lives.

Therefore, it is essential that we guard our hearts and trust in God's grace to work in us, transforming us from the inside out. We need to ask God to reveal any areas of our hearts that need to be purified and to help us produce good fruit in our lives. We must remember that our words and actions are a reflection of our heart, and if we want to glorify God, we maintain constant communion with God, who works in and through us according to his sovereign good pleasure.

In conclusion, Jesus teaches us that our words and actions are a reflection of our heart. We cannot say or do anything that is not already present in our hearts. Therefore, we need to examine the state of our hearts and ask God to transform us from the inside out. Only then can we produce good fruit in our lives and glorify God. Let us seek to have a pure heart that is filled with good things so that we can be a blessing to others and bring glory to our Heavenly Father.

God Demands Perfection

The story of the rich young ruler is one that many people are familiar with. In this story, Jesus tells the man that if he obeys the commandments, he will have eternal life. However, this story was not intended to demonstrate the man's obedience. Instead, it was meant to expose his inability to obey perfectly. The rich young ruler mistakenly believed that he had kept the commandments since his youth. Jesus, knowing his heart and where he would stumble, instructed him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. Jesus was telling him that repentance from covetousness and faith in Christ were what he still lacked. However, the man, unable to part from his love of riches, walked away saddened. Jesus then tells his disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The disciples, recognizing the impossible standard Jesus presented, asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus responded that "what is impossible with man [repentance and faith], is possible with God." The rich young man's desire for wealth and his sin of covetousness outweighed his desire for Christ, and his nature was incapable of rising above his desires.

The Bible is filled with examples of man's inability to reach God's perfect standards. It is a common misconception that man in his natural state seeks after God. Men may seek a god, but not the true God as revealed in scripture. Without the new birth, no one can come into the light of the true God without suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

The Bible teaches, without a doubt, that we act and choose based on our greatest desire, which stems from our nature. As Jesus noted above, it is impossible to do otherwise. Furthermore, the physical death of Adam and his descendants (Gen 2:17) has resulted in other issues with man's unregenerate nature, including his inability to comprehend God, see spiritual things, understand his own heart, direct his own path, free himself from the curse of the Law, receive the Holy Spirit, understand or receive God's word, give birth into God's family, produce repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, come to Christ, and please God. These consequences of Adam's disobedience on his descendants are referred to by theologians as the total depravity of man. Without a change of disposition, the love of God and His law cannot be the natural man's deepest motive and principle.

In conclusion, the perfect standard set by God is a reminder of our own imperfection, and how much we need the salvation that only Jesus can provide. We cannot achieve this on our own, for our natural desires and actions are based on our nature, which is fallen and unable to please God. But, thanks be to God, He has made a way by grace through faith in Jesus.

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 God’s 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 fact, the immediate context of John 3:16, as seen in John 3:19-20, explicitly states that people "loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed." This underscores the very point that belief in Christ requires a supernatural work of God.

In order to fully comprehend the meaning of John 3:16, one must examine its context within the larger narrative. Specifically, the preceding verses (3, 5, and 8) establish the concept of the new birth, while the subsequent verses (19-20) address man's inherent moral depravity and his unwillingness to come into the light. 

As John 3:8 states, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." This verse emphasizes that the new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit that is not within human control. Furthermore, the idea that belief in Christ requires a supernatural work of God is further supported by the fact that man, in his fallen state, loves darkness and is unwilling to come into the light. As John 3:19-20 explains, "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed." In light of such passages, it is clear that belief in Christ is not a matter of human will, but rather a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, any interpretation of John 3:16 that ignores the importance of this supernatural work is misguided and biblically unsound.

A number of passages throughout the Bible, including John 1:13, Rom 9:16, John 6:37, 44, 63-65, Rom 3:11, Matt 16-26, and 1 Cor 2:14, further underscore man's moral inability to believe the Gospel in the fallen state. Therefore, it is erroneous to assume that the command or invitation to believe in John 3:16 implies the ability to fulfill it. Such an interpretation disregards the importance of the supernatural work of God in the process of salvation.

In The Cross God Gives To Us What He Demands From Us

How can the gospel be good news if men are never naturally willing to submit in faith to its humbling terms? (Romans 3:11; John 6:64,65; 2 Thessalonians 3:2) The answer is that God gives us freely what He demands from us. In the gospel, God reveals the same righteousness and faith for us that He demands from us. What we needed but could not create, achieve, or fulfill, God grants us freely: 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 were once only a demand. Faith is not something that the sinner contributes towards the price of their salvation. Jesus has already paid that price in full for us. Faith is our first gasp of breath in our new birth. It is a witness of God's work of grace already having taken place within us (Ephesians 2:5, 8; 2 Timothy 2:25).

Romans 3:11-12 says, "There is none who seeks God, no not one." 1 Corinthians 2:14 states that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit, as 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 16:16-17). While Arminians and we agree that all the believing ones have eternal life, 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 this is why Jesus emphasizes the new birth in the entire passage of John 3. Nicodemus couldn't 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 don't actively participate in either birth with our efforts. The Spirit is likened to the wind in the passage, where we don't know if it's coming or going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit is sovereign and supernatural. Just as a blind man won't 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's 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, which is in the same context as 3:16, 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 theological system, 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--."

John 1:10-12 is a great passage to use when sharing the gospel, but we can't stop there. It is essential to 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). Many people leave out this verse in their gospel presentations, but it is important to understand that it repeats a constant theme in the Scriptures: we are required to repent and believe the gospel, but we are also morally unable to do so without the quickening work of the Holy Spirit.

The call to faith of "whosoever believes" in John 3:16 is truly meant for all men, but no natural man desires God. All reject His offer, but what we will not do for ourselves, the Holy Spirit does for us by softening our stubborn heart. Those who 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. The Lord opened Lydia's heart to give heed to what was said by Paul in Acts 16:14. 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, in the synergistic scheme, man turns his affection and faith toward God while still in his fallen, unregenerate stony-hearted nature. However, man must first have a new nature to believe. 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

According to the Canons of Dort, synergists believe that the desire for faith comes naturally to us, and not as a gift of grace through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, the Apostle Paul affirms that the work of faith in us is initiated and completed by God, as stated in Philippians 1:6. Additionally, Ephesians 2:8 asserts that our salvation through faith is not from ourselves, but is a gift of God's grace. Synergists hold that God shows us mercy when we believe and have the will and desire to do so, but they do not acknowledge that it is only by the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we possess faith, the will, and the strength to do these things. Furthermore, if they suggest that the assistance of grace is dependent on our humility or obedience without acknowledging that it is itself a gift of grace that we are obedient and humble, they contradict Scripture, which asks, "What do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7) and acknowledges, "But by the grace of God, I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

So lets ask our Synergistic friends why does one man believes and not another? 

The Arminian affirms total human moral inability and utter helplessness of the natural man in spiritual matters and the absolute necessity for supernatural prevenient grace. Furthermore, he posits that all individuals receive prevenient grace from God, which enables them to choose whether or not to believe in Christ. However, this notion implies that the person who chooses to believe is wiser, smarter, and more humble than the one who rejects Christ. This would mean it cannot be attributed solely to grace since both received grace. Such a conclusion contradicts the very essence of salvation, which is based on God's unmerited favor and not on our own merit or character. It is therefore necessary to question how one individual makes use of the prevenient grace given to him while the other does not, and what determines this choice. Such inquiries lead us to the conclusion that the Arminian scheme is faulty since it suggests that salvation is based (at least partly) on our own meritorious good will, rather than on God's grace alone.

Premise 1: If the Arminian scheme were true, then the person who chooses to believe is naturally wiser, smarter, and more humble than the person who rejects Christ.

Premise 2: However, if this were the case, then salvation would be based on the individual's good will and character rather than by grace alone.

Conclusion: Therefore, the Arminian scheme is flawed because it suggests that salvation is meritorious, or based on some point of goodness in us and not based on grace alone.

Note: It is widely acknowledged that Arminians reject the notion of a meritorious salvation, and indeed find it abhorrent. Nevertheless, it must be noted that a significant inconsistency exists within their belief system, particularly in regards to the doctrine of prevenient grace. This inconsistency ultimately leads to the conclusion that, in this system, salvation must be based on man's good will, regardless of whether or not this is something that Arminians openly espouse. The ramifications of this conclusion are profound and far-reaching, necessitating a careful and thorough exploration of the matter in order to arrive at a more biblical, coherent and consistent theological framework.

So why do some men reject God? 

The answer is simple, yet profound: because they are wicked. Every person without the Spirit hates God and does not want Him. Unbelief is due to wickedness, according to the Scriptures. But belief is due to God mercifully changing the heart's disposition toward Him. Our nature determines our choices, and in our unregenerate state, we are still hostile to God, love darkness, are blinded by the devil, and do not desire or want spiritual things.

If the Arminian's previenient grace only makes the heart neutral, then man is neither inclined nor disinclined toward either belief or unbelief, making it purely a matter of chance whether one believes or not. But our choice 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.

As Jesus said, "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing." The words He speaks are spirit and life, but some do not believe. This is why He said, "No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him."

In conclusion, it is my prayer that the church of the 21st century will finally understand the depth of man's lost condition and the gloriousness of God's mercy and grace. Let us not be afraid to proclaim it boldly and with conviction. This understanding will create a God-honoring posture of worship where His people think right thoughts about Him and set the stage for true revival. The battle for truth has been ongoing throughout the history of the church, but I remain optimistic for the future growth of God's kingdom. Will you join me in prayer and action to spread the good news of God's grace and mercy to a lost and dying world?


Related Articles or Questions:

God's Love, the World, the Extent of the Atonement and John 3:16 John Hendryx
This article is a response to a letter I received regarding the above article.

Biblical Regeneration and Affectional Theology by John Hendryx

How Do We Account For the Apparent "Good" That Comes From Those Who Have Not Been Regenerated? by John Hendryx

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

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