The Necessity of Supernatural Internal Work for Salvation: A Reformed Response to Provisionist Belief

Provisionism posits that only external instruments, such as the proclamation of the gospel, are necessary for salvation, rejecting the need for any supernatural internal work in the heart as a prerequisite to faith. This view contends that neither non-effectual prevenient grace nor any form of internal divine action is required to enable an individual to respond to God’s call. As a Reformed pastor and theologian, I will demonstrate through biblical exegesis that this position overlooks the essential role of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work in bringing a person to saving faith.

Scripture consistently emphasizes the inadequacy of external means alone to bring about genuine spiritual transformation and saving faith. The human condition, as described in the Bible, is one of profound spiritual deadness and inability apart from divine intervention. Ephesians 2:1-3 portrays humanity as "dead in the trespasses and sins," walking in disobedience and living according to the passions of the flesh. This depiction of spiritual death implies an incapacity to respond to the gospel message solely through external means. Just as a physically dead person cannot revive themselves, so too can a spiritually dead person not generate faith without an internal work of God.

The necessity of the Holy Spirit’s internal work is further affirmed in John 3:3-5, where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that one must be "born again" to see the kingdom of God. This new birth is described as being "born of water and the Spirit." The metaphor of birth signifies a profound and radical transformation that originates not from human effort or external influence but from the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ insistence on the necessity of this new birth underscores that a supernatural internal change is indispensable for entering God’s kingdom.

Moreover, Paul’s letter to Titus reinforces the idea that salvation involves an internal renewal by the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:5, Paul writes, "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit." This regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit are not mere enhancements to the external call of the gospel but are fundamental to the transformation that enables a person to respond in faith.

1 Corinthians 2:14 also speaks directly to the issue of spiritual incapacity without divine intervention: "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." This passage highlights that the natural (unregenerate) person is inherently unable to accept or comprehend spiritual truths. The need for spiritual discernment, which comes through the Holy Spirit, indicates that an internal work is necessary for a person to move from a state of spiritual blindness to one of spiritual understanding and acceptance.

Additionally, Ezekiel 36:26-27 prophetically illustrates the transformative work God promised to perform within His people: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." This promise of a new heart and Spirit within signifies an internal transformation that enables obedience and faithfulness to God. The imagery of removing a heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh metaphorically describes a radical internal change necessary for true spiritual life and responsiveness to God’s commands.

In conclusion, the biblical testimony overwhelmingly supports the necessity of a supernatural internal work by the Holy Spirit for salvation. External instruments, such as the proclamation of the gospel, are indeed essential as the means through which the message of salvation is communicated. However, without the internal, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, these external means cannot effectuate saving faith in a person who is spiritually dead, blind, and hostile to God. The Reformed understanding affirms that it is through the powerful, life-giving work of the Holy Spirit that individuals are enabled to respond in faith, thereby experiencing the fullness of salvation in Christ.

Spirit and Word

Scripture provides many instances where the Word of God and the Spirit of God are depicted as working together to bring about salvation, transformation, and spiritual growth. These passages illustrate the inseparable relationship between the external proclamation of the Word and the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Here are key examples:

Ezekiel 37:1-14 - The Valley of Dry Bones

In this powerful vision, the prophet Ezekiel is shown a valley filled with dry bones, representing the spiritually dead state of Israel. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and as he does so, the breath (spirit) of God enters them, bringing them to life:

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 (ESV): "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake."

Exegesis: Paul highlights that the effectiveness of the gospel message depended on it coming not just as words, but with the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit. This conjunction is essential for the message to have a transformative impact.

Ezekiel 37:4-5, 9-10 (ESV): "Then he said to me, 'Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.' ... Then he said to me, 'Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.' So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army."

Exegesis: This passage vividly illustrates the need for both the Word of God (prophesied by Ezekiel) and the Spirit of God (the breath) to bring life to what is dead. The Word alone was not sufficient without the Spirit’s enlivening power.

John 6:63 - Spirit and Life

Jesus teaches that the words He speaks are life-giving and must be received spiritually:

John 6:63 (ESV): "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."

Exegesis: Here, Jesus emphasizes that the flesh, or human effort, is powerless. The Spirit gives life, and the words of Jesus are spirit and life. This underscores the necessity of the Holy Spirit to impart life through the words spoken by Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 - The Gospel Came with Power and the Holy Spirit

Paul speaks of the gospel coming to the Thessalonians not only in words but also in power and with the Holy Spirit:

Romans 8:13-14 - Living by the Spirit

Paul describes the process of putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit:

Romans 8:13-14 (ESV): "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."

Exegesis: While this passage primarily focuses on sanctification, it highlights that the believer’s life and growth in holiness come through the power of the Spirit. The Word instructs us, but it is the Spirit who empowers us to live according to that Word.

Ephesians 6:17 - The Sword of the Spirit

Paul instructs believers to take up the armor of God, including the sword of the Spirit:

Ephesians 6:17 (ESV): "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

Exegesis: The Word of God is described as the "sword of the Spirit," indicating that it is the Spirit who wields the Word in the believer’s life for defense and victory in spiritual warfare. This again shows the inseparable link between the Spirit and the Word.

James 1:18 and the Conjunction of Word and Spirit

James 1:18 (ESV): "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures."

Exegesis: In this verse, James emphasizes the sovereign will of God in the process of spiritual rebirth. The phrase "brought us forth" (Greek: ἀπεκύησεν, "apekuesen") indicates the act of giving birth, highlighting the initiative and action of God in bringing about new life in believers. This rebirth is accomplished "by the word of truth," signifying the instrumental role of God's Word in the process of regeneration.


These passages demonstrate that the work of the Spirit and the proclamation of the Word are intrinsically connected in Scripture. The Word of God, while essential, requires the empowering presence and work of the Holy Spirit to be effective in bringing about salvation, spiritual life, and growth. Without the Spirit, the Word remains ineffective in transforming hearts; without the Word, the Spirit's work lacks the content and direction needed to bring about true faith and obedience. This biblical synergy underscores the Reformed understanding that both the external proclamation of the gospel and the internal work of the Holy Spirit are necessary for genuine conversion and sanctification.

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