The Preaching of the Gospel and the Work of the Holy Spirit

by John Hendryx

The purpose of this essay is to explore conversion from two perspectives: (1) the individual sinners' existential exercise of faith and (2) the supernatural work of the Spirit in bringing men and women to faith in Christ. Evangelical Christians universally believe that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” and that no one can know Christ or come to faith “without someone preaching” to them (Rom 10:13, 14). We all confess that people are generally not saved in a void but require the content of the gospel that they might know Christ. In the Gospel of John (chapter 8) Jesus speaks of setting people free from their bondage to sin. The question naturally arises: is it because we respond to the gospel as it is preached that natural fallen creatures are set free from bondage or is it because they are set free by the Spirit that they are then morally able to respond to the gospel? Is the will of man free by nature or it is free by the grace of Christ worked in us by the Holy Spirit? Does Christ become glorious in our eyes due to our natural affection or is it because the Holy Spirit makes Christ glorious in our eyes that we have affection for him? Can the unregenerate prepare themselves at any time by their natural powers to receive the grace of God as it is preached to them, or does the word fall of deaf ears without the Spirit unplugging them? What is the relationship to the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Spirit?

History and Sola Gratia 

Evangelical Christians will all readily acknowledge that the Holy Spirit plays some role in persons coming to faith in Christ and could not come without Him for "no one says Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Unfortunately, most do not trace out the important implications of this biblical truth.  This is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of these same evangelicals teach the free will of man to believe the gospel, as if the moral ability to do so were a biblical axiom. The very fact that persons require the Holy Spirit for salvation shows that they has no free will to believe, left to his/her own corrupt disposition. We seem to have forgotten that this was, perhaps, the main point for which for Luther departed the Roman Catholic Church, which soon after anathematized the Reformers for rejecting the free will of man and affirming the bondage of the will and affections to sin (Justification Canons IV & V of the Counsel of Trent 1545-1560).  This anathema was placed on Luther and other Reformers for believing in “justification sola fide [which]  denied that human cooperation with grace formed a basis of acceptance before God; [and] salvation sola gratia without the admixture of what humans do as a triggering device for that salvation; in acceptance before God in solo Christo….[They] argued that sinners are not free to so choose but are completely captive to their sin…[that] nothing precedes grace …[and] the notion that we can train ourselves into becoming righteous [or even prepare ourselves for faith] -a notion Luther saw as rooted in Aristotle and mediated through much Scholastic theology-is the worst enemy of grace.” [1]

Some evangelicals, having largely ignored history, teach the contradictory assertions that man has both libertarian free will and that, due to sin, he absolutely needs the Spirit to draw a man if he has any hope to believe.   This modern day confusion is not doublespeak or purposeful deception, however, but a reflection of the church in our age and its willingness to embrace inconsistency.  More precisely, it appears to be due to spiritual lethargy or laziness in applying our mind to the text of Scripture.  For apart from the Holy Spirit no man would naturally, of his innate desires and abilities or free will, turn to Christ and embrace the humbling terms of the gospel (John 1:13; Rom 9:16; 1 Cor 2:14).  Again, most evangelicals will admit this if pressed since many have never taken the time to consider this before, yet because of naturalistic influences on the church, we often fail to perceive that grace and free will are mutually exclusive. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen said, “any grace that we find in ourselves…is always to be recognized as the work of the Holy Spirit … Let us not, then, be deluded into thinking that we can have moral graces independently of the Holy Spirit.”[2] (Owen, The Holy Spirit pg. 39) It is rare to find a pulpit which proclaims the total impotence of the will in matters of a redemptive nature.   The need for grace is proclaimed but not a grace which changes our corrupt nature, only one that holds out an offer to the unregenerate to take hold of that they will be set free if they first believe, but such a gospel promises the sinner no new spiritual eyes wherein Christ might become glorious in his eyes so that he would have the spiritual sense to see the unsurpassed beauty and excellencies of Christ.

Means of Grace

It is important that we recover the true gospel from the confused one that is taught in our times. We must take plains to shine a light on the why it is important to understand both our role in the preaching of the gospel as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in disarming our natural hostility and making that same gospel effectual.  Means, such as preaching the gospel, are always used of the Spirit, but the same means, likewise, have no power in themselves to generate faith, apart from the supernatural and unfailing work of the Spirit.  A clearer understanding of grace is that while both God and man must act, yet the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration in us is monergistic, (independent of any human cooperation), and not synergistic or some kind of cooperation between God’s grace and man’s faith. Just as Martin Luther once said: “Faith and the Spirit go together, but the Spirit is not always revealed ... The Word comes first, and with the Word the Spirit breathes upon my heart so that I believe. “ (Luther's Tabletalk No. 402)

Law & Gospel

We must first assert that no one, except for perhaps some exceptional circumstances of divine intervention, can come to faith in Christ without a preacher or without hearing the gospel (Rom 10). Faith does not come about in a void but through divinely ordained means.  The Scriptures emphatically teach that in order to have faith one must know faith’s content.  However, the Scriptures also resoundingly proclaim that unless the Holy Spirit also illumines and opens the heart and unplugs the ears of the sinner, of those in bondage to sin, we can preach until we are blue in the face and no one will come. Paul said: "our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thess 1:5). The Spirit uses the means of preaching.  We cast forth the seed of the gospel yet it is the Spirit who germinates the seed, so to speak, to bring about life.  The Word (or seed) does not work alone or ex opere operato, apart from supernatural inner heart work of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, separate from a work of the Spirit, the will and affections are still bound in sin and can only choose according to the desires of its fallen nature.  John Calvin in his Bondage and Liberation of the Will, quoted Augustine in Rebuke and Grace as saying,

“the damnable origin [of our condition] should be rebuked. This is so that out of the pain of rebuke a will for regeneration may arise (if indeed the one rebuked is a child of the promise), in order that by the noise of the rebuke resounding externally and scourging him God may also, by hidden inspiration, work internally in him so that he may will [the good]…for the will is evil by corruption of nature and becomes good only by a correction of grace.” [3]

Interestingly, the apostles clearly teach that human abilities are useless for doing any redemptive good, yet this does not stop them from commanding, exhorting and rebuking.  John Owen said,


“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).…but 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….A religious, decent, moral life, derived from self and not ‘born of God’ is as sinful as the worst of sinful lives.” [4]


When commenting on Romans 3:20 that the knowledge of sin comes through the law, Calvin states that:

“even the earnest desire to observe it is impossible … [for] anyone who knows the purpose of the law will know that human power is not at all to be calculated from its commands. Therefore Augustine well said somewhere: We say that by the law the hearing of what God wants to be done is brought about, but obedience to the law is brought about by grace. So the law produces hearers of righteousness but grace producers doers … God’s righteousness depends not on the commandment of the law, by which fear is instilled, but on the aid of Christ’s grace, to which alone the fear of the law like a tutor usefully guides us. He who understands this understands why he is a Christian.” [5]


God’s Work on Two Levels: The Outward Call and the Inward Call

Any judicious observer of the Scripture will notice that in many key passages where sinners are being brought into union with Christ, there are almost always events concurrently taking place on two different levels to bring this about. The book in which the era of the Holy Spirit was inaugurated, the Acts of the Apostles, is often by theologians called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit”. It is in that book where Luke records the fulfillment of the Christ’s promise of the outpouring of Spirit, where we commonly behold the emphasis on both the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing men and women to faith in Christ and the person’s own existential exercise of faith; that is, we see both God’s action and man’s action. It is important that we remain vigilant to always keep this in mind while reading the Scripture.  The Scriptures are filled with examples of the close relation between the preaching of the word and the necessary work and illumination of the Spirit in glorifying Christ.  In the book of Acts chapter two the Apostle Peter gets up at Pentecost to preach a sermon just after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the sermon when Peter announces their guilt for crucifying the Son of God many of those who heard it were...

"...pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.'"

In recent years many evangelicals tend to fixate only on the first part of Peter’s call which says "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  This is important because the gift of the Holy Spirit is here said to be given after repentance and faith so many Christians think this proves some kind of ordo salutis in which faith precedes regeneration. But this is to ignore the vast biblical evidence of the work taking place by the Holy Spirit beneath the surface in bringing men and women to Christ prior to the time of conversion. There are a couple of things worth noting here in this passage which are often overlooked. First, those who heard Peter's sermon were said to be "pierced to the heart". Now it should be obvious to everyone that this piercing was not self-produced but rather it was God who pierced their hearts through the means of Peter’s preaching. The natural man is described in Scripture as having a heart of stone so the words of Peter's sermon would only scratch the surface of the hardened heart of the one not yet quickened or opened by God. It is only as God makes the heart of stone into a heart of flesh by a supernatural work that He finally pierces through the dense rebellious heart of sinners.  Then and only then does He create the new man. This is exactly what God said would happen when He promised a new covenant to the Old Testament saints through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The same event of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is further spoken of by the prophet Joel and quoted by Peter here in this sermon, confirming that the prophesied last days of the new covenant had indeed arrived. What is taking place here is nothing short of eschatological. God quickened many souls that day that they might be "cut to the heart" seeing their own sinfulness and desperate need of a savior. All those so moved upon by the Spirit recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy and they can only despair of any hope from themselves. God through the outward preaching of the law exposes the cancerous sin, but those whose eyes He opens concur with God that they deserve His wrath and, with nothing to offer, ask what they can do to be saved.

The second thing I want you to notice in the passage are the often overlooked words that follow Peter’s call to faith and repentance. Peter ends the call by saying, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."  Few people reading the text take the time to see the universality and exclusiveness of this statement.  Peter says “everyone” (universal positive meaning 'all or 'only those') God calls to Himself. That is, only those whom God calls will come to Him ... i.e. while Peter’s call is to all present, only those whom God calls to Himself will repent and believe. The word "call" is often used in the New Testament this way to refer only to those who God initiates a saving relationship with. For example: "...We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor 1:23-24). The outward Gospel call in this text goes to all Jews and Greeks and they consider it foolish but to those among them who receive the inward call of the Spirit, the message of Christ crucified is one of power and brings them with certainty to the savior. (Also see Rom 8:30)

This means that prior to "receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit" the Spirit is said to be working in other mysterious ways in men's hearts. For all Christians would admit that apart from the Spirit belief is simply impossible due to the corruption of our nature. Even later in the same chapter as if to make it abundantly clear, the Spirit’s hidden work is again emphasized: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  This clearly teaches that it is because of Him that we are in Christ Jesus. But some persons will then naturally ask, since human efforts at persuasion always falls flat, why preach at all when it is God who gives faith?  Calvin explained this by saying,

“…we are no more laboring in vain than do farmers while they plough the earth and sow seed. For it is written, 'You shall sow and not gather' (Hos 2:21-22). By which it is indicated that all labour is in vain without the blessing of God … without the blessing of God all labour is worth nothing. Where, however, some fruit follows, it results from the fact that God has answered the heaven, so as to make the earth fruitful….why is it that the earth waits for the hand of the farmer when its fertility depends entirely on nothing but the blessing of God? Evidently God has ordained it so … Paul, when he speaks about the task of the apostles, compares them to gardeners who plant and water. And immediately he adds that they are nothing: God alone, who gives increase [to both planting and watering], is everything … Paul replies that he has a ministry of the Spirit by which he is to write the preaching of the gospel on human hearts, not by his own activity and effort or (as they say) by his own exertions, but by the Spirit of the living God (2 Cor 3:3-6), Now you hear where the effectiveness of his ministry comes from, namely from the secret action of the Holy Spirit, not by human labor or desire …. [the point is] … it is because God appointed the gospel to be the means to display the power of his Spirit (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18; 2:4). What more do you want? It is God alone who acts; but because he willed that the power of his Spirit should in some way be enclosed in the preaching of the gospel, our work which serves his providence is not empty or useless…whatever is done prior to grace by the enslaved choice is necessarily evil and leads away from faith rather than towards it, and faith itself depends entirely on God.” [6]

In other words, when we cast forth the seed of the gospel to the world, some will land on rocky ground, some among thorns, but much of the seed will also fall on good soil that will bear fruit. But the soil of men’s hearts are obviously not good by nature. God has to come break up the fallow ground [pluck out the stony heart], so to speak, that our hard hearts become soft and might, therefore, receive the seed and show fruitfulness. That is indeed why we pray for the wicked that God may change their evil will to a good one. Then by God's secret working of grace they are drawn to God. Later in the Bondage and Liberation of the Will, Calvin again teaches that:

“God works in his elect on two levels, externally through the word and internally through the Spirit …[but] Paul declares that all those who plant or water are nothing … But why is it that their labour is so useless, except because they are speaking to stones until, by his miraculous and secret operation, God introduces into people’s minds and breathes into the hearts what, by their own efforts, could not reach beyond their ears? So he concludes that God alone, who gives the increase, is everything. This is not because in doing everything by the power of His own Spirit [God] excludes the ministry of his servants, but so as to secure the entire praise for the action for himself … You hear that a person is changed from an unbeliever to a believer by the preaching of the word; you hear, on the other hand, that he remains an unbeliever until he has been enlightened by the Spirit of God. Paul …glories that the ministry of the Spirit has been entrusted to him and declares what he means by this. That is of course that God by his Spirit engraves on human hearts what he speaks through his mouth to their ears, not before or after but at the same time (2 Cor 3:18). So in preaching the seed is being sown, but that it puts out roots, germinates, and bears fruit is brought about by the Spirit of God inwardly … Only let us keep hold of that connection which as Paul describes, exists between the secret working of the Spirit and the outward preaching by human beings, and we shall be clear of all difficulty.” [7]


How Does This Affect the Way We Proclaim the Gospel? 

There is very little use in speculating about such things. The answer to this once again is to look to the Scriptures and see that God is showing us activity taking place on two levels, the divine and the human, with the divine workings of grace always preceding the human at every level.  A good example where Jesus calls men to come to him and in the same breath declares that they cannot come to him is given to us in John chapter 6.  

On the one hand, Jesus makes many plain statements such as the following to the fact that any who comes to him may have life:

Jesus said to them, " I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.

“…this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

Yet on the other hand Jesus also plainly says that no one can come to him,

“no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." (John 6:65)

And “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37)

Here Jesus gives us a syllogism that says in effect, “Unless it is granted, no one will come, but all to whom it is granted WILL COME.” So what the Bible is plainly teaching here is that all men and women are called to faith in Christ.  It is divinely commanded. Their own moral depravity, however, keeps them from having any hope of doing so.  Even something so simple as believing is an impossible supposition apart from a change of nature, for some might say that the assistance of grace still depends on the humility of a sinner to believe, but isn’t it grace itself that makes us humble?  For the fallen man is proud by nature.  Even if there was some kind of divine assistance in coming to faith, why would one person have the moral inclination to embrace Christ while another repudiated Him?  If both persons have such prevenient grace then what makes them to differ?  By merely saying, “one chose Christ and not another” he does not account for the difference.  Either it is all of grace or man contributes something.  For the Apostle Paul 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). Any final claim that God responds to man’s act is a denial of this and severely undermines the gospel.

What Does the Gospel Look Like?

As these ideas are put in Jesus gospel presentation, the result is something like this:

Every person who comes to Jesus and believes the gospel will be saved. If you want forgiveness you must come.  Whosoever believes the gospel will have eternal life. But because of your corrupt unregenerate nature you are totally unwilling and morally impotent to repent and believe.  You will deliberately reject me unless God chooses to grant the desire for faith to you.  You need to be reborn if you would see the kingdom. The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration enables us to do that which we would never otherwise do on our own because of the corruption of our nature. If proclaiming this is good enough for our Lord in passages such as John 3 and 6 why should we not also hold out these equal truths when we present the gospel? 

In other words, today’s gospel presentations are mostly half-gospels at best because they teach the free will of man to believe instead of teaching the whole counsel of Scripture that fallen man has been taken captive to do Satan’s will (2 Tim 2: 25, 26) until Christ sets him free (John 8).  Man does not convert himself but must have his heart of stone changed to a heart of flesh if he is to believe.  No one believes while his heart is still stone.  So when we preach the gospel we need to preach these two truths in tension.  Those who are His sheep will hear the voice of the shepherd in such proclamations.  Only such an understanding secures the fact that salvation is entirely of grace and the God alone gets the glory (Rom 9:16).  Those who had a work of grace performed on their heart by the Holy Spirit will show evidence of such by believing in Christ.  This is the only way evangelicals will be consistent, rather than erroneously teaching man’s free will. 

A Final Word

In a sense, the command to believe itself is law and not gospel until the Holy Spirit unplugs our ears to hear it.  Salvation is through faith, not because of it.  So a balanced gospel calls all men to come to Christ that they may be saved and that only those God will call to Himself will hear.  According to Iain Murray,


“some aspects of biblical doctrine are directly related to evangelism. These have to do with the real condition of human nature and the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Herein lies the difference between Arminian [synergistic] and Calvinistic [monergistic] teaching which has immediate consequences in practice.  Arminianism treats believing and regeneration as amounting to the same thing. The gospel is preached to all men, the same light comes to all who hear it, and those who believe are [then] born again.  According to this view, the truth heard is the means of regeneration. But if this is so, why is it that among a congregation hearing the same gospel truth some respond and others do not. There are only two possible answers to that question: either man is not so ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ as Scripture represents and the difference can therefore be explained solely in terms of human choice, or there is a work of the Spirit additional to the outward hearing of the message – work which lies behind the will, giving men a new nature…Men not only need the light of the truth, they need the capacity to see it; they need a removal of the enmity which causes them by nature to ‘receive not the things of the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor 2:14)…The voice of the preacher leads people to the exercise of faith, but the ability to believe comes only as ‘the dead hear the voice of the Son of God’ himself (John 5:25).  This is a voice which the unsaved do not hear (John 10:16-27)….This idea that the preacher can call sinners to to faith while also teaching that faith is beyond their powers was held up to open ridicule.  But to this the older evangelicalism replied that the Scriptures constantly teach both responsibility and inability….The new schools [historically] believed that if Calvinism’s doctrine of man’s sinful nature,and consequent inability, was removed from the evangelists message, then faith and regeneration would be seen to be simple…the altar and other methods of securing public response were added.” [8]

Unfortunately this ideology has confused evangelicalism in America to this day.  It confuses an external act with an inward spiritual change.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, a truly balanced view of Scripture sees the need for rigorous evangelism, missions, the preaching of the gospel as well as a clear biblical assertion that man cannot produce fruit contrary to the nature of his heart. If the heart (the root) is bad then he will only produce bad fruit.  This spiritual impotence of man keeps him bound to the desires of his corrupt nature until Christ sets him free to believe.  For, “it is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh counts for nothing (John 6:63).  





Boice, James Montgomery; Ryken, Philip Graham. The Doctrines of Grace:

Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, Il, Crossway Books, 2002


*Calvin, John, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, Grand Rapids: Baker Books,               1996


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed: John T. McNeill. Philadelphia,

The Westminster Press.


*Chantry, J. Walter. Man's Will - Free Yet Bound. The Banner of Truth, Magazine, Issue

140, May 1975, 1-8.


Edwards, Jonathan. A Careful and Strict Enquiry Into the Prevailing Notions of the

Freedom of Will. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers Vol 1, 2-89.


Edwards, John, Growing in God’s Spirit, Phillipsberg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 2003


Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, Grand Rapids: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing, 1957


*Murray, Iain, Revival & Revivalism, Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1994


*Owen, John, The Holy Spirit, Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1998


Sproul, R.C. Willing to Believe, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books, 1997


*Wells, David, God the Evangelist. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.






[1] David Wells, God the Evangelist, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. p. 39-40.

[2] John Owen, The Holy Spirit, Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1998, p 39.

[3] John Calvin, Bondage and Liberation of the Will. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. p. 158-59.

[4] John Owen, The Holy Spirit, p 70-71.

[5] John Calvin, Bondage and Liberation of the Will. P 166 (Calvin quoting Augustine in Nature and Grace)

[6] John Calvin, Bondage and Liberation of the Will.  P. 33

[7]  John Calvin, Bondage and Liberation of the Will. p. 164-65

[8]  Iain Murray, Revival & Revivalism Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1994. p 364-65

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