How Does the Holy Spirit Convert Sinners?
The “T” and “U” of the Calvinistic TULIP acronym stand for “Total depravity” and “Unconditional election.” In a nutshell, what Calvinism teaches – and why it is at such odds with basic tenets of scripture – is that …
1) All of Adam’s descendants are so depraved by sin that they cannot respond to God in any meaningful way.
2) God determined – “elected” – who would be saved and lost before anything or anyone was even created.
3) God unconditionally bestows the Holy Spirit only upon the elect, infusing them with saving faith and enabling them to live godly lives. This article focuses on this last point.
From the Canons of Dort: “Therefore all men … without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit … are neither able nor willing to return to God … nor to dispose themselves to reformation” (quoted in What Love Is This? 93).
Calvinist author James White: “The Reformed assertion is that man cannot understand and embrace the gospel nor respond in faith and repentance toward Christ without God first freeing him from sin and giving him spiritual life (regeneration)” (ibid 98; italics original). R.C. Sproul, a radical Calvinist, agrees: “The Reformed view of predestination teaches that before a person can choose Christ … he must be born again … one does not first believe, then become reborn” (ibid 99).
Read those quotes carefully. The Calvinistic order: God regenerates depraved sinners through a direct action of the Holy Spirit; this enables God to place faith in their heart; the sinner is now enabled to live a godly life as one of the “elect”; this condition cannot be nullified by anyone, even the elect person (Perseverance of the saints – the P in TULIP).
This kind of teaching is why so many preachers and elders are leery of claims, even made by unsuspecting brethren, that the Spirit is working in our minds in some direct way outside of the instrumentality of scripture. We can be vulnerable to this idea by our own sense of failure and inadequacy, causing us to long for help and strength directly imparted instead of relying on the knowledge, wisdom, grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness made available to all mankind by the Holy Spirit through His revelation.
But let’s consider the initial conversion of sinners. Must the Holy Spirit first regenerate the heart of a sinner without his knowledge and agreement so that he/she can then receive faith and follow a godly course of life?
Simply put, this is not what we see happening anywhere in the NT.
Note Rom 10:17 – “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” This is a climactic verse resting upon previous premises. In this chapter Paul lays the condition of unbelieving Jews at their own feet: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (10:3). They have ignored their own law, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Their ignorance is willful, not unavoidable due to depravity.
Paul then affirms that knowledge is readily available to the Jews: “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the world of faith which we preach); that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9-10). Paul here quotes Dt 30:14 to establish that God’s word has always been available to educate and guide men, but especially is this true in the present age of the gospel.
And how anyone can read 10:11-13 and come away with “Limited atonement” (the L in TULIP) boggles the mind. The only way to do it is by reading in something that is not there, claiming “whoever” presupposes that he is only addressing the elect. This is merely wresting scripture to protect one’s cherished doctrinal scheme (cf. 2 Pet 3:16).
In 10:14-15 Paul follows a regression from calling on God for salvation back to the gospel God has made available. Working backward: God has sent divine messengers (apostles/prophets); they call lost Israel to hear God’s word; Israel has the choice to believe it; they can then call on God for salvation. “BUT THEY HAVE NOT ALL OBEYED THE GOSPEL …” Paul charges (10:16). There is no Calvinistic depravity here; there is only the stubborn, contrary unbelieving Jewish heart that Paul concludes the chapter with (10:21). The bottom line is that the gospel was preached to the Jews (along with the Gentiles); that gospel has the power to turn the heart of the sinner to God (if he believes, which he has the capacity to do); the Jews (as a whole) did not believe the message of a crucified Savior; thus “they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (10:2), which zeal will not save them because it denies their only Savior.
Now, compare this to what happens in Acts as the apostles and others attempt to save lost sinners: they preach the gospel by inspired words given to them via the Holy Spirit (cf. 6:10); the hearers have the choice to obey or not (some do; many don’t); those who do are added to the kingdom and rejoice in the new spiritual life which they have found. This same story is told over and over again as the gospel first goes to Jews in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria; then to Gentiles in the cities of the Roman Empire both small and great.
When the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia blasphemed Paul’s message, he condemned them in the following words: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, we turn to the Gentiles …” (Ac 13:46). This passage makes no sense according to Calvinistic heresy. If they were depraved by Adam’s sin and could not understand Paul’s teaching, then it is irrational to condemn them for rejecting it. Paul should have said, “Too bad, the Holy Spirit did not choose to regenerate you, so you’re just out of luck. You’re not of the elect.”
And herein lies the monstrous nature of Calvinistic doctrine: The eternal damnation of mankind is laid squarely at the feet of God. God has done everything possible to inform and motivate man unto salvation, and everyone has a choice to make as to how they will respond.