Do Sinners Choose Jesus?
by Allen S. Nelson IV
(The following is an adapted excerpt from his book, From Death to Life: How Salvation Works)
In his Systematic Theology, Biblical Doctrine, John MacArthur rightly notes, “Regeneration is the cause, not the consequence, of saving faith” (p. 585). Lazarus did not come to life because he walked out of the tomb. He walked out of the tomb because he was brought to life (John 11:43-44). The Savior initiated this response by His sovereign call. God must effectually initiate the response to salvation, or no one would ever come to Christ because of our sinfulness (cf. John 6:65).
When the Holy Spirit moves in a saving way (not merely exposing sin, but actually saying “let there be light” to our hearts ) the sinner is brought to life whereby God effects the desired response, i.e. the sinner comes to Christ in saving faith. God makes us alive. Apart from this we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Dead men do not talk, walk, or seek God. Clearly, we are not physically dead, but we are spiritually dead. We are dead in such a way that our hearts are referred to as “stones.”
Go ask a rock what it wants for supper. Go preach a sermon at a graveyard. You’ll get the same response. The Spirit of God must move upon the sinner. Ask Lazarus his favorite color before Jesus told him to come forth and see what he says: nothing, for he “stinketh.”
I think the spiritual deadness of non-Christians is one of the hardest truths for us to grasp. It’s hard to grasp because in our experience, we see people all the time seemingly making “spiritual decisions.” But the reality is that decisions for Christ aren’t merely something we cannot do; they are something our own wills will not do.
It’s like trying to get 3-year-olds to like broccoli. You can pray for them. You can try to mix it with something else. But unless something changes in their taste buds, they aren’t going to enjoy most vegetables. It’s who they are.
Who we are apart from Christ is spiritually dead, as in d-e-a-d: inanimate, unmoving, unwilling, a corpse at the bottom of the ocean floor. John Piper correctly writes: “Authentic faith is never a mere human decision that can be made by willpower without a transformed heart.” ¹
Therefore, we don’t come to Christ with a free will so much as a freed will. No one has a “faith muscle” inside of them that simply needs to be exercised in order to come to Christ.
Because of the nature of sin and the reality of our sinful state, God must move first upon the sinner to bring about regeneration. And when the Holy Spirit moves in this saving way, the sinner is made alive, to which he or she then does cry out to God in saving faith. So, it is not faith that opens our hearts; rather God opens our hearts so that we then exercise His gift of faith.
Let’s examine the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 here:
Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (emphasis mine)
We see here the biblical truth that although regeneration is solely God’s work, sinners are not passive in their conversion. They aren’t walking down the sidewalk one day getting struck by a bolt of grace lightning only to find out when they die twenty years later that they were saved and never even aware of what happened.
As adamant as Reformed Baptists are about God’s regenerating work in the hearts of men and women, we must be equally adamant that if a person does not choose to repent and believe the gospel, they will not be saved. No one gets saved apart from a personal decision to follow Jesus.
I like to explain it this way: We cannot place ourselves into the spiritual realm and see all that God is doing. In a sense it’s none of our business what God is up to. Instead, we must regard what we’re commanded to do—to repent and believe the gospel. That’s our realm. This is what God has revealed to us in His Scriptures and we are obligated to abide by this truth.
So, God acts and the sinner responds. Both are necessary for a person to be saved, for the scope of
salvation is not merely regeneration, where God does the work alone. It also entails conversion—the part where we choose to repent and believe the gospel.
Practically, then, this means that it is not merely “okay” to tell a person that they must “decide” to follow Jesus, it’s absolutely biblical! In fact, to tell a person to go sit in a corner until God moves first is never the way the Scriptures explain conversion. Paul tells the Philippian Jailer to “Believe!” (Acts 16:31)
If we want to be faithful to the Biblical paradigm of how salvation works we must hold these two truths in harmony. On the one hand, no one will ever rid themselves of their stony heart, nor do they want to. The only hope they have is for God’s sovereign grace to remove their heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. On the other hand, when this happens, the sinner is not “forced” to come to Christ. Rather, he or she freely chooses Jesus as Lord and Savior all by grace alone.
If we will hold these wonderful truths together as we faithfully share the gospel we will not only honor the Lord for rightly explaining regeneration and conversion, but we just may see Him pleased to bring many sinners from death to life for His own eternal glory.
¹ John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. (Wheaton, IL,
Crossway, 2017), 124.
Allen S. Nelson IV is the pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, Arkansas. He and his wife Stephanie have been married since 2006 and have 5 children. Besides enjoying time with his family, Allen loves teaching the Bible, reading good books, and time outdoors. He is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before The Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness He is an avid Dallas Cowboys and Arkansas Razorbacks fan, which means he’s always excited about ‘next year.’ You can follow him on twitter @cuatronelson and read his contributions at ThingsAbove.Us.
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