The Spirit's Work
Scripture teaches that it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance (see Rom. 2: 4) and that faith “is God’s gift” (Eph. 2: 8). Despite this, faith and repentance do at least seem to be within the range of human capacity—both speak of that which men might reasonably think they are able to do. When man considers the necessity of new birth for salvation, however, he falls back helplessly in the presence of the sovereignty of God. To admit one’s wrongs, and to believe and to trust, are all concepts that man can conceive as being within his ability, but to give himself birth is so utterly outside his power as to be incomprehensible. This then is the Holy Spirit’s work alone. Strange to say, sinners are constantly being told by preachers that “it is needful that ye should be born anew” (John 3: 7), without any apparent realisation that it is not something the sinner can do! Yet this is precisely the value of the doctrine of new birth in connection with the gospel—it is to convince man that salvation is impossible as far as human effort is concerned, and thus to cast man wholly upon God.
He who preaches the Spirit’s work without regard to the condition of his hearers is like a medical practitioner who, because one patient has been cured by a certain remedy, administers it promiscuously to all. “Ye should be born anew” was addressed to Nicodemus, but not to the Samaritan woman at the well, or to the multitude around the pool of Bethesda. Certainly it was true for all, but it was not the special truth all needed. Indeed, the more the Lord’s words are weighed and studied, the more we shall be struck by the wisdom with which He ministered the truth. In John 4, we are brought face to face with a sinner living in open immorality but without any sense of sin—and we are surrounded by multitudes of such persons, where a sinful course is not so much the result of a depraved heart or an abandoned will, as of a conscience near enough dead. The Lord thus seeks first to interest her, then to awaken her, and finally He declares Himself. But with Nicodemus we have a man who is ostensibly in the right path—his coming to Christ is in itself a proof that he is a seeker after God. But he comes claiming a position that ousts divine grace altogether, and the Saviour must make him see the true reality of his position before He can be a Saviour to him. Supposing himself to already have a place in the kingdom, Nicodemus comes to the Lord seeking instruction from the teacher come from God (see John 3: 2), but the Lord answers him at once by declaring his need of the Spirit’s work. Had the Lord exposed sin in Nicodemus, no doubt he would earnestly have repented of it. Had He unfolded to him a higher morality than he had ever learned before, then he would surely have eagerly pursued it. But to be told that “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v3), not only put him outside that of which he claimed a place, but seemed to shut the door against him forever. It is now no longer now “the teacher of Israel” (v10) seeking wisdom from the teacher come from God, but the sinner in the presence of his Saviour, seeking pardon and life. The declaration of the love of God (see v16) and of the lifting up of Christ (see vs. 14–15), are not the answer to the difficulty, “How can these things be?” (v9) but rather the answer to the need of a Saviour which Christ had awakened in the heart of Nicodemus.
It was thus the Master preached. With the profligate Samaritan, He probed with matchless grace and wisdom the festering but hidden wound of sin. For the ignorant and needy multitude, He flung the door of mercy open wide, so that all might enter. But with the Pharisee, who did not see his need for grace, He seemed to change His purpose, and to close the door against him. Yet no sooner did Nicodemus take the sinner’s place (and we know he did), then he found the way as free and open as the power and love of God could make it. Here then, is the value of the Spirit’s work. For the sinner with no claim on righteousness, the Spirit speaks of a Saviour God who has drawn close to us in all our need, such that He must even have ‘dealings’ with an immoral outcast of Samaria (see John 4: 9). For the Pharisee lacking any true knowledge of his fallen state, the Spirit testifies that that the gulf between Him and His God is impassable. To the one it testifies of sovereign grace, to the other it testifies that grace is sovereign, but the objective for both is salvation.
Faith and repentance are but effects of the Spirit’s work, and failure to see this inevitably leads to wrong ideas about the Gospel, such that turning to God is viewed as an act of the human will. This can take many subtle forms. Thus exercised souls are sometimes told that if they will only pray a certain prayer (usually presented to them in written form) then they will be ‘saved’. Anything to help with prayer is of course to be welcomed, but both faith and repentance can also be false, and the delusion may be reinforced by such aids. In the parable of the sower, both the seed that fell upon the rock and the seed that fell among the thorns ‘responded’ to the Gospel as an act of the human will. Indeed, in the one, the advancement in spiritual things was seemingly rapid (not always a good sign—compare Luke 8: 15: “bring forth fruit with patience”), while in the other the ‘growth’ was longstanding. In both cases, however, no fruit was brought to maturity. Fruit is the key—just because I have ‘come forward’ at an evangelical rally or read out a pre–prepared prayer of repentance in the quietness of my own home does not, of itself, make me a believer. Far too much weight is placed on these actions of the individual when what really matters is evidence that God is working in me. How could Paul say to the Thessalonians “knowing … your election” (1 Thess. 1: 4, my emphasis)? Because he could recall their “work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope” (v3). The same was true of Nicodemus as we track his spiritual progress through John’s Gospel (see John 3: 1–21; 7: 50, 51; 19: 39, 40). Truly in his case the seed had fallen on good ground, “and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing” (Mark 4: 8)! Thus: “he who has begun in you a good work will complete it unto Jesus Christ’s day” (Phil. 1: 6). Such is the value of the Spirit’s work.