My uncle was one of the strongest men I knew growing up. Every time we went to visit he and my aunt, he would clear the table and challenge me to an arm wrestling match. And even though he was much stronger than I, he would always let me think I won, even though I knew better. I never saw the man without a smile on his face and a cigarette in his hand. Like many men who grew up in the great depression era, he was a heavy smoker. My uncle started smoking when he was just a boy, long before studies had been done on the dangers of nicotine and how it was the cause of many cancers. Uncle had always boasted that cigarettes were just as safe as drinking a bottle of Coke. He thought this way because that’s all he had heard growing up. That cigarettes were not harmful to your health.
Eventually when careful studies yielded results finding that smoking was very harmful to a person’s health, and that it could even lead to cancer or death, my aunt tried constantly to get my uncle to stop smoking. But uncle staunchly stood his ground and refused. My aunt even brought articles to him with factual evidence of the extreme dangers of cigarette smoking. But uncle refused even look at the scientific studies. He had been told that it was safe from a young age, and was unwilling to accept anything different from what he had always believed.
My uncle died of lung cancer caused from years of cigarette smoking about fifteen years ago. It seemed right to him that cigarettes were completely safe. But in the end, his unwillingness to look at the facts led to his death.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Proverbs 14:12.
Many professing believers in Christ suffer from the same problem as my uncle when it comes to God. They know what they have been told by men regarding the Lord, and the word of a man becomes their Gospel. However, they are unwilling to look at the facts of what God says through the scriptures for themselves. I am ashamed to say this was me for many years. But when I began to actually study and dig into God’s word for myself, I discovered an amazing and all-powerful God that Id never known.
One of the most beautiful and humbling verses in scripture to me is Ephesians 2:8.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ” Ephesians 2:8-9.
In this verse, we see the full snap shot of how our God saves sinful, undeserving creatures such as ourselves. When it comes to the topic of repentance and faith in Christ, I am constantly reminded through conversations with people of the old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Many believers hold the view that repentance has to come first, and then through repentance we receive faith. Basically they believe a person must first be broken over their sins before Christ regenerates their heart. But the problem with this line of thinking is the verse in Ephesians you just read above. According to the scriptures, repentance occurs after God has granted new hearts of faith. And as a result of faith, repentance becomes not a one time thing, but a lifestyle of the new believer. Repentance cannot happen without new eyes of faith. Faith is preceded and followed by repentance.
Look at Ephesians 2:8 once more. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing….” If a spiritually dead person can find it in themselves to save themselves by deciding to repent, then would this not constitute the person “Doing” something?
“….children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:13.
The scriptures are constantly pointing us to the fact that we did nothing in and of ourselves. Rather, faith is given to the children of God after God has shown Himself to them in all of His beauty! And as a result of having their spiritual eyes opened, they now desire to repent of their old ways. Not because they think they have to, but because they have truly been pierced to the heart by the reality of Christ sacrifice for our sins. Salvation is not a decisional work of man. Salvation is a supernatural work of God within man that we could not achieve on our own. Consider the words of Jesus regarding those who are saved.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5.
Let the words of Christ penetrate and humble you. The verse did not say, “Apart from me, you can do nothing…except change your sinful ways.” Jesus said that in terms of bearing any fruits that the Lord would deem good, including the fruit of repentance, we cannot do any of this in and of ourselves without the supernatural working of Christ. Consider how the sinful and rebellious nation of Israel was brought to repentance in the book of Ezekiel. Look at what the Lord said;
“And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.” Ezekiel 36:23-27.
The Lord is speaking through Ezekiel to the wicked nation of Israel. They have been running from God and worshipping other idols rather than the Lord. And finally, God has had enough. Notice God never says to the nation, “Please straighten up and act right, I know you can do it.” He didn’t, because he knew their hearts were evil and were unable. Rather God notes that they have profaned His Holy name. But goes says to Israel, “But the nations surrounding you will know that I am the true God.” How will the outside nations know this? Continue reading the verse. God says, “They will know without a shadow of doubt that I am God when they see what I do to you Israel!”
So what is God going to do to Israel that would cause the nations to look on and say, “This had to be a work of God!” Simply put, God is going to change what the nations would have said was unchangeable. Israel had the reputation as Idol worshippers among the nations. But God said:
“I will separate Israel from the other pagan nations.”
“I will cleanse Israel from their wicked Idol worship.”
“I will give Israel a new heart of flesh.”
“I will put my spirit within Israel.”
“And I will CAUSE Israel to walk in my ways as a result of my will.”
Read over that verse again and consider how many times God said “I” and then count the number of times he said “you.” The only role we see you playing in conversion is first of all, being a profaner of God, and secondly after God has done His work, we see you walking in His ways. It seems again as it is God who says that faith comes through the good will of God and not as a result of man finding the power within himself to clean himself up.
Consider the salvation of the apostle Paul. Paul did not come to the conclusion on his own that he was a persecutor of God and a despicable man on his own, and then cry out of Jesus. No, rather Paul was actually on his way to kill Christians when God revealed Himself to Paul. Jesus did not plead with Paul to stop his evil ways. To summarize and paraphrase Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, Jesus basically told Paul to stop persecuting Him and instead follow Him. And upon seeing Christ revealed, Paul said, “Yes Lord.”
Paul didn’t see his need to repent of sin until He first was granted the eyes and heart to see Jesus.
Jesus teaching on Jonah is another illustration: “The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold a greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41). All of us know that they would not have repented under the threat of punishment by God, if they did not believe that there was a God that could punish them. They repented because they had faith that God would keep his promise, and that he would punish them if they did not obey. Their faith preceded their repentance, rather than repentance preceding their faith.
Man in his natural state loves sin and does not desire to seek God due to his great love for sin.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”Romans 3:10-11.
But when God grants eyes to see Him, all of the sudden, the reality of Christ’s beauty makes our sin pale in comparison. Consider Lydia in her account of hearing the preaching of Paul.
“One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Acts 16:14.
Notice she was unaffected by the preaching of Paul, until God acted first in supernaturally opening her eyes. This was brought about through the preaching of His word. She could not have repented of that which she had no knowledge of, because she was not paying attention until God acted first, granting her the gift of faith through the hearing of the word. And even the act of repentance is not an act of man himself, but rather, even repentance is a gift from God.
“correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” 2 Timothy 2:25.
Notice who is responsible for the act of repentance. Paul tells Timothy to instruct unbelievers in a Godly manner, in the hopes that GOD will GRANT them repentance. So we see here that man cannot find a repentant heart on his own, God must first grant it to him.
When I give an invitation at the end of a sermon for people to walk down if they feel God drawing them to the knowledge of Himself, I always tell them that it was not the act of walking the aisle that saved them. If they have truly been saved, God acted first and saved them through the hearing of the Word in their seats. The only reason they began to desire the beauty of the Kingdom of God is because Christ first opened their eyes. Basically, God saved you in your seat. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3.
Jesus went on in His conversation with Nicodemus to explain how conversion works. When Jesus mentioned being “born again” Nicodemus immediately thought of what he must do in himself to be saved. Nicodemus asked, “Should I crawl back into my mother’s womb?” Granted, Nicodemus knew that was impossible. But he was basically asking, “What must I do in order to be saved?”
And Jesus answer back to Him never ceases to produce praise in me.
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” John 3:5-6.
Consider for a moment how the words Jesus used to describe the new spiritual birth. Born again. Think back (if you have a good memory) to your first birth. Did you have anything to do with it? Did you decide it was time to be born? Of course not. Jesus compares regeneration to being born. But He goes into more detail. Jesus said that flesh gives birth to flesh. But the creations of the spirit are born of the spirit. In other words, flesh does not give birth to spirit. It is God who saves. It is God who grants faith. And it is God who grants repentance. Philippians 1:6 summarizes this.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6.
The good work is salvation. Who began the good work? It doesn’t say that man began it. It is not even man who would complete it. To even think that is to say that man is capable of saving himself. As John Macarthur once said, “If it were possible to lose your salvation, you would.” But once God saves a person, once He begins the good work, it will come to pass. Salvation will not be lost. And because of the supernatural grace and mercy of God granting faith and repentance to spiritually dead sinners like us, we are saved.
“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2.
He is the Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. He is the beginner of the good work in man and the one who works in the heart to complete it. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. And it is Christ who receives all glory and honor for the things he has done, so that we have nothing to boast in.
So that you say, nothing in my hands I bring simply to the cross I cling.