After church today Karen and I had a glorious discussion with a great couple over lunch about a precious topic: God’s sovereign grace. By this I mean that God, as the absolute king of the universe, freely and unconditionally chooses his people unto salvation, fully accomplishes the salvation, and then initiates and superintends the application of that salvation to them. In other words, it is his work. This is a very humbling reality. As I said at lunch, if I were God, Tom Barnes would not only be outside God’s saved family, but would not still be drawing breath. I say this because I know myself. I know how much I do not deserve salvation or life at all! And yet, God knows me infinitely better than I know myself and in spite of that knowledge he still sent his Son to die for me, initiated salvation in me, and continues that good work he started in me until the day of Christ Jesus! Wow! What love!
This worship-producing dialogue at a table in Pizza Hut brought to mind a passage of Scripture that I recently revisited from John’s Gospel: 1:12-13. As John describes the eternal Word of God that became flesh (Jesus Christ) and how many in the world (including his own people) would not receive him (1:10-11), John tells us in verse 12 what happens with those who do receive him: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God….” This verse teaches us some very important truths.
First, those who receive Jesus Christ are those who believe literally “unto his name.” The sense is that trust for salvation is transferred from self or what other people could do for them unto Jesus Christ such that the person rests upon Jesus Christ alone, who he is, his life, death, burial, and resurrection, for salvation (see John 3:16).
The second nugget unearthed from the soil of John’s statement here is that salvation is truly something that happens in person. In other words, when Tom Barnes trusted in and received Jesus Christ alone as Savior, it was Tom Barnes truly trusting and receiving, not someone else. It was my faith and an act that involved my intellect, affections, and volition.
The third reality we glean from this verse is that those who rest in Jesus Christ alone for salvation are given authority to become children of God. In other words, they are adopted into the family of God and have a right to all the privileges of his sons and daughters. This includes his eternal inheritance.
The final truth that emerges from this verse is that all who thus receive Jesus in this manner and yet only those who receive him in this manner are truly children of God and have God’s eternal life, rather than his wrath (see also John 3:36).
Now, these are all glorious truths that if you have been in a Bible-teaching church any time at all, hopefully you have heard. So, they may not startle us that much. But, it is an understatement to say we are startled by what we read in John 1:13: “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
To begin, in this verse John clarifies what was not the ultimate source or cause of our being born again as saved and converted people: it was not a mere physical birth, it was not something that originated with two people deciding to come together in marital relations as with our physical conception, and in fact it does not even ultimately originate in man’s volition. Instead, when we were given new life, it was “of God.” In other words, God was the ultimate cause. He was the one who initiated the work in us and in our will so that we wanted to trust in and receive Jesus Christ and so we acted upon that motive. It was truly our faith, something we desired to do (and so in that sense it was a free act), yet, it would not have happened if our King and Savior had not initiated the process in us so we would want to love Christ and believe in him.
John states the relationship of our faith to God’s previous gracious work in us with even greater clarity in 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who presently believes that Jesus is the Christ has already been born of God” (my translation). Of this verse the late John Stott writes:
The combination of present tense (believes) and perfect tense [has been born] is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present, continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore, the evidence, of our past experience of new birth by which we became and remain God’s children.’ (The Letters Of John, 175).
Yes, it is true we are not robots. Yes, it is true that we exercise true saving faith and thereby salvation is applied to us. But, it is ultimately the work of God alone—one for which he receives the glory. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9: “ For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Yes, a glorious conversation and a precious reality!
I am currently researching the topic of how God’s absolute sovereignty is related to man’s responsibility and freedom. Please keep me in prayer as I do this—both that my study will lead me to love and worship my Savior even more and that I will be able to communicate these truths to his bride, the Church, with the result she will love and worship him more fully!