I’ve been teaching through the Gospel of John at the federal prison near my house over the past few months. As with any expositional study, certain theological issues will naturally arise, and the issue of election has been popping up in our discussions. One of our conversations got a little heated one evening regarding the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation. The discussion focused primarily on whether regeneration precedes faith, or faith precedes regeneration. I was pleased to see them struggling with the issue and trying to work it out in their thinking. After nearly forty-five minutes I brought the discussion to a close, not because we’d resolved the matter, but because I needed get back to the expositional presentation of the Gospel of John, which is what the class is about. After I went home that evening, I spent a few hours writing this article, which I delivered to the inmates the following week. Though I take a position on this subject, I try to present both sides fairly.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are good and loving theologians who stand on either side of the debate. Some believe regeneration precedes faith in Christ, and others that faith in Christ precedes regeneration. These are not dogmatic on the issue, stating the possibility that faith and regeneration may occur at the same time. Careful study through the Bible does not yield a step by step order concerning God’s salvation process in the life of His elect; rather, many of the arguments are predicated on logical reasonings. Below are a few quotes from top scholars who fall on either side of the debate. Though there are more teachers I could have chosen, I selected a few strong representatives from each side in order to keep the discussion focused and brief. A few opening remarks are important.
In view of the fact that the Bible does not specify the exact order that applies in the application of the work of redemption, there is naturally considerable room for a difference of opinion. And as a matter of fact the Churches are not all agreed as to the ordo salutis. The doctrine of the order of salvation is a fruit of the Reformation. Hardly any semblance of it is found in the works of the Scholastics. In pre-Reformation theology scant justice is done to soteriology in general.
We should be flexible as to what goes into the ordo and what does not. The Bible itself doesn’t use the phrase ordo salutis any more than it speaks of an order of the decrees. And Scripture does not include anywhere a list of all the events theologians typically include under that label. Myself, I think that the ordo is mainly a pedagogical device.
In the Reformed statement of the ordo salutis, regeneration precedes faith, for, it is argued, a sinner must be given new life in order to be able to believe. Although this is admittedly stated only as a logical order, it is not wise to insist even on that; for it may as well be argued that if a sinner has the new life through regeneration, why does he need to believe? Of course, there can be no chronological order; both regeneration and faith have to occur at the same moment. To be sure, faith is also part of the total package of salvation that is the gift of God (Eph. 2:9); yet faith is commanded in order to be saved (Acts 16:31). Both are true.
A definition of regeneration:
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration [παλιγγενεσία paliggenesia = regeneration, renewal] and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5)
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration [παλιγγενεσία paliggenesia = regeneration, renewal] when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matt. 19:28)
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [γεννάω gennao + ἄνωθεν anothen = born again, or born from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
The word “regeneration” occurs only twice in the Bible (Matt. 19:28 and Titus 3:5). In both places the Greek word used is παλιγγενεσία paliggenesia, which means the “the state of being renewed… [the] experience of a complete change of life, rebirth of a redeemed person.” Dr. Charles Ryrie states, “The word, used only twice in the New Testament (Matt. 19:28; Titus 3:5), means to be born again. To be born from above (anothen) occurs in John 3:3 and probably includes the idea of being born again also (see the use of anothen in Gal. 4:9). It is the work of God that gives new life to the one who believes.” Dr. Paul Enns would agree, saying, “Succinctly stated, to regenerate means ‘to impart life.’ Regeneration is the act whereby God imparts life to the one who believes.” The Greek word ἀναγεννάω anagennao can be added as well. The word appears twice in Peter’s first epistle (1 Pet. 1:3, 23). The basic meaning is, to begat again, and is translated born again in both instances and has the idea of imparting new life.
The argument that regeneration precedes faith in Christ:
There are many Christians who believe that regeneration precedes faith in Christ. The reasoning is that an unregenerate person has no ability within himself to do anything, and even believing is made possible by means of the regenerating work of God the Holy Spirit. J.I. Packer states, “Jesus’ point throughout [John 3:3-8] is that there is no exercise of faith in himself as the supernatural Savior, no repentance, and no true discipleship apart from this new birth.” In this formula, Packer places faith in Christ after regeneration. At another point he states, “Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional, active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause.” Discussing John 3:3-8, Dr. Wayne Grudem takes the same view as Packer, stating:
Using the verses quoted above [John 3:3-8], we have defined regeneration to be the act of God awakening spiritual life within us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life. On this definition, it is natural to understand that regeneration comes before saving faith. It is in fact this work of God that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith. However, when we say that it comes “before” saving faith, it is important to remember that they usually come so close together that it will ordinarily seem to us that they are happening at the same time. As God addresses the effective call of the gospel to us, he regenerates us and we respond in faith and repentance to this call. So from our perspective it is hard to tell any difference in time, especially because regeneration is a spiritual work that we cannot perceive with our eyes or even understand with our minds.
Dr. John Frame argues that regeneration is the first act in our salvation, saying:
When God calls us into fellowship with Christ, he gives us a new life, a new heart. Regeneration is the first effect of effectual calling. And regeneration is the first item on the list that occurs inside of us. The presupposition of Scripture is that apart from God’s grace we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1–3), as we saw in chapter 8. That means that in and of ourselves, we can do nothing to please God. Just as conception and birth bring new physical life, so the work of regeneration brings new spiritual life. Through the new birth we gain new desire and new ability to serve God.
Arguing that the new birth precedes faith in Christ, Frame further states:
So, the new birth comes before our faith, bringing it about. People sometimes say, “Believe in Jesus, and you will be born again.” This expression is biblically inaccurate. It is true that believing in Jesus is the path to blessing. But the new birth is the cause of faith rather than the other way around. Again, you cannot give birth to yourself, even by faith. Rather, God gives new birth to you and enables you to have faith. It is always God’s sovereignty, isn’t it?
The argument that faith in Christ precedes regeneration:
Regeneration is completely a work of God, for fallen persons have no ability to produce spiritual life. Dr. Lewis S. Chafer believes regeneration is a work of God alone, in which God the Holy Spirit produces new life in the believer, completely apart from any human merit or worth, and occurs at the moment of faith in Christ.
On the basis of this text [Tit. 3:5], the word “regeneration” has been chosen by theologians to express the concept of new life, new birth, spiritual resurrection, the new creation, and, in general, a reference to the new supernatural life that believers receive as sons of God. In the history of the church, the term has not always had accurate usage, but properly understood, it means the origination of the eternal life which comes into the believer in Christ at the moment of faith, the instantaneous change from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life.
Dr. John Walvoord argues that regeneration is completely a work of God, saying, “Regeneration by its nature is solely a work of God. While sometimes considered as a result, every instance presumes or states that the act of regeneration was an act of God.” And he comments again, “As the word itself implies, the central thought in the doctrine of regeneration is that eternal life is imparted. Regeneration meets the need created by the presence of spiritual death.” Further, Dr. Walvoord states clearly that eternal life is received by faith, saying:
The important fact, never to be forgotten in the doctrine of regeneration, is that the believer in Christ has received eternal life. This fact must be kept free from all confusion of thought arising from the concept of regeneration which makes it merely an antecedent of salvation, or a preliminary quickening to enable the soul to believe. It is rather the very heart of salvation. It reaches the essential problem of the lack of eternal life without which no soul can spend eternity in the presence of God. Regeneration supplies eternal life as justification and sanctification deal with the problem of sin specifically. It is a smashing blow to all philosophies which hold that man has inherent capacities of saving himself. Regeneration is wholly of God. No possible human effort however noble can supply eternal life. The proper doctrine of regeneration gives to God all glory and power due His name, and at the same time it displays His abundant provision for a race dead in sin.
Dr. Charles Ryrie writes concerning the means of regeneration, stating, “God regenerates (John 1:13) according to His will (James 1:18) through the Holy Spirit (John 3:5) when a person believes (1:12) the Gospel as revealed in the Word (1 Pet. 1:23).” Ryrie then defines faith, saying, “Faith means confidence, trust, to hold something as true. Of course, faith must have content; there must be confidence or trust about something. To have faith in Christ unto salvation means to have confidence that He can remove the guilt of sin and grant eternal life.” And finally, addressing the necessity of faith, he states, “Salvation is always through faith, not because of faith (Eph. 2:8). Faith is the channel through which we receive God’s gift of eternal life; it is not the cause. This is so man can never boast, even of his faith. But faith is the necessary and only channel (John 5:24; 17:3).” Dr. Paul Enns would agree, saying:
John 1:13 indicates the new birth is not effected by the will of man. Regeneration is an act of God, not a cooperative effort between God and man. That is not to say, however, that faith is unnecessary in salvation. It may be suggested that although regeneration and faith are distinct, they occur simultaneously. The two are set side by side in John 1:12–13. In John 1:12, at the moment of receiving Christ (believing), the person becomes a child of God; in John 1:13 it indicates that at that very moment the persons have been born of God. Surely there is a mystery here that surpasses human comprehension.
I find myself more in agreement with Lewis Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Paul Enns, and many others who teach that regeneration occurs either just after faith in Christ, or at the same time. This discussion is not intended to resolve the issues surrounding the ordo salutis. Though I love and appreciate the writings of theologians such as R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer, John Frame, and many others, yet I am unconvinced—at least at this time—by their arguments that regeneration precedes faith in Christ. My current position is based more on the evidence of Scripture rather than well-crafted theological arguments.
Biblically, there are numerous passages that place faith as the necessary prerequisite to having new life, or regeneration. It is written, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), and “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). In these and other instances, “eternal life” is given after we believe in Jesus as our Savior. Faith is never the cause of our salvation, but rather, the means by which we receive it. Scripture clearly states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
I would also like to say in closing that I do not consider this theological issue as central to the Christian faith; therefore, disagreement on this issue is not a basis for breaking fellowship. I agree with the statement: in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.
The testimony of Scripture is that God is righteous (Ps. 11:7; 129:4; 145:17; Lam. 1:18; John 17:25; 1 John 2:1). He is essentially righteous in character. It follows that since God is righteous, He will promote righteousness and approve of those who do. David writes of God, saying, “The LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; the upright will behold His face” (Ps. 11:7). The verse speaks of what God is as well as what God loves. He is righteous and He loves righteousness. David here—and in Psalm 33:5—uses the Hebrew verb אָהֵב aheb to speak of the affection God has for righteousness and those who pursue it. The “upright” refers to those who conform to God’s character and commands, and to “behold His face” means one is welcome into His presence with favor (cf. Ps. 17:5; 140:13). In another place David states, “O LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? 2 He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:1-2). Solomon adds, “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but He loves one who pursues righteousness” (Prov. 15:9), and “to do righteousness and justice is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). Isaiah states, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed’” (Isa. 56:1), Jeremiah adds, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place’” (Jer. 22:3; Hos. 14:9; 10:12). Paul writes, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13; cf. 6:19), “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22), and Peter states, “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Eph. 4:24; 5:8-10; 1 Tim. 6:11; Tit. 2:11-12; Heb. 10:38).
God Works to Produce His Righteousness in the Believer
God is working to produce His righteousness in us from the moment of salvation onward. Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). God produces His righteousness in us to justify, sanctify, and ultimately glorify us. First, at the moment of salvation, God imputes His righteousness to us, and this is the basis for our justification. By imputed righteousness He is dealing with the guilt of our sin. Of the believer, Paul states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Rom. 5:17-18; 8:1; Phil. 3:9). Second, by crippling the sin nature He is dealing with the power of sin in our lives (Rom. 6:1-14; 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:5). Paul writes, “do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God “(Rom 6:13). Third, by removing our sin nature after death He is dealing with sin for eternity (Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 John 3:2, 5). Paul writes, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21), and Peter writes, “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). Such a righteousness as that which will exist in the new heavens and earth means there will be no sin of any kind. God alone, without human aid, produces the first and third aspects of our salvation (i.e. our justification and glorification), and the believer simply benefits from His action. However, the second aspect of our salvation is not automatic (i.e. our sanctification), as God chooses to involve the believer to produce His righteousness. That is, there is a volitional aspect to a life of righteousness, as the believer must choose to obey God’s commands and rely on the His divine enablement to carry them out. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing necessary to grow spiritually (Eph. 1:3), but we must lay hold of that provision and make good choices that conform to His will and character.
How to Achieve Experiential Righteousness
But how is the life of righteousness achieved? What is it that each believer must do in order to be the righteous person God expects? It does not help the believer to say he/she must be righteous if we do not also provide the necessary Biblical information to accomplish the task. Once saved, God provides each believer a portfolio of spiritual assets that enable him/her to walk in obedience to His commands. Those who utilize God’s provisions and obey His commands will walk in conformity to His will. This is experiential righteousness. For the Christian living in the dispensation of the church age, there are at least six things he/she must follow in order to produce a life of righteousness.
First, the Christian must be in daily submission to God. This begins with a decision to dedicate one’s life to God. Paul writes, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Paul then goes on to say, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Paul has shown that the gospel he preaches has the power to transfer Christians from the realm of sin and death into the realm of righteousness and life. But this transfer, as Paul has noted (6:11–23; 8:12–13), does not absolve the Christian from the responsibility to live out the righteousness so graciously granted in the gospel. God is working to transform us into the image of his Son (8:29), but we are to take part in this process as we work to make this transformation real in our daily lives.
The Christian is to participate in the life of righteousness to which he/she is called. Positively it begins when we present our bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice” to God. This presentation begins at a moment in time, in which the believer decides to follow God and not the world. To surrender his/her life to whatever God has planned. This is a dedicated life to God. Concerning the believer’s dedication to God, Charles Ryrie states:
What is it that the Christian is to dedicate? The answer is himself. “Present yourselves to God” (Rom. 6:13), “present your bodies” (Rom. 12:1), “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20), “submit yourselves…to God” (James 4:7)—this is the uniform appeal of Scripture, and it concerns our bodies. If this is so, then it follows that dedication concerns the years of one’s life, since that is the only period in which the body functions. Dedication concerns the present life, not the life hereafter.
This is a surrendered life, a yielded life, in which the believer seeks the will of God above his/her own wishes or desires. The desires of self, no matter how noble, are sacrificed in order to do God’s will above all. This can be challenging, for the believer lives in a world that calls us to live for self, to do as we please, to live our way. But Paul says, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Second, the believer must be in continual study of Scripture, applying it to every aspect of his/her life (2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). Regeneration does not, in itself, remove a lifetime of worldly viewpoint. The Christian must look to Scripture in order to unseat the worldly mind, for in its pages we learn about God and what He values in life. This requires learning. Paul writes, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Later he states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Christian cannot live what he does not know, and learning Scripture necessarily precedes living in God’s will. It is only by Scripture that the believer receives “training in righteousness.”
Third, the Christian must learn to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The Christian may be submitted to God and learning His word, but he/she must also be empowered to live as God intends. Paul commands Christians, “And do not be drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). When a person consumes alcohol and gets drunk, eventually it influences his thinking, words, and behavior in an obvious and often negative way. The Bible does not condemn drinking wine, but it does condemn drunkenness, in which the believer loses control of his/her thoughts, words and actions. Drunkenness is sin. In contrast to being drunk, the Bible commands the believer to “be filled with the Spirit.”
“Be filled with the Spirit” is God’s command, and He expects us to obey. The command is plural, so it applies to all Christians and not just to a select few. The verb is in the present tense—“keep on being filled”—so it is an experience we should enjoy constantly and not just on special occasions. And the verb is passive. We do not fill ourselves but permit the Spirit to fill us. The verb “fill” has nothing to do with contents or quantity, as though we are empty vessels that need a required amount of spiritual fuel to keep going. In the Bible, filled means “controlled by.” “They… were filled with wrath” (Luke 4:28) means “they were controlled by wrath” and for that reason tried to kill Jesus. “The Jews were filled with envy” (Acts 13:45) means that the Jews were controlled by envy and opposed the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. To be “filled with the Spirit” means to be constantly controlled by the Spirit in our mind, emotions, and will…But how can a person tell whether or not he is filled with the Spirit? Paul stated that there are three evidences of the fullness of the Spirit in the life of the believer: he is joyful (Eph. 5:19), thankful (Eph. 5:20), and submissive (Eph. 5:21–33). Paul said nothing about miracles or tongues, or other special manifestations.
Lewis S. Chafer adds:
To be filled with the Spirit is to have the Spirit fulfilling in us all that God intended Him to do when he placed Him there. To be filled is not the problem of getting more of the Spirit: it is rather the problem of the Spirit getting more of us. We shall never have more of the Spirit than the anointing which every true Christian has received. On the other hand, the Spirit may have all of the believer and thus be able to manifest in him the life and character of Christ. A spiritual person, then, is one who experiences the divine purpose and plan in his daily life through the power of the indwelling Spirit. The character of that life will be the out-lived Christ. The cause of that life will be the unhindered indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-21; II Corinthians 3:18).
And Charles Ryrie states:
To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by the Spirit. The clue to this definition is found in Ephesians 5:18 where there is contrast and comparison between drunkenness and Spirit-filling. It is the comparison which gives the clue, for just as a drunken person is controlled by the liquor which he consumes, so a Spirit-filled Christian is controlled by the Spirit. This will cause him to act in ways which are unnatural to him, not implying that such ways will be erratic or abnormal, but asserting that they will not be the ways of the old life. Control by the Spirit is a necessary part of spirituality.
Fourth, the Christian must learn to walk in daily dependence on the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” and “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 25). Walking by the Spirit means we are walking in dependence on Him and not relying on our own resources, experiences, or human wisdom. It means we are walking in the same direction He is going, and like a friend, we are glad to be in fellowship with Him. It means God is regularly in our thoughts, and we live every day conscious of Him and His will for our lives (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:16-17). It means being sensitive to what may offend Him, and making every effort to please Him through a life of faith (2 Cor. 5:9; Heb. 11:6). Sin will break fellowship with God; however, the Christian can restore that fellowship by means of confession (1 John 1:8-10). When we walk by the Spirit, we live as He directs and our lives will manifest His work (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 4:1-3). It is important to understand that the Spirit guides us Biblically and never by vague impressions. Walking is a learned behavior, and it gets easier with practice.
Constant dependence on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is essential to spiritual growth and victory. By its very nature, walking is a succession of dependent acts. When one foot is lifted in order to place it front of the other one, it is done in faith—faith that the foot that remains on the ground will support the full weight of the body. You can only walk by the exercise of faith. You can live the Christian life only by dependence on the Holy Spirit. Such dependence will result in the Spirit’s control over the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:17-21) and the Spirit’s production of the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23). Dependence on the power of God and effort on the part of the believer are not mutually exclusive. Self-discipline and Spirit-dependence can and must be practiced at the same time in a balanced spiritual life. Dependence itself is an attitude, but that attitude does not come automatically; it usually requires cultivation. How many genuine Christians there are who live day after day without even sensing their need of dependence on Him. Experience, routine, pride, self-confidence all tend to drag all of us away from that conscious dependence on God which we must have in order to live and act righteously.
Fifth, the Christian must restore broken fellowship with God through confession of personal sin (1 John 1:5-9). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is never the will of God that we sin (1 John 2:1); however, when we do sin, we break fellowship with God and grieve and/or quench the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Sin hinders our walk with God and halts our life of righteousness. Paul writes in two places, commanding the Christian, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30a) and “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). The Spirit is a Person, and He is grieved when we sin and act contrary to His righteous character. Grieving the Spirit occurs when we knowingly commit sin contrary to His guidance. When the Christian commits sin, then the Spirit is grieved and His ministry is diminished, and He must then begin to work on the heart of the Christian to bring him/her back into fellowship. “Sin destroys spirituality. It is necessarily so; for where sin is tolerated in the believer’s daily life, the Spirit, who indwells him, must then turn from His blessed ministry through him, to a pleading ministry to him.”
To “quench the Spirit” is to resist His will as He seeks to guide according to divine revelation. In the early church, God provided special revelation both through His written word (Rom. 15:4), as well as through prophetic utterance (1 Thess. 5:20). “Today, we have a completed revelation in the Word of God and there is no need for prophets. The Apostles and prophets helped lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) and have now passed from the scene. The only ‘prophetic ministry’ we have is in the preaching and teaching of the Word of God.” It is only through Scripture that we possess special revelation about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and what they have provided for us and expect from us. Scripture is our guiding light (Ps. 119:105, 130; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17), and “refusal to submit to the Word of God is quenching the Spirit, making the fullness of the Spirit impossible.”
Fellowship with God is always on His terms, not ours. He establishes the guidelines for our relationship with Him and if we are to walk with Him, we must follow His commands. God never follows us in our sin, but always calls us back to walk with Him in righteousness. When the believer breaks fellowship with God through personal sin, the only solution is to seek forgiveness through confession. Confession of sin is a common theme throughout all of Scripture (Lev. 5:5; Ps. 32:3-5; 38:18; 51:4; 2 Sam. 12:13; Neh. 9:2; Dan. 9:1-16; Luke 15:18-21; 1 John 1:9), and it is by confession that sin is forgiven. Scripture states, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
According to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This passage, standing as it does in the center of a revelation of the basis of fellowship with God (1 John 1:5—2:2), is a message to Christians. It avails not to the unsaved to confess their sins, as they have not accepted the Savior who was the sacrifice for sins. For the unsaved the exhortation is likewise summed up in one word, believe. For the Christian who stands in all the blessed relationship to God wrought by saving faith in Christ there remains the issue of maintaining fellowship. It is this issue that is in the foreground in 1 John…The presence of sin in the life of the Christian, however, constitutes a barrier to fellowship. While the Christian’s sonship is in no wise affected, the happy family relationship is disturbed. On the human side, confession must come before restoration into fellowship is possible. The cause for grieving the Spirit must be judged as sin and confessed.
Because sin is easy to produce and because most men are simple in the way they think, God had to make restoration of fellowship as simple as confession. Just as believing the simple message of the gospel saves (1 Cor. 15:3-4), so the simple act of confessing one’s sins leads to forgiveness and restoration of fellowship with God (1 John 1:9). There’s no need for penance, guilty feelings, or any payment on our part. Forgiveness, like salvation, is provided to the believer because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The simple act of confession as taught in 1 John 1:9 guarantees God’s forgiveness and restoration of fellowship.
Complete assurance is given that this approach to the sin problem is acceptable to God. It is not a question of doing penance nor of inflicting chastening punishments upon oneself. Nor is it a matter of leniency with the Father when He accepts the confession. The whole act is based upon the finished work of Christ, and the question of penalty is not in view. The price for restoration has already been paid. Accordingly, the Father is faithful and righteous in forgiving, not merely lenient and merciful. The Father could not do otherwise than forgive the Christian seeking forgiveness, for His own Son has already provided a complete satisfaction for sin. The process from the human side is, accordingly, amazingly simple.
Sixth, the Christian must take advantage of the time God gives to learn and grow spiritually. The believer does not reach spiritual maturity overnight, and since each believer has only a measure of time allotted by God (Ps. 139:16), his/her days must not be wasted on worldly pursuits, but on learning Scripture and living in God’s will. The growing Christian, who is in pursuit of righteousness, will maximize his/her time and live wisely. As Christians, we all start off as babes who need to feed on the milk of the word (1 Pet. 2:2; cf. Heb. 5:12), and as we grow spiritually, over time, we develop a taste for solid foods (Heb. 5:13-14). As we grow spiritually, we will maximize our time wisely. Paul exhorts Christians, “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). To live wisely, according to Scripture, means knowing God’s will and having the skill to execute it. Making the most of our time means living in God’s will and acting in accordance with His expectations.
Three Obstacles to a Righteous Life
There are obstacles to the Christian life; satanic impediments that hinder our walk of righteousness. Every Christian is born on a spiritual battlefield and throughout his life will face opposition to the work of God. The opposition will use both pleasure and pain to pull the Christian away from God in order to stifle our walk. The believer experiences opposition from his sin nature (Gal. 5:17, 19-21a; Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), the devil (2 Cor. 11:3; Jam. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8), and the world system that is all around (Col. 2:8; Jas. 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16).
The first obstacle is the sin nature, sometimes called “the flesh” (Gal. 5:17, 19) or “old self” (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), which has a natural affinity for Satan’s values and his world-system. Paul writes, “For the flesh [sin nature] sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you [the Christian] may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17). The sin nature is resident in every person; both saved and unsaved, and is the source of internal temptation. “The flesh refers to that fallen nature that we were born with, that wants to control the body and the mind and make us disobey God.” Since the fall of Adam, every person is born with a sin nature, and it is this nature that internally motivates men to rebel against all legitimate forms of authority, both human and divine. At the moment of salvation, God the Holy Spirit indwells us and gives us a new nature that, for the first time in our lives, has the capacity and desire to obey God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Because the sin nature is not removed from the believer after salvation, the believer begins to experience conflict within. “The presence of two opposing natures (not two personalities) in one individual results in conflict.”
The old nature (which has its origin in our physical birth) fights against the new nature which we receive when we are born again (Gal. 5:16–26). No amount of self-discipline, no set of man-made rules and regulations, can control this old nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can enable us to “put to death” the old nature (Rom. 8:12–13) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) in us through the new nature.
The second obstacle is the devil. Before his self-induced fall, Lucifer was a wise and beautiful creature, having “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezek. 28:12). He was an angel, called an “anointed cherub” (Ezek. 28:14). However, this perfect angelic creature produced sin from the source of his own volition, and the Scripture states, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created until unrighteousness was found in you…and you sinned” (Ezek. 28:15-16a). Concerning Lucifer’s sin, the Lord says, “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor” (Ezek. 28:17a). Self-centered pride turned Lucifer’s wisdom into foolishness, and in his madness he sought to usurp God’s throne and rule over His creation. Lucifer became Satan (a term meaning “the adversary”) at the time of his rebellion (Isa. 14:13-14).
The devil is a real, personal being who opposes the Christian and seeks to make him ineffective in his Christian life. He is a formidable enemy of the Christian since he is intent on devouring Christians (1 Pet. 5:8); hence, the Christian is called on to resist the devil (James 4:7). This can be accomplished through putting on the armor for a spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10–17).
The third obstacle is the world. Since the Fall of Adam, God has temporarily granted Satan permission to govern this world (Matt. 4:8-9; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12; 1 John 5:19). Satan, and those who follow him (both demons and people), are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes (Gen. 50:20; Ps. 76:10; Job 1:6-12; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28; Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). Satan governs by means of a system he’s created, which Scripture calls the κόσμος kosmos. The κόσμος kosmos “and everything that belongs to it, appears as that which is hostile to God, i.e. lost in sin, wholly at odds with anything divine, ruined and depraved.” Satan’s world-system consists of those philosophies, values and practices that influence humanity to think and behave contrary to God and His Word. John writes, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). Lewis Chafer provides an apt description of the kosmos:
The kosmos is a vast order or system that Satan has promoted which conforms to his ideals, aims, and methods. It is civilization now functioning apart from God-a civilization in which none of its promoters really expect God to share; who assign to God no consideration in respect to their projects, nor do they ascribe any causality to Him. This system embraces its godless governments, conflicts, armaments, jealousies; its education, culture, religions of morality, and pride. It is that sphere in which man lives. It is what he sees, what he employs. To the uncounted multitude it is all they ever know so long as they live on this earth. It is properly styled “The Satanic System” which phrase is in many instances a justified interpretation of the so-meaningful word, kosmos.
Satan’s world-system is not changeable and cannot be modified to conform to God’s will. At the core of Satan’s world-system is a directive for mankind to function apart from God, and when obeyed, people produce all forms of evil. Worldly-minded persons embrace Satan’s system and love their own because they share the same values of selfishness that exclude God. By promoting the gospel and Biblical teaching, Christians disrupt Satan’s kingdom by calling out of it a people for God. When a person comes to Christ for salvation, they are transferred from Satan’s kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13-14), and become ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). The lifetime of worldly thinking that shaped our values and behaviors are not suddenly eradicated at the moment of salvation. Rather, God calls us to be transformed in our thinking by renewing our minds and living by faith in His Word (Rom. 12:1-2). Though Christians have the capacity, we are not to love the world (John 16:33; 17:14-16; 1 John 2:15). To love the world is to turn from righteousness, and the Christian who loves the world makes himself the enemy of God (Jam. 4:4). Those who love God and His Word share a mutual love for each other. By learning God’s Word, Christians can identify worldly conversations and either avoid them or disrupt them by interjecting Biblical truth. The life of righteousness means we will invade the lives, thoughts and discussions of others with Biblical truth. Of course, this should be done in love and grace (Eph. 4:15; Col. 4:6), not by argumentation (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When we learn God’s Word, obey His commands, and show love to others, we are rebelling against Satan’s world-system and sowing the seeds of spiritual insurrection in the lives of those who live and walk in Satan’s kingdom.
These three obstacles can wreck the Christian as he/she advances toward spiritual maturity and a life of righteousness. The sin nature is not removed during our time on earth, the devil never ceases in his efforts to attack us, and the world-system can never be reformed. The Christian must not only be aware of these obstacles, but must always be clinging to God and His word to guide and sustain.
God is righteous and He calls believers to live righteously in conformity to His character and commands. Once saved, the believer is positionally sanctified in union with Christ, and this status will never change. However, positional sanctification does not guarantee experiential sanctification, as the believer must choose to comply with God’s righteous expectations and advance to spiritual maturity. God has provided the believer all that is needed to live a righteous life. The advance to such a life involves committing oneself to God for service, continual study of Scripture, learning to be filled with the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit, regular confession of sin, and time to grow. The believer who is living the righteous life as God expects will face obstacles, which include the old sin nature, the devil, and his world-system. The believer who keeps advancing spiritually will attain Christian maturity and prove effective for God.
The dynamic of the believer’s spiritual walk is predicated to a certain degree on how much Bible knowledge resides in his soul. He cannot live what he does not know, and knowing God’s word necessarily precedes living His will. Knowing God’s word does not guarantee a spiritual walk, as the believer may follow the world rather than the Holy Spirit (Jas. 4:17; 1 Jo. 2:15). However, he cannot be spiritual without some knowledge of Scripture, and the more he knows, the more he’s able to surrender his life to God.
Understanding the work of Holy Spirit in the dispensation of Grace enables the believer to live the spiritual life. The Mosaic Law system is not the rule of life for the church age believer, and sadly, too many Christians seek to live by it. How the Holy Spirit worked in the life of saints under the Mosaic Law is vastly different than how He works in the life of the believer today. For example, under the dispensation of the Mosaic Law the Holy Spirit indwelt and empowered only a few believers such as Artisans (Ex. 31:1-5), Judges (Num. 11:25-29; Jud. 3:9-10), Prophets (Ezek. 2:2), and Kings (1 Sam. 10:6; 16:13); however, in the dispensation of Grace, every believer in the church is indwelt by Him (John 14:16-17; Romans 5:5; 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:19). Also, under the dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the Holy Spirit could be taken from a believer as an act of discipline (1 Sam. 16:14-16), but this cannot happen to the believer under the dispensation of Grace, as the Christian is permanently sealed with the Holy Spirit Himself (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30). Under the previous dispensation David could petition the Lord and ask Him not to “take Thy Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11); but no church age believer should pray such a prayer, since the Holy Spirit does not leave when sin is produced. The sinning Christian may “grieve” and/or “quench” the Holy Spirit when sin is accomplished, and this he is commanded not to do (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19); but the disobedient Christian does not live under threat of losing the Holy Spirit if he fails to yield to the will of God. Certainly the Lord can and does discipline the erring child (Heb. 12:6), but not with the removal of the Holy Spirit, as was true under the previous dispensation.
Jesus communicated these differences regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and prophesied that after His resurrection the Holy Spirit would be given to all believers to indwell them (Jo. 7:37-39; 14:16-17, 26; 16:13; Acts 1:5; 2:1-4). An important note to observe is the fact that Jesus referred to the coming ministry of the Holy Spirit as future from His resurrection (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4). This shows that what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church age is distinct from what He did in the lives of some of the saints in the previous dispensation. The Holy Spirit is working in the lives of two groups of people: unbelievers and believers. Regarding unbelievers and the world it is stated that He is:
Convicting unbelievers of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8-11).
Restraining sin in the world (2 Thess. 2:7).
The Christian operating on the authority of Scripture knows the Holy Spirit is working in the heart of the unbeliever to convince him of “sin, righteousness, and judgment.” This convincing work of the Spirit regarding Christ, His work, and future judgment may be suppressed by the unbeliever—like other forms of God’s revelation—but it cannot be stopped. It is not the Christian’s place to convince the unsaved person about Christ’s Person and work, but simply to present the facts of Scripture and trust the Holy Spirit to illumine and persuade. Failure to understand what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of unbelievers may lead an ignorant believer to assume the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, and this results in frustration since the Christian is in no way equipped or commanded to tackle this momentous task.
It is reported in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is now restraining sin in the world until the Church is taken to heaven at the Rapture (2 Thess. 2:7; cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The terrible darkness that will consume the world when the restraining work of the Holy Spirit ends is manifest in the lives of those living during the time of the seven year Tribulation (Rev. 6-19; cf. 2 Thess. 2:3-12). It is obvious that there is much sin in the world now, and it staggers the imagination to try to comprehend how bad it will be after the Holy Spirit’s restraining ministry ends.
Once a person believes in Jesus for salvation, he is then delivered “from the domain of darkness, and transferred…to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). This transference is instantaneous and permanent, and is understood as the work of the Holy Spirit at salvation. Once saved, the Holy Spirit permanently indwells the Christian (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 1:13-14), makes him a “new creature” in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), and gives him the spiritual capacity to live righteously (Rom. 6:11-14). The Holy Spirit then works to form the character of Christ in him, which is understood as the work of the Holy Spirit after salvation. Some of the works of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer are as follows:
Blessing with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3).
Providing a spiritual gift for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 12:4-7).
Glorifying Jesus in the believer’s life (John 16:14).
Teaching directly through the Word and gifted speakers (John 16:13-15; Eph. 4:11-16).
Recalling Scripture to mind (John 14:26; 16:13).
Filling (empowering and guiding) (Eph. 5:18).
Sustaining spiritual walk (Gal. 5:16, 25).
Illuminating the mind and making Scripture understandable (1 Cor. 2:11-13).
Promoting the use of the believer’s spiritual gift (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-10, 28-30; Eph. 4:11).
The works of the Holy Spirit at salvation are once for all, and occur immediately when faith is placed in Jesus as Savior. In contrast, the works of the Holy Spirit after salvation are regularly repeated in the believer’s life, and require a volitional response to the Spirit’s leading. The Holy Spirit seeks to guide the believer into God’s will, but does not force compliance. The above lists of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer are not exhaustive, but are representative of the major aspects of His work.