THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS
CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE
MANNER IN WHICH IT OCCURS
MAN'S WILL NOT TAKEN AWAY BUT MADE ALIVE
FALLEN MAN RETAINED HIS WILL
In the preceding articles we have confessed Scripture to teach that regeneration is a gift of God which "He works in us without us." We confessed too (Article 15) that the Christian is to be grateful to God for such abundant mercy bestowed on sinners. Article 16, now, focuses on how God works conversion in fallen man, and so begins with a description of what fallen man is like: "Man through his fall did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will; and sin, which has pervaded the whole human race, did not deprive man of his human nature ...." We fell into sin but we did not become animals. We were not deprived of our human nature. We remained people with a brain, capable of thinking things through, and we retained our will. However, as a result of our depravity, our will became twisted. Whereas God had created man with a will which fully inclined man towards Him, so that in all he did man pleased God, after the fall into sin man did not lose his will but his will turned him against God (see Figure 1).
For that reason our article confesses that God in His work of regeneration "does not act upon men as stocks and blocks." God does not treat us as stones, as though we are neutral towards Him, but He treats us as people with a will which makes us hostile to Him, enemies of Him. That is also how fallen man is described in Romans 5:10. "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son ...." Fallen man is an enemy of God and consequently fights against God. Says Paul in Romans 8:7, "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." In His work of regeneration God begins to work on us, hostile sinners, so that our wills which are turned against Him will be redirected towards Him. At the Fall man did not die an instant physical death but a spiritual death. For that reason God did not re-create a human race, but He regenerated fallen man, redirecting man's ruined will.
THE LORD MAKES FALLEN MAN'S WILL ALIVE
It is clear from Scripture that it is the Lord alone who works in the heart of fallen man in order to make his will spiritually alive:
Of my own accord I am not able to turn myself from one direction to another. By my own power I am incapable of doing what is pleasing to God. Paul therefore stresses that the changed will is God's work. Contrary to what the Arminians believe, that man by his free will is able to change the inclination of his heart, Scripture would have us believe that God alone is busy in the hearts of man whose will had become totally corrupt.
David confesses his total dependence on God. He knows that without God he has no hope. Implicit in David's words are an admission that were God to abandon him, he would never be able to find God.
God doesn't start all over again, creating new people, but He works upon us who were dead and brings us to life, turning our wills to Himself and making us willing to serve Him again. Regeneration is evidence of God at work.
THE LORD BENDS THE WILL OF FALLEN MAN PLEASANTLY AND POWERFULLY
Having confessed in Article 12 that regeneration is God's work, Article 16 describes the manner in which God goes about this divine work. In response to a question of Zechariah, the Lord reveals to him how it is that He works: "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit...." (Zechariah 4:6). This quiet yet effective work of regeneration performed by God in the hearts of man is described in Article 17 as follows, .".. this divine grace of regeneration ... does not take away the will and its properties, or violently coerce it, but makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it." Whereas man may wish to see instant and radical change in the life of another person the Lord works quietly, without great force, noise or fanfare, yet most effectively.
REGENERATION IS A PROCESS
In Article 16 we read some carefully worded formulations of the fathers which are crucial to our understanding of how God regenerates the will of man. Said the fathers: the divine work of regeneration "makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it." Embedded in this formulation of the fathers is the element of growth. 'To make alive': for Adam this was an instantaneous act of God's creation. God formed Adam from clay, and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life, so that Adam came to life as a mature adult. In a similar manner God created Eve, forming her out of a rib of Adam. Yet Adam and Eve were exceptions, for that is not how any of Adam and Eve's descendants came to life. We come into the world as the result of a process. At our conception we were so small that our existence went unnoticed by our parents; only gradually, over time, did our parents become aware of our presence. Our growth inside our mother's womb was subtle and slow. Even at birth a baby is not independent; only after years of nurturing does a person reach mature adulthood. 'To make alive' is a process.
So is healing a process. The fathers also described regeneration as a 'healing of the will'. In Mark 5:24-34 we read of the woman with a flow of blood who was instantly healed when she touched Jesus' garment. However, her instantaneous healing is not the normal way healing occurs. The normal pattern for healing is that we follow a course of treatment or rest, and then slowly, gradually, healing occurs.
Regeneration of the heart, like our coming into existence and the healing of our bodies, is also a process which becomes evident over time. Although we read in Scripture of the radical and instant change which the Spirit worked in the heart of Paul, that is not the way the Lord normally works regeneration - no more than Adam's generation is the normal way God brings people into existence. At a certain point in time we will notice a change in our lives, but we will not know the exact moment the change started. One can compare this to becoming aware of how one came into existence. Although we cannot recall the moments of our conception and birth, that makes them no less real to us. The same counts for faith and rebirth: I am convinced of the reality of my regeneration even though I don't know the exact moment when it started. Regeneration is a process of growth.
THE RESULT OF THE PROCESS OF REGENERATION
"As a result, where formerly the rebellion and resistance of the flesh fully dominated, now a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail."
Prior to regeneration: "rebellion and resistance of the flesh fully dominated."
These words capture the notion of being dead in sin. At the fall into sin I left God to join Satan. When I was still on God's side I was righteous and holy because God had created me in His image. However, as soon as I joined Satan I became dead in sin, a slave of sin, totally depraved. As a child of Satan my flesh was fully dominated by rebellion and resistance to God (Figure 2).
God sent His Son to redeem me from the power of the Devil and return me to His side. However, once I was restored to God's side, God did not leave me to remain dead in sin but He regenerated me: He changed my heart (Figure 3). This is the material we confessed with Canons of Dort, III/IV, Articles 11 and 12.
After regeneration: "a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail, in which the true, spiritual renewal and freedom of our will consists."
Does my regeneration mean that I have become perfect? NO! Rather, what only "begins to prevail" in me is "a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit." The word 'prevail' is battlefield terminology, capturing the notion of victory after a struggle. The life of the Christian is precisely that: a struggle, for "our sworn enemies -the devil, the world and our own flesh- do not cease to attack us" (LD 52.127). We do not have the where-with-all to resist these attacks: "in ourselves we are so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment" (LD 52.127). But the Lord has given His Holy Spirit "so that in this spiritual war we may not go down to defeat" (LD 52.127). Yet the Lord does not give His Holy Spirit in such measure that we totally renewed, perfected. Instead, because of the gift of the Spirit in the hearts of the regenerated, the battle can be fought. For that reason the fathers so aptly wrote that we only begin to prevail. One reads of no hint of triumphalism here.
That the regenerated person is by no means made perfect is what Scripture teaches:
Paul wrote these words, not to unregenerate people, but "to the saints who are in Ephesus" (Ephesians 1:1). Paul's addressees had been washed in the blood of Christ and had been renewed by the Spirit of Christ. Paul instructs these saints to put off the old nature and to put on the new man. These were not tasks which the saints in Ephesus had accomplished, but tasks they were instructed to do. That is: it's an ongoing task.
"Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbour ... be angry and do not sin ... let him who stole steal no longer ... let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth ... let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice ... be kind to one another ... walk in love .... do not be drunk with wine ...."
Paul commands the saints in Ephesus to make it their business to love, not to steal, to mind their language, etc. They are engaged in a struggle in which they only begin to prevail, and therefore they must keep at it. Paul urges them to make it their business to be what the Lord has made them to be.
Likewise the term 'coming to life'. It describes a process, the way we come into existence (as opposed to, say, the way Adam was called into being). The 'coming to life' of the new is an ongoing process. Both the dying and the coming to life commonly begin unnoticed in the life of the regenerated person (see above).
Q&A 89: What is the dying of the old nature? It is to grieve with a heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it." The dying of the old nature is not something I do once and never again. It is an ongoing process, something I do more and more - progressive.
Q&A 90: "What is the coming to life of the new nature? It is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works."
To live denotes action, to continue on. Life itself is not static or unchanging but is dynamic. Life means growth, change, development.
Conversion is a combination of the two ongoing processes of the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new. However, this does not mean that one reaches the goal of perfection in this life. What Jesus taught us to pray by means of the second petition of the Lord's prayer, "Thy kingdom come", is taught us in a summary in LD 48.123. By this petition we actually ask God, "So rule us by Thy Word and Spirit that more and more we submit to Thee." Does that mean I totally submit to my Lord? No, daily I continue to pray that I may submit more and more to God. Here is need for growth. LD 44.114 speaks of no 'arrival' or climax when it comes to the Christian's submission to God in this life. "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience." The spiritual life of the regenerated person is one of ongoing growth and development and in that development I never get beyond the beginning. In LD 44.115 we confess that even though "in this life no one can keep the ten commandments perfectly ... God (has) them preached so strictly: First, that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, that we may be zealous for good deeds and constantly pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that He may more and more renew us after God's image, until after this life we reach the goal of perfection."
The apostle Paul was regenerated and yet he was the author of a chapter such as Romans 7. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (vs 15). Paul knows what is the right thing to do, and he wants to do what is right, i.e., offer the Lord prompt and sincere obedience, but does he do it? "... what I hate, that I do." Paul repeats his despair in verses 18 and 19: "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice." The apostle recognises a battle raging within him: "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (vss 22-24). We confess the same vulnerability of this body of death in LD 52.127: "In ourselves we are so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment." Have we been changed? Yes, indeed we have but we have not yet been brought to perfection. Like Paul, we begin to prevail but we can be so disappointed that it only remains a beginning. Like Paul did, we are to look to Christ who grants forgiveness for our daily failures, and delivers us from sin totally in His time: "I thank God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
If the Lord would abandon us and discontinue His work of regeneration in us, we'd be totally lost. The Arminians believe that man can accept salvation and grow in faith in the Lord by his own free will. But in Article 16 the fathers have pointed out once more that if faith and salvation had to be the accomplishment of man, we would get nowhere. Man would then remain a slave to the sin into which he'd plunged himself. God imperceptibly moulds us, changes us, gently bends our will and brings us to the goal He has set for us. Regeneration is God's work alone, and that's why it happens.
THE USE OF MEANS
The Article begins with a reference to the providence of God: "The almighty working of God whereby He brings forth and sustains this our natural life...." In LD 10 we confess that God is busy in all aspects of our lives. God gives us the health, strength, willingness, and the means to do all He gives us to do. God works all things sovereignly. Article 17 goes on to say, that "The almighty working of God ... does not exclude but requires the use of means by which He according to His infinite wisdom and goodness has willed to exercise His power." The point here is that it is the Lord who keeps me alive, and He does so by using certain means.
In order to stay alive I need to eat, and to breathe. The Lord uses the means of food and oxygen to sustain my life. It is not so of course, that the Lord has to use these means in order to keep me alive. Being the almighty God that He is, He is able to keep me alive without food or oxygen. The Lord took Moses to the top of the mountain to write the two tables of the law and "he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water" (Exodus 34:28). How did Moses stay alive? God does not need to give a person food and drink in order to keep him alive. Normally God does use food and drink, but He is not bound to these means; God can keep a person alive without food. However, precisely because God is pleased to use a particular means to keep a person alive, I need to make use of the means He provides. If I decline to eat or drink because 'God is able to keep me alive without food and drink', I shall die. I need to make use of the means God is pleased to use to keep me alive and healthy.
GOSPEL IS THE MEANS GOD USES TO WORK REGENERATION
The principle described above with regards to the body is true also with regards to the soul. Say the fathers in Article 17, "So also the aforementioned supernatural working of God whereby He regenerates us, in no way excludes or overthrows the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul." The gospel is the means God uses to work regeneration. Not that God has to use this means, for God -almighty as He is- can do without. But in Scripture the Lord has revealed to us that He is pleased to regenerate by a particular means, and the tool which He uses is the gospel.
The Word of God is the tool God uses to work faith.
God is pleased to work rebirth, regeneration through His Word.
Here again God states that God has worked conversion by means of His Word.
Therefore we confess in LD 25.65 that faith comes "from the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel ...." The norm is that faith is worked through the preaching. Exactly because the Lord uses means to work faith did the apostles make it their business to preach. They did so in obedience to Jesus command to His disciples to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…" (Matthew 28:19,20). They could not make disciples of all nations unless they used the means that God was pleased to use: the preaching.
SCRIPTURE TESTIFIES OF ITS EFFECTIVENESS AS GOD'S MEANS OF WORKING REGENERATION
Belief was a result of hearing the Word, and hence the importance of the gospel message being spread throughout the region.
God did not give the increase spontaneously, but only after Paul and Apollos preached the gospel.
No matter how Timothy felt about it, Paul charged him to preach the Word, because it is the means the Sprit uses. Yes, precisely the preaching is the means used by the Spirit, it is so absolutely imperative that the Word be preached! Hence the powerfully worded instruction from Paul to Timothy.
"For this reason the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them, in the fear of the Lord instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and to the abasement of all pride." (Article 17).
THE PURE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL AND WHERE THIS CAN BE HEARD
Since God has given us the means of His Word for our regeneration and our growth in faith, it is imperative that we make use of the means He gives us. In Article 17 the fathers echoed the apostles' emphasis on the preaching of the gospel when they wrote, "In the meantime, however, (the apostles) did not neglect to keep (the people), by the holy admonition of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline." Here the fathers listed the three marks of the Church as we confess them in the Belgic Confession, Article 29. There we confess, "We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church." The fathers recognised the close link between the preaching of the Gospel and the Church. Around us we see many buildings with the name 'church' inscribed on a sign in front of the building. However, because God works faith and regeneration by the preaching of His Word, I cannot frequent just any church. I need to be there where the Spirit works with God's Word, i.e. in Christ's Church. That is why it becomes important to discern where the true Church is, and I do so according to the three marks mentioned briefly in our Article and confessed more elaborately in the Belgic Confession, Article 29.
In LD 31.83 we confess, on the basis of Scripture, that the preaching of the gospel is one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: "What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven? The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers." Note how in LD 31 Q's 84 & 85 the words 'opened and closed' have been inverted. The point here is that the kingdom of heaven is made open primarily through the preaching. In order for the kingdom of heaven to be opened by the preaching, it must be preached "to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel." I need to hear that I, a lost sinner, desperately need the grace of Christ and that all my sins are forgiven me when I believe that God in His Word promises and gives forgiveness to all who turn to Him in true repentance and faith.
If the preaching of the Word is the means the Spirit uses to work my regeneration, then I must place myself under the preaching whenever I can. But if I am lax in my Church attendance and only attend Church once a Sunday, the result will invariably be a weakening in faith. A soldier rationed to one meal a day cannot fight. And the life of the Christian is a battle. See the reference to LD 52.127 above. That is the tragedy of going to church once: the habit makes for an under-nourished -and hence ineffective- Christian in the battles of daily life. It goes without saying, of course, that filling my place in the pew is not enough, no more than sitting at the dinner table is enough. One needs to eat what is presented.
Further, although the quantity is important, the sustenance of my faith also depends on the quality of the preaching. Three meals a day of fish & chips plus coke will not provide adequate nourishment for ongoing physical work. So too when it comes to faith, spiritual growth and regeneration. If I don't eat, I will not survive in the battle of faith, but in order to be sure that what I eat will adequately nourish my soul, I also need to assess where it is I eat. Where I go to Church is of great importance for I need solid food, meat, which will provide me with adequate energy and strength in my daily battle against sin, the world and my own flesh. I can only get this through the true preaching of God's Word.
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF BOTH THE GIVERS AND THE RECEIVERS OF INSTRUCTION
"So today those who give or receive instruction in the Church should not dare to tempt God by separating what He in His good pleasure has willed to be kept very close together."
Those who receive instruction: As a receiver of instruction I may not separate faith, spiritual growth, and regeneration from the means God is pleased to use: the faithful preaching of the Gospel. I must therefore be present where God is pleased to work, i.e. where I recognise the three marks of the true Church, for that is where I will hear faithful preaching.
Those who give instruction: To be allowed to be a preacher of the gospel is an enormous privilege, for it makes one a tool in God's hand to encourage spiritual growth in God's people. At the same time, however, the task carries with it an enormous responsibility. If growth is to come through preaching, and a minister to whom the preaching has been entrusted fails to bring the Word of God faithfully, then he is responsible for hindering the spiritual growth of God's people. We learn from Ezekiel 33:6-8 that God takes this most seriously, requiring the blood of the congregation from the hand of His servant. "... When I say to the wicked, "O wicked man, you shall surely die!" and you (the watchman) do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand." For that reason it is so vitally necessary that the congregation, individually and collectively, prays for its minister, that he may receive from the Lord strength and wisdom to serve the congregation faithfully, to the benefit of the congregation's spiritual growth.
THE PLACE OF ADMONITIONS
"For grace is conferred through admonitions, and the more readily we do our duty, the more this favour of God, who works in us, usually manifests itself in its lustre and the more directly His works proceed."
Which child likes to be admonished by his father? Yet it remains a fact that admonitions play a vital part in one's upbringing. So too in the preaching. "God's grace is conferred through admonitions," said the fathers. God's Word contains so many admonitions (see for example the number of instructions and commands given in Ephesians 5), and these may not be traded for preaching filled with truisms, platitudes or whatever it is the people in the pew like to hear. Even though our culture is one in which independentism and emphasis on being tolerant and 'user friendly' is prevalent, we may not trade in the tone of God's Word. In His Word the Lord tells His people in no uncertain terms where and how they go wrong and how He demands to be served. The church is not a place where one is made to feel 'comfortable'; the church is a place where God's promises in Jesus Christ and obligations through the Holy Spirit are laid before sinners in the context of their daily struggles - to the comfort of the humble.
BE BUSY WITH THE WORD
Scripture speaks of faith and regeneration being done through the preaching of the gospel. In the days of the apostles, when printing presses were non-existent, copies of the Scripture were limited. The only way for the people to receive the Word in the days of the apostles was to listen to it being preached. Today the Lord continues to work through the preaching. However, by the providence of God, the printing press has been invented (and the computer too) and so copies of the Bible are widely available to us today. Not only does this bring with it many advantages, but also privileges and responsibilities.
It is for us to be daily busy with Scripture, to read it. Just as two meals of food per week would be insufficient to sustain our bodies, so only two sermons per week are insufficient spiritual nourishment for our souls. In addition to the sermons we hear on Sundays, we need to read Scripture and to study it and to reflect and meditate on it. To conclude each meal with Bible reading is a good habit to maintain. By being busy with God's Word one becomes familiar with it. However, one needs to be aware that in keeping up a good habit, there is always the danger of taking the life out of that habit. Just reading a passage from Scripture without giving any thought to what it is God says to me in that particular passage in order to strengthen me in the concrete circumstances of my life, can make it a worthless exercise. Here concentration is necessary, and discussion helpful too. Even commentaries or other study books have a place in one's personal (and family!) Bible study.
In being busy with God's Word, we have a good example in David. "Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day", said David in Psalm 119:97. David's Bible was not shut, for how then could he have said, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path"? (Psalm 119:105). If a light or a torch is to light up our path, it needs to be switched on. If the Bible is to give us direction and encouragement on a daily basis, it must be opened each day again. The Bible cannot be a lamp to our feet if we keep it closed on the shelf. We need food each day again to do another day's work. Being a Christian is a day's work. If I am not busy with God's Word then I need not be surprised if I don't have the wherewithal to fight sin and temptation.
TO GOD ALONE ALL GLORY
Man's conversion to God and the manner in which it occurs are to be ascribed to God alone. Regeneration is an incomprehensible gift of God's grace to undeserving sinners. "To God alone all glory, both for the means and for their saving fruit and efficacy, is due throughout eternity. Amen."