The Holy Spirit and "Dead People"
(Part of the "Predestination vs. Free-Will" series)
Maybe you've wondered this ...
"Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people and draw them to God? Aren’t we 'dead people' before the Spirit wakes us up, unable to even think about God or seek God because “dead people” can’t do anything? And so we need the Spirit to make us become believers? Isn’t there a verse about Him opening people’s minds so that they can understand God’s truth? So if He doesn’t draw someone and doesn’t open their minds, then they cannot become saved? Isn’t it His job to save people?
I would answer this way: Yes and no.
I used to think this was the case - that if the Holy Spirit didn’t open your eyes, you would not be able to come to God. That basically, the Holy Spirit decided who to “enlighten” and who to leave ignorant of God. And I guess, then, that if you wanted someone to become a Christian, you would have to pray, “Lord, make so-and-so become a Christian.” Because it’s all up to Him, right? He decides who to let into heaven and who to keep out.
But as I have learned more over the years, I now see it just a touch differently.
Yes, the Holy Sprit’s job is to convict the world of sin.
“When he [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:” (John 16:8)
But I do not think this means that He only convicts some people. I think when it says “the world,” it means that He convicts everyone of their sin. I believe that we all understand deep down that we are sinful and that there is a God and that we need Him. And I believe the Holy Spirit is the one that makes this knowledge clear and obvious. He convicts the world of its sin. But it is our job to respond to that conviction. And many do not. Many ignore His conviction.
“ . . . They were broken off because of unbelief . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in . . . ” (Romans 11:20,23)
“. . . They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10)
His job is to convict the world and to make the knowledge of God and of salvation available to all. But He does not force people to be saved. That is not His role. The Holy Spirit’s job is to call people. Our job is to respond to the call, to the truth that is in our hearts and in creation . . . and to seek God.
[That is His job when it comes to unbelievers, to the world: to convict them and make them aware of their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. But then the rest of His role has to do specifically with believers, with those who have chosen to respond to the call of God. He guides us into wisdom and helps us grow to be more like Christ.]
But “Dead People” Can’t Seek?
However, Calvinists will adamantly say that we cannot come to God on our own because we are “dead people.” They say that we cannot come to God until and unless the Holy Spirit first comes to us and illuminates our hearts, wakes us from the dead, and causes us to have the faith to believe. (Of course, they say that this promise is only for those pre-destined to believe. But I believe that, yes, faith is a gift, but it’s not “forced” on us. It’s up to us to accept it or reject it. Update: Is faith really the "gift" in Ephesians 2:8-9? Click here to find out.)
They quote Romans 3:11, “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” to show that we cannot seek God, that it is impossible for us to even think about Him unless the Holy Spirit does it for us. Because “dead people” can’t do anything but lay there, all dead. They can’t think or seek or even want a relationship with God. We are totally and completely at the mercy of the Holy Spirit who decides whom to wake to life and whom to leave dead.
And they interpret Romans 3:10: “There is no one righteous, not even one;” as saying that we are “totally depraved,” that we are so fallen and wicked that we don’t have the capacity or ability to even think about God or to want God in our lives - and so He has to be the one to initiate and carry out the desire in us to become saved. It’s all done to us by Him and, therefore, there is no free-will. No ability to decide for ourselves.
But I don’t think that Romans 3:11 is saying that we cannot seek, as though it were impossible. It is a passage lamenting the general condition of people, that we do not naturally seek God and righteousness. We turn away from God so that we can do wrong and please ourselves. It is the condition that a world without God is in. A sinful, self-serving condition.
And I don’t think Romans 3:10 is saying that we are so depraved that we cannot possibly think about God or want God in our lives. I think that’s adding things that the verse isn’t saying. Personally, I think “there is no one righteous” doesn’t mean that we don’t have the capacity to think about, desire, turn to, or seek God. I think it simply means that none of us deserves heaven.
We are all fallen, and we cannot earn or work our way to heaven. Nor does our bloodline get us into heaven, as Paul is warning the Israelites. Verse 20 refers to this – that “no one will be declared righteous” just because they followed the “rules.” There has to be a change of heart, repentance.
This is what the whole passage is about.
It’s not about us being unable to seek God, but about us being unable to earn or work our way to heaven. Neither our “righteous behavior” nor our “bloodline” will earn us salvation. Only the righteousness that we get through Jesus’s sacrifice can get us into heaven.
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known . . . This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)
In this verse, “believe” isn’t passive, as if belief is something that happens to us, such as “God makes us believe.” According to the concordance, it involves the idea of allowing ourselves to be persuaded by something, of choosing to believe it and put our faith in it. The opposite of this would be to be resistant to the truth. It’s not God that makes us become a Christian or not, but it comes down to our willingness to believe or not believe. He makes it possible and He presents us with the truth, but we have to decide to be persuaded or un-persuaded by it.
We Choose to Believe or Not Believe
Let’s consider Romans 10:3 (RSV) for a moment: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Paul is grieving for those who have refused God’s way. He says they are “ignorant” of God’s righteousness. “Ignorant” in this passage does not mean “God never told me” or “I had no idea because God blinded my mind.” In the concordance, we see that “ignorant” here implies the idea of deliberately ignoring something, of being reluctant or unwilling to see it.
Paul is saying that the Israelites knew the truth and chose to ignore it. It is a deliberate ignorance. They were unwilling to see it. They chose to resist it, to be ignorant of God’s way. And they created their own way instead.
This does not sound like “predestination” to me, like God made it this way. It sounds like they were responsible for their choice. And Paul knew it. And it’s why he grieved and why he worked so hard to reach them.
Another example to back up that idea:
“They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)
The people hardened themselves, became ignorant and darkened in their understanding, lost sensitivity to God, and then gave themselves over to sensuality.
Some people want to say that this verse means that God caused them to be ignorant by hardening their hearts. That He “forced” them to be blind to Him.
But actually, the word in the concordance is not “hardening” of heart but “blindness” of heart. And according to the concordance, “blindness” in this passage involves the idea of being callous toward something. And it comes from a word which is used of the Israelites who deliberately refused God’s ways and His Will.
It’s not that God chose to harden their hearts and make them ignorant; it’s that they chose to be callous toward Him, to deliberately refuse Him. And this led to their ignorance, their darkened understanding, and their insensitivity to God.
And “ignorance” is not just “not knowing” or “being unaware,” as though God never revealed Himself to them, never gave them a chance. According to the concordance, it is a deliberate, willful decision to be blind.
Refusing God’s way. Willfully blind.
This is basically saying, “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because they have willfully chosen to be blind, due to their callous refusal of God’s Will and way.”
Once again, the decision to believe or not believe lies with mankind. We choose to either submit to the truth or to be blind to it!
And that’s why we can justly be held accountable for our unbelief. Because we choose to not believe. To be resistant to Him. To walk down the path to hell. He does not make that choice for us. If we are disobedient and unbelieving and if we fail to seek God, it’s not the Holy Spirit’s fault. It’s ours!
[This also counteracts the Calvinistic idea that God’s call is irresistible, that if God calls to you then you have no choice but to become a believer. The verses show that the people chose to resist God, to refuse His ways and to be blind and ignorant. And another verse like this:
“ ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ ” (Matthew 23:37, italics are mine)
Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem. He longs for them to respond to His love, to His desire to gather them unto Himself. Yet, they were not willing! They were resistant. They had the chance, the offer, the ability to respond to His love and call, but they refused to. Responding to Him is a choice. Refusing Him is a choice. And it’s a choice that we will be held accountable for.]
Contrary to what Calvinists think, I believe the Bible is clear that we are expected to seek God. He expects us to realize that something is missing. He expects us to notice that “God-shaped hole” in our heart, to see Him in His creation, to hear His call, and to seek after Him. And we are held accountable if we don’t.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
“. . . He has also set eternity in the hearts of men . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
“God did this [created the nations of the earth] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
Yes, of course, salvation is only possible because of God (and Jesus and the Holy Spirit) alone. We cannot earn our way to heaven or make a different way; we simply have to accept the way that He made possible. We have to accept Jesus’s payment for us.
And we could not have even thought to seek Him if He didn’t make Himself known to us. We could not have desired to know Him if He didn’t want to be known, didn’t call to us, and didn’t place in us a deep ache to know Him, a void that only He could fill. So essentially, it does all come down to Him initiating a relationship with us, making it possible.
But He makes it possible for all people. And furthermore, He expects all of us to seek. For if we seek, we find. And He wants to be found. It is the way to salvation.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
“Those who know Your name will trust in You, for You, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek You.” (Psalm 9:10)
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
“Dead people” can’t seek, huh?
I think Scripture says otherwise.
"This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live . . .’” (Amos 5:4)
What God is saying is “Seek Me and you will find life.”
And who is God talking to here?
Well, obviously if they haven’t yet found life in Him then He is talking to “dead people.” He is telling “dead people” to seek Him. I think God does indeed expect “dead people” to seek Him.
The thing is, the Bible says that we are dead in our sins. We are spiritually dead, which means separated from Christ and unable to save ourselves. But our brains are not dead. I think it is wrong to equate spiritual death with a physically dead body. Even though we are spiritually dead, we can still think and reason and notice that God is missing in our lives. We can sense Him in His creation and desire something more.
And this is why He can expect us to desire Him and to seek Him. Because we are not physically dead, just spiritually dead. Separated from Him. Our brain still functions and we can sense that something is missing in our selfish, self-serving, me-centered lives. And He reveals enough of Himself in creation that we can sense that He is real. (And this is why He can hold us accountable for not seeking Him, because He reveals enough of Himself that we all know He is real.)
The Holy Spirit and Us
Okay, so the Holy Spirit convicts the world of its sin. And in response to this conviction, we can choose to see our broken condition and to turn to Jesus for the forgiveness that He offers. Or we can choose to go our own way, to remain rebellious.
If we choose to respond to God’s call and to turn to Him in repentance, the Holy Spirit comes to live in us.
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38)
And Ephesians 1:13 says “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, . . .”
They heard the Word and believed it . . . and then they were given the Holy Spirit.
Hear, believe, repent (respond to the conviction of sin that the Holy Spirit gives “the world”) ... and then you will be given the Holy Spirit.
I have heard Calvinists say that the Holy Spirit comes to you first, in order to make you a believer. (Yes, I think He is responsible for the conviction that humans feel deep down and the sense we all have that God is real, but I think this is something He does for all people, not just a select few.) But these verses above show me that the Holy Spirit comes to us (individually and personally) after we believe, to live in us and guide us as believers.
It’s not that we get the Holy Spirit in order to repent. It’s that we repent in order to get the Holy Spirit.
For All People
But doesn’t Acts 2:39 (after the “repent and be baptized” verse) say that the promise of the Holy Spirit is “for all whom the Lord our God will call”? Doesn’t that mean that God calls only some, pre-chosen people and gives only them the Holy Spirit?
I can see how it can be read that way. But I do not think it means that He will only call to some, but that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for any and all who will respond to the call and “repent and be baptized.” The promise is for everyone, but we have to accept it. (And remember that “call,” according to the concordance, is along the lines of “invited” and “summoned,” not “forced” or “dragged.”)
I think other verses make it clear that the call is available for all, that Jesus’s death paid the price for all sins but that only those who want to accept that sacrificial payment will be saved.
“and I [Jesus], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32, underlining added.)
“Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, emphasis added. Who are the sinners? All of us! But if Jesus came to save only the "elect," as Calvinists say, then according to this verse only the elect would be sinners. Because Jesus came for the sinners!)
“[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9, underlining added)
“ . . . so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ death] was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:18, underlining added)
Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:6 says (underlining added), "who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ."
"... that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe." (1 Tim 4:10 - Jesus's death bought salvation for all men, but only those who believe, who accept it, will acquire it.)
“if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-10, 13, underlining added)
God calls us all and has made salvation available to all. The price has been paid. And the Holy Spirit convicts the world of its sinfulness and gives us the deep-down knowledge that God is real. But only those who respond - who recognize that they are sinners in need of a Savior and who call on Him in repentance and who accept Jesus’ sacrificial death on their behalf - will be saved. But the call is available for all. Jesus’s death was a ransom for all men. He draws all people to Him (not forcing them to come to Him, but bidding them to come to Him, inviting them), but we have to respond to Him in order to be saved. He does not make that decision for us. We are responsible for our decision to turn to Him or away from Him!
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-” (John 1:12)
As I said earlier, the Holy Spirit has more jobs than just convicting the world of its sin. His other jobs have to do with believers. When we repent and turn to God, He comes to live inside of us to help us grow in our faith and in righteousness. He guides us, comforts us, leads us in wisdom, gives us spiritual gifts, intercedes in prayer for us, enlightens our minds, opens our eyes to God’s truth more and more, gives us strength and help and boldness when we need it, etc.
Basically, His job is to call us to believe (not “force” us to believe) and then to help believers live the Christian life and to grow in Christ. (1 Cor. 12:7-11, John 14, Matt 10:19-20, Romans 8:26-27, Gal. 5:22-23)
“Opening People’s Minds”
And yes, there is a verse about “opening people’s minds.” But it’s not about the Holy Spirit opening an unbeliever’s mind to make him become a Christian. It’s about Jesus opening the minds of believers – the disciples - to help them understand Scripture and what His death really meant.
“Then he opened their minds so that they [the disciples] could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45)
Considering that God doesn’t make people become believers, I do not think it’s entirely effective to pray, “Lord, make so-and-so become a believer.” People have the responsibility to respond to His call for themselves. And if they do not, it’s not God’s fault. He called to all and made salvation available to all.
But we can pray for the best conditions possible for someone to see their need for Jesus.
So instead of praying, “Lord, I pray that it’s Your Will to save so-and-so” (after all, I think it is His Will to save everyone, but He lets us decide), I have started to pray this way:
“Lord, I pray that You would continue to pour out Your love, grace, and mercy upon so-and-so. Do not hand them over to the hardness of their heart. Continue to pursue them and put Your message of salvation directly in their paths. Give them the eyes to see Your truth and the ears to hear it. Open their eyes to their need for You and their need to make a decision about You. And surround them with Your heavenly angels to protect them from evil, to keep evil from interfering with their ability to see Your truth and to hear Your call on their hearts.”
I did this once for a friend. I prayed over and over that God would put the Truth clearly in her path and protect her from the diversions of Satan. And one day, she called to tell me that while she was in the stall in a public restroom, she looked down on the floor and there was a pamphlet explaining the way to salvation. She came to Christ not long after. God works in mysterious – and amusing – ways!
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