I grew up believing that salvation was a gift of God. It was clearly taught that salvation is by grace through faith. Salvation by grace meant that God gave salvation to those who came to Him with open hands to receive a gift from Him. This gift was worth more than all the riches contained in the universe.
It was common for Christians to express their joy and gratitude for this great gift. Our church services were characterized by joyous and enthusiastic singing and praise. With all this there was a great deficiency in my understanding of grace. Along with the pleadings to receive salvation as a gift by faith were the warnings to believers to be careful not to lose this gift that they had received. The gift of salvation was somewhat like receiving a three million dollar home sitting on the ninth fairway at Pebble Beach. It would be a wonderful gift to receive but the maintenance of that gift would be a heavy load to bear. Even if I received such a home as a pure gift of grace possessing it would be an unbearable burden for me. With no mortgage payment at all I would be unable to pay the taxes, insurance, country club fees, and utilities. Because of my deficient understanding of grace, that was the feeling I developed regarding salvation. I always believed that I had been saved by grace and that it was a pure undeserved gift. But I also assumed that it was my responsibility to maintain this very costly gift. At times the burden of maintaining the gift was just too much to bear. I kept waiting for God to take away the gift because of my neglect.
I was continually warned about a false teaching called "once-saved-always-saved." I understood that this was a doctrine taught by those who wanted to live like the devil and still go to heaven when they died. I was taught that salvation was forgiveness for my past sins and the offer of divine help to enable me to live the kind of life that would make me fit for heaven. But without my best efforts God's hands would be tied. Even though He really wanted me to persevere to the end, God could not and would not "violate my will." Since God would not force me to persevere in faith and obedience, my destiny was in my hands. If I chose to cooperate with God He would gladly save me to the end, but if I refused to cooperate with Him He would cast me away and I would forfeit the salvation He had graciously given. He had "saved me" (i.e. forgiven my past sins) in response to my coming to Him and He would keep me (i.e. get me to heaven) only if I continued to choose to believe and obey Him.
What a shock to discover that the salvation God gave me was far greater than I had assumed. From childhood I had given God thanks for His gift of salvation not knowing that this gift was a billion times greater than I had ever imagined. At the heart of my naivete was my ignorance of the sin problem. Oh I was aware that I needed forgiveness for the sins I had committed but in no way was I aware of just how serious sin was and how sinful I was. I had always thought that I was a "sinner" because I had committed "sins." But from the Bible I discovered it was the other way around: I committed sins because I was a sinner. My sins were expressions of my sinful heart. The Bible taught, and my experience verified, the fact that at the very center of my being I was a God-hater and law-breaker. Even though I was confident I could keep the laws of men (including the man-made laws for Christians, like, "don't smoke, don't chew and don't go with the girls who do") I learned God's law was out of my reach. God's righteous requirement for me was that I (1) love God with all my being and (2) love my neighbor as myself. But even as a Christian I miserably failed to obey the law of God. So here I was under the sentence of death! My true situation was that I had a bad heart, a bad record, and a bad life. As time went on my record was getting worse and my life was increasingly characterized by a failure to become truly righteous. On the contrary I was learning just how unrighteous I really was! To top it all off I discovered that the Bible described the sinner's condition as "death." Apart from Christ a person was as dead as a door nail! Incapacitated. A spiritual corpse.
I remember having lunch with a friend and college class-mate, who was on the same journey as me. He too had been raised in churches that taught that salvation was a cooperative effort between God and the sinner. But we both had been confronted with the biblical teaching of the sinfulness of sin. We were talking about these issues and he pulled out a napkin and wrote this question, "How can a dead man make a choice?" If the Bible's description of our spiritual condition was accurate how could a sinner chose to come to Christ? What a troubling question that was to me. I had always assumed that I had come to Christ because of my good sense and through my own free will and that others did not come because they were much more corrupt than me. But if the Bible was accurate (and I knew it was) my bad heart would never have chosen to come to Christ. Go to a cemetery and plead with the corpses in their graves to come forth. Beg, invite, coax, bribe, brow-beat, command, taunt and command all you want but they will not respond. Why? They are dead and therefore incapable of responding to your commands. So how can "spiritual" corpses respond to the call to come to Christ? They must be made alive before they can come! In order for a sinner to come to Christ, he must first be made alive by Christ. That is exactly what the resurrection of Lazarus illustrates. Lazarus' lifeless, powerless, rotting body was lying in the tomb when Jesus called out, "Lazarus, come forth." That command came from the one who had said, "Let there be light" and light came into existence. When Jesus uttered that command He was not just uttering words He was manifesting His creative power as the Living God. Lazarus came forth because Jesus had imparted life to his dead body. His response was the exercise of the life that Christ had supernaturally given to him. The same is true of those who respond to the gospel with true saving faith. Their coming to Christ is proof that they have been made alive. John said, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" ( 1 John 5:1). The tenses of the verbs in this sentence emphasize the fact that being born of God precedes the believing and the believing is proof that spiritual birth has already occurred. In other words, faith in Christ is the immediate evidence that a person has been born of God.
What a discovery! God had initiated my salvation and not me! With my old wicked heart I would never have exercised true faith in Christ so God gave me a new heart and with that heart I believed. I did exercise my will in coming to Christ, but only after He changed my heart. So my salvation experience began with a new heart. Of course my need for a new record and a new life were also a part of this gift of salvation.
What a shock it was for me to discover that God had initiated my salvation and not me! But a greater shock was yet to come. Soon I began to hear that God had actually chosen me for salvation before the world began. Now that was too much for me to swallow. In fact it made me angry! Back then I didn't know why it made me so angry. Now I realize it made me angry because it put God in the driver's seat and threw me out of it. If this were true (and I discovered that the Bible was filled with this teaching) then God was completely sovereign over this work of salvation. It meant that it was not a synergistic work whereby God and I worked all things together for good. Instead it was totally of God. It meant that "salvation belongs to the Lord" ( Psalm 3:8). It meant that salvation was a work of God and I was not God. I really hated this doctrine when I first heard it. It meant that my salvation was not a proof of my good judgment or good character but rather it was proof of God's sovereign grace, wisdom, mercy and love. For over a year I struggled against this doctrine. I read books that were written to disprove it, I talked to Bible teachers who ridiculed those who taught it, I wrote a paper explaining why it wasn't true and yet every time I came back to the Bible there it was staring me in the face: "You did not choose Me, but I chose you" ( John 15:16). I once asked a Bible teacher who was well respected in our denomination if he could help me with this issue of election. He said, "It's simple. God votes for you, Satan votes against you and you hold the deciding vote." A witless witicism indeed!
At the height of my struggle over this issue I remember falling on my knees and crying out for God to give me the answer to this "dilemma." I prayed something like this, "Oh God please give me the answer to this. Please show me what the truth about election really is." God didn't speak to me, I didn't hear a voice or "feel the brush of angels wings" but a thought hit me like a Mack truck. It was as though God were gently rebuking my unbelief, "Isn't it enough that I said it in my Word?" The issue became crystal clear to me. It was an issue of faith. Either I was going to believe God's word regarding this truth or I wasn't. No teaching of Scripture is clearer: God "chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before Him" (Eph. 1:4). When I humbled myself before this sovereign God and by faith embraced the revelation of His electing love I found that this truth that had been a bitter pill to swallow became as sweet as honey to my inner man. Oh the joy of being the object of His sovereign electing love.
But how will this knowledge affect the work of evangelism? God has chosen some for salvation in eternity past (Eph. 1:4) and then sent Christ at the fullness of times to redeem these elect ones through His blood (Eph. 1:7) and then Christ sent the Spirit to dispense the salvation He had purchased for His people (Eph. 1:13). One by one the Spirit will regenerate the elect until "as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself" ( Acts 2:39) are all "sealed" in Christ. But the Spirit's work of dispensing salvation does not stop with sealing. Rather it is the beginning of the work of sanctification that will last a lifetime. The ultimate result of this work of the Spirit is the believer being conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
The salvation which God gives, Christ purchased and the Spirit dispenses deals with all three problems: (1) The Father deals with our old record through justification; (2) The Son deals with our old heart through regeneration; (3) The Spirit deals with our old life through sanctification. All of this was planned by the Father, aquired by the Son, implemented by the Spirit.
So how should we take the good news of this great salvation to a lost world? Follow the example of our Lord and His apostles. Tell unbelievers the truth about sin and the judgment that is coming on all the world. Tell them how, by raising Christ from the dead, God has appointed Him judge of the living and dead and that He has set a day in which all men will be judged for the deeds of their bodies and the motives of their hearts. But go on to tell them that this one who has been raised to judge sinners had already died to save sinners. He has promised that all who will come to Him in repentance and faith will receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Then appeal to them to come to Christ and receive this salvation as a gift (See Acts 17:30-31 & 10:38-48).
Who will believe such a message? Listen to Jesus explain why some believe and others do not: "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one" ( John 10:25-30).
When the gospel comes to the ears of His sheep for the first time it produces life in them, they believe and follow Him. Our responsibility is to publish this gospel far and wide because Christ "was slain, and did purchase for God with His blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And He has made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10). Christ's sheep are all over this globe and the gospel will reach the ears of all His sheep and all will hear His voice and all will come and be saved. Our great privilege and responsibility is take His word to all the world so His sheep will hear.
God's grace is shocking when seen in its glorious fullness.
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