Anything a pagan can do, a Christian can do better; and this is only true because of the Spirit of God. However, it is a misconception that a pagan cannot do what a Christian can. It is a common thought, “we cannot expect a non-christian to act like a Christian.” This is only partially true. On the one hand, it is true in the sense that a non-christian will not desire the same thing as a Christian: the glory of God. And so one cannot expect a non-christian to think and behave the same way as a Christian due to his frame of mind. In the language of Paul, [he is] darkened in [his] understanding. On the other hand, the nature of the law is such that it demands the same of all men: do or do not do. And this is something with which—apart from God’s Spirit—all men are able to comply; the matter is simply whether or not that one wants to at a particular given moment.
Still there are those Christians who will continue to say that this is precisely the problem: non-christians will not want to do a thing that God desires. But, too, this is only true as far as it goes. Again, a non-christian might not think the way a Christian does, but he is able to behave like one. Non-christians might not do or desire a thing because it pleases God, but they are able to do that thing regardless. This is especially true if that behavior lies in their favor—if it suits their happiness, non-christians will do what God says.
The conundrum posed by Christian theology in total depravity is very relevant here. When faced with this doctrine many non-christians will retort, Do you mean to say that I can do no good thing? That I am incapable of any good? This is the pitfall of the total depravity doctrine. The problem, however, is not in the doctrine itself but its presentation. Total depravity does not mean that mankind is incapable of doing any good whatsoever (a man can love his family, be a faithful manager, or help an old lady cross the street). Nor does it mean that every act of man is evil (is it evil for a man to love his family, be a faithful manager, or help an old lady cross the street ); it does mean, however, that nothing a man does in and of himself brings a smile from God because anything man produces in and of himself is contaminated with death thereby rendering God only able to judge and reject that act as septic. This is what Isaiah means when he says, [In God’s estimation,] any good we do is as [desirable] a woman’s menstrual cloth.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that a non-christian cannot do what God requires. What it does teach is that apart from Christ, there is no hope for anyone to escape God’s wrath due for sin. This is addressed by the passive obedience of Christ in which he dies the death due to man for sin from which the word atonement is derived. Nowhere does the Bible teach that a non-christian cannot obey God. What it does teach is that apart from Christ, that man’s behavior cannot please God. This is accomplished for man only in the active obedience of Christ. In this theological construct, the life of Christ is applied to a person so that through Christ a man’s actions are found acceptable in God’s sight. When a man offers his actions up to God outside of Christ, they are rejected and unacceptable. When that same man follows Christ, his actions are represented and transformed from unholy, unclean, full of death to righteous acts of faith. But this is not to say that a non-christian cannot do what a Christian can.
Only one thing is due God: obedience. If that is lacking, there is a second thing due to God: atonement. The scriptures are clear when they assert, it is not sacrifice that God desires but obedience. So, technically, if a person were to obey there would be no need for forgiveness—technically. Why technically? Because even a man’s obedience needs atonement as his deeds are corrupted, tainted with sin. In order for a man to hold up his offering of love for God’s approval, it requires the righteousness of another to qualify those acts. Either way, the high priestly work of Christ is applied. One, it is applied as an answer to condemnation; two, it is applied as an answer for commendation. When Jesus takes away with one hand, he also replenishes with the other.
In all of this there is the central role of God’s Spirit to apply and enforce the work of Christ. What differentiates a non-christian from a Christian, then? The presence of the Spirit—the presence of the Spirit in the life of the covenant to be more specific. This is an important qualification to make because even after a man is transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of [God’s] dear son, that man is in the exact same capacity he was as a non-christian. What is the difference in this, one might ask? If a non-christian and Christian are both capable to obey God, why become a Christian? After the explanation above, the reader should be able to discern the answer.
The groundwork has now been laid to address a Christian man’s experience in his fight against personal sin as well as his desire to endeavor after a new obedience. We have already established that prior to conversion and apart from Christ a man can and at times does fulfill the law (at least in the letter) of God by acts of obedience. The challenge now is to assert positively that the Spirit of God is only necessary to apply the work of Christ in the life of the covenant to a person’s experience. This is not so hard to accept as we have noted above. The key is in the adverb only. The flip side to the challenge is to argue negatively that the Spirit is not required for a Christian man to carry out the law of God. If a man can do what God says before his conversion without the aid of the Spirit, the same is true of his life in the covenant. An objection might be raised that both the unregenerate and regenerate man need the Spirit to do anything good (common grace), but this nullifies and renders redundant Paul’s attributing his ability to please God to the presence of the Spirit—the point of the Spirit in traditional Christian theology is to enable man to do that which does not come naturally. It is this position against which this paper argues. The only thing that matters for a man is to be in the Spirit, which is to be in that covenantal life established by the Spirit. The sphere or realm of God’s Spirit is only found within the Kingdom of God. So, there is no such thing as a [s]piritual man if he has not been baptised, or born from above wherein the Spirit and the water are consigned to the designation of life in Christ. And being in the Spirit means only to be in relationship to by faith, it does not mean to be controlled by or given some supernatural ability.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that only God’s Spirit can overcome a person’s sinful heart when that person is battling temptation. That this needs to be addressed is evident as church after church has this message of hope proclaimed to them:your only hope for change and victory over sin is by God’s Spirit; is your marriage failing? Only God can save it. Are you entrapped in a secret sin? Only God’s Spirit can be your aid. Are you worried and fearful? Only Jesus can rescue you. While these promises seem to hold out the only hope for a person’s plight, they are simply not true as they stand. There are two aspects involved in a person’s experience of salvation throughout life. The first is justification and the second is sanctification. The message of the gospel is this: you cannot save yourself, only God can by his gracious Spirit alone. This is justification and man has no contribution to that. However, the same monergistic message is proclaimed with regard to sanctification, the maturing of one’s faith and practise which a person experiences throughout the rest of his life. And in regards to sanctification, that good news that only God can save you is utterly false. The only one who can sanctify you is you.
There are means whereby God providentially orchestrates the stages for growth, but there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that he empowers anyone to do something she finds outside of her inherent strength and will to do. That is to say, it is not biblical to ask God for supernatural help when faced with a temptation. What help is there for him to give? What is it a person expects after praying such a prayer? That God somehow magically imbues or infuses a person with some new spiritual vitality (this is justification) that enables him to resist temptation (this is sanctification), cannot be substantiated anywhere in the Bible. And sadly, that is what many people are encouraged to do on a weekly basis. The problem with this paradigm is that it conflates the two aspects of salvation mentioned above.
There are passages by Paul wherein his language does seem to lead in this direction. But only seems…
Consider 2 Corinthians 12,
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
First of all, to make this experience of Paul a type of any Christian’s experience is false. Simply because Paul experienced this, does not mean other Christians will. After all, Paul was just recounting an exclusively privileged event that no one else would dare presume must happen to him. Second, to be made alive in Christ by God is covenantal and relational, rather than metaphysical. That is, it is not that God changes something in a person that is immaterial (i.e. his spirit).The language of the Bible might, at times, appear to say as much, but, again, this language is referring to that relationship with God rather than some unseen “spiritual” aspect in man’s constitution. Our first experience of this typological way of speaking is in Deuteronomy when God promises to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart and your children’s hearts.” Of course, this operation is in no way as physical as the ritual given to Abraham. But if it is in no way physical, is it metaphysical? The metaphysical operation upon an inner, unseen, “spiritual”aspect of man’s constitution by God’s Spirit is only abstract and symbolic.
The popular way in which this is discussed is this. When the Bible says that man is dead in trespasses and sins it means to say that, metaphysically speaking, man is spiritually dead [‘s spirit is dead]. In relation to God, man cannot have a positive relationship with his Creator because that metaphysical entity within him—his spirit—is dead to God. The remedy for this malady is being made alive by God as Paul says in Ephesians 2. In order for man to have any hope of life with God in Christ, that which is dead must be made alive and this only happens by the divine fiat when God applies the work of Christ to a person; this is referred to as being “born again” or having a “regenerated spirit.”
This language of God’s making one alive in Christ, what of it? What does it mean? What are the implications of believing that it means God quickens a person’s dead spirit as if there were within that man an immaterial entity awaiting its awakening? Popular theology espouses that it means this. A man cannot love or know God at all in and of himself apart from the grace of God resurrecting his dead spirit. God says to that man, Love me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength! To which the man responds, I would that I could, but alas, I am dead in trespasses and sins and am not able and so am not willing to do that which you command.
So, as God promises in Ezekiel 36, he takes out this man’s heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh. The heart of stone was dead and unwilling to love God; the new heart of flesh is now able to and does obey God. But exactly, at that moment, how does man obey God? Within the context of what is happening, that man obeys God’s command to repent of his sin and submit to Jesus as King who offered his life as a ransom. At that moment that man cannot disobey God because God has given him the heart to do it; so that, even if he would not obey he couldn’t not obey. He has to. He must. He will.
In popular theology, this is lauded as the mercy and grace of God in Christ—that he not only makes it possible to inerrantly choose Christ, but that choice is in fact inevitable, it cannot be otherwise; otherwise, God’s mercy and grace would be rejected my man. Before God made this man alive, that man could not, would not embrace Christ. After God made him alive, that man could not, would not not choose Christ. So, in one real sense, God is lauded for reconstituting man against his will ultimately to choose a choice he would not naturally make. As one living, reformed theologian put it: Apart from man’s permission, God violates that man’s soul in a divine act of rape but for the good of man. For if God had not done so—violated the will of man against his wishes—man would never be saved.
This is acceptable only as far as it goes without thinking through the implications. Consider this: 1. This is the only time God does something for man against his will for his good and 2. This is the last time God does anything for man that he cannot do for himself.
The ramifications of this might not stand out at once, so here it is. Once a man is made alive by God’s grace he is called to love and obey God just as he was when he was dead, the difference now is that he has something within him that not only enables him to choose the right, but ensures that he will choose to obey God’s call. He cannot not obey even if he wanted to (which he wouldn’t). What happens to that “something” after the big decision? It’s still there but it no longer is any guarantee that obedience will happen. The man’s regenerated spirit cannot be undone; he cannot lose the life that God gave him in mercy and grace; his new life exists so that he will love God with his whole mind, heart, and soul. But now man can not obey and sometimes does not and will not obey and gone is the irresitible grace that guarantees an obedience to aspire to. Then: man hates God , wants his own way, and does not want to obey God come hell or high water but God acts on behalf of man and makes the decision for him ; now: man loves God, tries to walk in God’s way but sometimes doesn’t want to obey and asks God for that special “something,” that “do-for-me-what-I-cannot-do-for-myself,” and it doesn’t exist anymore. God basically says, I’ll start you off because you can’t do it for yourself (justification) but from here on out even if you beg me to, I will no longer do for you what you cannot do for myself.
A man might say, Before I was saved, God did something for me that I could not do for myself. I did not desire God, nor his ways, so he made me desire him and did so in a way that guaranteed that I would—against my will. So, when I didn’t want God, he made it so that I would choose him for my good. Now that I have been delivered from sin and death and have a desire to love God and always do what is right, there are times when my will fails and I choose death instead of life and God is impotently absent. When I didn’t want God he helped me live. Now, when I want God to keep my soul from choosing death he is nowhere to be found.
The work that God carries out upon a person wherein that person is converted to faith is entirely providential. Arminians are still in error when they assert that any man can come to Christ of his own volition. But Calvinists, too, are in error when they teach that a man must be transformed from within by God’s spirit alone in order to live anew. There is a tertium quid: God providentially orchestrates a man’s salvation by driving him to Christ naturally and masterfully much like an armed man coerces his victim to acquiesce his goods.
That man is still entirely free to choose what he will but in God’s providence he works so that all roads lead to faith.