How a sinner comes to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a mystery of grace. How someone who has opposed the gospel for years, suddenly is humbled by that same message is beyond explanation.
How a lifetime of indifference to biblical truths is changed into serious devotion to those truths is baffling. There is no explanation for these things, except to say that God has done it. Salvation has to be all of grace, otherwise it would be impossible.
The same, yet different
Every conversion is essentially the same and yet experimentally different. They are essentially the same, because they need to contain all the essential ingredients of grace that God reveals in Scripture. They are experimentally different, in that God uses a variety of circumstances and experiences to convey gospel truths to the sinner’s heart.
From the sinner’s point of view, he might shed many tears, or none at all; his conversion may come to full fruition in the course of one sermon, or it may take many months. But each conversion is not carried forward on a wave of emotion. God never bypasses a man’s mind when he speaks to his heart.
Certain gospel truths will always be operating. For example, the unconverted sinner will know that he is a guilty, hell-bound sinner; that there is new life in Christ; that he must repent of his sins; that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead, and that he must trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the only Saviour.
Some would say that all this complicates conversion, but actually it is exactly the opposite. Such definition makes clear what conversion is. It is not a passing emotional experience, but a deep work of the Holy Spirit in a heart hitherto dead in sin.
There is such a thing as an emotional experience that masquerades conversion, but that counterfeit never lasts and the person soon moves on to something else. True conversions are not easily arrived at, even though all sorts of ‘evangelical methods’ might give the opposite impression.
Dr Tozer told the story of two preachers having lunch together. One was bemoaning how difficult it was to see souls saved. The other disagreed and said he would prove it to his friend. He called the waiter over and asked him if he believed in God. The waiter, said Tozer, with an eye on his tip said, ‘Yes’.
‘Good’, said the preacher, ‘Do you believe you are a sinner?’ Still with an eye on his tip, the waiter agreed that he was not as good as he ought to be.
‘Do you believe Jesus saves sinners?’ Again the waiter gave a preacher pleasing answer.
At this the preacher said, ‘Praise the Lord! You are now saved’. Tozer’s punch line was, ‘I hope that waiter had more sense than that preacher!’
Who are these people we want to win for Christ? What do we know about their souls that need saving? The Bible describes them very clearly. They are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2: 1, 5).
In evangelism we are called upon to present spiritual truths to men and women, who are incapable of understanding these truths, because the god of this age has blinded their minds. We are like Ezekiel as he stood in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). ‘Can these bones live?’ Written right across the situation is the word ‘impossible’.
C. H. Spurgeon was right when he said, ‘No minister living can save a soul; nor can all of us together, nor all the saints on earth or in heaven work regeneration in a single person. The whole business on our part is the height of absurdity’.
This being true, it is essential that we know what the Bible teaches about the way of salvation. It is only the Bible way that makes the impossible possible.
Preaching on Romans 8:5-8, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught: ‘The statement that “the mind of the flesh is death” means that the natural man is in a state of spiritual death. That is what the apostle says everywhere about the unbeliever, about the man who is not a Christian … [He is] controlled by his fallen human nature, not only minds the things of the flesh — those worldly things out of which God is shut — but he does so, because he is spiritually dead. He is alive physically, he exists; but spiritually he is a dead man’.
Lloyd-Jones illustrated this truth from the life of William Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Britain. Wilberforce was a Christian, but Pitt a nominal Christian.
After some persuasion, Wilberforce managed to take his friend Pitt to hear a clergyman named Richard Cecil, who was an evangelical preacher in London. Richard Cecil was at his best in his preaching, and Wilberforce was greatly blessed by the sermon. But, as soon as the service was over, Pitt said to Wilberforce, ‘You know, Wilberforce, I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about!’
As Lloyd-Jones said, ‘Richard Cecil might as well have been preaching to a dead man. The dead cannot appreciate these things, neither could William Pitt. He himself confessed it’.
Dead or alive
What does it mean to be dead in sin? How dead is dead? Well, there are no degrees of deadness. A person is either dead or alive. Sometimes a man may be described as half dead, but that is wrong. He is not half dead, he is alive. The life may be weak and fragile, but still it is life, and where there is life there is hope. Where there is death, there is no hope.
When a man is spiritually dead, he is dead to the things of the Spirit. Like William Pitt, he cannot make head or tail of them. He may be alive to many things, so that he can appreciate a sunset or a piece of music, but when confronted with the most beautiful of all, the Lord Jesus Christ, he is left cold.
He may admire Jesus as a great teacher or moralist, but Jesus as a Saviour from sin is meaningless to him. He cannot make any gospel response to the message of the gospel. He can make an intellectual or emotional response, but the gospel response of repentance and faith is beyond him.
The man who is physically dead cannot get out of his coffin, and the man who is spiritually dead cannot break the chains of death that bind his heart and soul. ‘Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil’ (Jeremiah 13:23).
If we don’t recognise the fact that the sinner is dead in sin, we will concoct methods of evangelism that trust in the sinner’s will power and resolution, rather than in the grace and mercy of God. We are rather to preach the gospel of Christ, looking to God to give saving faith to the spiritually dead and enabling them to close with Jesus Christ (John 3:1-16).
Peter Jeffery is a retired pastor, who has ministered in Cwmbran, Rugby and Port Talbot