It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63)
Rejection is the most common reaction of men when they hear the gospel. The Lord himself had taught these people and done miracles in their presence, but when they heard his teaching on this occasion many turned away from him, complaining, ‘This is a hard saying, who can understand it?’ (John 6:60,66).
Certain people boast about the prosperity of their ministry. ‘After only a year the church already has 200 members’, they might say. True, the book of Acts tells of 3000 souls being saved through a single sermon, but this exception confirms the rule. In reality, when the gospel is presented, rejection is the most common reaction (cf. Luke 14:18).
Clearly, Jesus’ miracles were not enough to convince those who left him. Miracles are not essential to touch people with the gospel but the Spirit is! He alone gives life. We have to be careful to take this seriously when presenting the gospel.
The Lord of heaven and earth himself did miracles in the presence of this crowd but without convincing anybody. It was necessary that the Spirit gave life.
The flesh profits nothing
When Jesus Christ speaks about the flesh, he doesn’t mean the physical body but the corrupt nature that every descendant of Adam inherits (cf. Romans 8:6-8). What we are by nature doesn’t help us in any way towards salvation. The Jewish rites and ceremonies were useless because they appealed to the flesh.
What the sinner is by nature cannot help him to obtain spiritual life because it is opposed to God and his revealed will (Romans 8:7). When proclaiming the gospel, therefore, let us not appeal to the nature of the listeners.
Humanly speaking, there is no activity so foolish as the preaching of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). It addresses men and women who seem to be alive, but who only live in the flesh. Their nature opposes God when he speaks to them.
To preach the gospel to them is ‘foolishness’ in so far as it is addressed to flesh devoid of spiritual life. Let us beware anything that tends to arouse a positive fleshly reaction – because it will be useless in bringing the sinner to life.
The natural man reads the Scriptures with sightless eyes because it is impossible for him to know the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). His nature allows him neither to understand nor obey the revealed will of God.
Therefore it is important not to deceive ourselves by thinking that the sinner has any capacity or power in relation to salvation. He is born of Adam and is spiritually dead until the Spirit gives him life. God may even use such a man to proclaim the truth to others – but it will not profit him as long as he remains in the flesh.
We would never have spiritual life if it were left to ourselves. The divine curse is on all who trust in themselves, who thinks they have the resources to walk with God. The flesh profits nothing, neither before nor after conversion.
The Spirit gives life
The sinner lies helpless by nature in a state of death – the Scriptures would not speak of making us alive if we were not initially dead. One does not give life to life.
A dead body cannot raise itself to life – it can only decompose. Man can never accumulate what it takes to justify himself because his flesh is incapable of responding to God’s high expectations. So let us not tell him what he can do to be right in the eyes of God. Whatever his penitence, he cannot pay the price for his deliverance.
Neither can a sinner accumulate what it takes to regenerate himself. Born in the line of Adam, the sinner is devoid of spiritual life.
The Spirit regenerates in a sovereign way (John 3:8). We would like God to give life to everyone who hears the gospel message, but just as the wind blows where it pleases, so also the Spirit of God is free from all obligation.
He gives life in a mysterious way and even those who benefit by his work cannot explain the mechanisms. The Spirit uses Christ’s resurrection power to bring sinners to life (Ephesians 2:6; Acts 16:14) – making use of God’s Word in the process (James 1:18).
Certain people today dismiss the Word of God, not by a conscious rejection but because they think it is ineffectual. They prefer to rely on their own understanding of spiritual issues or on some personal ‘revelation’ they have received.
How do we respond? Often, sadly, we are overtaken by timidity when we should declare the gospel faithfully – saying what we see in the text with the conviction that the Spirit will use it to accomplish his own work. No man can convince another. We might persuade the intellect but we will never change the heart.
Heart-change is the work of the Holy Spirit – a work that is grounded on that of Christ. The Spirit’s work crowns Christ’s work of salvation in the hearts of the elect. The Spirit convicts the sinner (John 16:8) showing him that all is vanity outside of Christ.
The Spirit also leads people to Christ. He gives repentance and puts into their hearts a desire to live a holy life. He communicates to man a principle of divine life, causing us to cling to Christ and to the things of God (2 Peter 1:4). But we are strangers to this godly life until the Spirit makes us alive.
The life of Christ
The life that the Spirit brings is the life of a person, Jesus Christ (John 14:6; 1 John 5:12; Galatians 2:20). To have spiritual life does not consist primarily in profiting from certain benefits but in having Christ as our only treasure.
Christ is the only source of life. The flesh cannot walk with God. Christ is the true vine – to whom we are attached like branches and whose life we draw upon that we might walk with God in obedience. And because Christ lives eternally, the life the Spirit communicates is also eternal life.
Furthermore, because this Spirit-given gift derives from Christ, it is a life of self-renunciation – of obedience to God in this world (Ezekiel 36:27). One does not follow the ordinances of God because the pastor requires it, but because God himself, by his Spirit, teaches the sinner to walk in obedience, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit.
Finally, the death and resurrection of Christ guarantee the life the Spirit gives (Hebrews 10:16-18). A legal will is without effect before the death of the person who made it. But Jesus Christ died and God can therefore impute righteousness to us. He can give us grace upon grace by the Spirit, along with everything that belongs to Christ.
Strength and comfort
These great truths encourage us in pleading with God. If the Spirit makes alive nobody can despair of being saved. But it is important that we ask God who gives repentance, faith and love for Christ to whoever asks (Luke 11:13). Are you doing this? Then have the assurance that the promise will be fulfilled.
The Spirit gives the believer strength and comfort to continue on his way – because the Christian life is not easy. If our life comes from the Spirit and his work in our heart we can carry on with confidence in spite of the difficulties.
Those who serve God in the ministry also find encouragement to go on declaring the gospel, which is a demanding task and not very popular. They know that the Spirit makes alive by means of the Word of God. So they continue to preach the good news hopefully.
However, they also implore God to give grace to his message because by themselves they will convince no one. The Lord sometimes withholds his blessing because we still think that the way that we speak will save people. It will not. It is essential that the Spirit breathes on the preaching so that it can bear fruit. The seed needs rain before it can sprout.
Why must we implore God’s grace upon our message? Because the sovereign work of the Spirit takes away our illusions and humbles us. Like Samuel we can imagine we know who is chosen by God because of their outward appearance. But time passes and nothing happens – even when we thought the Spirit was at work.
That deflates our pride yet is, in fact, a great blessing to us – because the flesh profits nothing, it is the Spirit who makes alive.
Let us ask the Lord to convince us of this reality and to give us wisdom to proclaim the gospel prayerfully, in all simplicity, clarity and faithfulness. This is the good news that God honours and that crowns the work of Jesus Christ in the hearts of men.
Translated from the French by Andrea Whaley. The author is an Evangelical Press worker in West Africa, who preached this address at an EPconference in Benin.