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The Nature of Saving Faith

Tom Pennington 1 John 5:1-13


1 John, and we begin a new chapter, 1 John, chapter 5. As I mentioned to you earlier, my goal and I think it's going to happen, is by early September, somewhere in that timeframe, I hope to finish 1 John. And so, we're going to continue our journey this summer through this wonderful letter. And today we come to 1 John 5 where John is going to explain to us “The Nature of Saving Faith.”

Now, the reason that it's important for us to understand the nature of real saving faith is because there are several kinds of faith in the world attached to Christianity that don't save. Let me say that again, there are kinds of faith even attached to the Christian faith that do not truly save. Let me give you a short list. First of all, there is ‘natural faith,’ that doesn't save. You see, some define saving Christian faith as just what you do every day when you decide to sit in a chair or when you get on an airplane. Understand that your decision to sit in that chair you're sitting in right now is not faith. Instead, you've watched others sit in those chairs, you have sat in other chairs like them throughout your whole life, and therefore, you've discovered that they usually work. That is natural faith. It's simply based on the law of probabilities. That's not saving faith.

A second kind of non-saving faith is ‘historical faith,’ intellectually assenting to the facts and accepting what the Bible teaches about Jesus and even the gospel as historically true and accurate, isn't saving faith. You can believe everything about Jesus, and everything about the gospel in the sense that you believe it's true, and not be a believer. If you doubt that, remember what James says in James, chapter 2, verse 19. He says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe that…” You understand that demons believe the facts of the gospel? So, that is not saving faith.

A third kind of non-saving faith is ‘miraculous faith.’ That is the faith of those who believe solely because of miracles done to or by them. How do I know that's not saving faith? Well, read the Gospel of John; John, chapter 2, verse 23, Jesus is responding to those who saw a miracle and had some kind of faith, but it wasn't saving faith and Jesus knew it. In fact, what does Jesus say in Matthew 7:22-23? There are going to be those who stand at the judgment and say, “…Lord, Lord, didn't we perform miracles in your name?” And He will say to them, “I never knew you.” (Summary paraphrase). So, miraculous faith is not saving faith.

A fourth kind of non-saving faith is ‘temporary faith.’ This is an eager initial response to the gospel message that isn't genuine. If you want to see what that looks like, study The Parable of the Soils that Jesus teaches where two responses to the gospel are temporary and then go away. There's the rocky heart that has no root and plants spring up, looks like it's the real thing, and then it's gone. Same thing is true with the thorny heart where the cares of this life choke out the seed of the gospel so that it bears no fruit. In both cases, there is an immediate emotional response to the gospel that looks real. We all know people like this. It's like, “Wow, they're overwhelmed by the gospel, they're emotional, they're telling everybody else about the gospel. And then you look around; they're gone. What happened? Well, it looked real, but because it was only temporary, it became clear that it wasn't, in fact, real. So, those are all non-saving faiths. Listen carefully, only one kind of faith is biblical saving faith, and that is supernatural faith, the faith that God gives in the new birth; that's the only kind of faith that saves. Its real saving faith, that kind of faith that we're going to learn about in 1 John in the passage that we come to this morning.

Now, let me remind you that the theme of 1 John is, “The Tests of Eternal Life.” Chapter 5, verse 13, sets forth this theme clearly, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

There are three tests of eternal life and there are also three movements or cycles in this letter, and each of those movements contains the same three tests. Here's an outline that we're working our way through. We're studying in the third movement or cycle. So, you can look at point three on the outline of John above, and we've completed our study of chapter 4, verses 7 to 21, and the test of “Love for God and for His People.”

Today, we come for the last time to the test of “Faith in Jesus Christ and His Gospel.” Now, you'll note, and I'll just make this note for you, if you've looked at this outline before, you'll notice I've slightly changed the verses for the last two points. And I reserve the right to change it again when I get there’ I'm still playing with those two verses, where do verses 14 and 15 fit in 5? I'm still finalizing that, alright? But for now, this is what it looks like.

Now today then, we come to chapter 5, verses 1 to 13. Let's read it together. 1 John 5, verses 1 to 13:

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Now, the point of this paragraph reduced to a simple sentence would be this, the one who believes God's testimony about the biblical Jesus and the biblical gospel has been born of God and has eternal life. John teaches us then in these verses about the nature of the faith that saves, that brings eternal life. In fact, the verb ‘believe,’ occurs five times in this paragraph we've just read, and the noun for ‘faith’ that you see in verse 4 occurs only here in John's writings. It's interesting, he uses the verb ‘believe’ a lot, but this is the only time he uses the noun ‘faith.’ So, this is about saving faith.

What do we learn in these verses about saving faith? Let me give you an outline; I'm not going to put it up on the screen, but you can jot it down if you want, or you can just wait and sort of live through it with us, alright? But I want you to have a roadmap for where we're headed.

First of all, in the first half of verse 1, we see “The Cause of Saving Faith,” the cause of saving faith. Then from the middle of verse 1 down through verse 5, we'll see “The Results of Saving Faith.” In verses 6 through 12, “The Object of Saving Faith, and in verse 13, “The Assurance of Saving Faith.”

So, let's begin today by considering “The Cause of Saving Faith.” And I hate to admit to you, but that's as far as we're going to get today, the first half of verse 1. Alright, let's look at it, “The Cause of Saving Faith.” Verse 1, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” Look at it again, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ, (the Messiah.) is born of God.” That is an absolutely astounding statement. In fact, in that brief statement, there are in fact, three massive, absolutely crucial, theological insights that we need to understand.

First of all, he's going to talk about “Saving Faith,” that's the first part of that expression. Then he's going to talk about “The New Birth as the Essence of Being a Christian.” And then finally, he's going to talk about “The Relationship Between Faith and The New Birth,” that, in fact, the new birth is “The Cause of Saving Faith.” So, let's walk through these theological insights that are here in this first sentence, first part of the sentence in verse 1.

The first theological insight we discover, let's call “A Summary of Saving Faith,” a summary statement of saving faith. Notice verse 1 again, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ.” That is a sort of summary statement of what it means to believe in Jesus and the Gospel. Let's take it apart. First of all, notice, “Whoever believes.” Literally in the Greek text, “The one believing,” the one believing. John is talking here about an individual exercising true saving faith. It's also interesting to note that the word ‘believes’ is in the present tense as it normally is. Why is that? Because you don't just believe in the past and become a Christian. A true Christian believes at the moment of salvation and keeps on believing. It's not a one-time event, but a constant lifelong reality, Christians believe.

But what exactly is faith? Let's stop for a moment and consider what that word ‘believes’ really means. Let's look at a definition of ‘faith.’ In the New Testament, the Greek noun translated ‘faith’ and its verb form ‘believe,’ both occur about 240 times each. This is clearly at the very heart of Christianity, belief or faith. But what exactly is faith? Well, when we study the various ways the New Testament uses ‘faith’ and ‘believe,’ we discover that there are, in fact, three elements of saving faith, three parts of saving faith; they come as a package but we can sort of take them apart to analyze them.

First of all, there is “Knowledge,” there is knowledge. You'll often find the New Testament saying, “You must believe that;” in other words, there's some specific factual information you have to believe. This is the foundation of true saving faith. You can't have true faith without knowing what it is you believe. Faith is not a leap; faith is instead knowledge of certain facts; it includes knowledge of certain facts. That's why in Romans chapter 10, verse 9, Paul says, “You must believe that God raised Him from the dead.” There is specific information that is a part of true faith.

Secondly, not only is there knowledge in faith, but there is “Assent,” assent. In other words, you must be convinced. True faith not only has a knowledge of the facts, but true faith is convinced that what you know from the Scripture about Christ and the gospel is, in fact, true. In other words, you don't have faith if you know the facts and you go, “I don't think that's true, I think that's, you know, mythological, I'm not sure Jesus is God, I'm not sure…” No, you have to not only know the facts about Jesus and the Gospel, you have to assent that they are, in fact, true and they're what you need.

And then the third part of faith as you look at the New Testament is “Trust.” You'll find expressions like ‘believe in’ or ‘believe into,’ or ‘believe on Christ.’ This is the heart of faith. This is like Romans 10:9, you must “…confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord” You see faith, then, when we look at those three parts–faith is knowing the gospel; faith is believing the Gospel to be true; and thirdly, faith is personally trusting in, depending on Christ as your Savior, your Lord, as the hope for your forgiveness of sins and your reconciliation with God. That is faith. When you abandon yourself and any hope that you can make yourself right with God, and you throw all of your hope and all of your trust and all of your reliance on the person and the work of Jesus Christ, and you trust in Him to save you–that's faith. It's not simply agreeing with a set of doctrines but trusting in a person.

I remember, that's how I came to faith. You know, I'd made two professions of faith. I grew up in a Christian home and made two professions of faith, formally, I've made many others, but formally, I'd made two, I had been “baptized” twice, but when I when I was a senior in high school is when this truth dawned on me. Salvation is not in a prayer, it's not in a plan; salvation is in a Person that I have to trust in and follow.

John Murray defines faith this way. He says, “Faith is the whole soul (I love that expression, all of your soul, the whole soul.) act of loving trust and self-commitment,” the whole soul act of loving trust and self-commitment. Here's how John MacArthur and the faculty of the Master’s Seminary in Biblical Doctrines defines it; “Saving faith is a fundamental commitment of the whole person to the whole Christ, (A fundamental commitment of the whole person to the whole Christ.) with his mind, heart and will, the believer embraces Jesus as Savior, advocate, provider, sustainer, counselor and Lord God.” But I love that, “The fundamental commitment of the whole person to the whole Christ,” that's faith. So that's a “Definition of Faith.”

But verse 1 also reveals “The Content of Saving Faith.” What exactly is it that a true Christian believes? Well, John is going to develop this at length later in this paragraph, in fact, verses 6 to 12, are all about “The Object of Saving Faith,” but for now, just notice his summary in verse 1. “Whoever believes that (Here’s the content aspect, believes that.) Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the person of history, is the Messiah. That is, that He is the One promised in the Hebrew Old Testament, that He is God's anointed, He is the One promised and appointed to spiritually rescue His people from their sins, and to do so according to Isaiah 53, by the substitutionary sacrifice of His own life in their place.

John adds another component of this down in verse 5, notice, “Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that (Here it is, again, ‘that,’ here's the content.) Jesus is the Son of God?” Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is not only the Messiah, but He is the eternal Son of God made flesh, that He lived a perfect life, that He bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that He died, that He was buried, that He rose again on the third day, that He ascended into heaven, that He is seated at the right hand of God until His enemies are made His footstool, and that one day He will return again, destroy all evil, establish His kingdom, and then one day, He will make all things new, He will destroy the present universe and make a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness is at home, and those who have believed in Him will live with Him on that new earth forever. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God, and they commit their whole person to that whole Christ.

But listen carefully, although we do believe that, we do not, we cannot believe that on our own. You see, the source of your faith and mine is not us! You didn't believe in Jesus because you're just smarter than the rest of the people on this planet. No! The source of saving faith is God, and He gives this faith to us solely as a gift of His grace. This point is made again and again in the Scriptures. Let me give you a few examples. Acts 13:48, “…as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed,” as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. Acts 16:14, “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshipper of God, was listening; (To Paul, listen to this.) and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Acts 18:27 speaks of “…those who had believed through grace.” And, of course, the key passage, look at Ephesians, chapter 2, a very familiar passage to most believers, Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 8, “For by grace (by God's unmerited expression of favor) you have been saved through faith; (So, you've been saved from your sin; you've been forgiven through faith.) and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Now, there is debate, and you can go back and listen to the message when I taught through Ephesians on what ‘it’ means, you know, ‘it’ is not of yourself or ‘that,’ I should say “that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” What does ‘that’ mean? ‘That’ and ‘it,’ does it refer to faith, or does it refer to salvation as a whole? Let me tell you, it doesn't really matter. Because if it refers to salvation as a whole guess what's included, faith. In the end, he's saying here, and I think making the clear point that faith itself is a gift.

So, back to our text in 1 John, he begins, the first theological insight we get in verse 1 is “A Summary of Saving Faith.” “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ.” But in verse 1, John gives us a second theological insight, and that is “A Definition of a True Christian,” a definition of a true Christian. Look again at the beginning of verse 1, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ (Notice this.) is born of God.” Literally is “born out of God.” Clearly, in context, John means this, that a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a true Christian. That means in John's mind, being born of God defines what it means to be a true Christian. As we've seen before, “born of God” refers to a person who has experienced what Jesus called the “new birth” in John 3, or regeneration, as theologians often refer to it. So, being ‘born of God,’ ‘the new birth,’ ‘being born again,’ ‘being regenerated,’ all describe the same reality. But what is it?

Again, listen to Biblical Doctrines:

Regeneration is the sovereign act of God by the Holy Spirit and through the preached gospel, whereby He instantaneously impart spiritual life to a sinner, bringing him out of spiritual death and into spiritual life.

So, the new birth or regeneration is when God imparts spiritual life to a sinner in a moment of time, taking a person who is dead and making them alive–that's regeneration, that's the new birth. And in verse 1, John says that a true Christian has experienced the new birth. That is such an important reality. If I asked you this morning, “How would you define a Christian,” what would you say, “What makes a person a Christian?” I'm afraid there would be, in our auditorium and across the world, there would be a lot of weak answers to that question. Because the mark of a true Christian is not what we have done, but what God has done to us. Becoming a Christian is not a change of mind; it's a change of heart. It's not merely a decision; it is a transformation! That's why in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 17, Paul says, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; (a new creation) the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” A Christian is totally different than he or she was before. Not only that, Christians know that they are different than they were before. And they know that they're different from the people around them.

So, my question to you is, “Are you aware of that reality?” If you claim to be a Christian, first of all, do you understand that's not because you did something; it's because God did something to you? He changed you fundamentally; you are not the person you used to be, you've experienced the new birth; God, the Holy Spirit changed your heart! Are you aware of that? I'm not saying you know exactly the moment that occurred or the day that occurred, but if you're a Christian, you know, you are not the same than the person you were before. We were “…dead in trespasses and sin…” Ephesians, 2:1, and God made us alive. That's a definition of what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is not somebody who turns over a new leaf, not somebody who decides they're going to be a better person. A Christian is not someone who decides they're going to live by the ethics of Jesus. A Christian is someone that God has given life to!

There's a third crucial insight in verse 1, and this is really the main point that he's leading to and that I'm leading to, and that is “The Role of the New Birth,” the role of the new birth. You see, look again at verse 1, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the (Messiah) is born of God.” In this amazing statement, John explains the relationship between your saving faith, the faith in which you believe the gospel, and the new birth. You see, saving faith always accompanies regeneration, that's clear in this text; the two come as a package, you never find one without the other. Nobody will ever believe the Gospel who has not also experienced the new birth, and no one will ever have a new birth without believing the Gospel. But in verse 1, John makes a more profound point about the relationship between faith and regeneration. He answers a key question about what we will call “The Order of Salvation,” or the logical order in which the elements of salvation occur.

Now I'm taking you into a theological issue here, stay with me, it's going to be worth it. Theologians refer to this question as “The Order of Salvation,” or in Latin, ‘The Ordo Salutis,’ “The Order of Salvation,” or ‘The Ordo Salutis.’ Now ‘The Ordo Salutis’ deals with two things. First of all, it deals with “The Chronological Order of Events Relating to Salvation.” A Biblical ‘Ordo salutis’ helps us understand that election happened in eternity past, that progressive sanctification is happening right now, and the glorification happens in the future–that's an “Ordo salutis.’ I understand when those things are happening, the order of salvation, how and when they unfold. But the ‘Ordo salutis’ also deals, listen carefully, with “The Logical and Causal Order of Events That Occur at The Moment of Salvation.”

You see, we talk about being saved and that's true, but do you understand that at the moment of salvation, Biblically, theologically, six, separate events happen to you? At the moment of salvation, here's what happened. Number one, there was “The Effectual Call,” that is, God, through the gospel, drew you to Himself. It's called, “The Call” at the end of 1 Corinthians 1 talks about those He “called.” He used the gospel to call you to Himself. Number one was the effectual call. Number two, at that same moment, “Regeneration,” you were given new life, the new birth. Thirdly, at that very same moment, you were given Repentance” and Faith.” You repented of your sins; you believed in Jesus. At that same moment, number four, you were “Justified,” you were declared right with God. God looked at the life and death of Jesus Christ, and He credited your sins to Christ and treated Christ on the cross as if He had lived your sinful life. And then he credited Jesus’ righteousness to you, and now reckons you to have lived that perfect life. That happened at the moment of salvation. Number five, there was “Definitive Sanctification” or “Positional Sanctification.” This isn't progressive sanctification, being increasingly made like Jesus; this is momentary sanctification–it’s when God set you apart to Himself; at the moment of salvation He said, “You’re mine!” And number six is “Adoption;” at that very moment of salvation, God the Father adopted you as His own son or daughter. All of those things happen in a moment of time, simultaneously.

At the same time, Scriptures teach us to think about those events from a logical and causal order. For example, chronologically, faith and justification occur at the same moment, the moment of salvation, right? Faith and justification. But the ‘Ordo salutis’ teaches us that biblically and logically, faith must come before and be the logical cause of justification. Why? Because everywhere Scripture says we are justified by faith. So even though justification and faith happen at the same moment, the one is logically the cause of the other, and not vice versa.

So, that brings us to the question, “What is the logical causal order of faith and the new birth in the ‘Ordo salutis?” Does the Bible tell us, from the standpoint of logical causality, if the new birth comes before or after we believe, and does it matter? It matters, and I'm going to explain why in just a few minutes. But the Bible also does tell us and 1 John 5:1 is one of those places, look at it again. “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.”

Now in the Greek text, John intentionally uses two different verb tenses. “Believes” is in the present tense, and “born” is in the perfect tense. Faith and regeneration, faith and the new birth occur at the same moment in salvation, but these verbs teach us a logical causal order that's important.

Again, look at verse 1, and let me literally translate it for you. “The one continually believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born out of God,” the one believing has been born out of God. Now, there are some who argue that those verb tenses could still simply mean that all Christians have both faith and experienced the new birth, but not that one came before or caused the other. But John doesn't leave that as an option because John uses exactly the same construction in only two other verses, and in both of those verses it's clear that he intends a cause-and-effect relationship, that the new birth is the cause of the other verb. Let me show you. Go back to chapter 2, verse 29; chapter 2, verse 29, and stay with me, it's going to be worth it, alright? Verse 29 of chapter 2, “Everyone who practices (or is practicing–present tense) righteousness is born (Here again, the perfect tense–has been born.) of Him, everyone who is practicing righteousness has been born of God.”

Now look at that verse. “Practicing righteousness” doesn't cause the new birth, nor do they just come together. Instead, John clearly means in context here that the new birth causes us to practice righteousness. It's like Ezekiel 36:27, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes.” So causal clearly, same construction. Being born again is the cause.

Now go to one other, chapter 4, verse 7, “Everyone who (again, present tense–is loving) is born…” (again, perfect tense–has been born of God). Now, you tell me, does loving other believers cause us to be born again? Of course not. Rather, his point is the new birth causes us to love others. Now go back to our texts, exactly the same construction. “The one believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born (out) of God.”

Friends, our faith is not because of the new birth, but the consequence of the new birth. God first made us alive, and then, at the same moment in time, we responded in faith to the gospel.

John teaches the same concept back in the first chapter of his gospel; go back to John, chapter 1; John, chapter 1, verse 12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Now notice “received,” past tense, that speaks of the first expression of faith as the instrument at which we first appropriated Christ at the moment of salvation. “Believe” is in the present tense, it speaks of the constant reality of faith as the instrument by which we continue to appropriate Christ throughout the Christian life. So, verse 12, then, is talking about faith. Now look again at verses 12 and 13. Here's a literal translation, “The ones who are believing, these are the ones already having been born, not by blood, nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by God.” Those believing have already been born of God. Again, regeneration precedes the exercise of saving faith. You see, you would never have believed the gospel, if God hadn't first made you alive.

That’s exactly what our Lord taught in John, chapter 3, verse 3, when He said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In Matthew 19, Jesus says, this is equal to being saved. So, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus here is that only those who have been born from above can see, with the eyes of faith, the kingdom of heaven. So again, the new birth comes first, and then you believe logically, causality that happen at the same moment in time, don't lose track of that. We're talking about logical and cause.

There's also a key theological reason that the new birth has to logically precede faith, and that is our depravity, our moral inability. You see apart from Christ, for example, Scripture teaches that we can’t even understand the gospel. 1 Corinthians 2:14, “…(the) natural man does not accept (receive) the things of the Spirit of God…they are foolishness to him.” You would never have understood the gospel; you could never obey God as a natural person. Romans 8 says that. Romans 8, 7 and 8, you could never please God in any sense, Romans 8:8. But here's a key one, without the spiritual life given in the new birth, you could never have come to Christ for salvation. Here's what Jesus says, in John 6:44, “No one (universal exclusion–no one) can come to Me (He's talking about coming to Me for salvation in context.) unless” (Here's the one exception.). “No one can come to Me (for salvation) unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”

The word ‘draws’ means to compel. It's actually used in a couple places to talk about dragging someone to prison. “No one can come to Me (No one has the capacity, the ability–it’s the Greek word he uses there, ‘to come to Me.’) unless the Father draws him.” So, when you look at the texts of Scripture, it's clear, not only that regeneration, the new birth does, in fact, come before faith and cause faith, but it has to!

Look at Ephesians, chapter 2, that's the key text, Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 1, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Now, you tell me how much can a dead person respond to anything? That's, by definition, what makes death. I worked in a funeral home when I was in seminary; I lived there for a time. And let me tell you what defines a dead person is a complete and total inability to respond.

You were dead in your trespasses and sins. (He goes on to describe just how bad it was.) We were enslaved to the spirit of the age, we were enslaved to Satan and false religion, we were enslaved to our lusts, (verse 3, at the end of verse 3) we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy because of His great love with which He loved us…(Notice verse 5.) even when we were dead in our transgressions, (God) made us alive together with Christ. (Summary Paraphrase).

It's because of this John Murray writes:

Without regeneration, it is morally and spiritually impossible for a person to believe in Christ. But when a person is regenerated, it is morally and spiritually impossible for that person not to believe.

Here again is John MacArthur and the Master Seminary faculty in Biblical Doctrines:

While regeneration and faith (the new birth and faith) are experienced simultaneously, regeneration logically precedes faith and is its cause. Sinners do not believe in Christ in order to be born again, but rather, are born again unto believing. That's what the Scripture teaches.

Now, that brings us to the question, “Does the order of regeneration and faith really matter? Tom, come on, isn't this just like the theological debate in the Middle Ages of, you know, how many angels can stand on the head of a needle?” No! This is crucial. Let me give you several practical ramifications of the fact that regeneration precedes and causes saving faith, several practical considerations.

First of all, number one, “It destroys our pride and produces humility and gratitude.” You see, when you understand, when you really come to grips with the fact that when God found you, you like me, were completely dead, and had no ability to respond, and if God had left you alone, you would never have responded. But instead by grace, God made you alive, and He gave you faith, and He gave you repentance, and He saved you by His sovereign grace! When you understand that, you will be overwhelmed both with humility because you'll understand you have nothing to do with it. It's what God did! And you will be overwhelmed with gratitude because you'll realize the only reason you have life is because of God. You were dead, “But God!” This is important because of what it does to us spiritually.

Secondly, understanding that the new birth causes us to believe, “It shapes our understanding of the entire doctrine of salvation.” You see, everybody who has any knowledge of scripture has a basic order of salvation etched into their understanding. It may be right, or it may be terribly flawed, but it's there. Why is that? Because we, by nature, systematize things. This is just what we do. I mean, your bedroom, the drawers in your dresser, your closet, your garage, have storage systems. The fact that they are bad storage systems, or that they're completely incomprehensible to other human beings, doesn't change the fact that there is, in your mind, a system. The same is true with salvation. You have organized the parts of salvation as you understand them into a system. It's just the reality. And if the order of your system is wrong, then it produces a man-centered faith and not a clear biblical understanding of what salvation is–it matters, it matters! Just like the system of your closet matters, the system of your understanding of the Christian faith and how God saved you matters.

Number three, “It affects our approach to evangelism.” You see, if you believe that man initiates salvation, if you believe that man is the first to act in the process of his being saved, then where are you going to center your efforts in evangelism? On somehow persuading, encouraging, convincing, even manipulating that person into faith. And if you're consistent, you will ultimately be willing to use any method or any technique to get a decision, because it all rests in that person.

For example, many of you grew up, as I did, in churches that were driven by the “Invitation System.” You know, where at the end of the message, there was a song, usually something emotional, something that sort of produced an emotional response. And you would sing multiple verses and the pastor would go through this sort of whole process whereby he'd say, you know, “If the Lord's working your heart, I want you to come forward.” Then he'd have heads bowed, and then, you know, we'd sing an eighth verse of Just as I Am. Where does that come from? What's the reason for that?

The “Invitation System,” as you and I grew up with it, came into prominence in the 1830’s with a man named Charles Finney who popularized it. It grew out of his terrible Arminian theology. He believed that man had sufficiently been pre-enabled to respond to the gospel without any further divine assistance, and that all that the preacher needed to do, all that those talking to them needed to do, was somehow manipulate them emotionally or draw them, or convince them, or make them come to that decision. And so there was very little they wouldn't do to accomplish that, including singing the eighth verse of Just as I Am to have everybody come forward. Today's ‘seeker’ churches use manipulative methods for the very same reason. They believe that man initiates faith, and therefore, I've got to do whatever I can to try to trick them, to manipulate them, convince them, into believing. But if you believe that God is the first to act in salvation, that it's the new birth that God alone can do it, and in the Scripture that He only brings the new birth through His Word taught and understood, then guess what you're going to do? You're going to sow the seed; you're going to present the Word, and you're going to leave the new birth to the Holy Spirit. You'll be content with the Scripture!

Number four, “Properly understanding the relationship that the new birth comes before faith strengthens our peace and assurance.” I can tell you this at a very personal level. I remember when I told you I was saved as a senior in high school; it was as a senior in college that I first came to understand the truth I'm preaching you today. And the way I came to understand it is through Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 1 to 10, and the Holy Spirit just turned on the light! I got it, I saw it! Yes, I was dead. And yes, God made me alive. And let me tell you, when that happens, I was already a Christian, I had been a Christian for four years, but when that happened, there was a new and fresh understanding of my assurance and my confidence in Christ. Why? Because I didn't initiate my salvation, God did! And the same will be true in your case, if you can grasp this truth, I will promise you, it will bring a fresh appreciation of the assurance you have in Jesus Christ.

Number five, “It provides our hope of perseverance and ultimate glorification.” This really connects to the one before it but a separate step; it provides our hope, really, it's the foundation of our hope of persevering in our faith through this life, and ultimately being made like Jesus Christ. You say, “Why is this such a hope?” Well, Philippians 1:6, “…He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus…Christ…”

You see, my hope of making heaven, my hope of ultimately getting there is not about me; it's not about something I've done, something in me. It's the fact that God began a good work in me, and God's not going to stop until He finishes it. I know I'm going to make it, not because of me, but as we sang, “He will hold me fast!” He began it and He will complete it.

Number six, “If you have not been born of God, (If you're not a Christian as you sit here this morning, what I have taught this morning.) it reduces you to a spiritual beggar who can only plead with God to show you His grace.” In other words, when you understand that you can't sit there and just make a decision, “I'll just do whatever and I'll, you know, I'll wait and maybe at the end of my life I'll do, I’ve got some other things I want to accomplish first, whatever.” If that's how you're thinking, you've got this entirely backward, because only God can give you spiritual life to believe. And where that leaves you is what Jesus said at the very first of His message in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “Blessed are the beggars in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” What I've taught you this morning, reduces you, as it reduces everyone in this room who is a true Christian, it'll reduce you to a beggar where all you can do is say, “God, I have nothing. I have nothing You want. There's nothing I can do to earn a place with You. There's no way that I can make this happen. God, please save me.” It's like Luke 18, verse 13, where Jesus tells the story of what real saving faith looks like. It's that tax collector in the story He tells where he can't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but he's beating his chest and what is he saying? “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” That's what I've taught this morning does; it reduces you to where you and I ought to be, and that is as beggars before God, knowing we have nothing God wants, there's no way we can earn our way into His favor; all we can do is ask God to be gracious.

And number seven, “It gives God ultimate glory.” Understanding this gives God ultimate glory. You see, if you believe that you initiated your own salvation, then guess what? It's easy to think that you really deserve some of the credit for how bright you were, how humble you were, how obedient you were to the gospel–and that robs God of His glory.

This is an insidious problem. In fact, it's such an insidious problem that it prompted Spurgeon to say it this way, “Such is the depravity and fallenness and pride of the human heart, that if it can't earn its entire way to heaven, it wants to have a small part in the last mile.” That's just how we are. We want to contribute. But if we understand that God is responsible for the first mile in the new birth, and He's responsible for the last mile, our glorification, and every mile in between, then guess what? We will glorify Him!

Let me finish by having you turn to 1 Corinthians, chapter 1. This is one of my favorite texts, 1 Corinthians, chapter 1. Paul's talking about the gospel and the fact that many have not believed that gospel, verse 26, he says:

The reason we have believed is because of God's effectual calling, and God's choice, and God has callen and chosen foolish and weak things, verse 27, base things, nothing's in nobody's, verse 29, so that no man may boast before God. But notice verse 30. But by His doing, (Hear that again,) by His doing, you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (Where does this go?) Verse 31, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS BOAST IN THE LORD.” (Summary paraphrase).

Understanding that you were dead, and God by His own free and sovereign grace, made you alive, will cause you to glorify Him!

Let's pray together. Father, thank You, for the time that we've had to study together this morning. Thank You that You've enabled us to see in Your Word, the cause of our faith, that it's the new birth, it's that we were dead, and You gave us life.

Father, thank You for the spiritual results that we've talked about that this truth produces in us. Father, I pray for every person, every Christian here, that they would embrace what You have taught in Your Word about the order of salvation, the ‘Ordo Salutis’ so that You do truly receive the glory that You deserve. May it well up in our hearts in praise and adoration and gratitude and humility, knowing there was nothing in us, but it was all in You.

And Father, I pray for the person here this morning who's not a believer, who's never been born again, who's never experienced that radical life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit of God. Whatever they claim, they've never experienced that. Father, I pray this morning they would, like the tax collector in our Lord’s story, throw themselves as beggars on Your grace and mercy, and find that You always respond to the humble heart, and that You will respond with salvation. Lord, and the reason that they will cry out is because You and Your grace have opened their hearts to believe. We thank You in Jesus’ name, Amen.


This Is Love - Part 5

Tom Pennington 1 John 4:7-21

The Nature of Saving Faith

Tom Pennington 1 John 5:1-13

The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 2

Tom Pennington 1 John 5:1-13

More from this Series

1 John


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The Apostles' Proclamation - Part 1

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The Apostles' Proclamation - Part 2

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The Apostles' Proclamation - Part 3

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 1

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 2

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 3

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 4

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 5

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The Believer's New Relationship to Sin - Part 6

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The Priority of Love

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Loving One Another - Part 1

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:9-11

Loving One Another - Part 2

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A Child of the Father

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:12-14

Do Not Love the World

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It Matters What You Believe - Part 1

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:18-27

It Matters What You Believe - Part 2

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:18-27

It Matters What You Believe - Part 3

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:18-27

It Matters What You Believe - Part 4

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:18-27

It Matters What You Believe - Part 5

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It Matters What You Believe - Part 6

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The Christian's DNA - Part 1

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:28-3:3

The Christian's DNA - Part 2

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:28-3:3

The Christian's DNA - Part 3

Tom Pennington 1 John 2:28-3:3

The Christian's DNA - Part 4

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The Christian's DNA - Part 5

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Oil & Water

Tom Pennington 1 John 3:4-6

Researching Your Spiritual Ancestry - Part 1

Tom Pennington 1 John 3:7-10

Researching Your Spiritual Ancestry - Part 2

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 1

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 2

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 3

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 4

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 5

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Love as a Sign of Life - Part 6

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Love As a Sign of Life - Part 7

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 1

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 2

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 3

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 4

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 5

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Recognizing False Teachers - Part 6

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This Is Love - Part 1

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This Is Love - Part 2

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This Is Love - Part 3

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This Is Love - Part 4

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This Is Love - Part 5

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The Nature of Saving Faith

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 2

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 3

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 4

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 5

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 6

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The Nature of Saving Faith - Part 7

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Real Christians & Deep Fakes - Part 1

Tom Pennington 1 John 5:16-21

Real Christians & Deep Fakes - Part 2

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Real Christians & Deep Fakes - Part 3

Tom Pennington 1 John 5:16-21