In and of itself, faith isn’t necessarily a virtue. It all depends on what we have faith in. Today, Barry Cooper explains that the reason it is proper to put our faith in Christ is because Christ is perfectly good and perfectly trustworthy.
Doctrine of Salvation
Defibrillators are not self-operated. Neither can the spiritually dead make themselves alive to Christ. Today, Barry Cooper helps us consider our need for someone else to apply the paddles to cause our spiritual hearts to beat.
Regeneration is a word theologians use to describe how someone becomes a believer.
I became a believer in Oxford in 1992, during the spring semester. And as I look back at that time, it’s tempting to wonder, Why is it that I reached out for Christ, while it’s quite possible that the person sitting in the pew next to me did not?
Was it because I listened a bit more closely, or read the Bible more attentively? It’s embarrassing to talk like this, but was it because I was slightly more teachable, or slightly more humble? Maybe I was a bit braver or more selfless than the person sitting next to me?
I’m not talking about taking a huge amount of credit here. Some have said that a person becoming a Christian is like a drowning person reaching out for a life preserver. You wouldn’t exactly say that by doing that, the drowning person was rescuing themselves. But they do at least have to make some effort to reach out and grab it. Christ, the life preserver, is clearly doing the heavy lifting in this act of rescue, but nevertheless, you’ve got to take hold of Him in order to be saved.
Is that the biblical picture of salvation?
At the heart of the issue is the question, What does God actually do when a person comes to faith?
One writer puts the question like this: “When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner, does He contribute only some power, such that the sinner must add some of his own energy or power to bring about the desired effect [that’s the life preserver view of salvation], or is regeneration a unilateral work of God? To put it yet another way, does God alone change the heart of the sinner, or does the change of heart rest on the willingness of the sinner to be changed?”
This latter view of regeneration is sometimes called synergism, meaning that you are working with God. You’re cooperating with Him when you turn from spiritual death to spiritual life.
But how can it be possible for someone who is spiritually dead to do any kind of cooperating with God? I mean, if I were already dead in the water—dead in my transgressions, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 2—then throwing me a life preserver wouldn’t be much use (not to mention being a waste of a good life preserver, and in very poor taste).
One biblical metaphor for a person coming to faith is that of being born again. And the thing about being born the first time is that you and I had no say in it. Though it would have been polite of my parents to have asked my permission, given that it was, after all, my birth, yet it was impossible for them to do so, because of course I did not (at that point) exist. You and I were only born because of the will of our parents, and that is a choice that was very much out of our hands.
So it is for us spiritually. We can’t cooperate with our heavenly Father in the act of being born again because, spiritually speaking, we don’t have life until our Father gives it to us.
This view of regeneration is called monergism, meaning that only God can give a person new life in Christ. Only God can gift me the ability and the will to take hold of Christ, and without that I’m lost.
As a friend of mine likes to say defibrillators are not self-operated. We need someone else to apply the paddles so that our spiritual hearts begin beating.
Sometimes we think of our regeneration as the moment when we first put our faith in Christ, but as Jesus himself says in John chapter 6: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
Regeneration, then, is something that must happen before we can put our trust in Christ. Before we can reach out for the life preserver, we must first be given life.
The Lord lavishes all people with His kindness, even those who ignore, belittle, or are hostile toward Him. Today, Barry Cooper explains that God’s universal patience toward a sinful creation reflects His glory in unique ways.
One of my best friends is an atheist. We met when we were English literature undergraduates at the same university, and we bonded over our mutual love of the English poet Philip Larkin. My friend knew I was a Christian, and I remember him once asking me, “How is it that you can enjoy someone like Larkin, who clearly didn’t believe in God?”
The answer to that question has to do with what theologians call “common grace.” Common grace is the idea that God showers gifts not only on those who love Him but also on those who don’t. God gave Philip Larkin a particular sensibility and a facility with words, which meant that he could describe the world—and human nature—with uncommon insight and beauty. He was, in a very literal sense, God’s gift to poetry.
There is, of course, a real irony here. Larkin was a man who was given a gift by someone, and then used that gift to claim that the Giver didn’t exist. But there’s another irony. Every time Larkin wrote, he was revealing a genius that could only have come—as far as I could see—from God Himself, the very person he was denying.
Now, why does God do this? Why give gifts to people who know will never say thank you? Or who will take those gifts and try to attack you with them—like a child you kindly lift up from the ground, who then uses that vantage point to deliver a roundhouse kick to your larynx? (Not that I’m speaking from bitter experience.)
God showers His gifts quite indiscriminately. This is what Jesus meant when He said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good”; He “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
This is common grace. “Grace” because it’s God’s undeserved goodness; “common” because it’s universal. He lavishes all people with His kindness, even those who ignore, belittle, or are hostile toward him.
One of these acts of common grace which God showers on the world is to restrain sin and its effects. As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote, when God “negatively curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin,” that’s common grace.
So why does God do all this?
Well, first of all, common grace demonstrates the utter goodness of God to everybody. Though it’s true He demonstrates His grace especially to those He saves—this is called “special grace”—nevertheless, His goodness isn’t restricted only to those He saves. It overflows to everyone. Psalm 145 says, “The Lord is good to all; his mercy is over all that he has made.”
Secondly, without common grace, there would be no opportunity for God to bestow His special grace. Or to put it another way, if God didn’t restrain sin and its effects and His own rightful wrath at sin, there would be no human beings left for Him to save. We would all be destroyed. Scripture tells us that God “is patient toward [all people], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God’s patience and goodwill toward all is an act of common grace.
Thirdly, common grace vindicates the justice of God. Romans chapter 1 says that God has made plain to people His existence and power through every good thing we enjoy. For example, we see the sun rise every morning. It shines—as Jesus said—on the just and the unjust alike. And as beneficiaries of that constant and unmistakable goodness, it will not be convincing if we one day say to God, “I didn’t think there was enough evidence of Your existence.” Our condemnation, having enjoyed a lifetime of these common-grace blessings, will be entirely deserved.
Finally, as is the case (I believe) with Philip Larkin, God’s common grace means that His glory is reflected even by those who do not know Him and who don’t want to reflect His glory. We are all of us mirrors, whether or not we want to be, however distorted those mirrors may have become. And even a broken mirror can reflect the light in dazzling ways.
The reality of common grace ought to utterly change the way we relate to the world, especially the way we relate to those who don’t believe. It gives us eyes to enjoy reflections of God’s glory wherever they appear—often in the unlikeliest of places, and in the unlikeliest of people.
Why did the Lord choose us to be His people? Is it because of something we did, something He did, or maybe a little bit of both? Today, Barry Cooper shows that the Bible’s answer to this question is abundantly clear.
If we are to be reconciled to God, we need more than forgiveness for breaking His law. We also require the righteousness of One who has kept God’s law perfectly. Today, Barry Cooper explains the critical distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience for our salvation.