A great mystery once surrounded the circumstances of my salvation experience that for a decade confounded all my attempts to unveil its secrets.
Let me start at the beginning. In the summer of 1993 I found a job at the recycling center of a local non-profit agency. They provided a training environment for people with developmental disabilities. The job humbled me, but I did enjoy working with the people. My supervisor lived his Christian faith openly, and stood boldly for his convictions. To make a long story short, he preached the gospel to me for a solid year-and-a-half, slowly chipping away at my granite hard heart. One day he quoted a scripture that flew like a steel-tipped arrow, breaching my great wall of enmity.
Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world’s rulers, of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:11-12)
I remember getting into my car at the end of the day with that verse blazing through my mind. I paused in the parking lot as illumination fell on me from above. I realized at that moment good and evil were struggling for my very soul. I could not remain neutral in this war. I had to take sides. I either had to stand with God against all the powers of darkness or cast my lot with the devil and his angels. Another, more sobering thought then dawned on me. I had already spent my entire life aiding and abetting the commander-in-chief of the armies of darkness.
I stewed over those thoughts for several months. One day in late January, 1995 as I prepared to leave for the day, my boss stopped me. He launched into one of his passionate discourses on the goodness and faithfulness of God in his life. At one point he started pounding his desk speaking of the zeal he had for God, quoting from scripture. At that very moment the Spirit of God came upon me with a such a mighty rush that I could sense it in a tangible manner. A great tingling warmth spread from the top of my head to the heels of my feet. I gasped audibly, not quite understanding what had just happened. My boss did not notice my reaction, so I politely acknowledged my appreciation for his word of encouragement and drove home.
However, an entirely different man arrived home that evening than the one who had woke up that morning. My thoughts were consumed with Jesus Christ and his goodness. I hungered and thirsted for righteousness like a man rescued from a long spell in the desert craves water and bread. I hurried to the nearest bible so I could immediately discover more about this Jesus of Nazareth. I wanted to know Him. Not just about Him, but to know him in a personal, relational way. I desired to follow Him no matter the cost. I devoured the gospels in a few short weeks. My hunger for the scriptures grew insatiable. I bombarded my boss with hundreds of questions. I amazed him with my new found zeal for Christ and for holiness.
Simultaneous with my office experience, the Holy Spirit pressed upon me the weight of my sin and guilt before a holy and just God. I repented and put all my trust in Jesus Christ, my Savior. I grew in knowledge and wisdom for the next several years in a Pentecostal, Arminian-leaning church. As I came to embrace ‘free-will’ theology as the only truth the scriptures taught, I came face-to-face with an apparent contradiction between theology and experience. My mind constantly raised this objection:
If repenting and putting my faith in Christ comes before I am born-again, how is it that the Holy Spirit changed me before I did any of those things?
My experience at work didn’t seem to completely match up with the doctrine of free will. I openly admit I didn’t spend too much time pondering the inconsistency. I simply shrugged it off. I believed salvation came, at least in part, by my intellect finally grasping the doctrine of salvation (with the help of a slight nudge from the Holy Spirit). I believed I had somehow woke myself from the slumber of ignorance, turned on my own light, took the blinders off my own eyes, unstopped my own ears and grasped with my own hands the salvation that lay before me. From time to time I would think back and wonder about the strange order of events, but I would fall back on the comfortable conclusions my mind and theology had conjured.
See, my understanding of the salvation process from my education in a ‘free-will’ church taught that man and God cooperate together in conversion of the soul. The Father initiated the salvation process by giving his Son as an atoning sacrifice, propitiating His wrath, opening the door for all men to become adopted sons of God. Then, in response to the gospel offer, we must do the following:
- Admit our condition as a lost sinner in need of salvation from the wrath of God.
- Note: This is no longer a pre-requisite for conversion in most churches
- Believe the gospel message of salvation
- Repent of all our sins.
- Note: This also is no longer essential for conversion in many churches
- Put all our faith in God, trusting Him to deliver our souls from eternal death
As a result of man meeting all these conditions by making responsible free-will choices, God will then:
- Justify us as free from the guilt of sin
- Impute the righteousness of Christ to us
- Give us a new heart that we may hunger and thirst for righteousness
- Give the Holy Spirit who will empower us to live holy and pure before God
In summary, man becomes born-again, but only after he has met the four conditions listed above. At the time, this order sounded logical and appeared biblical. However, in recent years as I came to understand the true state of natural man through Calvinism, I questioned the soundness of it. It seems odd that God would require all these things of man, but waits until he fulfills them of his own power before He regenerates him and empowers him.
In my studies over man’s total depravity, I came across a stunning internet article that yielded vital clues to the mystery of my salvation. The article was titled something like ‘Does Faith Precede Regeneration?’ I initially responded with a sardonic ‘Duh!! Faith always precedes the new birth.’ I shook my head, wondering why anyone in their right mind would waste precious time writing an article pondering such a silly question.
However, I decided to have a good chuckle at the author’s expense. My laughter quickly turned to gasps of astonishment. Illumination dawned over my fog-shrouded heart. The article taught that man cannot fulfill the conditions of salvation on his own merit, lest his salvation be attributed to his own works, which contradicts the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. If a man of his own abilities can come to Christ then he either has more wisdom, greater intellect, better circumstances, a superior environment or a more tender heart than a man who hears and rejects the gospel. The author raised the question, “What makes a man who receives the gospel to differ from one who rejects it?” The answer lies not in man’s innate abilities or environmental circumstances, but simply upon the mercy and compassion of a sovereign God.
The article emphatically nailed home the truth that regeneration must precede repentance and faith. These abilities do not reside in us naturally, they are a gift of God through the cross of Christ. Unless you are born-again you cannot even see the kingdom of God much less partake of it.
It all made perfect sense to me. That day in my boss’s office God chose to give me a new heart by his sovereign choice alone. My rock-hard heart split asunder, revealing beneath a new heart of flesh.
Prior to that moment I did not seek God, I did not feel the weight of my sin, I did not sorrow over my offenses against the holy and righteous Judge of all the earth. I did not desire to read the bible. My natural mind did not accept the things of the Spirit of God. I did not want to give up my life of sinful pleasure. I did not want to obey the commandments. I did not desire to follow Christ. I did not want to believe I was lost and headed for hell. I had no inclination to humble myself and submit to the righteousness of God in Christ.
But in a twinkling of an eye that all changed, forever. When the Spirit of God came upon me, every belief and desire I had built my life upon dissolved like a sand castle beneath the ocean’s tide. Repentance and faith clearly came after regeneration in my experience. I didn’t even clearly understand what repent meant until the Spirit worked in me.
In fact I didn’t fall to my knees in repentance until nearly two full weeks after my office encounter with the Holy Spirit. I confess that I put it off so I could make a spectacle of the whole affair. I believed that making a ceremony of it in a special childhood haunt would please the Lord. However, the Spirit of God so overcame me one Saturday at work, that I marched out of my office into a snowstorm and fell to my knees in the middle of a sticker patch, repented of my sins and put all my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. My mouth finally uttered those things God had already worked in my spirit.
The stages of salvation I once embraced had it all backwards. It’s not as simple as ABC. Salvation doesn’t depend on human exertion or desire, but on God who has mercy. Here is the Ordo Salutis of true biblical salvation, exemplified by my experience.
- For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)
God the Father, from the dateless past, before the foundations of the earth were laid, chose for himself a people out of the world. He set his elect apart for his own purposes, by His compassion and grace alone. My heavenly Father elected me, Brandon, to inherit eternal salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, who died in my place, bearing in his body all of my iniquities.
- And those whom he predestined he also called, (Rom 8:30A) No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. (Joh 6:44A) The Ephesians 6 scripture pricked my heart and the first rays of gospel light shone on my spirit. The Lord opened my eyes that I would know beyond a shadow of a doubt where I stood spiritually. My heavenly Father issued his outward call through His word. The Holy Spirit, on an intellectual level at this point, convicted me of my sinfulness and alliance with the devil and his work.
- And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Eze 36:26-27) That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Joh 3:6-8) The Holy Spirit poured over me in that little office twelve years ago. He granted me a new heart of flesh and renewed my mind by the sovereign decree of the Father. My heart of hate and malice toward god morphed into one of love and gratefulness.
- So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:17) For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, (2Co 7:10A) God made his call effectual, granting me the gifts of repentance and faith. He brought me to a position of absolute humility through the constant preaching of my boss. I sorrowed over my sinfulness and threw myself upon his mercy and grace. I repented of my sins and put all my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
- And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:30) I have been justified freely by the grace of God. I come nearer to glorification with each passing day. My spirit will eventually be released from this body of death and be present with the Lord. At the resurrection of the righteous I will receive my glorified body and my full sanctification. I will stand boldly before the throne of grace, an adopted member of the Lord’s family.
In conclusion, the second reason I embraced Calvinism is because it teaches regeneration precedes faith. I know this not only from the scriptures and by logic, but also from personal experience.
My coming to Christ the way I did aligns perfectly with this teaching. God took a man who loved himself above all and performed a miracle in his heart; reviving a soul utterly dead in trespasses and sins with a spiritual rebirth, turning his desire away from the passing pleasures of the world to now seeking to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Soli Deo Gloria!