After many years as a Baptist pastor, the Lord challenged me by His Spirit to carefully review what the Bible taught regarding the doctrine of salvation. Previously, like most of the independent Baptist pastors that I had known, I had believed that a sinner obtained eternal life by receiving Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But over time and through much study the Lord taught me the truth about His great salvation. He graciously revealed to me that eternal life is not obtained by fulfilling any condition like accepting Christ as savior. Rather, eternal life is God’s free gift that He gives to whomever He chooses without any involvement by the sinner.
This God-given, free-gift salvation is commonly known as Sovereign Grace. It is termed sovereign because it is the unconditional work of God alone (John 1:13, Rom 9:13-16). It is gracious because it is based on the grace and mercy of God whereby He generously bestows eternal life to rebellious sinners who are totally undeserving of His kindness (Eph 2:8-9). Grace greatly magnifies the glory of God and guarantees that “no flesh should glory in His presence” (I Cor 1:29, 31). While God’s gracious salvation is free to sinners, it cost the death of His only begotten Son on the cross of Calvary.
The following Bible discoveries are key points of Scripture the Lord revealed to me as He taught me the glorious truth of His sovereign grace in the salvation of sinners.
1. The Total Depravity of the Sinner: One of the first discoveries that the Lord showed me from Scripture was that a sinner, dead in trespasses and sins, has neither the ability nor the desire to please God or come to Jesus Christ. Much to my surprise, this biblical truth was clearly set forth in The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1643. The confession stated: “God’s free and special grace” saves a sinner who is “wholly passive therein.” I was amazed at how modern confessions of faith had departed from the biblical position of my Baptist forefathers. The same Confession further stated that the Bible taught the total inability of a sinner to will or do anything accompanying salvation (Chap 8:8; 9:3-4; 10:2 above confession).
My personal Bible study confirmed exactly what the confession stated. I found that a sinner, dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1,5), cannot, of himself, cease from sin to do righteousness (Job 14:4; Jer 13:23; Mt 7:18), receive or understand God’s truth (1 Cor 2:14; 1:18), see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5), come to Christ (John 6:44, 65; 3:20) receive Christ of his own accord (John 1:11; 3:27; 8:43) or receive the Holy Spirit who regenerates the heart (John 14:17; Tit 3:5).
I also discovered that a sinner will not come to Christ on his own (John 5:40) or seek after God of his own accord (Ps 10:4, 14:2-3; Rom 3:11). The sinner’s inability and unwillingness to come to Christ establishes the necessity for God’s sovereign grace in his life if he is to be saved.
2. How Regeneration Differs From Conversion: As I continued re-studying the Bible doctrine of salvation, I discovered the clear distinction between regeneration and conversion. Most today miss this critical distinction, using these two terms interchangeably, not realizing that they are two very different processes in Scripture.
Regeneration (Tit 3:5) means life is created. It is also referred to as being born again (John 3:5), a quickening (Eph 2:1), a creation (Eph 2:10), a begetting (Jam 1:18) and a resurrection (John 5:25). Regeneration is the work of God whereby He supernaturally gives a dead sinner spiritual life by imparting to him a new heart and spirit. Regeneration requires divine action, denies any human ability, and shows sinful man to be totally passive.
Conversion, on the other hand, means to change belief or purpose. Jesus said the apostle Peter would be converted (Luke 22:32) after he denied the Lord. Peter had not lost his eternal salvation, but he needed to change his behavior. Even a Christian brother must be converted when he has fallen into sin (Jam 5:19). From these and other examples in Scripture I discovered that conversion is any step of obedience and spiritual growth in the life of a born-again child of God.
Regeneration, as the Bible declares it, is strictly the work of God in the life of a dead sinner whereby that sinner is called to spiritual life by the power of God. Conversion, however, is greatly dependent on the diligence of the born-again child of God. Regeneration is a one-time act of God in which He gives the dead sinner spiritual life to become a son of God. Conversion is the on-going, life-long process of spiritual growth that occurs in the lives of all born-again children of God by which they strive to conform themselves to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. Conversion may be hardly evident in the lives of some of God’s children (Lot) or may be fully demonstrated in the lives of a few (Apostle Paul).
I once erred, as do many, by applying conversion commands to those dead in sins as conditions for how they could obtain spiritual life. Now I understand that the many conversion commands in Scripture to repent and believe the gospel are only meant for the born-again children of God who already have the God-given ability and will to obey the gospel commands and come to Christ.
3. Conversion Lessons From the Acts of the Apostles: As a further step in my renewed review of the doctrine of salvation, I carefully studied through the Book of Acts. One thing that really stood out to me is what the apostles were challenging their hearers to do. I noted that apostolic preaching exhorted those who believed to repent and be baptized, to save themselves from this untoward generation, and to repent and be converted (Acts 2:38, 40; 3:19). Repentance, I saw, is one step of conversion which means to change one’s mind toward God. Repentance and conversion were needed for Peter’s hearers since they had killed Jesus through ignorance (Acts 3:17).
While I saw many such exhortations to repentance and conversion in the Book of Acts, I did not see any invitations by the apostles for their hearers to accept Christ as savior in order to be born again. It began to dawn on me that the apostles knew well what I was only beginning to see, that until a person was born again by the supernatural power of God, he had no ability or interest in believing the gospel and following Jesus Christ.
This incredibly important point was summarized perfectly in Acts 13:48b, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This verse clearly stated what I was seeing in the Acts. The only ones who ever believed the gospel and followed Jesus Christ were those who had already been ordained by God to eternal life and who had already been born again by the Spirit of God. Now I understood. The apostles were exhorting to repentance and conversion those among their hearers who had already been born again and thus possessed the spiritual life and ability to hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. Certain Verb Tenses Prove That Regeneration Precedes Conversion: As I had already learned, except a man was born again (regeneration) he could not and would not come to Christ and believe the gospel (conversion). Regeneration was necessary before conversion was possible. This fact was proved to me in a unique way by noting the verb tenses in some familiar verses. Two good examples are John 5:24 and I John 5:1.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life”
“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.”
The verb “believeth” in these two verses is present tense, pointing to action taking place in the present. However, the verbs “is passed” and “is born” are present perfect tenses, pointing out actions which were completed in the past with the effects continuing in the present.
What the tenses of these important verses taught me is that the person who presently believes the gospel has already been born again and has already passed from death unto life. Thus a person’s believing the gospel is the evidence that God has already regenerated him, rather than the conditional means of his being born again.
5. The Word “Salvation” in the Bible can apply to Conversion as well as Regeneration: Another area on which I focused my study was the many Bible verses which use some form of the word “save.” Through careful comparisons I discovered that the Bible has numerous meanings for the words “save”, “saved”, and “salvation.” Many today think that every time they come across a form of the word “save” in Scripture, the subject under consideration must be the eternal salvation of a sinner. Often this is not the case.
First, the word “save” simply means “deliver.” When one encounters this word in Scripture, the first question that must be asked is, what deliverance is under discussion? Is it natural or eternal? Is it physical or spiritual? And further, is it a salvation that relates to the work of God alone or is it a salvation that relates to conversion which emphasizes man’s responsibility. I found that making these distinctions was critically important.
For example, Titus 3:5 teaches that God saves us in regeneration “according to his mercy.” Notice that the salvation of regeneration (being born again) is the work of God alone. Jesus likened the salvation of regeneration by the Spirit of God to the wind blowing wherever it wants to. Even as we cannot control the wind in any way, so the sinner cannot control or direct the Spirit in the act of regeneration (John 3:1-8).
On the other hand, James 5:20 teaches that the brother “which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” The salvation in this verse is referring to the help that one brother offers another in converting him from his sin. This salvation is not eternal life. It is deliverance from error and the practice of sin during this life. See also I Tim 4:16.
So we see that whenever we run across the word “save”, “saved”, or “salvation” in Scripture, we must carefully determine what salvation is under consideration. Is it salvation that God alone gives to the sinner; or is it a practical deliverance that man achieves by being converted himself or by converting others to a closer walk with God.
6. The Role of Faith in Eternal Salvation: For many years I believed and taught that faith played a critical role in the eternal salvation of sinners. Unless a person exercised his faith by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal savior from sin, that person could not be saved. But the Lord showed me that faith was not the key to a person’s salvation as I had long thought.
While many today teach, just like I did at one time, that faith is a special instrument whereby grace is activated in the work of salvation, I rather discovered the Bible identifies faith as a work (John 6:28-29), a part of the law (Mt 23:23), a commandment of God (1 John 3:23) and an act of obedience to God (Rom 16:26).
And, of course, we know that the Bible clearly teaches that eternal salvation is not obtained by performing works (Tit 3:5), by keeping the law (Gal 2:16), or by fulfilling any condition or requirement (Rom 9:16, John 1:13). The gift of eternal life is based only on the free grace of God through Jesus Christ. God gives eternal life to whomever He chooses based only on His own will and choice. Man is totally inactive in his own eternal salvation. The faith of a sinner is not the condition, instrument, or means of his obtaining eternal life.
Furthermore, I discovered that faith is the gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), a fruit of the Spirit of God (Gal 5:22), and is born of God (I John 5:4). From these and other verses I learned that faith only comes from God and can only be seen in the lives of born again children of God. Natural men, those dead in trespasses and sins, do not have faith (II Thess 3:2).
And so I came to understand that faith cannot be the means whereby a dead sinner comes to Christ and gains possession of eternal life. Faith is a demonstration of the Spirit of God in the life of a born again child of God. Rather than being a condition whereby the sinner comes to Christ, faith is a proof or evidence that a person has already been born-again and is already in possession of eternal life. The sense of Scripture is that if a man believes on Jesus Christ, he already has eternal life.
7. The Words “All Men,” “Every Man,” and “World” in the Bible Usually Do not Refer to the Entire Human Race: For many years I have heard that these words prove that God loves and offers eternal salvation to the entire human race. For example, I once heard a popular pastor teach his flock, “All means all, and that’s all all means.” He was referring to verses like I Tim 2:4 and I Tim 4:10. He was teaching that God loves and Christ has died equally for every member of Adam’s fallen race.
But the Lord showed me by the plain statements of Scripture that God does not love all men equally and Christ did not die for all men. First, I learned that God hates the wicked (Ps. 5:5; 11:5; 10:3). God hates all the wicked apart from those whose sins are covered by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, I learned that Jesus Christ did not die for all the human race, but that He died for His people (Matt 1:21), His sheep (John 10:11), those the Father had given to Him (John 10:27-29, 17:2), and His church (Eph 5:25).
Based on these passages, when we come across verses that seem to suggest otherwise, we should know immediately that God does not love all men equally and that Jesus Christ only died for a specific segment of the human race.
Words like “all,” “every,” and “world” in the Bible are often limited by their context. Take for example Luke 2:1, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” This verse includes two of the very popular words that many use today to teach that God loves and Christ died for every single person (all & world). But notice in this verse how the context severely limits these two words. “All the world” only refers to the Roman world of that day. This verse does not even refer to all living men of that time for there were large parts of the earth that were not included in that Roman world that was taxed. And that “world” certainly did not include anyone alive today. So we can clearly see from this example that “all the world” actually referred to only a small subset of the entire human race.
This is a good example of the verses that the Lord used to teach me that the words “all,” “every,” and “world” are usually greatly limited by their biblical context. One must carefully study beyond the bare sound of a word to determine what group of men is actually being considered in a particular verse. It is not nearly enough to simply read a verse and assume that because the verse includes “all”, “every”, or “world” that it is referring to the entire human race.
I humbly and reverently thank God my Savior for His sovereign grace. He commanded life to me when I was spiritually dead. He called me to obedience through the preaching of the gospel. He rejoices my soul with the marvels of His love and the joy of salvation as I study and believe His word. He gives victory over temptations to evil and forgives my confessed sins. I find comfort, peace, and hope in believing His promise to soon come in power and great glory. I bring all my praise to Jesus the Christ Who loved me and gave Himself for me!
Roland C. Crosby