The Inward Call of the Holy Spirit
In order for the Holy Spirit to bring God’s elect people to a saving faith, He applies, along with the external call of the gospel, His special inward call. He does this by regenerating (bringing back to life) the dead heart. He then gives us an understanding of the gospel so that we see our sin and misery and trust in the sacrifice of Christ as the only ground of our salvation.
The Canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article 11 says, “But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts once He has prepared the heart. Much like the Parable of the Sower of Matthew 13, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the “field” fertile so it can receive the seed of the gospel, cause it take root, grow, and bear fruits of faith.
The Holy Spirit does not work “with” the Word in the sense that every time the Word of God is proclaimed the Holy Spirit is attempting to apply it to all who hear it but is unsuccessful insofar as some reject His work. Rather, it is more correct to say that the Holy Spirit works “through” the Word to teach and apply its truths to those whom God has chosen. The Holy Spirit works sovereignly in the application of the gospel.
The Effects of the Word and the Holy Spirit
Could we say that the gospel message has failed if many who hear it do not believe? Is it without any effect at all in the ears of the reprobate? Not at all. As one of the Keys to the Kingdom of God, the preaching of the gospel opens the door to the kingdom of heaven to all who in true faith receive the gospel, and it closes the doors to all who do not repent and believe (see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 84).
The preaching of the gospel has the effect either of saving or condemning. It is never without God’s decreed results. The preaching of the gospel never fails in its purpose. “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). Not only does the Word of God never fail, but the Holy Spirit never fails to apply it to God’s people.
A Freed Will Instead of a Free Will
When we say that the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the saving work of Christ is “irresistible,” we should not misunderstand this concept. To some people it may appear as though man was caused to do something that he did not want to do. God does not drag His elect people into heaven against their wills, struggling and kicking against Him. By the regeneration of the heart man is made willing to believe the gospel. His will is renewed through the power of the Spirit so that in due time he humbly believes by his own freed will – a will set free that it may submit to the Word of God.
Man does not come to faith in some mechanical fashion so that he does not actually realize what he is doing. The Canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Head of Doctrine, Article 16 says, “This grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, or do violence thereto….” What the Holy Spirit does is to change man’s will (sets it free) so that he is now both willing and able to repent of his sin and believe in Jesus for salvation. He now has a freed will.
God does not just create in man the ability to believe and then leave it to man’s free will to accomplish the terms of salvation. “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected as his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because He who works in man both will and to work, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons of Dort Chapters III & 4, Article 14; see Phil. 2:13).
God saves in a way that the regenerate man enjoys. Man never goes to heaven against his will. The regenerated will desires nothing more than to have everlasting life and communion with His gracious and loving God and Father. On the contrary, the unbeliever who has never repented and believed in Christ, but has laughed at all the warnings about eternal punishment and continued to live in the darkness of sin, gets exactly what he wants – everlasting separation from the grace of God.
By the sovereign and irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit the hearts of God’s elect are changed so that they will earnestly hate sin and repent of sin and at the same time love God and believe in His Son as their Savior (see Heidelberg Catechism Q’s 88-90). The Bible tells us that before man can love God, God must first love him. I Jn. 4:10 and 19 teach us, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. We love Him because He first loved us.” To have faith, man does have to know the Word of God (“How shall they call on Him in whim they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” Rom. 10:14, 17). Man does not respond to the love of God by just hearing or reading about it. Man only knows of God’s love with true faith after God sends His Spirit to bring the heart back to life.
Since the hand of God is almighty, there is no power in man or in Satan to resist or to hinder the grace of God to save His people. This is one of the greatest comforts a Christian can have. In Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism we read of this comfort in this way: “…wherefore by his Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.”
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.