The Bible speaks of two kinds of people: those who have been “born again” (John 3:3, cf. James 1:18), and those who remain in their sinful corruption—the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:14). Only the person who understands the gospel and believes in Jesus Christ will be saved. But which kind of person truly believes? A better question might be this: Which kind of person is able to believe?
God: Life-Preserver or Life-Giver?
The analogy of a drowning person has often been used to describe the spiritual plight of the natural man. The life-preserver of God’s grace is held out to the man who can either grab it and be saved, or ignore it and perish. The person in this analogy is portrayed as having the ability to reach out for the life-preserver. It is only his unwillingness that restrains him. If he would only reach out in faith and take hold of the offered salvation, then (as it is usually presented) he would be saved and “born again.” As appealing as that analogy seems for the purpose of evangelism, it is fraught with error:
» It misrepresents the true condition of the natural man, portraying him as dying, rather than dead (Eph. 2:1,4). It shows him as being able to respond positively to God’s offer of salvation, when Scripture repeatedly says he cannot do so. The natural man cannot perceive the mysteries of the kingdom of God (John 3:3; Mark 4:11-12). He cannot submit to Christ or please God in any way (Rom. 8:6-8). He cannot even understand the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14).
»It reverses the biblical order of salvation, indicating that the natural man’s faith precedes his new birth, when in the biblical order, God’s work of regeneration precedes and produces faith. Spiritually dead people cannot believe. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were [spiritually] dead in trespasses, made us [spiritually] alive together with Christ . . . ” (Eph. 2:4-5).
»It slights the greatness of God’s redemptive work, reducing it to nothing more than an offer of assistance, rather than a complete and unassisted accomplishment of God’s grace and power. The truth is, “Salvation [not merely the offer, but the complete work] is of the Lord” (Jonah 3:9).
» By making man’s “free will” the final determining factor in salvation, it calls into question the biblical truth that God has a chosen people and that all of them will be saved. It even opens the possibility that none will accept God’s gracious offer in Christ. Jesus, however, had no worries about His work being wasted, saying with certainty, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37). “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, emphasis added). As the prophet Isaiah wrote of Christ, “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11).
» It implies that the natural man who became saved, the one who received God’s gracious offer, was equipped, prior to regeneration, with at least some natural wisdom, discernment, perception, or understanding which the others who refused and therefore perished did not posses. In other words, his inherent ability to see his need and make a wiser decision, worked in partnership with God’s grace to bring about his salvation and new birth. This not only denies that salvation is the result of God’s grace alone by assigning some degree of inherent human ability, it also contradicts Paul who tells us that the natural man is “without strength” (Romans 5:6; lit. “helpless,” “powerless” or “without ability”). Remember that both thieves who were crucified with Christ were reviling Him together until grace made one of them new (Mark 15:32; Luke 23:39-43).
A better analogy shows the natural man in his true condition—dead, and at the bottom of the ocean. No offer of a life preserver will help, because a dead man cannot reach out and take hold of it. What the natural man needs is not the preservation of life, but the creation of life. He needs to be born again before he can believe. God alone is able to will and perform that work. One corpse is no more capable than the next of hearing someone knocking or opening the door to let Him in. No dead person has ever requested to be brought back to life. No baby has ever asked to be conceived. And no natural man has ever, or will ever ask to be born again.
When God puts a new heart into man, it is not because man deserves a new heart—[it is not] because there was anything good in his nature that could have prompted God to give him a new spirit. The Lord simply gives a man a new heart because He wishes to do it; that is his only reason. “But,” you say, “suppose a man cries for a new heart?” I answer, no man ever did cry for a new heart until he had got one; for the cry for a new heart proves that there is a new heart there already.
C. H. Spurgeon2
1Adapted from the commentary section of the catechism for Christ Fellowship of Kansas City entitled, Questions and Answers for Learning and Living the Christian Faith, Copyright © 2004, Christ Fellowship of Kansas City.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 5, “The New Heart,” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), p. 91.