Jeremy Sarber

I'm Reformed Baptist, pastor of Joy Christian Church, and founder of Sermon Transcription Services.

Honest With Me

Command Does Not Imply Ability

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

Please elaborate on “faith is the duty of every sinner.” Faith is a fruit of the Spirit as Galatians 5 tells us. Unless you believe that all are born again and given the gift of faith through the Holy Spirit, how can someone who does not have this gift exercise this gift?

Again, I can only assume you believe that everyone is born again, everyone is saved, and therefore everyone has the ability to display faith, or you believe in the very Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. This, I think, needs some further explanation as well.

Ironically, both Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians make the same mistake in regards to human responsibility. In response to Augustine who wrote, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” Pelagius argued that any command of God implies we have the ability to obey.

So the Arminian follows this facet of Pelagianism by saying, “If the Bible commands sinners to believe, they must have the ability to believe.” The Hyper-Calvinist turns it around by saying, “If not everyone is capable of believing, then the Bible doesn’t command everyone to believe.”

Both applications of the Pelagian doctrine sound logical, but they don’t hold up to Scripture. Of course, we should never solely rely on what seems logical to us. The Muslim, for instance, thinks that it’s illogical for God to become a human. But God says, “My ways [are] higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9). What does the Bible say? That’s what’s most important.

We agree that everyone has sinned and is guilty before God. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Ro 5:12). I would also add that ignorance of this fact does not justify anyone. Paul said:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

So every human being on the planet without exception is guilty before God.

We also agree that God chose a people for salvation “according to the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:5). We agree that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Ro 5:8-9). We agree that “no one can come to [Christ] unless the Father…draws him” (Jn 6:44). We agree that this drawing produces in us fruits of the Spirit such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

You asked, “How can someone who does not possess the gift of faith exercise this gift?” They can’t. But that doesn’t negate their God-given obligation to believe in him, trust him, or have faith in him.

Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6). So only those whom God gives faith will be capable of pleasing him, yet everyone is held to the same standards. Just because the unregenerate are unregenerate, they are not excused from breaking God’s law. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). With or without the gift of faith, everyone is accountable to God’s law. If that weren’t true, then sin would cease to be sin.

Command does not imply ability. Command implies a responsibility to obey. That is why Paul told the heathen idolaters in Athens, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Ac 17:30-31).

Just follow the ministries of Christ and his apostles. To a mixed audience, Peter commanded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2:38). He issued a universal commandment to repent even though he understood God was not calling everyone. He went on to say, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39).

Jesus taught:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” (John 3:15-16, 18)

While Jesus knew his sheep, those whom the Father had given him, he never hesitated to preach his gospel to anyone and everyone and command them to believe.

John wrote, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1Jn 3:21-23).

So John says the primary commandment of God is that we believe (or have faith in) Jesus Christ. I quoted Hebrews 11:6, but the entire verse says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

John chapter 8 provides an easily-overlooked example of Jesus commanding unregenerate, non-elect people to believe in him. First, he said to some of the Jews, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin” (Jn 8:21). Then he said, “You are from below…You are of this world” (Jn 8:23). They were spiritually blind antichrists, of the devil and of the world, and would die without redemption from their sins.

Yet notice what Jesus said next: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn 8:24). Even after telling them that they would die in their sins, he issued a command to believe.

Over and over again, Jesus spoke to the lost people of Israel using the same message: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). At one point, he told the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, “It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt 11:24). Then, he surprisingly added, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

In John 6, he preached to thousands of people and said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn 6:29). He also said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe” (Jn 6:35-36). Of course, the day ended with most of them rejecting him and returning home. Even so, Jesus’s message was “believe in me; come to me.”

Perhaps one of the most telling passages is found in Matthew 23. After three years of compelling the people of Israel to repent and believe in him, Jesus knew their hearts were still hard. As he rebuked the Pharisees, in particular, he said, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:33). Judgment was on the horizon. There was no escaping it.

Then he made a statement that should break the heart of every Christian: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [can you hear the sorrow in his voice?] the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37).

God sent prophet after prophet. He sent Christ himself. He sent the apostles. Each one of them pleaded with the people to turn from sin to God. They implored the people to put their faith in God and in his Son, Jesus. But the people refused. Therefore, they were guilty and could not escape the judgment to come.

Follow the history of Israel in the Old Testament. They tried to please God by keeping the law, but it couldn’t be done. So finally, God said:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Israel rejected God. Despite his frequent attempts to correct them, they still refused to believe and turn away from their sins. And since God knew that they would always be incapable of pleasing him, he promised to take care of the problem himself by giving them new hearts. “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.”

My point is, the commandment to love and trust God preceded Israel’s ability to actually do it to such a degree that pleases God. In fact, the law itself is built on the premise of believing and having faith in God. So everyone obligated to keep the law is consequently obligated to believe. As I said, faith is the duty of every sinner.

So the Arminian makes the mistake of thinking that the gospel can be believed by anyone because the gospel call is universal. The Hyper-Calvinist, on the other hand, makes the mistake of thinking that the gospel call is limited because the gospel cannot be believed by everyone. The truth lies directly between the two.

The gospel call and its message to believe and repent are universal. Christ and the apostles did not discriminate when they preached. They simply called upon all sinners to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and…be saved” (Ac 16:31). In Romans 10, Paul said, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” (Ro 10:15). What did they preach? Obviously, they preached the gospel. But they also implored their audiences to believe:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:13-14)

Now the vital question is, to whom did they preach? In short, everyone. Paul said, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel” (Ro 10:16). So when the preachers proclaimed the gospel, they also commanded the people to believe even though not everyone would or could believe.

You see, we are not called to put our trust in Christ because we are saved; we are called to put our trust in Christ because we are lost and need a Savior. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32).

I really appreciate what Charles Spurgeon once said about this:

In our own day certain preachers assure us that a man must be regenerated before we may bid him believe in Jesus Christ; some degree of a work of grace in the heart being, in their judgment, the only warrant to believe. This also is false. It takes away a gospel for sinners and offers us a gospel for saints.

Brethren, the command to believe in Christ must be the sinner’s warrant, if you consider the nature of our commission. How runs it? “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” It ought to read, according to the other plan, “preach the gospel to every regenerate person, to every convinced sinner, to every sensible sinner.” But it is not so; it is to “every creature.”

Based on the examples of the New Testament, it seems to me that the gospel has not been fully preached to the unconverted until they are instructed to believe and repent. Even John’s Gospel states, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Of course, unless people do believe in Jesus Christ, we can’t know whether they belong to the elect family of God. John said, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1Jn 5:1).

The call to believe goes out to everyone. And the Bible makes it plain that people who fail to believe are guilty. According to Paul, God said of Israel, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Ro 10:21). In context, Paul was talking about the way in which the “word of Christ” had “gone out to all the earth” (Ro 10:17-18). But the people of Israel had rejected Christ and his gospel.

So on the one hand, Paul gives credit to God for those who did believe: “I have been found by those who did not seek me” (Ro 10:20). But concerning those who didn’t believe, Paul places the blame squarely on them: “I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” So again, faith is the duty of every sinner.

Now, this relatively simple concept becomes even clearer once we realize that God is working through his redeemed people and his Word to bring about the conversion of sinners. Again, God doesn’t work in a vacuum.

Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul said, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2Th 2:13-14).

You see, God called and sanctified the Thessalonians through the gospel which Paul and others preached to them. Like Ezekiel when he prophesied to a valley of dead men, God providentially worked through the preachers he providentially sent to call the unconverted to himself. The preachers did the talking while God did the drawing.

What concerns me is not that Primitive Baptists want to make it clear that faith is a gift of God, that faith is the result of God’s sovereign grace. I agree with them. What troubles me is not only the lack of evangelism—and I’m not talking about knocking on people’s doors—but the misguided purpose of evangelism. I heard of one pastor who compared preaching the gospel to unbelievers with casting pearls before swine. While I realize that that’s an extreme sentiment not shared by everyone, I grew up believing something very similar. We don’t seek the lost in evangelism; rather, we convert the converted.

Let me explain.

I learned to look for signs of faith in people. If someone had no apparent concern for God or Christ, then I wouldn’t bother. But if they already believed in God or were members of a church, then I would attempt to lead them to “the truth.” I use quotes because I was not leading them to Christ the Truth but the truth according to Primitive Baptists. In other words, I wasn’t evangelizing at all. If anything, I was discipling. I was further teaching believers.

Compare the apostles’ calls to action with those of Primitive Baptists. The apostles concluded their sermons by saying, “Believe and repent.” Even Primitive Baptists instinctively know there could be unconverted people in their midst. But what do they usually say? “The open doors of the church are now published for the reception of new members.” That’s not evangelism.

Biblical evangelism points people to Christ, not the institution of the church. It compels people to repent of their sin and trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior, not join the official membership roster. These things may go hand in hand, but what’s the priority?

To evangelize is to declare what God has done to save sinners, to warn men of their lost condition, to direct them to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. If that strikes you as an Arminian message, I strongly encourage you to read through the New Testament again. It is neither Arminian nor does it contradict the sovereign and saving grace of God.