If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.
At first glance, one would come away with an assumption that you are promoting an Arminian-styled, free-will theology. What do you mean by “the gospel call applies to all”? Are you saying that God uses the gospel to regenerate persons?
More than any other question, I have been asked, “Do you believe in gospel regeneration?” So right away, let me say that I do not believe in gospel regeneration.
Around the time Primitive Baptists were moving away from their pro-missionary counterparts, the Campbellites with Alexander Campbell began promoting a Word-only version of regeneration. They believed that the Word of God alone (the Bible, gospel preaching) has the power to bring a sinner to spiritual life. Primitive Baptists, on the other hand, maintained that it is the Spirit and the Spirit alone that regenerates a person. And I believe they’re right.
However, it is a mistake to think that God’s Spirit operates in a vacuum apart from natural circumstances. When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, he didn’t just send plagues or speak to Pharaoh from heaven; he used Moses and Aaron as means through which he spoke and sent those plagues. When Christ made atonement for our sins on the cross, God used everyone from Mary to Judas Iscariot to accomplish what he could have done without them. And even though God can bring the spiritually dead to life without his Word in any tangible form, he uses his Word nonetheless. He uses it simultaneously if you will.
To be clear, it is not the Word that regenerates; it’s the Spirit. The Word has no power apart from the Spirit. It would fall on deaf ears. In John 6, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (Jn 6:63-64). He then added this explanation: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65). Though the Word of God is spirit and life, it is powerless to change a man’s heart unless God has chosen and drawn that man to himself.
But notice what happens when the equation becomes the Word plus the Spirit. Paul described “the word of God” as “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). When the Spirit takes God’s Word in his hand, it becomes an incredible tool, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” capable of “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). When the Spirit wields the sword, the Word of God comes alive. It becomes “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Ro 1:16).
Now technically, that doesn’t contradict what Primitive Baptists believe about the new birth. I think we’d all agree that the Spirit can transform a sinner’s heart while reading the Bible, or listening to gospel preaching, or while he’s exposed to God’s Word in any form. Typically, however, Primitive Baptists are very hesitant to claim there is any connection between regeneration and the Word of God. No one wants to be accused of gospel regeneration. So while it is possible, most would say it’s not typical.
There was a time when I said the same thing. I wanted to eliminate all possibilities that man could somehow claim credit for God’s work of regeneration. I mean, if people were commonly born again while listening to preachers, couldn’t those preachers claim some credit? It just felt as though the doctrines of grace would collapse and we’d be left with a works-based system where salvation ultimately rests on man’s efforts. I think you know what I mean.
But there were always several Bible passages that presented a real challenge. While I either ignored them or got clever with my interpretations, I could never quite shake them. They were just so plainly written. They were so clear in their meaning. To make a long story short, I eventually became willing to set aside my preconceived ideas about the new birth and the Word of God, and simply read the Bible for what it actually says.
I’m going to share with you some of those passages, but let me first read a few verses that firmly establish the point that only God (or his Spirit) is capable of causing the new birth. God is the author or cause of regeneration. I’ll even read these verses in the KJV.
John 1:13 says, “Which were born…of God.” John 3:6: “That which is born of the Spirit.” First John 2:29: “Every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.” First John 3:9: “Whosoever is born of God.” The same verse says again, “Because he is born of God.” First John 4:7: “Every one that loveth is born of God.” First John 5:1: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Three verses later, he says, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world” (1Jn 5:4). First John 5:18: “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not…he that is begotten of God keepeth himself.” Finally, Titus 3:5 says, “Renewing of the Holy Ghost.”
The language is consistent. We are born of God. He is the author and cause of the new birth. Our spiritual life originates with him. We agree on that much. Now let’s look at a few more verses that speak of the new birth and see how they compare.
In John 15:3, Jesus said, “Now ye are clean through the word.” John 17:17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” Ephesians 5:26: “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” Okay, so maybe you could argue that those verses don’t teach anything about the new birth. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but let me read a few more.
First Corinthians 4:15: “For in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” Second Thessalonians 2:14: “He called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” James 1:18: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.” Finally, 1 Peter 1:23: “Being born again…by the word of God.”
It seems the Bible presents us with a contradiction. In the past, I had to find a way to interpret the second set of verses so that I could steer clear of God’s Word being involved in the process. I’d either redefine words such as “begotten” or attempt to prove phrases such as “word of truth” or “word of God” are actually references to Christ himself, not the gospel or the Scriptures. While I was performing hermeneutical gymnastics, however, there was never a contradiction in the first place.
Look at these passages again. We are born of God. We are born of the Spirit. But we are called by the gospel. We are begat with the word of truth. We are born again by the word of God. The difference is the difference between substance and means, or the cause and the tools.
To illustrate, let’s say a surgeon is performing a heart transplant. Of course, I choose this metaphor because God said through Ezekiel, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze 36:26). When the surgery is complete, no one will question who performed the transplant. The surgeon performed the transplant. Without him, the old heart could not have been replaced by the new. But that surgeon will most certainly use instruments during the surgery. Whether he uses a No. 10 blade or a No. 7 handle, he’ll use some kind of scalpel. (I would have said sword, but I didn’t want to mix metaphors.) Regardless, the surgeon performed the surgery.
God is the surgeon in regeneration. His Word is the scalpel. And to see this remarkably simple principle in Scripture, all you have to do is read.
Consider James chapter 1:
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:12-18)
So the contrast here is between evil things and good things. Concerning evil, God is never responsible for sin. Concerning good, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.” Then James reminds us that we were born again and became the “firstfruits of his creatures” because God “brought us forth [or begat us] by the word of truth” according to “his own will.” As an example of good gifts coming down from the Father, James uses the best example of all which is regeneration.
Now we can hardly make the case that this passage is referring to something other than regeneration. It happens according to God’s will. We are “brought forth” which is distinct language used to describe the new birth. And James even uses an expression Paul used when talking about those people predestinated by God. Paul said, “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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Ro 8:29-30).
More commonly, though, Primitive Baptists attempt to show how “word of truth” is a reference to Christ himself and not the gospel or the Bible. But again, all we have to do is read the text. James continued:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:19-22)
The “implanted word” by which we are born again is the same word that James tells us to do. Verses 18, 21, and 22 all use the same word in English, and they use the same word in Greek, logos. What in the text itself would lead anyone to think James was talking about a mystical, invisible word? When John referred to Jesus as the Logos, he made it clear by saying, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). James makes no allusions to Christ. In fact, he makes it rather plain that he was talking about God’s inspired Word.
Plus, a quick cross-reference through the Bible further proves what James was talking about. Psalm 119:43 says, “And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules.” In this case, “word of truth” refers to God’s law and commandments.
Ephesians 1:13: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” This “word of truth” was heard and believed.
Second Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
Reading 1 Peter 1, I come to the same conclusion: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1Pe 1:22-23, 25).
Notice how the Christians to whom Peter was writing had obeyed the truth. Why? Because they had been “born again…through the living and abiding word of God.” The gospel was preached to them, and they believed as a result of God’s mercy. Earlier in the chapter, he said, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1Pe 1:3-5).
And if we continue reading into chapter 2, Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [of the word, according to the KJV], that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1Pe 2:2-3). So nothing in the literary context of 1 Peter would suggest that the “word of God” is a direct reference to the person of Christ. To the contrary, everything about this passage points to the preached gospel, which Peter’s original readers believed and obeyed.
As a side note, John Gill, who remains a favorite Bible commentator among Primitive Baptists, said of James 1:18:
With the word of truth; not Christ, who is the Word, and truth itself; though regeneration is sometimes ascribed to him; and this act of begetting is done by the Father, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead; but the Gospel, which is the word of truth, and truth itself, and contains nothing but truth; and by this souls are begotten and born again; and hence ministers of it are accounted spiritual fathers.
Concerning 1 Peter 1:23, Gill wrote:
By “the word of God” is either meant the essential Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; who is concerned in regeneration as well as the Father and the Spirit; by whose resurrection, and in consequence of it, the elect of God are begotten again; and who, as the Word, is able to build up all the sanctified ones, and give them the inheritance they are born heirs unto: or the Gospel, the word of truth, which is made use of as a means of begetting souls again; and the rather, since it seems to be so interpreted.
John Gill is not our authority, of course, but I quote him because I agree with his interpretations. And as you probably know, Gill made it abundantly clear throughout his writings that God’s Word (the gospel, the Bible, preaching, and so on) does not have any power to regenerate apart from the sovereign work of the Spirit.
Once I was willing to read passages such as James 1 and 1 Peter 1 without filtering them through my previously-constructed theological paradigm, God’s use of his Word became obvious. It’s everywhere in Scripture. But it never undermines his sovereignty in salvation.
For example, God called Ezekiel to preach to a valley of dead people. Ezekiel 37 says:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:1-6)
So God intended to raise these men from the dead. Did he need Ezekiel to accomplish that? Absolutely not. But he still incorporated Ezekiel into his plan. And as the story continues, Ezekiel preached, and the dead came alive. Was it Ezekiel’s preaching that brought the dead to life? Again, the answer is no. It was only by God’s power.
I think we sometimes forget about God’s providence. His sovereignty is the plan. When he sovereignly decrees something, he issues the plan according to his own will and purpose. And providence is the outworking of that plan. That’s when he puts his sovereign will into action, often intervening in the affairs of this world.
Unfortunately, we often think of God’s providence as these rare moments when he gives us unexpected, entirely-miraculous blessings. “By God’s providence, I survived that car accident.” No, God’s providence is his ongoing relationship with creation. He is continually involved in our world, cooperating and directing as he fulfills his sovereign purposes.
According to God’s sovereign will, he providentially directed Ezekiel to preach. Then, by his power alone, he providentially raised the dead to whom Ezekiel had preached. Despite God’s use of a prophet, his sovereignty remains in tact. I would even say that his sovereignty is magnified. The fact that God can use mere sinners to accomplish his divine purpose exalts his sovereignty. Furthermore, it makes his sovereignty real and meaningful, not some mystical concept far removed from the daily realities of life.
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
Paul presents himself and others as “ambassadors for Christ.” God is reconciling sinners to himself “through us.” Notice that it is not because of us but through us.
With that in mind, consider what Jesus called Paul to do among the Gentiles:
“I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—[listen to this] to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:16-18)
Did Paul possess the power to open the eyes of the spiritually blind or rip them from the hand of Satan and give them to God? Could he offer forgiveness of sins or grant anyone an inheritance among the sanctified? No, but Christ could do these things through him.
At the very beginning of Acts, Jesus told 120 disciples to wait for the Spirit. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac 1:8). In other words, the Spirit would begin working in them and through them as they became Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Getting back to your original question, I do believe the gospel call applies to everyone. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). I believe the KJV says, “Every creature.” The New Testament quotes the prophet Joel more than once. He said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). I don’t see where the Bible puts any restrictions on those we preach to.
When Jesus first commissioned his apostles, he said:
“Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:11-14)
And that’s precisely what we see New Testament ministers do. They preached indiscriminately to everyone, and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Ac 13:48).
In one of Jesus’s parables, he equated our preaching to a man who tells his servants, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Lk 14:23). In a similar parable, the main character said, “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find” (Mt 22:14). Jesus concluded that parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14). There are no limitations on who we call despite the fact that only the elect of God can respond positively.
Is that free-will Arminianism? Not unless it’s Arminianism to do what God has commanded by preaching the gospel to the unconverted. It’s not Arminianism when you know that you have no power to convert sinners and wholly rely on God’s providence. It’s not Arminianism when you realize that those who believe and repent are compelled by God’s Spirit from within, not by anything we’ve done. It’s not Arminianism; it’s biblical evangelism.