How does a person come to have saving faith? The answer is more complicated than it would seem at first. A casual observer might think that a person’s “faith” is the product of either how we were raised or a personal choice as an adult. Things like this can produce a cultural Christian, but they do not produce somebody who truly knows God, is connected to Christ, and is destined for eternal life with God.
There are a number of Biblical insights about the “mystery of faith” that can seem contradictory. Let’s start with 1 Corinthians 2:14:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
The plan of God to save people is unusual, but it is not so abstract that it takes a genius to understand. Still, this passage and others like it reveal that the basic truths of God and basic truths of God’s plan will not be believed by anyone in their natural state. Something needs to happen to person. The Holy Spirit has to make us “alive”. What is actually changed is unclear. It could be a change of the soul or of the brain or something else. A person cannot will this to happen. John 1 puts it this way:
But to all who did receive him, he gave the right to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
We don’t believe because of heredity, nor because we choose to, nor because others (like our parents) want us to, but because God choose us and changes us. God provides not only the sacrifice for sin but also the means of being a beneficiary of it.
Why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit do this for all? After all, God wants all men to be saved. This is mysterious. But clearly God won’t work with certain people for unspecified reasons.
For people who do have a connection to Christ, it is all God.
For by grace you have been saved by grace through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God…
This is great, but it sort of bothers us. We feel that somebody needs to do something. We have to believe or choose or call out in prayer or confess. Well, we are invited to be baptized into Jesus’ death, but that is something God does to us. It is not our action either. The same could even be said about our confession of faith.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:10)
This passage would not agree with the three previous passages if we understood “believing” and “confessing” as our acts which save us. Rather, these are actions made possible by the Holy Spirit for a person chosen by God. They are more the first symptoms of salvation than the cause of it.
We want to bring our intellect into the process somehow. Oddly, the Word of God is the Spirit’s primary tool, but it is not to win us over intellectually. It does something spiritually. So, in witnessing we explain God’s action, we quote God’s promises, we appeal to intellect; but God does what we cannot. He makes someone “alive”. This can be true in people who are incapable of intellectually processing the story of Jesus (like infants, the profoundly mentally disabled, dementia victims, etc.)
These facts have implications for ministry. First, don’t question whether you really, really believe. Did Jesus really die and rise again? Yes or no. Did God promise that those who belong to Jesus are saved? Yes or no. Were you baptized into Jesus’ death? Yes or no. Is God a liar? Yes or no. These are very objective questions that keep the focus where it belongs. Is Jesus enough? Yes, he is.
Another application is not to freak out when a Christian has some doubts or some disobedience. Faith is not seamless trust. Nor is sinless something we should expect this side of Heaven. Faith, in this case, is a God wrought connection making you a part of the body of Christ.
Altar calls could be great ways to rededicate ourselves as disciples. They are misleading ways of connecting people to Jesus and they sew doubt in those who already are Christians.
Baptism, not a sinner’s prayer, is the biblical response to those who first believe the message. God’s promise, not baptismal procedure is what makes it work.
If we are saved it is the decision and work of God. If we are lost, it is something about us that even God wouldn’t circumvent.