Proof of God’s Grace #3: Overcoming Grace

Scripture teaches that it is the Spirit that overcomes people’s hardness of heart and gives spiritual life. So, John 6:36 says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (see also Ezek. 11:19-21; 36:25-27).[1] Notice it says, “the flesh is no help at all.” The Apostle Paul also says it is “the Spirit that gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Thus, salvation does not come from “human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). So Paul says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

James 1:18 says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” Whose will was it? It was “His will.” Of course, God uses means to accomplish His will. People are brought to new life through “the word of truth” (cf. Rom. 10:14; 1 Pet. 1:23).[2]

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). That is because, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). It is the supernatural work of God that makes a person a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). That is why we “must be born again” (Jn. 3:7). And of course, no one can make himself or herself be born, let alone born again. It is the Spirit’s prerogative; the Spirit works the way He works (Jn. 3:8). We also see that even faith is a gift from God (1 Chron. 29:14; Jn. 3:27; 1 Cor. 4:7; James 1:17). No one would believe without God first giving the gift of faith. Therefore, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn. 15:16 cf. v. 19).

So, we say with Peter, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 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” (1 Pet. 1:3). Peter says that God “has caused us to be born again.”

We must be caused to be born again because apart from God we will “freely” continue in slavery to sin. Martin Luther, the German reformer, has helpfully said:

“A man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief… being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter…. the will cannot change itself, nor give itself another bent….

On the other hand: when God works in us, the will is changed under the sweet influence of the Spirit of God. Once more it desires and acts, not of compulsion, but of its own desire and spontaneous inclination.”[3]

So, “God cause[s] us to be born again” (1 Pet. 1:3) but in such a way that it too is our desire. We are no longer blinded and thus see the glory of God in the face of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6) and freely chose Him.

R. C. Sproul explains, “Man is free in that he can and does choose what he desires or is inclined to choose. But man lacks the desire for Christ and the things of God until God creates in his soul a positive inclination for these things.”[4] Thus, we need God by the Spirit to overcome our spiritual blindness so we see the goodness and glory of Christ. We need the Spirit to weld the word of God like a hammer (Jer. 23:29) to break our heart of stone and make it a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).

Second, God uses means to bring people to salvation and resurrect them from spiritual deathIf we are dead and can’t go to God on our own than why do we see passages that tell us to go and be saved (cf. Is. 55:1; Matt. 11:28; Rev. 22:17)? Because God uses means! Belief in Jesus is absolutely essential. People have to hear the gospel and respond (Rom. 10:17).

If someone is to be saved they must believe in Jesus, they must receive the free salvation that is found in Him alone. So, John 1:12-13 says, “to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become 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.”[5]

God uses means! People must share the gospel so people hear and those people that hear must believe. But notice, it is He that gave the right to become children of God, it wasn’t of the will of the flesh, nor the will of man. It was the will of God.

Third, God is not unjust to overcome some with His wooing grace and not others. Some people will ask, “How is God just if people cannot choose to be saved?”

First, God is just (Deut. 32:4; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:12; Ps. 9:7-8; 99:4; Is. 30:18; 61:8; Rom. 3:26; Col. 3:25; James 1:13ff; Rev. 20:12-13). That is the clear teaching of Scripture. There is no injustice on God’s part. So, we must realize that as we think about these questions, God being unjust is not an option. There is mystery (Deut. 29:29) and God’s ways are higher than our ways (Is. 55:9) so we may not completely understand or agree with Him. We must, however, never conclude that He is unjust. He is emphatically not unjust.

By definition, no one deserves God’s mercy or grace. God is thus not unjust. God owes salvation or even a chance for salvation to no one. This is because humans are sinners by birth and choice.[6]

Romans chapter 1 teaches us that even though humans knew God’s decrees they did not honor Him. Humans willfully suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Ephesians says that we are by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. What does it look like for us to be children of wrath? We follow the course of the world. That is our disposition from the beginning. We’d rather follow the way of the world rather than God.

Now some might say, “Well, it wasn’t my or anyone’s choice that we were born children of wrath.” Perhaps that’s true. However, we are not discussing whether something is fair or not. We are discussing whether or not there is injustice on God’s part. And just because something is unfair or seems unfair does not at all mean there is injustice on God’s part.

God reconciles sinners in Messiah Jesus. In many ways that’s not “fair.” Sinners deserve hell.[7] Also, we see that God is not responsible for sin. God tempts no one. It was Satan who tempted and humans who gave into sin. God is not unjust.

Further, it is a necessary reality of the world that we live in that things are constituted with a certain nature. We may not like that, we may not think it’s fair but that is the cold hard logical reality. And we, since the Fall of humanity, have had sinful natures. We can only be recreated in Christ and that is a work of the Spirit.

Again, we may not like that but just because we don’t like something or agree with something does not at all mean God is unjust. It would seem rather that there should be some things having to do with God that we don’t necessarily like at first. God after all is not tame, but He is good. We can’t put God in a box. God explains reality to us; we do not explain it to Him. 

I think it is helpful to point out, however, that man has a moral inability to choose God, not a natural inability.

“Imagine taking a lion, who is a carnivore, and placing a bundle of hay or a trough of oats before him. He will not eat the hay or oats. Why not? It is not because he is physically or naturally unable to eat them. Physically, he could munch on the oats and swallow them. But he does not and will not, because it is not in his nature to eat this kind of food. Moreover, if we were to ask why he will not eat the herbivore’s meal, and if the lion could answer, he would say, ‘I can’t eat this food, because I hate it. I will only eat meat.’”[8]

A parable will also be instructive…

Imagine a benevolent and wealthy man created a beautiful island and he invited people to enjoy it with him. He warned them about the rules of the island so that the people could continue in happiness and safety. The people, however, soon became intoxicated on good wine and in their drunken stupor they set the whole island ablaze. The owner of the island reminded the people of the warning he gave; he recalled the chaos he predicted if they would not heed his warning. The wealthy owner was gracious, however. And he didn’t want anyone to perish. So, he himself built a bridge to the mainland. But in making the bridge he himself died so that the rebellious people on the island could go to safety. Many people in the orgies of drunkenness did not see the way, others refused to leave because they were still enjoying themselves, and others cursed the owner for ever inviting them to the island. But there were some from across the whole island that gratefully made it to the bridge and off the doomed island. 

In this story, who is unjust? The owner or the drunken islanders who refused to listen? Was the drunkenness the owner’s fault? He allowed and provided the wine. But it was for right enjoyment, not drunkenness. 

God is just. Humanity is unjust. Humanity willfully sins against God.

People “are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images… Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,… because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!… For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:21-26).

God is just. “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:6-11). God is just.

One of the things we must consider is who is sovereign? Does God ultimately save all those He desires to save or does human will prevail? Of course, this is a very complex issue because in one sense those who perish willfully rejected God (“as they were destined to do,” Jude 4). Is human free will ultimate, however, or is God’s will? Some say that God prizes human’s free will… Scripture, however, never says that. Scripture shows us repeatedly that God is meticulously sovereign… Scripture repeatedly shows us that God does things according to His own perfect will for the glory of His name.

Also, remember mystery is a thing that we must and do believe in (Deut. 29:29). There are even things in the natural world that science chalks up as mystery. Two examples come to mind: light as wave and particle and black holes. Both are scientific realities, they’re not illogical, yet they are mysterious. In the same way, God being meticulously sovereign and choosing people to be saved and humans being responsible is not illogical.

It also important to consider that people don’t have a problem that God gives grace, even planned grace. People have a problem with effective grace. What, however, is the alternative to effective (or overwhelming our defenses) grace? Ineffective grace… A benevolent God that wants to save but can’t carry it all the way through. He has loving favor for all but only actually effective for some. He at His heart of hearts wants to save all but is not able too… …people say that God treasures free will and that’s why not all are saved… One of the problems with that, however, is that’s not what Scripture says. Scripture says that people loved darkness rather than light… so, yes they choose, they choose because they are evil apart from regenerating grace.[9] No one seeks God. People suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

We are all dead and will not choose Jesus apart from God’s overcoming grace.

In our next post we will look at God’s Outrageous Grace.


[1] In symbolic logic this would be represented as: H⇔L. The Holy Spirit brings life. If the Holy Spirit does not bring life there is no life. So, if there is no spiritual life it is because the Holy Spirit has not given it. Here’s another example of necessary equivalent: “Steve will watch the movie if and only if it is a comedy” (equivalent to: “Steve will watch the movie ⇔ the movie is a comedy”). Let’s look at the verse again: “A person has spiritual life if and only if the Spirit gives life” (equivalent to: “a person has spiritual life ⇔ the Spirit gave life”). 


[3] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, 102-03 (2.8).

[4] R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, 165.

[5] “What accounts for them having the right to be God’s children, and what accounts for their believing in Christ’s name, is that they had been born of God. the verb ‘were born’ is aorist, passive, indicative, indicating action done previously… Being born of God (1:13), then, precedes and grounds the reality expressed in verse 12… Regeneration… precedes and grounds saving faith” (Bruce A. Ware, “Divine Election to Salvation,” in Perspectives on Election, 20, 21).

[6] It may be helpful here, however, to consider verses in favor of the “age of accountability” (See 2 Sam. 12:1-15; Ps. 106:37-38; Rom. 1:20).

[7] “Now, since Reason praise God when He saves the unworthy but finds fault with Him when He damns the undeserving, it stands convicted of not praising God as God, but as One who serves its own convenience—that is, what it looks for and praises in God is self, and the things of self, and not God and the things of God. But if a God who crowns the undeserving pleases you, you ought not be displeased when He damns the undeserving! If He is just in the one case, He cannot but be just in the other. In the one case, He pours out grace and mercy upon the unworthy; in the other, He pours out wrath and severity upon the undeserving; in both He transgresses the bounds of equity in man’s sight, yet is just and true in His own sight. How it is just for Him to crown the unworthy is incomprehensible now; but we shall see it when we reach the place where He will be no more an object of faith, but we shall with open face behold Him. So, too, it is at present incomprehensible how it is just for Him to damn the undeserving; yet faith will continue to believe that it is so, till the Son of Man shall be revealed” (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, 234-35 [5.13]).

[8] James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, 85.

[9] “There is… always within us a free will—but it is not always good,” Augustine says. “For it is either free from righteousness when it serves sin—and then it is evil—or else it is free from sin when it serves righteousness—and then it is good” (As quoted in Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will by R.C. Sproul, 62).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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