Part 2: Speaking Biblically
In his book, So Great Salvation, Dr. Charles Ryrie, the former Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, includes a chapter entitled, "It’s Not Easy To Believe." In the beginning of the chapter he writes, "When we ask someone to believe in the Lord Jesus, we are asking something very difficult." The difficulty Dr. Ryrie speaks of is the nature of the body of truth that must be believed. Factors such as our historical distance from the time of Christ, people having never personally seen Jesus, and the "almost unbelievable concept" that Christ can forgive sins, all combine to make believing in Christ "very difficult."1
There is some truth in what Dr. Ryrie has written. Certain aspects of biblical doctrine are indeed challenging to the human mind. But in this chapter, Dr. Ryrie stops short of telling the whole truth. He explains the difficulties of believing in Christ only according to the nature of what must be believed, while bypassing what the Bible has to say about the greatest obstacle to conversion, the inherently depraved nature of the person who must do the believing. To ask a natural (unregenerate) person to believe in Christ is to ask him to do the impossible. The truths of the gospel are such that even young children possess the intellectual ability to understand, believe, and be saved. But unless God grants moral ability through regeneration, even the most brilliant theologian is unable to believe.
If you read part 1 of this article, you know what the Bible says about man’s natural moral inability to understand the gospel, repent of sin, believe in Christ, or submit to God. The purpose of part 2 is to examine our evangelistic methods and philosophies in light of the natural man’s inability. Understanding human depravity biblically, how should we speak to unconverted people? Is it biblical, or even logical, for us to urge them to repent and believe in Jesus while at the same time informing them that they cannot do so apart from God’s prior work of regeneration? Won’t such teaching cause skeptics to sit back with their arms folded and wait for God to act? Won’t others despair or become hopelessly confused?
Preaching About Inability to the Unconverted
It is neither illogical nor counter-productive to urge people to repent and believe while telling them that they are naturally disinclined to do so. We should not wear out the terminology of inability or awkwardly insert it where Scripture does not. But remember that Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden" (Matthew 11:28, NASB) also said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44).
There is a true sense in which a person’s recognition of his own inability plays a necessary role in his salvation. Until a person understands that the sinfulness of his own nature effectively holds him in bondage to sin, he will not fully understand his need to be delivered from it. It was not until he came to the end of himself that the tax collector prayed, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner" (Luke 18:I3, emphasis added). This man was not merely confessing that he had sinned; he was confessing his own natural sinfulness. He had come to the realization that apart from God’s mercy he had no hope. According to Paul, the beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work are those who were "helpless" (lit. "without strength or ability;" cf. Romans 5:6). Should we not inform the unregenerate that they are helpless when it is this very understanding that will draw them to Christ? I agree when Iain Murray writes:
To tell men the worst about themselves is not to hinder conversion. On the contrary, the real impediment to conversion is the absence of conviction of sin. The preacher’s first duty is to address that fact by awakening the conscience to the meaning of sin, and to sin understood not simply as wrong action requiring forgiveness, but as an evil principle governing man’s very heart. A sinner’s knowledge of his own inability is therefore part of the knowledge which leads him to recognize that what he needs is a new nature.2
In a number of places in the Bible, the doctrine of man’s inability is specifically addressed to Christians (e.g. Romans 8:6-8; 11:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; Ephesians 2:1-9; etc.). A growing understanding of this doctrine should make believers increasingly thankful for the spontaneous and unmerited grace of God that made them alive in Christ and enabled them to come to Him by faith. But even though the New Testament epistles were written to believers, their doctrinal content must not be purposefully withheld from unbelievers.
When unbelievers attend the main gatherings of the church, they should expect to hear deep, challenging, doctrinal teaching rather than simplistic messages designed only for immature Christians or lost people. The gatherings of the church are primarily meetings for believers. Therefore the teaching in this setting should be geared toward spiritual growth and increasing Christian maturity. The idea that these gatherings should be primarily focused on evangelism and numerical church growth is foreign to the New Testament. Most of the evangelism described in the New Testament occurred in other contexts (e.g., synagogues, market places, public discussion forums, etc.).
Aside from the times in the New Testament when unbelievers attended believers’ meetings and heard the truth (for example, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25), the New Testament records a number of instances where individual unbelievers, or crowds composed primarily of unbelievers, were intentionally and clearly told about their natural inability to repent and believe. Examples are found in Matthew 11, as well as John 3, 6, 8, and 10.
In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus publicly rebuked the people who lived in the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, assuring them that because they rejected Him, they would receive a stricter judgment than the wicked ancient Gentile city of Sodom. In verse 28, Jesus extended His familiar invitation, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." This statement, which closely followed His rebuke, assures us that He was still speaking to unconverted people. What is particularly noteworthy is the prayer Jesus offered to the Father in between His rebuke and His offer of salvation:
I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight (Matthew 11:25-26).
Then, directing His words back to the crowd of unbelievers, Jesus said:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27).
In this instance Jesus did not use the words "cannot" or "unable" to describe inability, but He might as well have. If no one knows the Son or the Father apart from an act of divine revelation, and if only some are chosen to receive this divine revelation, the point is made clearly enough. Apart from God’s activity in election and regeneration, no one is able to know the Father or the Son.
In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus of his inability to understand and be saved when He said that unless he were "born again," he could not even see (i.e., perceive spiritually) the kingdom of God (v. 3). Jesus went on to say in verse 8 that the Holy Spirit works when and where He will, just as the wind blows when and where it will. Nicodemus surely understood from this that he could not direct the operation of God’s Spirit any more than he could direct the wind. And the word picture of the new birth clearly speaks of human inability. It was obviously impossible for Nicodemus to re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again physically. No baby has ever asked, or decided, to be born. So if Jesus were telling Nicodemus to exercise some ability of his own, He certainly could have chosen a more appropriate metaphor. But far from affirming any inherent ability in man, Jesus assured Nicodemus that the creation of spiritual life, just as with human life, is God’s work, not man’s.
John 6 depicts Jesus feeding five-thousand people with only five barley loaves and two small fish (vv. 4-14). The miracle is a notable demonstration of divine compassion. But it was not performed out of compassion alone. Jesus filled their stomachs with food, but He also intended to fill their minds with difficult teaching. After feeding them physically, He introduced spiritual food that the unregenerate among them would find not only hard, but impossible to swallow.
Jesus first spoke of Himself, saying ". . . the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . . I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and He who believes in Me shall never thirst" (vv. 33, 35). He went on to assure them that all who were given to Him by the Father would come to Him, and He promised that none who came would be rejected (v. 37). Nevertheless, most remained skeptical. In verse 41 we read:
The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’"?
In response to their skepticism, Jesus plainly told them of their inability:
Jesus therefore answered and said to them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can [lit. "No one is able to"] come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day" (vv. 43-44, emphasis added).
It was as if Jesus were saying, "Don’t imagine that you will upset Me by your skepticism. I am neither surprised nor concerned to find that many of you don’t believe. The reality is, you cannot believe unless the Father has chosen to draw you to Himself." Some of His professed disciples complained about the difficulty of His teaching, ironically admitting their own inability in the process. They said, "This is a hard saying; who can [lit. "who is able to"] understand it?" (v. 60, emphasis added). Many eventually went away (cf. v. 66), still prideful in their opinion that He was teaching a false doctrine. Only those who had been granted true understanding remained (vv. 67-70). They understood that He was speaking to them "the words of life." They were the only ones who humbly admitted their natural inability and insufficiency apart from Him.
In the three instances above where I added brackets after the word "can," the Greek word is dunamai. It literally means "to be able, have power, by virtue of one’s own ability and resources."3 It is the same word used in John 10:29 to describe the impossibility of snatching a true believer out of God’s hand: ". . . no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand." Just as it is impossible for a true believer to be snatched away from God, it is impossible for any natural (unregenerate) human being to repent and believe. Only those who are enabled by God’s work of regeneration are "granted" the ability to repent and believe (6:65). As Jesus said, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing" (6:63).
In John 8, Jesus was speaking to certain Jews who professed to believe in Him (v. 30). When He exposed the false nature of their faith, telling them that they still needed to be set free from sin (vv. 31-36), they were greatly offended. They were fully expecting the Messiah to come, but they had no true understanding of their need to be saved from their own sins. Therefore they exercised no true repentance and certainly no genuine faith in Christ. Jesus saw through their words into their unbelieving, unrepentant hearts, saying to them, "My word has no place in you" (v. 37). These were people who had studied the Old Testament Scriptures from childhood. They viewed their own level of religious understanding as being unsurpassed. But Jesus told them that they did not understand. He also told them that they could not understand:
Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell you the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God (vv. 43-47, emphasis added).
Their response was as might be expected. They said He was possessed by a demon (vv. 48, 52). By the end of the conversation, having been assured by Jesus that they were sons of Satan, natural liars, and unable to believe the truth, they were ready to stone Him (v. 59).
Speaking to some of the same unbelieving Jews, Jesus said:
I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
Three undeniable facts are related in this short passage:
1. Jesus has (i.e., He possesses or owns) a group of people whom He refers to as His sheep.
2. All of His sheep will hear His voice (that is, all will understand and believe).
3. Even when referring to sheep who have not yet believed, Jesus calls them His.
Given those facts, Jesus’ next words are sobering, even frightening:
Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, "How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep" (emphasis added).
Remember that Jesus earlier said that He has a certain group of people (His sheep), all of whom will believe. But then He told these men that they did not believe because they were not of His sheep. Jesus did not say what we might have expected—that these men were not His sheep only because they refused to believe. In other words, He was not saying that a person becomes a sheep when he believes. He told these men that the reason for their unbelief was that they were not His sheep. Jesus not only informed these men of their inability to believe at that moment, He also assured them of the inevitability of their continuing unbelief. These men were doomed to destruction without hope (cf. 2 Peter 2:9). God grants repentance and faith to many through His merciful work of regeneration, yet according to Jesus, He had no intention of ever granting it to these men.
We should all seek to imitate Jesus in our Christian life, but we should never say to an unbeliever what Jesus said to these men. We cannot see the heart of man as God sees it (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7; John 2:23-25). We are not given perfect insight, either into the identity of those whom God has appointed to eternal life (cf. Acts 13:48; 1 Thessalonians 2:13), or of those who are appointed to doom (cf. Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 2:8). But this passage still assures us that every person is unable to help himself and totally in the hands of the God who will have mercy on whom He has mercy (cf. Romans 9:15). And when this doctrine is preached in biblical balance with the whole counsel of God, it will accomplish His purpose.
The Foolishness of the Message Preached
It is often thought that evangelism means winning people for Christ. But if that were the case, if winning large numbers of souls were the primary indicator of successful evangelism, one of the most unsuccessful evangelists ever was Jesus Himself. By the end of His three-year ministry, and after His crucifixion, it appears that He only had about 120 known followers (cf. Acts 1:15). There were others scattered throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but their numbers were extremely small in comparison to the number of those who rejected Him.
In John 1:11 we are told that Jesus was rejected by the Jewish people in general. He had preached to hundreds of thousands in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, yet the masses refused to believe. He had performed miracles before whole cities, yet whole cities rejected Him (cf. Matthew 11:20-24). The people of His own home town tried to throw him over a cliff. His own brothers did not believe until after His death and resurrection. Many who followed Him for extended periods of time eventually abandoned Him (John 6:66). After three years, the general consensus among the Jews was that He should be executed.
If we are to learn anything from the ministry of Jesus, we will see that true evangelism is nothing more or less than preaching the true gospel to everyone who will listen, regardless of whether or not anyone believes. Jesus certainly never simplified His message or developed innovative methods in order to increase the number of converts. And when He was asked why He taught in parables, He said it was not for the purpose of making difficult doctrines easier (as many wrongly believe today), but rather for the purpose of veiling the truth from those who were not chosen (cf. Matthew 13:10-16; Mark 4:10-12). Only this can explain His frequent use of the phrase, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (e.g., Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9). The giving of "ears to hear" is God’s work of regeneration. Those who are enabled to hear will hear. Those who are not enabled to hear will not, and cannot hear (spiritually speaking).
Once again it should be affirmed that the difficulty is not in the message itself. The difficulty (that is, the inability) lies in the unregenerate nature of those who have no "heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear" (Deuteronomy 29:4). Whether we are referring to evangelistic preaching in a church building, speaking to strangers in public places, or appealing to friends or family members, our job is to plant the seed of the gospel and leave it there. We may have opportunities to water the seed. We might even plant again and again. But there is no good reason for us to try to prompt or hurry germination or growth, because although we plant the seed, it is God who gives the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
Modern evangelism frequently relies on innovative methods, psychological or emotional manipulation, peer pressure (to which young children are particularly susceptible), or other supposed "helps" to get people to "make a decision for Christ." Many truly believe these methods are necessary for effective evangelism. But those who rely on innovative methodology and not fully on the biblical theology of regeneration through the preaching of the gospel message, are displaying their mistrust of God’s chosen and only method for saving lost sinners. As Paul said, the gospel itself is the power of God for salvation (cf. Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18). By adding methodology to the equation, they are saying, in essence, "We know that the gospel plays a necessary role in the salvation of sinners. But we don’t feel that preaching the gospel is quite enough, all by itself, to win people for Christ. Therefore we’ve added several handy attachments to make it more effective." Few would admit that this statement describes their mindset, but actions speak louder than words. What we do reflects what we believe.
People who are convinced that innovations and methods truly help to make converts, sometimes in large numbers, will not easily be convinced otherwise because they have seen the evidence with their own eyes. Perhaps they have discovered firsthand that substitutes for certain "difficult" words (i.e., justification, propitiation, regeneration, etc.), help unbelievers grasp concepts more quickly. Perhaps they have found that avoiding culturally offensive concepts or politically incorrect issues (i.e., hell, sin, repentance, wrath, election, depravity, Christ as Lord, etc.) causes unbelievers to come back again and again rather than going away offended and never returning. Maybe they have found that the right kind of stage lighting, adjustable during emotionally charged moments of music or during the invitation at the end, results in more responses to gospel invitations. Because they have found that drama programs or interpretive dance routines elicit responses to the gospel more consistently than preaching, they have redesigned their buildings with wide stages and removable pulpits.
People do all of these things with the best of intent, convinced that they are faithfully carrying out the great commission by making their evangelism more effective. But in all of their well-intended innovation, two important factors are not considered: 1) People in their natural condition cannot believe apart from God working in them; 2) God promises in the Bible that He saves sinners through His Word and His Spirit. He offers no such promise concerning the wisdom and cleverness of men. In fact, what Paul wrote in another place should convince us that God is decidedly against the use of any methods which might cause the conversion of sinners to be ascribed to human wisdom or cleverness. Consider the obvious theme that runs through the following selections from 1 Corinthians 1, 2, and 3:
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks, foolishness, but to those who are being saved, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . . And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest in the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. . . . Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness"; and again, "The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless (1 Corinthians 1:20-25; 2:1-5; 3:18-20).
Paul assures us in these passages of the futility of relying upon human wisdom or the methods that flow from such wisdom. Secondly, he informs us that he studiously avoided anything that might tend to place the emphasis on man’s wisdom and not on God’s power. Thirdly, Paul tells us both what we must do in our evangelism, and what we must not do.
First, we must preach. This applies to personal evangelism as much as preaching in a church setting (see Acts 8:4 where all the Christians scattered by persecution "went about preaching the word."). With many other forms of communication available (drama, for example, was very popular in the first century), Paul commanded Timothy to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2). Why? Was it because Paul had found that preaching was the best way to drum up large numbers of converts? Not at all. Preaching itself, as Paul meant the word, never involved clever rhetoric or impressive oratory (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4). Simple, plain speech like Paul’s would have repelled people in the Greco-Roman culture the same way a poorly-made movie or a sloppy musical performance would in ours. Paul’s chosen mode of delivery was preaching simply because it was God’s chosen mode of saving those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21; Romans 10:14-15).
Paul also insisted on preaching a simple, yet offensive message: "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." It was a message that was despised by Jews and seen as foolishness by Greeks and Romans. It was a message that required the Jew, for example, to admit that his whole religious system was obsolete and that it had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It required his complete abandonment of reliance upon heritage, his complete cessation of self-righteousness by the works of the Law, and his utter disregard for the system of temple worship and animal sacrifices (a system which God, by the way, destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 A.D.). The believing Jew under the old covenant was aware that in some way the old would fade away when fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. But few Jews of Paul’s day understood the types and shadows of the Old Testament rightly. In the context of the first century, it is easy to see why Paul referred to the gospel as a "stumbling block" to Jews.
To Greeks, the pursuit of philosophical advancement was the draw. If a message did not satisfy their carnal craving for intellectual improvement, if it did not seem to be an advance in affirming their supposed philosophical superiority among men, it was seen as base and foolish. Certainly, the simple message of man’s helplessness and God’s grace in Jesus Christ crucified did not satisfy the Greek. And for most, to be asked to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and would judge the world was laughable (cf. Acts 17:31-32). To the Romans, nothing was more despicable than the thought of a crucified person being worshiped. Crucifixion was seen as the ultimate form of humiliation, reserved for only the very worst elements of society. The victim was seen, quite literally, as the scum of the earth. Yet Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome saying, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ" (Romans 1:16). Knowing that the message of "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" would be a stumbling block to Jews, seen as foolishness by Greeks, and the object of mockery to Romans, Paul nevertheless insisted that neither the message nor the mode of delivery be altered according to cultural expectations.
Secondly, Paul tells us that we are not to give unregenerate people what they want. That may seem an amusingly naive statement amidst the popularity and apparent success of the modern "seeker" church movement. This movement in modern Christianity is founded on the basic marketing principle that if you want people to come to your church (or your business), find out what the consumers in your particular field want, and give it to them. It is the "If you build it the way they like it, they will come" mentality. And while it makes a lot of sense from a marketing standpoint, it is directly contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.
In order to understand what I am saying, you have to first understand what it is that unregenerate people want. And you must allow yourself to believe what Scripture says about their desires rather than trusting your own experience or human reason. According to the Bible, what unregenerate people want is not to find the truth, but rather to avoid it. They want to remain undisturbed in the sin they love and the ignorance that to them is bliss (see Romans 3:10-12; John 3:19-20). They want to continue indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind (Ephesians 2:3). They want to go on seeing themselves as whole and healthy when they desperately need a physician (cf. Mark 2:17). They want to think they can see (spiritually) while in reality they remain blind (John 9:39-41).
What unregenerate people do not want is to hear a message that shatters all of their illusions and paints their strongest desires the color of sin. But such is the content of the true gospel message. In their unregenerate state, they will never feel genuinely comfortable among people who love and pursue holiness, who cling to the truth that demands from them submission and humility, who seek to deny fleshly desires and practice sacrificial love, who are supremely loyal to Jesus Christ, and who remain reverently fearful in their worship of God. But such are the members of the true church. When unregenerate people find the gospel to be a comfortable, inoffensive message and when they find the church to be an environment where they feel perfectly at ease, a great compromise is being carried out more than the great commission.
Unbiblical Illustrations in Evangelism
Illustrations used in preaching and teaching create images in the minds of listeners. These images then become the basis for doctrinal conclusions. Good illustrations vivify doctrinal truth in a memorable way. Bad illustrations produce doctrinally incorrect conclusions. It is true that someone may take a good and doctrinally sound illustration and distort it in his mind. The blame for this falls on the listener, not the presenter. But to knowingly or carelessly use illustrations that might facilitate the formation of doctrinally unsound conclusions is to teach false doctrine. The warning in James 3:1 ("Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur stricter judgment") is just as applicable to our use of analogies and illustrations as it is to literal, doctrinal instruction.
One such illustration will serve as an example. It is one that is often used with great apparent effect in modern evangelism, and it describes the natural man as one who is drowning. The life-preserver of God’s grace is thrown to him, and he can either grab it and be saved, or ignore it and drown. If the drowning man is willing to reach out in faith and take hold of the offered salvation, then (as it is usually presented) he will be saved and "born again." As effective as that illustration might be seem, the mental picture it creates is fraught with doctrinal error:
1. It portrays the dead as though they are alive.
The illustration portrays the natural man as being in danger of dying, rather than already dead (Ephesians 2:1,4). The mental image created is that of a man struggling to keep afloat as he waits for help to arrive. And it portrays him as being able to respond positively when the flotation device is offered. No supernatural work of God is even suggested as being necessary prior to the man’s response. But the Bible repeatedly says that the natural man cannot respond. He is dead, and dead people cannot believe. He cannot perceive the mysteries of the kingdom of God (John 3:3). He cannot submit to Christ or please God in any way (Romans 8:6-8). He cannot even understand God’s offer of salvation in the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:14).
2. It misrepresents God’s redemptive intent.
The illustration denies the effectiveness of God’s redemptive grace, reducing it to only an offer of salvation rather than a complete and accomplished deliverance. The salvation of God’s elect is determined, accomplished, and applied solely by God’s grace and power. Even our faith is His work in us. Repentance and faith, both inseparable and essential elements in salvation, are gifts from God, not inherent human abilities (cf. Acts 16:14; 1 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Peter 1:1). Jesus did not come to merely offer salvation. He came to "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21; also see Luke 19:10; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; etc.).
3. It robs God of His sovereignty.
By representing man’s "free will" instead of God’s sovereign choice as the ultimate determining factor in salvation, this illustration calls into question the biblical doctrine of unconditional election. The fact is, God has a chosen people and all of them will be saved (cf. Matthew 1:21; John 6:37-39, 44-45; 10:14, 16, 26-27). The implication in this illustration, however, is that many of these drowning people, all of whom God is allegedly trying to save, will nevertheless stubbornly drown despite His best efforts. In the end result, men are seen as sovereign, having the ability and authority to either save themselves or frustrate God’s redemptive purpose. This, in turn, implies that God saves people (that is, as many as will allow Him to save them) so that they will become His people, when in truth, He saves them because they are His people, chosen from before time (see John 10:14-16, 26). The unbiblical theology behind this illustration even allows for the original possibility that none would accept God’s offer, implying that God took a great risk in sending Christ to die. (Note: Proponents of the heretical doctrine know as "open theism" commonly refer to God as a "risk taker.")
4. It exalts one natural man over another creating a reward-based salvation.
The implication of this illustration is that the individual natural man who receives God’s gracious offer was equipped, prior to being born again, with a degree of natural wisdom, discernment, perception, or understanding greater than the amount possessed by those who refuse the offer and therefore perish. After all, only a total fool would drown with a life-preserver within reach. In this illustration, God works just as hard in trying to save each one, but the fools drown while the smarter, more perceptive people are rewarded for their wisdom. Also, those who are able to tread water longer than the others stand a better chance of being saved, while the weak go to the bottom quickly. While certainly not intentional, those who use this illustration are affirming Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest. The inherent abilities of the strong and wise cause them to perceive their need and be saved, while the less intelligent or less fit specimens perish.
5. It denies the core of the gospel—grace alone.
There is no room for partnership between God and man in the biblical theology of salvation. But in this illustration, the wise decision of the inherently perceptive person works in partnership with God’s grace to bring about his salvation. This not only assigns some degree of inherent ability to the one saved, it also contradicts Paul who tells us that the natural man is not merely weak, but "without strength" (Romans 5:6; lit. "helpless," "powerless" or "without ability"). Biblically, it is the sovereign grace of God, not ultimately a human decision, that distinguishes between persons. As Paul asked the Corinthians, "For who made you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV). There is no legitimate reason why repentance and faith should be excluded from the answer to Paul’s probing and all-encompassing question. Remember that both thieves who were crucified with Christ were reviling Him together until God’s grace made one of them new (cf. Mark 15:32; Luke 23:39-43).
A better illustration portrays the natural man where he truly is—dead at the bottom of the ocean. No offer of a life preserver will help because no dead man could reach out and take hold of it. Like Lazarus who was stinking after four days in the tomb, what the natural man truly needs is not the preservation of life but the creation of life. He needs to be born again before he can believe. Lazarus was raised from the dead inside that dark crypt before He heard his Master’s voice. Dead men cannot hear. He was raised from the dead before any of his friends saw the evidence of his new life. Dead men cannot walk out of the darkness and into the light.
Likewise, if you have ever seen a person truly respond in faith to the offer of the gospel, you can know certainly that God made that person alive before he understood, repented, and believed. Regeneration precedes faith! This is the biblical message as well as the historical doctrine of the church. God’s spontaneous and unmerited work of regeneration is the essential prerequisite to repentance, faith, and conversion (cf. John 1:13; Romans 9:16; James 1:18). 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. Likewise, no natural man has ever, or will ever ask to be born again.
In conclusion, consider a short portion of one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. And remember that the message from which these words are taken was preached publicly, in the presence of many unconverted people:
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.
1 Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Victor Books, 1989), 117.
2Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism, (Banner of Truth, 1994), 370.
3Spiros Zodhiates, Thd. ed. The Complete Word Study New Testament, (Chattanooga: AMG publishers, 1991), 907.
4 C. H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 5, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), p. 91.