by Leighton Flowers
One reformed scholar has explained the role of the Holy Spirit in this way:
Theologian Herman Bavinck wrote an important volume called An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Drawing from the word translated “convict,” he coined the word elenctics. His argument, written in the context of the mid-20th century, was that missions’ strategies and methods of his era had fallen short of the Great Commission mandate. He wrote:
“When we speak of elenctics we do well to understand it in the sense that it has in John 16:8. The Holy Spirit will convince the world of sin. The Holy Spirit is actually the only conceivable subject of this verb, for the conviction of sin exceeds all human ability. Only the Holy Spirit can do this, even though he can and will use us as instruments in his hand.”
The Holy Spirit, using the biblical message of the Cross, “awakens in man that deeply hidden awareness of guilt. He convinces man of sin, even where previously no consciousness of sin was apparently present. The Holy Spirit uses the word of the preacher and touches the heart of the hearer, making it accessible to the word.”
When the Holy Spirit convinces people of their sin, of Jesus’ righteousness, and of certain judgment, He awakens the human heart to hear and see truth in a new way. Upon seeing and perceiving (cf. Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15), the human heart cries out for God. [LINK]
I would like to draw our attention to a few important points that may be easily overlooked if one is not aware of what to look for:
1. He wrote, “Only the Holy Spirit can do this, even though he can and will use us as instruments in his hand.”
This brings up the issue of “means,” something Calvinistic scholars are careful to affirm. But, what are the human means actually accomplishing within the Calvinistic framework? Does the use of a miracle, the proclamation of truth, or the persuasive use of argumentation in an apologetic discourse actually accomplish anything that is not inevitability accomplished by the work of “effectual/irresistible grace” (otherwise known as “regeneration”)?
I have yet to find a Calvinist who is able to show me one thing that the human means actually accomplish that is not sufficiently taken care of by the effectual work of regeneration. In Romans 10:14 when Paul asks the rhetorical question, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard,” the clearly implied answer is that hearing is sufficient for believing. But, according to Calvinism, it is not. If Calvinism were true Paul would have certainly asked, “How shall they believe what they hear unless God regenerates them?”
2. He teaches, “The Holy Spirit, using the biblical message of the Cross, ‘awakens in man that deeply hidden awareness of guilt. He convinces man of sin, even where previously no consciousness of sin was apparently present.’”
Keep in mind, for the Calvinist this is only being done for a select few, “the elect of God.” God is not awakening every man and making him aware of his guilt and making him conscious of his sin. For the Calvinist, God is only doing this for His chosen ones, though there is nothing preventing Him from doing this for others as well. So, while these words may sound appealing one must look closer to see the difficulty of the meaning that hides just below the surface.
God, for some unknown reason, chooses not to ‘awaken’ everyone yet speaks to everyone as if they might respond and then condemns those who refuse to accept a truth they were born unable to understand and accept. According to Calvinism, God is holding everyone equally accountable (punishable) for their rejection of the truth, but He is only sufficiently revealing truth to His elect.
3. He continues, “The Holy Spirit uses the word of the preacher and touches the heart of the hearer, making it accessible to the word.”
Notice what is being said here. He is subtly making the argument that the heart of the hearer does not have access to the clearly revealed truth of the word apart from the Holy Spirit ‘touching’ him. Allow me to reword this statement just slightly to make it biblically accurate, “The Holy Spirit uses the word of the preacher to touch the heart of the hearer, making the heart accessible to the truth the word clearly reveals.”
Now, that change may seem inconsequential but it is not. It speaks to an important doctrinal issue: the sufficiency of scripture, God’s Holy Word. You see, the Reformed author was subtly teaching that the word proclaimed by the preacher remains insufficient unless and until the Holy Spirit “touches the heart” and makes those words “accessible.” This assumes that mankind is born unable to understand and accept clearly revealed truth, a concept no where taught in scripture. It also assumes the proclaimed truth of God’s word is not sufficient to accomplish the purpose for which is was sent (John 20:31).
Objectively consider this perspective for a moment. According to the Calvinist, [and some classical Arminians who have bought into this way of thinking] all of humanity is born unable to believe the clearly revealed truth of scripture, but they are able to believe the lies of the Koran or other false world religions. Yet, God holds us responsible for believing lies of false religions and rejecting the truths of scripture.
Now, to be fair, the classical Arminian at least goes on to say that God graciously re-enables every man’s otherwise disable will by means of “prevenient grace,” but this is a completely unnecessary concession. The gospel is a sufficiently gracious work of the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to invent another one. Plus, there is nothing in scripture which remotely suggests that God has confined all of humanity over to a condition of total inability due to the fall of Adam. What is there to “re-enable” if the ability to respond to God’s powerful truth was never lost?
Everyone knows the old phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is nonsense. Why? Because words do have the ability to wound much deeper than sticks or stones ever could. Moreover, words reveal truth and truth is said to “set us free”. Words cannot be dismissed as powerless and ineffective at accomplishing the very purposes God said they were meant to accomplish. Especially as the Calvinist also acknowledges that words are powerful and effective in leading people astray.
(This goes back to our discussion over the sufficiency of the gospel HERE)
The natural man is held responsible to the very words of Christ because the natural man is able to respond to the very words of Christ. As Jesus explains,
“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:47-50).
And in John 6:63, Jesus says,
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”
The author of Hebrews puts it this way,
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account“ (Heb. 4:12-13).
Are we to take from these verses that the words of God are only powerful, life-giving and sufficient to enable the lost to respond if and when the Holy Spirit “touches the heart” and effectually regenerates the soul? Where does the bible teach this kind of inward mystical working of the Holy Spirit? (More on this subject HERE)
4. He ends by saying, “When the Holy Spirit convinces people of their sin, of Jesus’ righteousness, and of certain judgment, He awakens the human heart to hear and see truth in a new way. Upon seeing and perceiving (cf. Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15), the human heart cries out for God.”
This is the Calvinistic doctrine of “Irresistible Grace” in a nutshell (the “I” in the popular acronym TULIP). Calvinists teach that God effectually awakens or “regenerates” the heart of His elect so that they will certainly see the truth and accept the truth of scripture. But consider the reverse side of this coin. Those who remain in unbelief do so because God refuses to “awaken their human heart to hear and see truth” and then sends them to eternal punishment for rejecting spiritual truth they were born morally unable to see or hear.
This is blatantly unbiblical. The scripture clearly teaches that mankind is born responsible (able to respond) to the clear revelation of God (see Romans 1). Mankind is not born hardened, calloused and unable to respond to clearly revealed truth. They may grow calloused if they continually trade God’s truth in for lies (Acts 28:27; Romans 1:25). They may be “given over” to the lusts of their flesh and their stubborn pride if they refuse to love the truth so as to be saved (2 Thess. 2:10; Romans 1:24). But they are not born completely blinded and incapable of moral choices in response to God’s clearly revealed truth.
The Holy Spirit works through human means, which indicates that the means actually accomplish the work of the Holy Spirit. Conviction is brought by the Holy Spirit inspired truth being proclaimed. He makes his appeal, “Be reconciled to God,” THROUGH US:
“Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20)
Therefore, anything and everything the proclamation of the gospel accomplishes should be credited to the Holy Spirit. When you preach and someone gives their life to following Christ, the glory goes to the Holy Spirit because He is making His appeal through you. You are merely the tool in the carpenter’s hand. It is not this idea that the Holy Spirit is working independently from His appointed means to make those means sufficiently effective (i.e. the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart so that the preaching is effectual). No, the Holy Spirit is accomplishing His work THROUGH His appointed means. The Holy Spirit calls people to repentance and faith through the proclamation of the gospel therefore that calling is sufficient to enable whosoever hears it to respond to its appeal.
For more on this topic listen to the Podcast: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Salvation