When the rich young man turned away from Jesus and refused to follow him, in love with his money, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of [heaven].” And his disciples threw up their hands and said, “Well, who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:24–25). And Jesus didn’t respond by saying, “Oh, you overinterpreted my words.” He didn’t say that. He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
And Paul underscored this condition of the natural human heart with the words, “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 [he cannot] understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). In Romans 8:7, he said, “The mind of the flesh [that is the natural mind, the unregenerate, unconverted, non-born-again mind] is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Or again, Ephesians 2:5, “We were dead in our trespasses” — and that’s how God found us and made us alive.
That deadness included a blindness to the glory of Christ: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Christ does not look glorious or supremely valuable or desirable to the fallen human heart. A new birth is needed, a spiritual resurrection.
Yet the command remains for unbelievers to believe. God has the right to require from humans what they ought to render to him, even if sin has made that rendering humanly impossible. We are responsible to do what we ought to do, even if we are so bad we won’t — and thus can’t — do it.
For example, in Acts 16:30–31, the jailer cried out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” And Paul isn’t the first to command the impossible. Ezekiel looked out on a field of dry bones and prophesied, “Hey, dry bones, live.” And they did (Ezekiel 37:4–6). Jesus did the same in John 11 with Lazarus. He spoke to a dead man, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). And he did.
“Human evangelism is indispensable in the miracle God works to raise the spiritually dead and give them saving faith.”
And Jesus sends us — he sent Paul and us — out to do the same impossible thing. He said in Acts 26:17–18, “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.” Human evangelism is indispensable in the miracle that God works to raise the spiritually dead and give them saving faith. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Humans plant; humans water — absolutely essential. And God does the impossible — he gives life.
And the reason faith is impossible for spiritually dead sinners is not that spiritually dead sinners can’t make decisions, but that faith is more than a decision. Saving faith is a treasuring faith, a treasuring trust. Faith involves seeing Christ not just as useful for getting out of hell or getting well or getting rich. Saving faith sees Christ as glorious — better than any other treasure in the world. That’s why faith is not possible for sin-loving, self-exalting humans, unless they are born again. We must be born again.
But Peter says — and now we’re getting close to the issue that was raised — Peter says the miracle of the new birth comes by the word. In other words, alongside 1 Peter 1:3, which Jeff quotes — “[God] . . . caused us to be born again” — we must put 1 Peter 1:23–25:
You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God. For “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
Now that implies two things in answer to Jeff’s question about what to say to an unbeliever who listens to all of this and feels paralyzed, as if the only thing he can do is simply wait — like lie in bed, sit in a chair, and wait — for a gift of faith.
The first thing it implies is that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV) — or to use Peter’s words, new birth comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Therefore, the absolutely key thing to say to the unbeliever is, “Keep reading the word of God. Keep listening on your app to the word of God. Keep pondering the word of God. Don’t be passive. Here’s a book. Read it. Be greedy, greedy, greedy for understanding the word — as greedy as you are for silver and gold.”
This is how faith is sustained for believers; this is how faith comes into being and is awakened for unbelievers: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” New birth comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Keep exposing yourself to the word of God in whatever way you can. And believer, keep putting it forward.
“Keep exposing yourself to the word of God in whatever way you can.”
The other thing implied in 1 Peter 1 is that we should encourage the unbeliever to call out to God for eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to understand. Remember the man who cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief” in Mark 9:24? I think he could have said, “O God, help my unbelief!” In the Old Testament, several times we are taught that those who feel unable — in other words, paralyzed, trapped in their own inability, in their own sin — to return to God should cry out. This is an exact quote from Lamentations 5:21: “Cause me to return, and I will return, O God.” Isn’t that an amazing prayer? “Cause me to return, and I will return. Enable me, and I will be able. Make me come, and I will come. Do whatever it takes, God.” So we encourage the unbeliever to pray.