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Lecture 6, The Divine Initiative:

If God has already predestined all those who will be saved, what is the purpose of evangelism? Dr. Sproul answers this common question as he teaches us the proper response the church ought to have to “The Divine Initiative.”

Message Transcript

In this session, I want to consider further what we call in theology the divine initiative. This refers to that first step of salvation which is brought to pass in our lives unilaterally and exclusively by the power of God. We see this in the passage in Ephesians 2 that I have made occasional reference to, and I’d like to spend a bit more time on it now.

Radical Corruption

Let’s look at chapter two of Ephesians. Paul says: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. And among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:1–3).

What we find in this passage are descriptive terms of the radical character of man’s fallenness. We have talked about moral inability, but we have avoided using the language of Calvinism, which describes man’s situation as that of total depravity.

That terminology has become very controversial in Christian circles. It is part of the famous acrostic that Calvinists use to delineate the so-called five points of Calvinism—TULIP. The “T” stands for total depravity, “U” for unconditional election, “L” for limited atonement, “I” for irresistible grace, and “P” for perseverance of the saints. But usually you don’t get further than the “T” before the controversy boils over. This is one of those occasions where acrostics, which are little devices that function as aides for our memory, sometimes do more damage than they’re worth. In this case, total depravity is a very misleading term.

People confuse total depravity with what we would call utter depravity, which means that man is as bad as he could possibly be. I don’t know anybody who believes that is the case. No matter how sinful we are, we can always conceive of ourselves as having done worse sins than we have done and even sinning more often than we do. None of us is utterly depraved.

The term total depravity was coined to mean that sin affects the whole person, that the total essence of our humanity is fallen. That is, our minds are fallen, our wills our fallen, our bodies are fallen—the whole person is caught up in this fallenness.

I prefer to speak of radical corruption. The problem is that turns “TULIP” into “RULIP” and ruins the acrostic. But I like the term radical corruption because the word radical, historically, comes from the Latin word radix, which means “root.” The point of radical corruption is that our fallenness is not just a tangential thing or a peripheral thing. It is not an accidental blemish that is merely on the surface of our humanity. Sin is something that goes to the very core of our existence; it penetrates to the root of the tree.

A Grim Portrait

In this text, Paul is giving some statements that indicate the seriousness of our fallenness. He says, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Elsewhere he speaks of being under the power of sin, in bondage to sin, children of wrath, children of the devil, and so on. It is not a very pleasant picture of natural fallen man.

But he says that this was our previous state, that we “were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked.” How did we walk? We walked according to the course of this world. We walked the way the world walks, which is not the way God would have us to walk.

Earlier Paul had spoken of the fact that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God: “There is none righteous, no not one. There is none who does good. There is none who seeks after God. We are altogether unprofitable; we have all gone out of the way” (Rom. 3:10–12). Remember that Christians were first called people of the “Way.” But our natural way is not God’s way.

We walked “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). That is, we were being obedient and loyal to Satan. He’s the prince of the power of the air. And we walked “according to the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:2–3). That’s a very, very grim portrait of man’s fallenness.   

“But God”

The next word, I believe, is the most important word in the New Testament with respect to this doctrine of God’s sovereign grace. Because think it’s so important, I’ve harped on this theme many times. In one class I was teaching, a woman even went to the trouble to embroider a sign that spelled out this word for me: the word but.

The gospel is only good news when we understand the bad news. The gospel is only gospel when we first understand the law and our situation under the law. Here we are, dead in sin and trespasses, walking according to the lusts of the flesh, and so on, walking like those who are under the spirit of disobedience, children of wrath—“but God.”

But God, who is rich in mercy,” not, “But we who still had an island of righteousness finally lifted ourselves up from our bootstraps,” or “inclined ourselves to change our ways,” or, “But man who is powerful morally said ‘No!’ to this wicked course and quickened himself from the dead.” That’s not what the Bible says. It says, “But God, who is rich in mercy has made us alive, quickened us, even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5).   

Dead or Alive?

When I hear evangelical Christians talk about what happens in conversion, I frequently hear two analogies designed to communicate to our minds what really happens. Maybe you’ve heard them.

A Serious Condition

The first goes like this: Fallen man is not healthy. He is very sick. Indeed, he is sick unto death, and he is in the terminal illness ward of the hospital. There is nothing that man can possibly do to heal himself. He’s almost comatose. Death is certain. Unless medicine is administered to that man, he will surely die.

So God provides the medicine, pours the medicine out on a spoon, comes to that man with his parched lips in his semi-comatose condition as he’s lying on his deathbed, and puts that spoon right at the lips of the man.

But at that moment, the man can either accept the medicine or refuse the medicine. If he opens his mouth, God will pour the medicine in his mouth and it will save him. But if he keeps his lips clenched tightly, he will not receive the necessary cure.

That analogy shows that man is in a very, very serious condition, but he’s still alive.

But what I hear God saying is that He comes into the room after the doctor has pronounced that man dead. What I hear Paul saying is that God quickens us when we are dead.

A Corpse at the Bottom of the Sea

A better analogy would be that the man has gone under for the third time, and he’s at the bottom of the sea. God dives in the water, and He takes that dead man—that corpse from the bottom of the sea—and brings him out onto the dry land. Then He leans over and gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He breathes His life into that man, and that man is restored from the dead.

That is what the Bible is saying about the divine initiative. That first step of quickening from the dead, from the flesh unto spirit, that causes one to be transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light, is accomplished by God, not by man.

Of course, after God quickens us, then we choose, then we believe, then we embrace Christ and repent. We do all of those things because we are now alive to the things of God.

But the first step, the initiative, the being made alive from the dead, is the work of God and the work of God alone: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10).

On the Hot Seat

One of the deepest questions this raises when we think about the divine initiative is: If God is the one who has to rescue that dead man from the bottom of the sea—if God is the one who has to not merely administer medicine, but resurrect a corpse—then what in the world is the purpose of evangelism? Isn’t that a question we all think about? In light of God’s sovereignty and the whole concept of predestination, if God has decreed from all eternity that certain people will be saved, and that they will be saved with or without my bearing witness and preaching the gospel, then why should we be concerned about evangelism?

My favorite story about this took place when I was in seminary. I was studying in a classroom at Pittsburgh Seminary with Dr. John Gerstner, the king of the predestinarians. There were about 20 of us in the class, and we were seated in a semi-circle.

Dr. Gerstner said, “All right, gentlemen, if it’s true that God sovereignly predestines a certain fixed number of people to be saved, and it’s by an immutable decree, then why should we be involved in evangelism?”

He left that question hanging in the air, and he started to call on the students to answer. I’ll never forget how relieved I was because I was at the extreme right of that semi-circle, and he started on the left side. I thought, “Boy, am I glad I don’t have to answer that.”

So he looked at the first student and said, “Well, Mr. So-and-so, what would you say?” And he said, “Gee, Dr. Gerstner, I don’t know. I’ve always wondered about that myself,” so he struck out. Dr. Gerstner went to the next fellow, and the next fellow said, “Beats me.” He went to the next, all the way down the line, and they were getting perilously close to me.

There was this sense of expectation mounting in the classroom. I felt like Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues where all the “lesser mortals” give answers to profound questions, and the answers sound okay until Socrates speaks and blows everybody away. I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m going to be on the hot seat here.”

Sure enough, they went all the way around the room. Nobody could answer Dr. Gerstner’s question. So he came to me, and I’m squirming. I tried to answer it and said: “Well, I’m sure this isn’t what you’re looking for, Dr. Gerstner. I know that there is something far more profound than this that must be the answer to this question, but one small reason why, you know, we ought to be involved in evangelism is that, well you know, Jesus commands us to do evangelism, doesn’t He?”

Gerstner started to laugh in his diabolical way, and he said: “Of course, Mr. Sproul, what could possibly be a more insignificant reason to do evangelism, than that Jesus commands you to—than that the Savior of your soul and the Lord God Almighty should utter a command, and you think that might be, possibly, one small reason why you should be engaged in evangelism … ” and the more he went on, the smaller I was growing in that chair. But I never forgot the point.

He said that the chief reason we do evangelism, in light of the sovereignty of God, is because God is sovereign. God has not only sovereignly decreed the end, that is, the goal of the redemption of people, but He also has sovereignly decreed the means toward that end. He has chosen the foolishness of preaching as the means by which He will bring people to salvation, and He has commanded His church to carry out that program of evangelism. God said: “I’ll take care of the election, but you do the preaching. You do the witnessing. That is your responsibility.”

Now, does He need me? No, He doesn’t need me. God doesn’t need me to fulfill His plan. He could do it without me. He has the power to do it without me. But He has chosen to do it with me, by me, and through me, and with you, by you, and through you.

So, we see here that evangelism is first of all a duty.

“Now That’s Significant”

Second of all—and we need to understand this—evangelism is an unspeakable privilege.

I was once reading a book on fundraising (I need to read books like that every now and then; they’re dreadfully dull and boring). This fellow who wrote the book had been head of the fundraising campaign for Harvard University.

He said: “There are some fundamental principles you need to understand about fundraising. The first law is this: you have to be aware of the fact that every human being wants to have a significant part in a significant enterprise. So, if you give the people the vision for what you are doing and let them become a part of it, then they will respond because they want to be a part of a significant cause.” Of course, the author of the book was saying, “Exploit that, use that, keep that in mind.”

It is true, isn’t it, that we want our lives to count? We don’t want to be meaningless ciphers in this world. We want to participate in significant things.

Wouldn’t it be something if I could look at my left hand and say: “See that ring? That ring indicates that I played for the Super Bowl champions in 1975.” People would look at me and say: “Really? Wow! Now that’s significant!”

I don’t have a ring like that. I don’t play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m not a member of the President’s Cabinet. All I do is work every day for the King of Kings. That’s all I do. What could be more insignificant than that, right? All I get to do in my work—and I get paid to do this—is work in the most significant enterprise God has ever created. It is the highest calling in the universe to work for the building of the kingdom of God, for the preaching of the gospel, and for the nurturing of the saints.

That’s why I was rankled about what a student said to me one day after I had worked in the church for a couple of years and was spending more time teaching in seminary and running around the country doing conferences. This student looked at me with stars in his eyes. He was awestruck. He got to meet somebody in the flesh that he’d heard speaking at a conference somewhere, with his picture on a book, and it was like his card catalog came to life. He was just thunderstruck. And he said, “What was it like for you when you were just a pastor?”

I said: “What do you mean, just a pastor? Do you know why I’m not a pastor? Because I don’t have what it takes to be a pastor. It’s a whole lot easier to run around from town to town, preach, and run than it is to stand there with the same people year after year after year, going from the first level to the second level to the third level, nurturing them, and holding their hands when they die, only to have them be cutting you apart every week and having to bear it. I just couldn’t handle that.”

I have nothing but profound respect and admiration for the pastor because I believe that’s the highest calling there is in this world. It’s a privilege; it’s not just a duty. It’s a privilege to be able to spend one’s life in the service of Christ.

Call upon Him

Notice what Paul says in chapter 10 of Romans: “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed’” (Rom. 10:11). Man, what a statement.

Everyone knows what it means to have placed their trust or confidence in something or someone that let them down. It is devastating. But whoever places their faith and confidence in Christ will never be disappointed.

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is Lord over all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him. For, ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:12–13).

Throughout this series we’ve labored the point that no one will call upon the Lord unless the Lord first quickens him. But what does God quicken us for but to cry out to Christ, to call upon the Lord?

Let the question of the mystery of election hang up in the clouds for a minute. What is the status of your heart right now? If in your heart you want a Savior, if in your heart you want Christ, call upon Him. And if you call upon Him, there’s nothing more certain under the sun than that He will hear your call and respond to it, and you will be saved.

But then Paul asks this question: “How will they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:14).

Before you call upon somebody to redeem you, you have to first have some degree of confidence that the person is able to perform the task. I’m not going to ask Archie Bunker to save my soul, because I don’t think he has the ability to save my soul. I have to first believe that he is able.

“How Shall They Hear?”

“How will they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they’ve not heard?” Now this is pretty simple logic here, isn’t it? “And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).

You don’t call on a savior to save you if you don’t believe that he is the Savior. And you can’t believe that He is the Savior if you’ve never even heard about Him. And you’re not going to hear about Him unless somebody tells you about Him.

Then he goes on to say, “And there’s no preacher unless somebody sends the preacher” (Rom. 10:15). You may not be gifted in evangelism, but you’re able to contribute to the sending of the evangelist. Just as a side note, only four percent of evangelical Christians in the United States of America tithe. And you wonder why the Great Commission has not been taking place. It’s not because it’s blocked or thwarted by predestination; it’s blocked and thwarted by crass disobedience among the people of God with their money. Four percent—four out of one hundred professing evangelicals—tithe to get the job done.

But the point I want you to see is Paul’s quotation from the Old Testament: “How shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Rom. 10:15).

Beautiful Feet

It is a strange, strange thing. I’ve heard people listening to Billy Graham or to other great preachers and say, “What a marvelous voice he has.” Some people are worse than that. I get more letters about my hairdo than I do about my theology. People will say, “Well why are you wearing those glasses?” or, “Why do you wear that tie?” or, “Why do you wear the same pair of pants every day in this series?” I’m striking a nerve here, huh?  

People notice those things, but have you ever heard somebody in the congregation look up at the minister and say, “My, doesn’t he have beautiful feet?” Does anybody ever talk about Billy Graham’s feet? He’s the greatest evangelist in our day, and I’ve never heard a single person refer to his feet.

In the ancient world, the word gospel first meant “good message” or “good news.” The communication of critical events was a very serious matter to the ancient person. The armies would go out into battle and not come back for two years, so the people would wait for two years and not know whether they won or lost.

So anytime there was a pivotal battle, whether the forces won or lost, they would dispatch a messenger, a marathon runner, who would run back to the hometown. As he would run into the town, he would announce the outcome of this decisive battle to the people.

The townspeople would have lookouts posted at high points to scan the horizon and watch for the coming messenger. They would see the dust start to fly long before they would see a person. That would get their attention, and they would stare into the distance and watch the configurations of the dust clouds.

The first thing they would watch for would be the way the feet of the messenger were pumping up and down as they ran up the mountain and down the other side. Those who were good at being lookouts could tell before the messenger arrived whether it was good news or bad news because the man that was running to declare victory would run with his chest out, his arms pumping, a smile on his face, and his feet really going.

If you are a jogger, do you know what the “survival shuffle” is? It happens when you’re jogging and your feet aren’t even getting off the ground. I have experienced that more than once. That is the way guys who came with bad news would approach the city gates: forlorn, discouraged, and cast down.

But if the lookout saw somebody whose feet were flying and whose socks were on fire from a distance with good news, the lookout would throw his hat into the air and say, “We won!” And so, the prophet says, “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace” (Isa. 52:7).

I know it was God who brought me to Christ, but He used a man who told me the gospel, and I will never forget that man. No matter what that man ever does, I will always love him because, humanly, he cared enough to be the instrument that God was pleased to use to bring me to Jesus Christ.

How would you like to know that God used your testimony, your act of charity, your bearing of witness to your neighbor, as the catalyst for that person’s eternal salvation?

So, why evangelize? Because it’s a command, and it’s also the highest privilege that God can give to us.

 

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.