Isaiah (Part 64): Invitation to the Blessings - Part A (Ch 55)
When discussing God with atheists, the traditional sticking point is the problem with evil. However, in our current discussion—one we are having with Christians only—we’ve identified a problem with love. If true love must be given from a will that is free to choose to love in order to reach its highest, truest form, is there a chance that that free will could reject love at any point—at the time of salvation, at some time after salvation, or at some time even when we reach our eternal state? To be consistent, it would seem that we have to argue that the highest love must always come from a free will in whichever state we are. Therefore, can we ever believe that we are forever secure, without possibility of losing love and faith?
I believe the answer is yes, but it is going to take a little time and explanation to understand why. As we discussed, the image-bearing qualities we possess are six: conceptual intelligence, conscious morality, perceptive aesthetic, volitional faith, spiritual hope, and relational love. The first three of these may be categorized as apprehension—how we identify and understand all revelation (truth, goodness, and beauty). The next two are categorized as elements of approbation—how we assent to the revelation apprehended. And lastly, relational love is categorized as articulation—how we express the revelation apprehended and approbated.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). That statement is not difficult to understand, but I do want to point out something about it. Jesus does not say that where our treasure is, there our treasure will be also. He also does not say that where our heart is, there our heart will be also. In other words, although at times, we may see these two words as synonyms, in Christ’s statement, he is making a distinction. The treasure to which he refers is the thing most valuable to us—the thing which we consider of highest value. Our heart is our desire for that thing of value. God has made us creatures who value truth, goodness, and beauty. Of course, looking around in our world today, we know that people deceive. They act in evil ways. And sometimes we even promote the ugly. However, at the same time, we still can say in general that we as human beings understand what truth, goodness, and beauty are, and we value them although we confusingly distort them in our relative care for ourselves.
When God created and before sin entered our first parents, God had relationship with us (humankind). Because of that relationship, Adam and Eve’s heart desire directed toward truth, goodness, and beauty found their source in God, who is truth, goodness, and beauty. In other words, truth, goodness, and beauty are not merely abstract qualities that both humans and God happen to appreciate. Truth, goodness, and beauty exist only because God exists. They are born in him and then revealed by him. When Adam and Eve sinned, relationship with God was broken. Death occurred. Death is separation from God. We did not lose our image-bearing elements when this separation occurred (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). We did not even change the high value we hold for truth, goodness, and beauty or our heart’s desire for that. However, since we became separated from God, truth, goodness, and beauty was no longer received in revelation from him, but rather they sat anchored in our own selves. Thus, removed from their source in God, we became distorted in our outlook. We value ourselves primarily because it is now in ourselves that we identify and decide on truth, goodness, and beauty. We were separated from God, and so in our natures we could not understand spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14). And thus our condition could be rightly labeled one of total depravity or total inability to seek God. We were, in a real spiritual sense, dead.
We can readily see, then, why the Calvinist says that regeneration must occur before faith. If we are separated from God with no way to perceive his truth, goodness, and beauty, we could never choose for him. As we learned in Matthew 6:21, our hearts are set on that which we value—truth, goodness, and beauty anchored relatively to ourselves and not objectively in God. But why, then, does the Bible seem to order faith first? “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “For … everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28) and “declared righteous by faith” (Romans 5:1). Is it merely an exercise in semantics and word rearranging that gives us God’s seeming emphasis on faith if the order of salvation really requires regeneration first?
I don’t think so. In the discussion so far, we have left out an element of tremendous importance. Notice what happens immediately after sin enters the world. We know that Adam immediately dies a spiritual death. Covenant is broken; he is separated from God. Yet God calls to him in the Garden, and Adam answers. This “dead” person is able to hear God and respond to him. Passage after passage throughout the Bible gives evidence of God revealing and those who have not yet (or ever) placed saving faith in God respond. In fact, this truth is almost propositionally stated in Romans 1 regarding general revelation. God reveals himself to his image bearers so that they are without excuse. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that all people have been made to realize that the Creator Caregiver God exists. It is not that God tries to reveal and maybe some people catch it. Isaiah 55:10-11 explains that if God sends his word out, it will be effectual; it will accomplish his purpose for it.
The point, then, is that although we have been separated in death from God, he is able to cross that barrier and reveal to us that truth, goodness, and beauty reside in him even without first regenerating the person and reestablishing relationship. As he reveals, that volitional faith element of our image bearing may assent (choose) to believe or may, in rebellion, reject God’s revelation. Notice Isaiah 65:8-12 discusses this very point. It ends in verse 12 with God telling those who do not believe, “I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will kneel down to be slaughtered, because I called and you did not answer, I spoke and you did not hear; you did what was evil in My sight and chose what I did not delight in.” In this verse we have God calling (revealing) and people choosing (responding) for themselves. In Psalm 25:12-14, we have the opposite result in which someone chooses for God based on God’s revelation.
Now we must proceed to our original question. When we believe and are regenerated—restored to relationship with God—are we brought back merely to that state in which Adam was before the fall? Are we back to a condition in which we could, as Adam did, still remove faith and love from God based on this free will we possess? My answer is no, our state following salvation is different from Adam’s pre-fall condition. We must remember that prior to the fall, Adam had not yet eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is a tree of revelation—not just revelation of evil, but revelation of good as well. God did not want Adam and Eve to be overwhelmed with even merely the revelation of good. He would progressively provide that revelation of himself as time went along. We know that this is how God works. The idea of progressive revelation is noted throughout Scripture. Significantly, as Jesus talks to his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, after providing them with a tremendous amount of revelation during that conversation (John 13-16) that they were still struggling to grasp (even after the revelation they had received over the last three and a half years), he says, “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12).
What this tells us is that when we are saved, we have the tremendous advantage of already possessing the revelational knowledge that the human race received from the tree, a transformation described by Paul in which our regeneration brings us into revelational relationship with God, and the indwelling Holy Spirit that, as Jesus said, guides us into all truth (John 16:13), reminds us of Christ’s teaching (John 14:26), and testifies to us (John 15:26—also confirmed by Paul in Romans 8:16).
Now, if we put together all that we learned from Christ and God’s Word, we find that our heart’s desire will be for the truth, goodness, and beauty that we value, while having full revelation from God and through the Holy Spirit’s witness to us that this truth, goodness, and beauty resides in God. With this full revelation validating our heart’s desire, we will not lose faith. Our will is not manipulated. It is free to believe and love. But it will not turn aside from the desire on what we value that we may KNOW rests in God.
This is similar to the question, “Could Jesus have sinned?” Jesus technically had a free will. But, at the same time, he had the Holy Spirit directing him with full revelation from God. Therefore, although he had a free will (as fully man), he would not remove his faith and love from the Father. He is the firstfruits. We will be like him.