Saturday, February 25, 2017

Sovereignty vs. Freedom—Part II

The next set of scriptures John MacArthur quotes in support of his theology is from John chapter 3 as follows:

John 3:

1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

For which he offers following explanation (highlights added):

“Turn to John 3 and Jesus is having a conversation with Nicodemus who is a leader and a ruler of the Jews, a Pharisee. He’s a teacher, someone who ostensibly knows the Word of God and biblical theology, Old Testament theology. But he’s burdened because he wants to enter the Kingdom of God and in spite of his religiosity he’s not satisfied that he has attained that, that he has entered the Kingdom of God. So Jesus speaks to him in John 3:3 and says, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born from above, anothen, born again, or born from above,’ but let’s look at it as born from above which is an alternative translation since that’s what the rest of the passage seems to emphasize. ‘Unless one is born from above, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.’

“And what is He saying to Nicodemus? ‘Nicodemus, you’re working really hard to get into the Kingdom of God. But I want to tell you something. You don’t get in there from here, it comes from above. If you’re going to be regenerated, it has to come down from above. You can’t achieve it.’ And, of course, we understand that, right? Because the Jews were trying to work their way into the Kingdom and the message of Jesus is, ‘You can’t do it that way, it comes down from above. Nicodemus, if you want to enter the Kingdom, you have to be born from above.’ And Nicodemus picks up on the paradigm, understands Jesus is talking in an analogy and says, ‘How can a man be born when he’s old? How can that happen? Look, I didn’t contribute to my first birth, nobody does, and how am I going to make myself be born again? How am I going to do that? How can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born?’ He’s talking in metaphoric language, he gets the picture. Jesus is saying, ‘You need a new birth. You need a wholesale overhaul. You need to be regenerated from above. And his question is, “How can I do that?” And the answer is, “You can’ can’t because...verse 6...that which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. You need a spiritual birth and that doesn’t come from the flesh. So you can’t generate a spiritual birth. You can’t regenerate yourself. It’s not anything you can do. You must be...verse 7...born from above.’

“So here’s this man coming and saying, ‘I want to enter the Kingdom of God.’ And Jesus’ answer to him is, ‘Look, this calls for such a dramatic, total regeneration that it can only happen from above. The flesh can’t do it, you can’t do it.

“Now this is very instructive, isn’t it, in terms of how we do evangelism? When somebody comes to you and says, ‘I want to enter the Kingdom of God,’ what would you say? You’d probably say, ‘Well, first of all, pray this prayer.’ Really? ‘Say these words, repeat after me.’ I hear that all the time. Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Here are the three steps, four steps.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, you have to recognize that this is something you can’t do. This is a divine work that comes down from above and constitutes a total regeneration, new life, and you can’t produce it because flesh can only produce...what?...flesh. You need a spiritual birth from heaven.’

“And then in verse 8, a most amazing statement, ‘The wind blows,’ and He moves the analogy from the analogy of birth to wind. ‘The wind blows where it wishes, you hear the sound of it, you don’t know where it comes from, you don’t know where it’s going.’ We all know that, right? The wind comes and there it is. We feel it. We see its effect. We don’t know where it’s coming from, we don’t know where it’s going. We can’t initiate it, and we can’t stop it. It operates under power way beyond us. ‘So is everyone born of the Spirit.’

“What’s He saying? This is a divine miracle that comes down from heaven. This is not something you can generate. This is not something you can produce. This is not something you can manufacture. This is a spiritual thing, a work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit comes to whom He will when He wills. That’s such a powerful answer. You’re talking about a divine miracle that comes down from above.

“Just to seal that, go down to verse 27...27, same chapter. John the Baptist answered and said, he obviously got the message, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from...what?...heaven.’

“So the message here from Nicodemus is, you want to enter the Kingdom? That’s a divine miracle. That’s something the Spirit does to whom He wills when He wills. He comes and He goes and you see the reality of His arrival but you don’t know where or when. It’s a divine miracle.”

He has seriously erred in his analysis of those verses. The highlighted bits are entirely his interpolations. They cannot be inferred from the scriptures he is commenting on. What he is basically saying is that the “birth of the Spirit” is a miracle performed by God, therefore there is nothing one can do to qualify to receive it. That is not a logical deduction from the given scriptures. The conclusion does not logically follow from the given premise. Just because the birth of the Spirit is a miracle, it does not logically follow that there is nothing one needs to do to qualify to receive it. There is nothing in the scriptural passage that is calculated to lead one to that conclusion.

His interpretation of the analogy of the “wind” is also misconstrued. The purpose of the analogy of the “wind” is not to explain how someone is “born again,” but the state and condition of someone who is born again. It means that you can’t tell if someone is “born again” by just looking at him. It is a change that takes place within the soul, and not visible in the outward appearance.

The key to understanding that passage correctly is actually in verse 5, which he has conveniently ignored:

John 3:

5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

This verse is the key to understanding the whole passage. The question is, what is meant by being “born of water”? That verse states that two kinds of “births” are required for one to enter the kingdom of heaven: birth of water and birth of the Spirit. One of them alone is not sufficient. Understanding the first correctly is the key to understanding the second. Historically being “born of water” has been understood by Christians to mean water baptism. Both scripture as well early Christian literature attest to that. First, in scripture water baptism is depicted symbolically as a sign of regeneration and rebirth:

Romans 6:

3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Colossians 2:

12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

Titus 3:

5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration [in baptism], and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

The allusions to “death” and “birth,” and a “renewing” of life through baptism are obvious; and the early Christians unanimously understood it in that way:

Justin Martyr:

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father . . . and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt. 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]” (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).


“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).


“[N]o one can attain salvation without baptism, especially in view of the declaration of the Lord, who says, ‘Unless a man shall be born of water, he shall not have life’” (Baptism 12:1 [A.D. 203]).


“The Father of immortality sent the immortal Son and Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him with water and the Spirit; and he, begetting us again to incorruption of soul and body, breathed into us the Spirit of life, and endued us with an incorruptible panoply. If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he is made God by water and the Holy Spirit after the regeneration of the laver he is found to be also joint-heir with Christ after the resurrection from the dead. Wherefore I preach to this effect: Come, all ye kindreds of the nations, to the immortality of the baptism” (Discourse on the Holy Theophany 8 [A.D. 217]).

The Recognitions of Clement:

“But you will perhaps say, ‘What does the baptism of water contribute toward the worship of God?’ In the first place, because that which has pleased God is fulfilled. In the second place, because when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so . . . you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus has the true prophet [Jesus] testified to us with an oath: ‘Verily, I say to you, that unless a man is born again of water . . . he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (The Recognitions of Clement 6:9 [A.D. 221]).

Testimonies Concerning the Jews:

“That unless a man have been baptized and born again, he cannot attain unto the kingdom of God. In the Gospel according to John: ‘Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ [John 3:5]. . . . Also in the same place: ‘Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye shall not have life in you’ [John 6:53]. That it is of small account to be baptized and to receive the Eucharist, unless one profit by it both in deeds and works” (Testimonies Concerning the Jews 3:2:25–26 [A.D. 240]).

Cyprian of Carthage:

“[When] they receive also the baptism of the Church . . . then finally can they be fully sanctified and be the sons of God . . . since it is written, ‘Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’” (Letters 71[72]:1 [A.D. 253]).

Council of Carthage VII:

“And in the gospel our Lord Jesus Christ spoke with his divine voice, saying, ‘Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ . . . Unless therefore they receive saving baptism in the Catholic Church, which is one, they cannot be saved, but will be condemned with the carnal in the judgment of the Lord Christ” (Seventh Carthage [A.D. 256]).

Cyril of Jerusalem:

“Since man is of a twofold nature, composed of body and soul, the purification also is twofold: the corporeal for the corporeal and the incorporeal for the incorporeal. The water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul. . . . When you go down into the water, then, regard not simply the water, but look for salvation through the power of the Spirit. For without both you cannot attain to perfection. It is not I who says this, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power in this matter. And he says, ‘Unless a man be born again,’ and he adds the words ‘of water and of the Spirit,’ ‘he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ He that is baptized with water, but is not found worthy of the Spirit, does not receive the grace in perfection. Nor, if a man be virtuous in his deeds, but does not receive the seal by means of the water, shall he enter the kingdom of heaven. A bold saying, but not mine; for it is Jesus who has declared it” (Catechetical Lectures 3:4 [A.D. 350]).


“[A]s we are all from earth and die in Adam, so being regenerated from above of water and Spirit, in the Christ we are all quickened” (Four Discourses Against the Arians 3:26[33] [A.D. 360]).

Basil the Great:

“This then is what it means to be ‘born again of water and Spirit’: Just as our dying is effected in the water [Rom. 6:3; Col. 2:12–13], our living is wrought through the Spirit. In three immersions and an equal number of invocations the great mystery of baptism is completed in such a way that the type of death may be shown figuratively, and that by the handing on of divine knowledge the souls of the baptized may be illuminated. If, therefore, there is any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of water, but from the Spirit’s presence there” (The Holy Spirit 15:35 [A.D. 375]).

Ambrose of Milan:

“Although we are baptized with water and the Spirit, the latter is much superior to the former, and is not therefore to be separated from the Father and the Son. There are, however, many who, because we are baptized with water and the Spirit, think that there is no difference in the offices of water and the Spirit, and therefore think that they do not differ in nature. Nor do they observe that we are buried in the element of water that we may rise again renewed by the Spirit. For in the water is the representation of death, in the Spirit is the pledge of life, that the body of sin may die through the water, which encloses the body as it were in a kind of tomb, that we, by the power of the Spirit, may be renewed from the death of sin, being born again in God” (The Holy Spirit 1:6 [75–76] [A.D. 381]).

“The Church was redeemed at the price of Christ’s blood. Jew or Greek, it makes no difference; but if he has believed, he must circumcise himself from his sins [in baptism (Col. 2:11–12)] so that he can be saved . . . for no one ascends into the kingdom of heaven except through the sacrament of baptism.

. . . ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’” (Abraham 2:11:79–84 [A.D. 387]).

“You have read, therefore, that the three witnesses in baptism are one: water, blood, and the Spirit (1 John 5:8): And if you withdraw any one of these, the sacrament of baptism is not valid. For what is the water without the cross of Christ? A common element with no sacramental effect. Nor on the other hand is there any mystery of regeneration without water, for ‘unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’” (The Mysteries 4:20 [A.D. 390]).

Gregory of Nyssa:

“[In] the birth by water and the Spirit, [Jesus] himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the water, by his own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things he became the firstborn of those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in a birth like to his own by water and the Spirit” (Against Eunomius 2:8 [A.D. 382]).

John Chrysostom:

“[N]o one can enter into the kingdom of heaven except he be regenerated through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink his blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious? These [priests] truly are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed head [the Mystical Body of Christ]” (The Priesthood 3:5–6 [A.D. 387]).

Gregory of Nazianzus:

“Such is the grace and power of baptism; not an overwhelming of the world as of old, but a purification of the sins of each individual, and a complete cleansing from all the bruises and stains of sin. And since we are double-made, I mean of body and soul, and the one part is visible, the other invisible, so the cleansing also is twofold, by water and the Spirit; the one received visibly in the body, the other concurring with it invisibly and apart from the body; the one typical, the other real and cleansing the depths” (Oration on Holy Baptism 7–8 [A.D. 388]).

The Apostolic Constitutions:

“Be ye likewise contented with one baptism alone, that which is into the death of the Lord [Rom. 6:3; Col. 2:12–13]. . . . [H]e that out of contempt will not be baptized shall be condemned as an unbeliever and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. For the Lord says, ‘Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ And again, ‘He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believes not shall be damned’” [Mark 16:16] (Apostolic Constitutions 6:3:15 [A.D. 400]).


“It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated . . . when that infant is brought to baptism; and it is through this one Spirit that the infant so presented is reborn. For it is not written, ‘Unless a man be born again by the will of his parents’ or ‘by the faith of those presenting him or ministering to him,’ but, ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.’ The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was generated in Adam” (Letters 98:2 [A.D. 412]).

That is a formidable list of early Christian divines. These quotes span nearly three centuries of early Christian teachings, starting with Justin Martyr in AD 151, and ending with St. Augustine in AD 419. No Early Church Father ever taught that being “born of water” in John 3:5 means anything other than water baptism. Am I now supposed to disregard all of that (plus the scriptures cited), and believe the “Reformed” theologians of today? I don’t think so. Modern Protestant theologians have jumped through all kinds of strange hoops to deny the obvious reference to water baptism in John 3:5, because to acknowledge it would wreck their theology. Now that we have come to a clearer understanding of what it means to be “born of water,” however, we are in a better position to explore what it means to be “born of the Spirit”. John the Baptist has given us the clue:

Matthew 3:

11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

Luke 3:

16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:

That clarifies what Jesus means in John 3:5 by being “born again” or “born of the Spirit”. It means the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, which only Jesus can give. That is all that is meant in John 3:5 by being “born again,” or “born of the Spirit”. It means the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost as taught by John the Baptist and nothing more. It has absolutely no other meaning. The only difference is that in John 3:1–12 Jesus tries to provide Nicodemus with some kind of theological exposition as to what it entails to receive that baptism of “fire and the Holy Ghost”. Other than that he is talking about exactly the same thing, no difference.

The next question is, how do we receive this spiritual gift, and are there any preconditions? In the New Testament, the “baptism of fire and Holy Ghost” is nearly always bestowed by the laying on of hands of those who were able to give it, such as the Apostles. There are only two exceptions to this rule mentioned in the New Testament. The first was the reception of the Holy Ghost by the Apostles and disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost. No “laying on of hands” was observed on that occasion. The second was the conversion of Cornelius. Both of these were exceptional cases. In the case of the Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus had already been baptized, and were given the promise of the Holy Ghost by Jesus himself, both before as well as after his resurrection. The day of Pentecost was the fulfilment of that promise. And on that occasion I suppose we could say that they received the “laying on of hands” figuratively by Jesus himself, although not in a physical sense. In the case of Cornelius, that also was an exceptional case. Cornelius was the first Gentile to be converted and be baptized. Up to that time the Jews believed that the gospel was intended only for the Jews. It was not meant for the Gentiles. The Lord performed this extraordinary miracle in order to convince Peter and the Jews who accompanied him that the Gentiles were as good as the Jews as far as the promises of the gospel was concerned. Apart from these two exceptional cases, the gift of the Holy Ghost (or being “born again”) was always given by the laying on of hands.

The next question is, were there any preconditions to receiving that gift? Was there something that a man needed to do in order to qualify for receiving it? The answer is yes, there was. The preconditions for receiving the baptism of fire and Holy Ghost was the same as the preconditions for receiving the baptism of water. The preconditions were (1) faith, (2) repentance, and (3) application. First you had to believe. Then you had to repent. Then you had to apply for it. Nobody tied your hands and feet, and baptized you against your will. You had to seek it, desire it, request it, and apply for it. The same criteria applied to the baptism of “fire and the Holy Ghost”. The baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost was always given following water baptism, and by the laying on of hands—Cornelius being the only exception, for the reasons already explained. There is no such thing as being “born again” without receiving the above sacraments. Those who claim that they have been “born again” without the above procedures are deluding themselves. They are living under the deadly illusion created for them by the Calvinistic and “Reformed” theologians of today.

So that destroys the first plank of John MacArthur’s argument, that being “born again” is something that just happens to us by the will of God, without us playing any role to qualify or prepare to receive it. Nothing is further from the truth. And nothing of the kind is suggested or implied in John 3:1–12. The fact that the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost (or being “born again”) is indeed a “miracle” performed by the Lord does not mean that there are no qualifying preconditions. John MacArthur then continues his narrative as follows (highlights added):

“Now you would conclude from that that this is the doctrine of divine sovereignty, would you not? The Spirit comes when He wants, on whom He wants. That’s a divine sovereign act. Comes from above, gives life to whom He wills when He wills. You can’t manufacture it, you can’t make it happen. You can only receive the heavenly gift, divine sovereignty.

Sure we can’t “manufacture it” or “make it happen”. But it doesn’t come without our preparedness or worthiness to receive it either. It requires faith, repentance, baptism, and application. That is what the scriptures teach. Then he continues:

“And yet look at verse 15..verse 15, ‘Whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.’

“Huh...really! Whoever believes will in Him have eternal life? That sounds like human will, doesn’t it? Sounds like human responsibility. This is in the same conversation. Do you understand this? I’m not going to relieve your pain, I’m just going to make you feel less pain if you just understand these two things go together.

“You say, ‘But how do you harmonize them?’ The same way the Bible does. They’re both realities, they co-exist, they go side-by-side without an explanation. Whoever believes. ‘God so loved the world...verse 16...that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes will not perish but have eternal life.’ Verse 18, ‘He who believes in Him is not judged. He who does not believe has been judged already.’ Verse 36, ‘He who believes in the Son has eternal life.’

“So what do we say about this passage? If you’re going to enter the Kingdom of God, it’s a divine sovereign work from heaven done by the Holy Spirit to whom He wills when He wills. And it is also true that whoever believes will have eternal life. That’s what the Bible says.”

Erroneous exegesis all the way through! The apparent paradox between God’s sovereignty and Man’s freedom was already explained in Part I, therefore no additional comments here are required. But his references to other verses in John chapter 3, notably verses 15, 16, 18, and 36 require further comment. The verses which he has missed while (mis-) interpreting those are these:

John 3:

18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

In these verses Jesus explains how and why some people “come to the light” (i.e. to Jesus), and some don’t. It is because their deeds are evil. Those whose deeds are good will come to him, believe in him, trust him, become his disciples. Those whose deeds are already evil don’t—unless they decide to repent of their evil deeds. This is diametrically the opposite of what “Reformed” theology teaches—which explains why they prefer to keep quiet about it. Those come to Jesus whose deeds are already good. If their deeds are already evil, they won’t be interested—unless they decide to repent of their evil deeds. That is what Jesus is saying. I wonder what the “Reformed” answer to that will be.

The remainder of his sermon will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Revised June 5, 2018.

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