When the gospel is preached that must be done with the command to repent and believe. The aim of the presentation of the gospel is always that listeners may be won for Christ, that they learn to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. All who hear the gospel are commanded to repent and believe. They are held responsible.
Their responsibility is not founded upon their ability, but upon their duty. God as Creator has the right to ask obedience from his creatures and especially from man whom he made in his image. The fact that man has lost the image of God in the fall does not alter that fact. The gospel itself is because of its glorious message worthy of all acceptation. The greatest sin is the sin of unbelief.
Does the command of repent and believe presuppose that man has the ability and inclination to accept the message of the gospel? The biblical answer is: no. Man by nature is dead in tres-passes and sins. Man needs the gospel not because he is free, but because he is bound.
Man needs the gospel not because he is bound and can release himself, but because he is bound and he cannot release himself. The gospel is the message that ‘God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).’ (Ephesians 2, 4-5).
The person of the Holy Spirit
How is this mighty change in man brought about? How is a man changed from an enemy of God into a friend? To answer this question we must direct our attention to the third person in the Holy Trinity, namely the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without believing the doctrine of Trinity and without knowing the triune God we cannot be saved.
Each of the persons of the Trinity plays his own part in the salvation of the sinner. The Father elected his church before the foundation of the world. He is the origin of our salvation. The Son purchased the salvation of his church by his blood. He is the our Surety and our only Mediator. The Spirit applies the salvation foreordained by the Father and purchased by Christ to our hearts. He makes sinners alive with Christ. The triune God is the God of complete salvation.
We believe in the triune God and in the godhead and personality of the Holy Spirit, because God has revealed himself so in his Word. But what is the experimental and practical value of these doctrines? Do they have any experimental and practical value? Certainly.
We believe in the godhead of Jesus Christ. For only because the Lord Jesus is of the same essence of the Father, he could bear the weight of the anger of God against sin. Every true Christian knows in his life of the burning question: ‘How can I be right with God?’ All true Christians have found rest in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who is more than a man and than a creature, yea he is God to be praised forever, God revealed in the flesh.
Every true Christian knows by experience that he could not come to Christ in his own strength. So he learns the truth of the fact that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, but the Divine Person who opens our hearts and works faith in it. A Christian knows himself as a brand plucked out the fire.
The example of Augustine
The mighty change wrought in man when the Holy Spirit unites him to Christ is called in the Scriptures new birth or regeneration. In church history we have a great example of such a mighty change in the church father Augustine. It is not without reason that I call your attention to Augustine.
I completely agree with John Owen when he states in his Pneumatologia, or A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit: ‘for I must say, that, in my judgment, there is none among the ancient or modern divines unto this day, who, either in the declarations of their own experiences, or their directions unto others, have equalled, much less outgone him, in an accurate search and observation of all the secret actings of the Spirit of God on the minds and souls of men, both towards and in their recovery or conversion.’ In the sixth chapter of the third book of A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit Owen gives an ample reproduction of the conversion of Augustine as related by Augustine himself in his Confessiones.
When he was nineteen Augustine left the Christian Church. The Church could not give answers to his intellectual questions with regard to the relation between God and evil, between the Old Testament and the New and about the character of several biblical stories especially in the Old Testament. He joined the cult of the Manicheans, but in the course of years he found out that also the Manicheans could not give rational answers to his searching questions.
Just as the Catholic Church they finally expected to accept things on authority. That was one of the reasons that Augustine again began to attend the services of the Christian Church. In the Christian Church Augustine had already in his youth heard about the Scriptures and their final authority. Augustine was not about thirty and lived in Milan. In Milan he heard the bishop Ambrosius preach. He was deeply impressed by the way Ambrosius expounded the Scriptures and especially the Old Testament.
In the seventh chapter of his Confessiones Augustine relates how his intellectual reservations against the message of the Scriptures disappeared. He became fully persuaded of the divine content of the message of the Scriptures. But there was yet another and still greater problem.
Augustine did not want to change his worldly lifestyle. He realised that he did not live to the glory of God. In a certain sense he wanted to be converted, but at the same time he did not want that he was converted that very day, because he could not part with his sins. He tells us that he wanted to be converted tomorrow, but the next day the situation was exactly the same. It was always tomorrow and not today.
Augustine confesses honestly that this meant that he did not want really to be converted. When conversion to God was really his deepest desire, that would be a sign that he was converted already. Augustine realised that the problem was that to live for God was not his chief desire and felt that he could not change himself. Only God can change our inward being. As a bishop Augustine taught that we have to pray: ‘O God, give me what Thou commands me and than command me what Thou will.’ Realising our helplessness and inability to change ourselves we have to ask that the Lord in his sovereign power and might makes us a new man.
In the eight chapter of the Confessiones Augustine has told us in a moving way how that mighty change was effected in his own life. In the garden of a villa he was discussing with his friend Alypius their unwillingness to make a real choice and how they until that day had again and again delayed their conversion to God.
‘I flung myself down, how, I know not, under a certain fig-tree, giving free course to my tears, and the streams of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice unto Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this effect, spoke I much unto Thee, “But Thou, O Lord, how long?” “How long, Lord? Wilt Thou be angry for ever? Oh, remember not against us former iniquities;” for I felt that I was enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries, “how long, how long? Tomorrow, and tomorrow? Why not now? Why is there not this hour an end to my uncleanness?” I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; take up and read.” Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should light upon. For I had heard of Antony, that, accidentally coming in whilst the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” And by such oracle was he forthwith converted unto Thee. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended, by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart, all the gloom of doubt vanished away.’
As every Christian before him and after him Augustine recognizes in the portrait of the prodigal son his own portrait. In first instance this son did not want to stay at home. He found the presence of his father unbearable. But when he finally came back the presence of his father became his chief joy. Not because his father was changed, but he was changed himself. For a Christian it is good to be near unto God.