“Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
When I was first wrestling with the sovereignty of God in salvation, my mind objected, If You, Lord, have already chosen some to salvation, what is the use of evangelism? Again, as seen in an earlier post, this objection is the logic of a tricky theologian, drawing a wrong inference from a true statement; yet it was very real to me, for at the time I was on a mission trip for the very purpose of evangelism. Conversely, we might add, If a sinner hears of election and of his inability to do good or even to believe in Christ apart from the sovereign power of God, will not that information discourage him from repentance and faith? These are genuine objections, and both can be answered through the word of God that reveals His ways and His thoughts–ways much higher than our ways, and thoughts much higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Having considered in the last post the supposed obstacle of election to believing in Christ for salvation, let me now consider the supposed obstacle of total depravity. In everything, we hope to affirm all sides of the truth.
According to the Scriptures, in our natural condition, we were “dead in trespasses and sins,” and “alienated and enemies” of God in our minds, having a will lacking the ability to submit to God’s law or to please God (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 1:21; Romans 8:7-8). None of us were righteous; none of us understood God or sought Him; and none of us did good–not even one of us (Romans 3:10-12). As a result, we ran from God’s light, lest we should be exposed (John 1:19-20). This is the doctrine of total depravity–not that any particular sinner is as bad as he could be, but that sin has so pervaded and dominated each sinner, that the entire soul is enslaved to sin (cf. John 8:34; Romans 6:16).
Then along comes the authoritative invitation: “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Who will respond? In light of total depravity, we are tempted to infer that none will respond. The deaf will not hear the Shepherd’s voice; the blind will not see the Savior crucified; and the dead will not come to Him for life. Logically, how can they?
Oh, the glory of the Gospel ministry! Like Jesus as the tomb of Lazarus, as George Whitefield once pointed out, a Gospel preacher stands at the tomb of the soul and commands the dead sinner to arise and come to Christ. The word itself brings the life, even as James said, we are begotten of God “with the word of truth” (James 1:18). Let me illustrate this truth from the Gospel of Matthew, using the Rich Young Ruler and the apostle Peter.
Regarding the Rich Young Ruler, here was a true slave of sin. Coming to Jesus with a pertinent question of eternal life, he nonetheless showed his blindness in calling Jesus “good”, as if goodness were common among men, and then in stating that he himself had kept several of the Ten Commandments from his youth (Matthew 19:16, 20). In response, Jesus zeroed in on the man’s chief, besetting sin of covetousness (the Tenth Commandment) and told him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (19:21). Undone, the man went away grieved, for he was very rich.
Let me ask a question: Could this rich man sell all and follow Jesus? In one sense, as a slave of sin, blind to the glory of God, he lacked all moral ability as a sinner to obey, even though he possessed the natural ability as a human to make arrangements and move his feet. Jesus recognized this moral inability when he told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (19:24). Contrary to all claims about some small, camel-sized gate in Jerusalem, Jesus was using hyperbole to drive home an impossibility, even as His disciples understood, exclaiming, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). Left to ourselves, we lack all moral ability to respond to a Gospel invitation. If everything depended on man’s freewill, there would be no Christians today, for none would respond. We love our sin too much.
Thankfully, that is not all the power that is available. Jesus countered the disciples’ despair: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (19:26). With men, it is impossible to stand at the tomb of Lazarus, and to command the dead man to come out. Dead men do not obey invitations, let alone walk. However, when God sovereignty calls a sinner through the Gospel message, He creates what He calls (cf. Romans 4:17). Even though the rich man did not respond, he was held accountable for his unresponsiveness, for the word of Christ held all the power he needed for obedience, if only his pride had not sinfully kept him from seeing the unique identity of Christ. This crucial factor of rightly identifying Christ is illustrated well in the rich man’s contrast to the apostle Peter.
It had been a hard night at the oars, with Peter and the rest of the disciples straining to reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Sometime after three in the morning, Jesus came out to them, walking on the sea. Frightening them, Jesus then reassured them that it was He Himself, to which Peter responded, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Now wait a minute. Men do not walk on water. Men cannot walk on water. What is Peter asking Jesus to do? This interchange is such a great picture of the Christian life. Faced with the impossibility of leaving our sin and walking out to Jesus on the water of repentance and faith, something impossible for humans in their own strength to do, the believing sinner nonetheless calls to Jesus and says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You.” And He does, and the command itself has the power, “Come!”
The chief difference between Peter and the rich man is in the identity of Christ. To the rich man, Jesus was just a “Good Teacher”; therefore, all the power had to come from the man himself, which was impossible. To Peter, Jesus was more than a teacher; He had supernatural authority. In the words of Augustine, Peter’s attitude was, “Command what You will, and give what You command” (Confessions, Book X).
How about you? What command has been impossible for you to obey? Are you looking to yourself for the power to obey? Look to Jesus alone. Believe that He will hold you up as you go out to Him. Ponder the wonder that the word gives life; and then realize your guilt if you do not step out of the boat. It is not simply that you are disobeying Jesus; worse, you are denying that Jesus is the Christ, the sovereign Son of God, whose words are spirit and life (John 6:63). Believe, and obey.