The theories and speculations with respect to the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion are numerous and varied. Doctrinal issues in denominationalism these days are unheard of, but formerly, Baptists and Presbyterians were known to preach and defend their doctrine of the immediate and direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the sinner. The root of this concept sprang from the sectarian seeds sown by John Calvin, the great reformer. He argued that the sinner was born in sin and totally depraved, inclined completely to evil, and incapable of doing any good at all. From this he argued that only the power of God could “burn out” the Adamic sin in the “unregenerate.” So, no matter how much a sinner wanted salvation, it was impossible unless and until God sent the Holy Spirit directly to the sinner. This meant the Holy Spirit’s operation was direct and without any medium, such as the Word of God.
Opposition to this false concept argued that the Spirit operates on a sinner, but only through the medium of words. The words are God’s words, the living word of God (John 6:63; Hebrews 4:12). The word of God, to the Calvinist, was merely a “dead letter,” that had to be empowered by the Holy Spirit that enters the sinner’s heart and opens the way for the word. That is answered by Peter. He wrote, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:23). Undeniably, the Holy Spirit operates in the conviction and conversion of sinners, but not directly or immediately. All operation of the Holy Spirit on the heart of sinners is through the word of God, which Paul called the Spirit’s sword (Ephesians 6:17).
Denominational preachers having taught that salvation is the direct result of the Holy Spirit entering the life of an individual and “burning out the Adamic nature” next turn to the “prayer alter,” formerly called the “mourner’s bench” as the way sinners beseech God to send down His Spirit and save them.
Consider the Holy Spirit’s work in the conversion of a sinner. The word conversion means “a turning from,” and it refers to the change that occurs in the heart and life of a person. It is the transformation from being under the control of sin and Satan to submission to Christ and righteousness. Jesus spoke to Saul‚ of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus. He said,
“But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness‚ to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).
Of the Thessalonians‚ Paul said, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from Idols‚ to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Conversion is the point of turning from Satan and sin to God and salvation.
The absolute necessity of conversion is clearly set forth in the New Testament — no man can be saved until he turns from sin. Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Conversion is a fundamental condition upon which a sinful man can be at peace with God. It is a moral process that is begun, carried on, and completed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
There are three basic changes that take place in conversion. First the heart must change. The heart is changed by faith (Acts 15:9; Romans 10:17). Second the life must be changed by repentance (Acts 11:18). Third, the state or relationship must be changed by water baptism (Galatians 3:27).
With a purified heart, a changed life, one is ready to be translated into the kingdom of the son of God’s love, the church. Paul wrote, “For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). As a member of the kingdom of Christ an individual is a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Conversion produces new attitudes, new emotions, and new actions.
Calvinism and Conversion
Due to the influence of John Calvin, a theologian who lived in the early 1500’s, conversion means something entirely different than what we find in the Bible. Calvin has influenced the major Protestant denominations with his view of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Through his flawed concept of sin and salvation the religious world has come to view conversion as some strange and mysterious experience that is only possible through the direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the sinner’s heart.
The doctrine of the direct operation of the Spirit is the outgrowth of the doctrine of inherited total depravity. This core of that doctrine is: man is born a sinner, so depraved that he cannot think a good thought, do a good deed, and his entire nature is totally corrupt. Some miraculous or supernatural power is required to recover such an inherently depraved soul. Thus, the power of God separate and apart from the word of God is required. Calvinists have described the Bible, the word of God, as incapable of even being understood, much less obeyed, by the so-called “unregenerate.”
This is the underlying cause of the “better felt than told” experiences, the dreams, visions, and other heart wrenching experiences. Calvinists describe the influence of God through His Spirit on the sinner as a strange and inexplicable power. No one can achieve it without deep strivings of the soul, and only then if the Spirit decides to operate will the sinner be saved. N.L. Rice, in debate with Alexander Campbell, argued:
“We believe and teach, that in conversion and sanctification there is an influence of the Spirit in addition to that of the Word, and distinct from it — an influence, without which the arguments and motives of the gospel would never convert and sanctify one of Adam’s ruined race. We further believe, that although the Word of God is employed as the instrument of conversion and sanctification, where it can be used; God has never confined himself to means and instrumentalities, where they cannot be employed.” Campbell Rice Debate, page 628.
J.B. Moody, a Missionary Baptist, in debate with James A. Harding argued,
“… man is so depraved that he cannot render acceptable obedience to the Gospel unless aided by this divine power in addition to the Word. I believe this divine power through the Word, and in addition to the Word, is exerted in circumcising a man’s ears so he can hear, in circumcising his heart so he can feel and love, in opening his blind eyes so he can see, in creating him in Christ Jesus, in quickening him into life, in giving him the new birth, in convicting him of sin, in giving him repentance and the spirit of prayer and supplication, in working confiding faith in his heart, in shedding abroad the love of God in his heart, in opening his understanding, in bestowing upon him wisdom, by working in him both to will and to do, by helping him in every effort in obedience to the Lord.” The Nashville Debate, page 415.
Then Moody added,
“I purpose to argue my proposition from the necessity of such additional power as seen in the helpless condition of man, growing out of his complete depravity.” Ibid., page 416
The doctrine of total inherited depravity is a creation of man’s wisdom; it is denied in the Bible. Man at birth is pure, holy, and innocent. Jesus recognized this inherent nature of man before “actual transgression.” Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). Calvinism makes the kingdom of God a group of totally depraved sinners.
Adam was not created with a “depraved nature.” He was pronounced “good” by Jehovah at creation (Genesis 1:31). Men corrupt their natures through choice, not birth. Solomon wrote, “Behold I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they haßve sought our many devices” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). The following verses. Ezekiel 18:20; Isaiah 53:6; 2 Timothy 3:13 deny the fundamental tenet of Calvin’s doctrine of inherited total depravity. (Please read these verses from your Bible).
All accountable humans come into this world sinless and pure. The world is corrupt and contaminated by sin (2 Peter 1:4; 2:19-20). All men are sinners, but not through inheritance. All men sin through choice, not conception. (“Actual transgression” is a term used by Calvinists to distinguish between sins one actually commits and those they allege are inherited.)
The Work of the Holy Spirit
1. The Holy Spirit is involved in every new birth (John 3:5).
2. The Holy Spirit is the giver of spiritual life (John 6:63).
3. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin (John 16:8).
4. The Holy Spirit provides freedom from sin (Romans 8:2).
5. The Holy Spirit sanctifies (II Thessalonians 2:13).
6. The Holy Spirit justifies and cleanses (I Corinthians 6:11).
Establishing the work of the Holy Spirit says nothing about how the Holy Spirit does that work. This is perhaps the most crucial point in this study. There is no issue relative to what or whether the Holy Spirit operates in conversion. The only issue is how the Spirit does His work. Denominationalism holds to the view that the work is done immediately, without means, or instrumentality. The Bible teaches that the Spirit operates through agency, or means. That agency or means is the revealed word of God. Calvinists erroneously teach the work of the Spirit on the sinner to be separate and apart from the word.
Everything that is said to be the work of the Holy Spirit converting a sinner can be said of the revealed word. If there is an exception to that some sincere Bible student or scholar should find it. Notice the following:
Born again by: Spirit (John 3:6) – Word (1 Peter 1:23)
Quickened by: – Spirit (John 6:63) – Word (Psalm 119:50).
Convicted by: Spirit (John 16::8) Word (Titus 1:9).
Freedom by: Spirit (Romans 8:2) – Word (John 8:31-32).
Sanctified by: Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11) – Word (John 17:17).
Justified by: Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11) Word (Romans 5:1; 10:17).
Washed by: Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11) Word (Ephesians5:26).
Called by: Spirit (Revelation 22:17) – Word (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
Consequences of the Direct Operation Theory
There are serious consequences following the assumption that the Holy Spirit operates in converting sinners separate and apart from the word of God. Notice them:
1. The doctrine denies man may be held accountable for his sins. If a man is lost and must wait for the enabling power of the Spirit, separate and apart from the word, he could not be held accountable for his sins. Yet we are told that all will give an account of themselves in judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10).
2. It denies the need to preach the gospel to the lost. If salvation of the sinner is totally dependent upon God’s sending the Spirit, separate and apart from the word, it would be foolish to preach to the sinner. He could not understand it nor could he obey it without this divine assistance. But we are told to go preach the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15).
3. It affirms Satan is more powerful than God. Rational beings act by motives. The Bible teaches that Eve was seduced by Satan (2 Corinthians 11:1-3). Both Adam and Even were misled by the motives Satan set before them. If God cannot put motives before man to do His will and incline man to be righteousness then the Devil is more powerful than God. (Read 2 Corinthians 5:10-14). Adam and Even heard Satan’s lie and believed it. They obeyed him and were lost. If the sinner cannot hear God’s word, believe and obey it to be saved, then error is more powerful than truth.
A summary of this can be stated in simple terms. The conversion of a sinner is accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the word and only through the word. This is why the word of God is called the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). On the day of Pentecost, the first gospel sermon was proclaimed by men under the direct guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit. As the words fell on the ears of the audience, Luke describes what happened. “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
It was the Spirit operating on their hearts through the preached word that convicted them. Then it was the Spirit speaking through Peter that told them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (verse 38).
There is but one way conversion is possible — by the Spirit — through His inspired message.