by Jeremiah Johnson
What is it that separates Christianity from every other religion? What sets the truth apart from all the lies?
While most religions differ greatly in the minutia, there is a consistent theme that runs through all of them: human achievement. Whether you’re a Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, or Hindu, there is a code of conduct that is tied to eternal life. Even in religions where salvation isn’t guaranteed, the only possible way to achieve it is through diligent effort.
The truth of Scripture stands in sharp contrast. As we’ve already discussed, our inherited sin nature has left us helplessly sinful and totally depraved. And while man-made religions deny our inherent wretchedness, the testimony of God’s Word is clear—man, left to himself, is utterly without hope.
In his book Slave, John MacArthur describes the spiritual futility of unredeemed man.
One of the dominant features of universal human fallenness is the sinner’s deception about his true condition. Motivated by pride, the depraved mind thinks itself much better than it really is. But God’s Word cuts through that deception like a sharp sword, diagnosing sinful men as incurably sick, rebellious by nature, and incapable of any spiritual good.
As slaves to sin, all unbelievers are hostile toward God and unable to please Him in any respect. Their total inability is underscored by the fact that they are not just bound to sin; they are also blinded by sin and dead in it. They are “darkened in their understanding” (Ephesians 4:18) and cannot comprehend spiritual truth because “the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel or the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Furthermore, unbelievers are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” Ephesians 2:1), “dead in [their] transgressions” (Colossians 2:13), “dead even while [they live]” (1 Timothy 5:6). In the same way that a blind man cannot give himself sight or a dead man raise himself to life, so the sinner is totally unable to impart to himself either spiritual understanding or eternal life. Like Lazarus lying motionless in the tomb, the unredeemed soul remains lifeless until the voice of God commands it, “Come forth!”John MacArthur, Slave (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), pp. 122-123.
The good news of the gospel is that we’re not left to rot and decay in the ruin of our sin. God, through the gracious sacrifice of His Son, intervenes on our behalf, rescuing and reviving us from our spiritual death. Ephesians 2:1-10 vividly depicts God’s intervention on our behalf:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and [He] raised us up with Him, and [He] seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (emphasis added)
Whole sermons have been devoted to unpacking the rich spiritual truth bound up in the phrase “But God” (v. 4). On the truth of those two words hangs the eternity of every man and woman redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ. In spite of man’s unrepentant wickedness, God created a path to salvation and blessing.
And in God’s design, the means of salvation are not a credit to us. As John explains, our salvation is entirely a work of the Lord.
In salvation, the triune God sovereignly acts upon those whom He wills to rescue, imparting life to dead hearts and sight to darkened minds. Salvation, then, “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). Just as we did not choose to be born in the physical sense, so we did not choose to be born from above (John 3:3-8). You and I believed the gospel, not because we were wiser or more righteous than anyone else but because God graciously intervened, opening our hearts to heed His Word and believe. There is no room for subtle pride on our part, only gratitude; God’s sole work in the redemption of sinners means that He received all of the praise.Slave, pp. 123, 134.
In the gracious sacrifice of His Son, God looks down on a race of Lazaruses sprinting to hell, and not only bids us to “come forth,” but mercifully provides the means of our revival and redemption.
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