Recently, I was approached by a friend who asked me a question after I had preached. In the message, I had made a gospel call to the congregation. My friend asked the following question:

“Can a person dead in their sins ask Jesus for a new heart? Is that not the sole work of the Spirit?”

I understood the reason for his question. I had preached that those who knew they had a dead heart should ask Jesus for a new one. His commitment to Reformed theology made him believe this was a contradiction. The syllogism of the logic behind his question undoubtedly went along these lines:

  • Sinners are dead in their trespasses, having a heart of stone dead to God (Eph. 2:1).
  • Only the Holy Spirit can give someone a new heart (Eph. 36:26).
  • Therefore, a sinner cannot ask for a new heart.

Though I want to hold fast to Reformed theology and remain open to correction as well, on this occasion I did not believe I was inconsistent with the Bible or Calvinistic preaching. For as I answered my friend’s question, I reminded him that God often asks us to do what is impossible to do yet what He also promises He will do. I mentioned at the time that in the Bible God says that He alone can circumcise hearts, which is a sign of removing sin from them (Deut. 30:6). But he also commands the people of God to do it themselves (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). Upon further reflection, I believe the Scriptures illustrate and teach that every time the gospel is preached we are asking sinners to do what is impossible to do.

In Jesus’ ministry, do we not see Him demonstrating this phenomenon? The Lord told a paralyzed man to rise up and walk (Matt. 9:6). He commanded a man with a crippled hand to stretch it out (Luke 6:10). He even called Lazarus, a dead man, to come out of a tomb (John 11:43). He called sinners to do the physically impossible.

Likewise, is not preaching the gospel a call to sinners to do the spiritually impossible? When Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), who was His audience? Those who were not yet repentant. So, applying the logic of the syllogism above, how can you ask hardened sinners to repent? Unbelievers to believe? The blind to see? The lame to walk? The dead to rise?

Well, the answer is not that we have to become an Arminian, giving sinners an ability they do not possess, to call sinners to the impossible. Rather, we improve the syllogism to draw the proper Biblical conclusion:

  • Sinners are dead in their trespasses, having a heart of stone that is dead to God (Eph. 2:1).
  • Only the Holy Spirit can give someone a new heart (Eph. 36:26).
  • Therefore, only a sinner in whom the Spirit is working will be able to ask for a new heart.

These things speak to the dynamic of the preaching moment and the need for prayer to accompany preaching. The gospel call goes forth, calling all sinners to repent of their sins and believe in Christ. Yet only those sinners in whom the Spirit is working to regenerate them at that time will be able to respond. So when a sinner does repent and believe, only what is possible for God to do has happened. The power of God is revealed!

So we do not need to try to “protect” Reformed teachings by over-qualifying gospel calls. Go ahead and proclaim the impossible to sinners. Then watch God do what only He can do!

Barry York, President @ RPTS

This article was originally posted on the Gentle Reformation blog and is shared with Permission.
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