Have any of you ever stood between the rails of a railroad and looked at the straight stretch of roadbed ahead? Did it not appear as if within a mile’s distance the rails were coming together? You know that it only appears thus and that in reality it is not so. But the illusion is pretty strong. The fact is that parallel lines never meet.
If this is true in the natural realm, it is equally true in the spiritual. Therefore we have to take diligent care, lest we draw the lines of the various aspects of our confessional truths as running parallel. We should not fail to observe the point of connection.
There are especially two fundamental truths which are very prominent in our thinking and in the presentation of the relation between God and man concerning the salvation of man. In our system of theology we accent the two sides of God’s dealing with man and we are prone to say that there are in that relation two lines which run parallel throughout Scripture and to which we must unflinchingly subscribe. They are usually phrased as: God’s sovereign good pleasure, and man’s responsibility. Whether the expression of those two factors is altogether correct does not need to be questioned. They have been expressed in those words so repeatedly that their general meaning is well understood.
It has often been stated that we must adhere to both of these factors though we cannot reconcile the two. Having in mind that two perfectly parallel lines never meet, I am afraid that the relation between God and man in the plan of salvation has been definitely darkened by that presentation.
It has been presented as if the electing grace of God’s sovereign mercy in Christ Jesus as the one factor and the free moral agency of man as the other form a paradox and cannot be comprehended by human reason. It is supposed that we must accept both of these truths by faith, though we cannot understand the connection between the two nor the relation of one to the other. Also that we should not try to reconcile these two factors, because they pose a contradiction to our human reasoning. And therefore those two factors are left to run parallel without coming to a connecting junction.
Yet God and man must meet, if man is to be saved and if the children of God, “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world,” are to be gathered in. And since man, dead in trespasses and sins, cannot and will not take the first step to a reconciliation, it must be and is the Sovereign God who in his mercy bends down to man and draws man to himself. He makes the first overture, saying, “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; thought they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
To this urgent request man will not respond unless the Spirit of God has implanted in his heart the seed of a new and spiritual life. This implanting of the new life as a regenerative germ is comparable to conception in the natural life. Of this work of the Holy Spirit, of this first beginning of the new life man is altogether unconscious, just as he is entirely passive in it. Neither is there any given time when this creative act has taken place or takes place. Nor is there any rule given for the period in which this beginning of life develops into actual new birth. It is possible that it may take place the same day, or the period may be a year or it may be twenty or sixty years. But shorter or longer, the seed will come to fruition, because it is the work of God and cannot fail.
The period between conception and conscious new birth is the time generally called conversion. It is in this period that man becomes active, due to the new force which has been implanted, of which as yet he is totally unaware. He begins to see himself a sinner in God’s Sight, he bears the call to repentance, maybe repeatedly; he gives heed to it; he flees for mercy to the throne of grace opened in Christ Jesus; he asks pardon for his sins and takes hold on the promise of God. He experiences the forgiveness of his sins and rejoices in God who has accepted him in his Son, and he now receives the assurance of sonship whereby he cries: Abba Father. He is now come to the consciousness of his new life; he is a born-again creature, and as a sinner saved by grace he realizes that it was God who led him to the fountain of the waters of life and who also caused him to drink.
Is this description giving man too much credit for what is done? I believe not. Though God is the overruling source and cause of it all, he deals with man as with a reasonable and responsible being and does not treat him as a piece of mechanism. God does not arbitrarily force man to repentance. Man is a free moral agent, and God does not save him without man’s will nor against man’s will. On the contrary, God “sweetly bends man’s will” (Canons) so that he voluntarily heeds the call of God to repentance and by his acceptance makes that call effective. Since there is a cooperation of God and man in the execution of man’s salvation, it is evident that the figure of “parallel lines” does not hold. With the exception of the implanting of the new life, in which man is passive and of which he is unconscious, and with the exception of the act of God in justifying the sinner (now forgiven), in which man has no part, it can be said that God and man are cooperative in the work of salvation. Only it must not be understood that this cooperation exists in God doing some part and man another part. That is never the case. Rather it can be said that God works it all and that man does it all. This cannot be understood if you picture both sides as parallel factors. We should rather picture this cooperation by imagining a very small cylinder (which is man) inside a very large cylinder (which represents God), connected at the base by an invisible and concealed electric current (representing God’s love and abounding mercy), which current is continuously supplied and replenished from its source which is God, and which enables man to do the things God demands of him. Thus it is that God works man’s salvation in man and through man, making him hear the call and obey his voice, till man comes to the realization of his new birth and of his eternal inheritance, which fadeth not away, and is reserved in heaven for the redeemed.
It is also this intimate relationship between God and man which causes him who is restored by grace to show the fruits of a sanctified life. To bring forth fruit worthy of repentance is the aim and purpose of every child of God, in order that he may “show forth the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Thus all glory is given “to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.”