The Holy Spirit’s Power to Convert Sinners

Continuing our thoughts from yesterday’s post on the brightness of gospel light in an ever-darkening world, let’s think about the power of the Holy Spirit to take that same gospel and employ it to rescue sinners out of sinful lifestyles and make them right with God. In 1 Corinthians 6:11, the apostle reminded the believers in Corinth that some of them had been rescued from lives of deep sinfulness (sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft and greed, drunkenness, reviling, and swindling) and, therefore, as new creations in Christ they must never return to them. The words “Such were some of you” (6:11) are a bold declaration of the power of the gospel to change lives and lifestyles.

The next word, “but,” highlights a strong contrast between what they were in the past and what they now are in Christ: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” This is conversion. This is a turning from sin to God. This is what God’s transforming grace looks like. Gordon Fee writes,

For Paul there is to be the closest possible relationship between the experience of grace and one’s behavior that evidences that experience of grace … But those who concern themselves with grace without equal concern for behavior have missed Paul’s own theological urgencies. It is precisely for these reasons that the warning texts in Paul must be taken with real seriousness. Security in Christ there is, to be sure, but it is a false security that would justify sinners who have never taken seriously “but such were some of you.” That is to whitewash the sinner without regeneration or transformation; Paul simply would not understand such theology.

Some of the believers in Corinth had been rescued from the sins mentioned. Some had been guilty in experience, but all of them possessed the depravity capable of such living. Maintaining this mindset will help us to always minister grace to fellow sinners rather than display a harsh spirit even when God’s Word calls for firm rebuke. Paul describes the transforming work of God in three ways.

God Regenerates Dead Sinners and Forgives

God breathes His life into sinners by the washing of regeneration. Some in Corinth were “washed.” The aorist tense refers to a decisive action in the past. In other words, at the moment God brought spiritual life into these dead sinners, there was a complete washing. Titus 3:5–6 says, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” The Apostle John refers to Christ as the One who loves us and “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5). We must never disconnect forgiveness from the atoning work of Jesus or we lose the only biblical ground of grace. Forgiveness is free to us, but it was not free for God. It cost the life of His only Son: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Biblical forgiveness is the release of a debt. It is the removal of guilt accumulated before God. The conversion of some in Corinth was the beginning of a brand new life; their past was wiped away or cast “into the depths of the sea,” as Micah prophesies (7:19). “Forgiveness is clearing the rubble of the past so that something fresh and fine may be built in its place.” That is exactly what God does when He saves a sinner and begins a lifelong process of remaking him or her as a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

God Sets Sinners Apart as His Own Possession

Not only does God hurl a sinner’s past into the ocean of His grace, but He also sanctifies the sinner for Himself. “Sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11) comes from a Greek word that means “to make holy” or “consecrate.” It comes from the root hagios, the word for “holy.” In other words, God calls sinners out of their sin and sets them apart for the purpose of reflecting His holiness in the world. God “saved us and called us with a holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9).

Sanctification speaks not only of our immediate setting apart at the moment of conversion, but also of God’s ongoing work of spiritual growth in our lives. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Sanctification, growth in holiness, is the expectation of the Spirit’s work in a believer’s life, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Millard Erickson defines sanctification as “the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making him or her actually holy,” so that the saved sinner bears “an actual likeness to God.”

The believer’s sanctification is threefold: sanctification is positional, in that it refers to God’s calling apart a sinner to Himself (Gal. 1:6); it is progressive, in that it refers to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, conforming him or her to the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10); and is ultimate (glorification), in that it refers to the day when the believer’s standing and present state become one, being completely holy on that day in glory (1 John 3:2; 1 Thess. 5:23).

God Declares Sinners Righteous in Christ

Not only does God regenerate and sanctify sinners, but He justifies them as well. Justification is the legal act whereby God declares the sinner righteous on the basis of empty-handed faith in the all-sufficient death and resurrection of His Son (Rom. 4:25; Phil.3:9). “Legal” is an important word in this definition because it emphasizes the fact that justification is not experiential. Instead, it is an announcement in the “courtroom of heaven.” Justification is not the act whereby God makes us holy; that is sanctification, which is a process. In contrast, justification is a one-time event that forever changes the sinner’s standing before God based on imputed righteousness alone.

Imputed righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to our “spiritual account” as a gift of God’s grace, received by faith, at the moment of conversion. A key verse is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God the Father imputed our sin to Christ while He hung on the cross. Then the Father judged Jesus in our place as if He were the guilty one. When we believe in Christ and trust in His atoning work on our behalf, the perfect righteousness of God’s Son is imputed to us in place of our sin. God then declares us righteous, treating us as if we had perfectly obeyed His law just as Jesus did. This is the wondrous exchange! As a result, “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17), “through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2). This is all of faith, not by works: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Rom. 3:20); “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28); “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). However, this justification is inseparably married to a living faith that produces works that glorify God (John 15:8; Eph. 2:10; the book of James).

Regeneration, sanctification, and justification—together, these three works of God shout triumphantly of the power of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Charles Hodge says of the Corinthians, “they had been converted, or completely changed. They had put off the old man, and put on the new man. Their sins, considered as filth, had been washed away; considered as pollution, they had been purged or purified; considered as guilt, they had been covered with the righteousness of God.” As we obey God’s command to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we must tell people the truth about how God views sin and, at the same time, hold out hope to those in bondage. For such were some of us.

[This blog post is adapted from Counseling One Another: A Theology of Inter-Personal Discipleship, published by Shepherd Press.]

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