Does the Operation of the Spirit Precede Faith?
“Do John 1:11-13 and John 8:47 teach that a person must have a direct operation of the Holy Spirit in order to believe the gospel?”
Two things must be borne in mind in addressing any controversial passage:
- One must determine the meaning of a verse by looking at the immediate context.
- No interpretation can be placed upon a difficult passage that makes it contradict other passages of clearer import.
“He [Christ] came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (KJV).
In the first place, it must be observed that this passage does not fit the theory proposed. Calvinism asserts that one cannot believe until he first receives the Spirit’s operation; after that experience, he then believes.
This verse says just the opposite. Here, the “power” to become sons of God is given only to those who already believe.
These verses have nothing to do with a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. The language affirms that those who, in faith, were willing to “receive” Christ were granted the “right to become children of God.” The Greek word translated “power” in the KJV is exousia. The term has to do with the “right” (ASV) or “authority” to become children of God.
The text further contends that this “children-of-God” relationship is not obtained on the basis of a physical birth, i.e., a flesh-and-blood relationship (such as the Jews had enjoyed under the Mosaic system). Nor can the relationship be achieved by means of any plan that might be devised by the “will of man.” Rather, it is by means of a spiritual “birth” that such is accomplished – according to the “will of God.” The details of this “birth” process are set forth later – in John 3:3-5.
Here is an additional point that should be noted. According to this verse, the one who “believes” is only granted the right “to become” God’s child. Clearly, he is not a child of God merely by the act of believing. Rather, the believer has the right (the liberty of action) to exercise his faith in further acts of obedience (e.g., repentance of sin, confession of faith, and immersion in water) which lead to the actual pardon of sins, and the bestowal of sonship (cf. Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 10:10; Gal. 3:26-27).
“He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”
Does this passage teach a direct operation of the Spirit, preliminary to believing in God? No – it doesn’t. Let us look at the context as a whole.
Jesus has been debating with certain Jewish leaders who claimed a spiritual relationship with God on the ground that they were the descendants of Abraham (8:33ff). The Lord pointed out that they, in truth, were not Abraham’s seed, because they were disobedient in temperament (8:39).
Further, in a similar sense, they claimed to be “of God,” i.e., in a close, covenant relationship with Him. And so the Lord said: “If you were of God . . .” – meaning, if you were sincere about serving God, if he was foremost in your hearts – “. . . you would be hearing [present tense – ever listening to] his words,” i.e., you would be anxious to do his will, wanting to learn from him. But, in effect, he says: “You are not of that disposition, and that is why you refuse to ‘hear’ him.”
These passages have nothing to do with a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. The notion that the Spirit must operate upon a person in a supernatural fashion, before he can believe, has neither the support of these texts, nor biblical instruction elsewhere.
The Spirit of God operates through the power of the gospel to bring one to faith in Christ (Rom. 1:16). This is sufficient for one who will give it an honest hearing.