Walking onto the back porch of our house early one recent morning, I detected the distinct scent of Autumn. It was a scent comprised of dying leaves, football leather, hot soup, pumpkin muffins, and Samuel Adam's Octoberfest. It was wonderful. I was thinking of how so much beauty comes out of so much death. The vibrant multi-colored foliage we enjoy each Autumn is the result of leaves losing the life that previously made them green.
The process of calling new spiritual life out of spiritual death is called regeneration. It is a work attributed to God the Holy Spirit (Jn 3; Tit 3, etc), and it precedes faith as a part of God's call to life. With the call comes the ability to hear it. The spiritually dead do not choose to be reborn. They are reborn of God. The Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, likened regeneration to God's calling light out of darkness on the first day of creation. He also likens it to being re-made. In other words, unbelievers in the gospel of Jesus are so thoroughly dead that in order for them to believe, their spiritual vitality must be resurrected by the Holy Spirit. Dead people do not raise themselves. Nor do they consent to have God raise them. They are passive in the experience.
In my many discussions with folks concerning God's decisiveness in salvation, what I have often heard expressed, although less than honestly, is the deep rooted arrogant and proposterous belief that an unbeliever has a better chance at redemption if he, and not God, is doing the choosing. Apparently we are more trustworthy than God. Apparently we are more merciful than God. Apparently, we will always do what is best for us while God may not. Apparently, we do not believe in our total depravity. The Scriptures assert repeatedly that we in fact do not choose well. We do not do what is best for us. We are not bent toward the paths of righteousness. But we all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Is 53).
When preaching through Genesis 3 earlier this year, I said to my people that the problem with us is that we are madly in love with ourselves. We trust ourselves the most. We believe our own hype about ourselves. We lean upon our broken and bankrupt appraisals and deductions. We choose us, believing we have chosen God (Ro 1). Many of the "condemned already" (Jn 3) are willing to acknowledge God; but not the God of the Bible. They acknowledge the god they have dreamed up in their own twisted minds; a god with values much like their own.The natural consequence of this is rank and damning idolatry.
Paul says that we exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man. . . (Ro 1:23). In other words, we all worship. We all love something the most. We all organize our lives around what is ultimate in our hearts. And we only have two options -- the Creator, or a creature. The inevitable result of creature worship is the rule of the creature (1:25ff). All of us live for something, or someone. We have no choice. We're worshipers. Each of us submits to some lord, or to the Lord.
The first of the ten commandments forbids the worship of false gods. The second forbids the false worship of the true God. Have you noticed that it is quite normal for our idols to be good things like family (which God gives), work (which God commands), wealth (often an outcome of hard work), etc. Because of the glory of God our Creator, there is some of His glory in His creation. There are noble and admirable creatures. But none of these creatures is God; so none of them ultimately satisfy or save.
To turn from idols to God requires a change of heart (called repentance). After all, idolatry is first a heart matter. John Calvin called the sinful human heart an "idol factory". How true. This is why we are so desperate for the gospel. It is God's answer to our need for new hearts that love the Creator. But with all of its power to save (Ro 1), apart from the Holy Spirit's regenerating call, we will not repent and believe. We can't. We don't have the heart for it.