Article 11: The Holy Spirit's Work in Conversion
Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.
As we have seen, the Scriptures assign the role of working conversion in elect sinners to the Holy Spirit. One of the most important passages in this regard is John 3:1-12:
3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Jesus clearly teaches us that the new birth comes not as a result of obeying a command to be born again (as many of our contemporaries understand Jesus to be saying–“born yourself again!”), but the new birth comes before one can see the kingdom of God. This is the result of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, who like the wind, operates sovereignly as he sees fit.
Another critical text is 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul attributes the ability to believe the gospel to the power of the Holy Spirit.
2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
This, then, is why the Canons state, “when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised.”
The great miracle in this is that God the Holy Spirit gives life to the dead. The Spirit turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. It is the Holy Spirit who opens the fallen mind and heart to understand the Scriptures of which he himself is the author.
Ironically, this means that the Reformed are committed to a “signs and wonders” ministry (only understood a bit differently than you might be thinking). God coverts the fallen children of Adam into Christian believers! Through the foolishness of preaching, God raises the dead and calls the things that are not as though they were! The work of the Holy Spirit is not about making people do idiotic things in public that they would not even think to do in private Yet, the Reformed are fully committed to the supernatural activity of God the Holy Spirit—for he works conversion and grants illumination and understanding of his word.
Simply stated, the Holy Spirit “infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.”
It is the Holy Spirit who turns a bad tree into a good tree. It is the Holy Spirit who turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh so that God’s elect then believe the gospel, embrace the Savior by faith and are justified.
The great miracle here (the sign and wonder, if you will) is not that legs are lengthened or cavities filled, but that dead men and women are made alive in Christ, and made members of Christ’s body—his temple which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—and who are at last conformed to the image of Jesus Christ! This is the work of God the Holy Spirit, not the efforts of the human will as the Arminians would teach.