Ephesians 2:1-2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience….
Some evangelicals conclude from this and similar passages that unregenerated people are totally incapable of any response to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. They are spiritually dead, and that people cannot respond.
One problem with this position resides in many teachings of Scripture that indicate otherwise. A second problem is found in the significant implications of getting this issue wrong.
First let’s consider the problems with viewing unregenerated people as totally unresponsive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The difficulties for this position begin with the relationship of regeneration to the New Covenant, which commenced on the Day of Pentecost. Many passages of Scripture support this connection between regeneration and the New Covenant such as John 14:16-17, where Jesus promised His disciples:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
This passage tells us that the Holy Spirit was not yet dwelling in the disciples, His coming to indwell the church occurring after the ascension of Christ.
In light of this timing, concluding that people are incapable of any response to the ministry of the Holy Spirit prior to regeneration would leave us with no explanation for the godliness of Old Testament saints such as Job, Noah, Abraham, and Daniel. The same problem exists regarding people such as Zachariah and Elizabeth whom Scripture describes as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,” or Joseph of Arimathea, identified as “a good and righteous man.” We are also left to wonder what prompted the thief on the cross to confess Christ.
If fallen people are totally committed to selfishness and sinfulness, which Scripture teaches, the people cited above and many others could not maintain godly lives or manifest godly responses apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they must have been responsive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, even though they were not regenerated.
We might also ask, if those who have not been regenerated cannot respond to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, why and how does the Holy Spirit “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment,” as Jesus taught in John 16:8? Numerous other problems confront the view that those who have not been regenerated cannot respond to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the problems that result from getting this issue wrong, an already apparent one consists in the confusion it causes in understanding Scripture.
It also creates problems in understanding history. If unregenerated human beings are totally unresponsive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, this would result in every city and town that ever existed being morally equivalent to Sodom and a Gomorrah, and every civilization being as wicked as the Canaanites whom God commanded that Israel destroy. It seems, instead, that God makes moral differentiations, judging some human beings and cultures to be worse than others. This perspective is supported by the statement of Scripture regarding Sodom and Gomorrah: “Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the LORD.” (Genesis 13:13 NASB)
Consequently, it seems that the Holy Spirit has a broad ministry among all people, with some responding to His ministry to varying degrees while others totally reject it. We hear stories of Muslims giving their lives in an effort to save Christian neighbors from terrorists. Some may try to make the case that they did so out of totally selfish motives. However, it is more compatible both with Scripture and the empirical evidence that they were manifesting the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives at some level.
This question regarding the ministry of the Holy Spirit moves closer to the home as we seek to analyze political issues. Some may contend that Pres. Trump is as morally bankrupt as any other unsaved person, despite the fact that he has worked to keep his word to the American people more than most politicians and has sought to promote morality and Christian culture by appointing pro-life judges and encouraging people to once again greet each other with Merry Christmas.
Some may challenge this conclusion by asserting that if the Holy Spirit was at work in him, he would not have used some of the vulgar language he has been on record as employing. Those having difficulty reconciling these issues would have an even more difficult time explaining how some evangelical pastors have fallen into infidelity. In fact, as believers we should all be able to understand that the ministry of the Holy Spirit can coexist with ungodly living by merely looking at our own lives.
One aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit among unsaved people that I find quite encouraging resides in the assurance that as I seek to share the gospel I can be assured that the Holy Spirit is already at work in the person’s heart. In fact, the world in general looks brighter as we realize that it is not totally devoid of the presence of God, but rather that He is working through His Spirit in the lives of all humanity, and that many of those who are not believers are nonetheless responding in some measure, making the world a far more decent and pleasant place to live.