So faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of God.—Romans 10:17
Two people grow up as best friends, they come from similar backgrounds and have similar life experiences. They both have parents who keep them active in church and speak the Gospel into their lives. One believes, but the other rejects the faith with which he grew up. Why? What produces faith in one and not another?
Paul’s words above remind us that to have faith we must encounter the Gospel. It is a concluding thought in a string describing the necessity of proclaiming the message of Christ for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles. Yet we know while hearing the word is a necessary part of salvation and producing faith it is not the totality of it. Jesus told us in Matthew 13 that many people hear the Gospel and never come to a saving faith.
So what else must there be?
One, there must be fertile soil. In Matthew 13, Jesus compares the heart to four different types of soil. And the seed, which is the word of God, falls upon all types as it is sown. The first type is as the lack of soil along a road, as the seed falls Satan and his minions quickly steal it away so it does nothing. The second type is rocky soil where the seed may seem to spring to life briefly, but then quickly dies for lack of depth. The third is soil filled with thorns, these thorns being the worries of life and deceitfulness of wealth, and they too quickly squelch any growth. But the final soil is good soil, when the seed falls there it springs to life and produces fruit.
Two, the person hearing the word must be a sheep. In John 10, Jesus describes how he is the Good Shepherd and his followers are sheep in his fold. A sheep hears the words of Jesus and follows him (10:1-18). Jesus declares some to be his sheep before they hear and follow (10:16). And he tells a group of unbelieving Jews the reason they do not believe his word is that they are not his sheep (10:26). This is not the other way around: you are not my sheep because you do not believe, but: “you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” Jesus clearly states his sheep are those who believe and follow, and those who are not sheep do not believe and follow.
Yet, though there must be fertile soil and the hearer must be a sheep this still doesn’t tell us how…how does the soil become fertile? How does one become a sheep and therefore come to believe?
The answer is: three, there must be new birth/regeneration. The new birth produces the fertile soil for faith. The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the word, not just possibly enabling a person to believe but actually accomplishing such a feat. In John 3 we have the famous passage where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” This new birth is also dubbed being “born of the Spirit.” The analogy of the new birth is comparable to that of physical birth: it is the creation of new life. Yet the analogy does not end here. Just as the physical birth is the result of the will and actions of the parents, so our new birth is the result of the will and actions of our Father God (John 1:12-13, 3:8).
Peter says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Clearly, the new birth is caused by God not by an act of man, and it is a function of grace flowing from his great mercy. Likewise, Paul tells Titus, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (3:4-5). Salvation is brought by the mercy of God through new birth.
In 1 John 5:1, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him.” Now lest we ponder at this point which comes first faith or new birth, John makes several other “born of God” statements.
First, he says in 3:9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” In the Christian life it is the new birth that precedes the break from the practice of sin. We are enslaved to sin until Jesus sets us free. John repeats his idea in 5:18.
Second, he says in 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Again, since true love is a fruit of the Spirit, and God is love, true love must flow from a heart set to follow God. To love in the way John calls us to love, we must first be born of God.
Then in 5:4, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” The victory is found in our faith. The victory is that we have overcome the world. Yet once more, we only overcome the world after being born again not before.
So if being born of God precedes these other events, it only makes good grammatical and logical sense in John’s writing that it also precedes faith. Or to put it another way: causes faith.
So how does a person come to believe? God causes them to be born again. Such regeneration produces good soil and sheep, so when the seed falls on the good soil and the sheep hear the voice of Jesus, faith grows and the sheep follow. Being born again produces faith.