WHAT JOHN THE BAPTIST TEACHES US ABOUT GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY IN SALVATION (THUS HOW TO PRAY & EVANGELIZE)
Do you present the gospel to infants expecting a response? If you are a preacher, can you give such an effective invitation that even the babies in a congregation respond in repentance and saving faith? In our conversations about witnessing, why don't we talk about how many babies we have recently led to Christ?
Many Christians tend to be very formulaic with how they handle the gospel. To them, if we say A-B-C and tell people to do 1-2-3 to "get saved", then we should be able to expect a certain percentage of those to whom we recite our presentations to respond with a decision to be born again and become a Christian. (And unfortunately there actually is a gospel presentation that tells people getting saved is as easy as A-B-C.) With such an approach, we just need to convince the lost to believe "this" and pray "this".
Christians that approach sharing the gospel this way generally think that leading people to the Lord only comes down to them being offered the right facts and the right opportunities to understand and embrace those facts. And, of course, that's impossible for babies.
With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Jesus, Matthew 19:26*)
There is a man whose salvation shatters all generally popular, conventional wisdom for getting the gospel to the masses so that they can "get saved". In fact, John the Baptist did not get saved by his own volition. He was saved by the volition of Another. And he was not only saved as a baby, but also saved in his mother's womb.
Over the last 21+ years since I was saved, I have heard a lot of good lessons on reaching people for Jesus, taken from the stories of Peter and Nathanael (John 1:40-51), a paralytic dropped through a hole in the roof (Mark 2:1-13), Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10), and others. But I cannot remember a single lesson specifically on witnessing/evangelism taken from the salvation of John the Baptist - from his preaching, yes, but not from his personal salvation. (If you can point me to such a lesson, please do.)
Why isn't John's story among the favorites for inspiring Christians to take the gospel to their families, friends, and neighbors? Let's think about it. There is no dramatic turn of evangelistic events - no heart-gripping power points of going, showing, telling, and compelling. And there is no heart-warming revolution of repentance and faith, in which an openly wicked wretch is forever wonderfully changed. There is something else to consider, though. Could it be that John's story is not a broad favorite for lessons on evangelism because John's story doesn't fit our formularized evangelism, and it presents a picture of God's role in salvation that makes people uncomfortable? John's story puts all the emphasis on God's sovereign initiative and timing in His regeneration of a person's heart prior to, not in response to, that person's responsible choice. Think carefully about what Gabriel told Zechariah about his son John:
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15)
That statement is distinctly and absolutely void of the idea that God is only sovereignly sending out the gospel while passively waiting for people to respond, with no influence/interference on His part in their hearts to cause them to respond. An unregenerate human being cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must understand this: God sovereignly regenerated John as an infant in utero, without a traditional Gospel presentation and invitation as we understand them.
Where is the stress on John's free will to receive or reject Christ? Surely no one thinks that John was seeking God on his own initiative in his natural state as an infant. We all know that, in his unborn infancy, John was not under severe conviction of sin, weighed down with guilt, nor was he realizing that there was a God-shaped hole in his heart only God could fill while pondering his purpose in life.
Now, none of this is to say that John was converted apart from the Gospel of Christ. He wasn't. The Holy Spirit impressed the knowledge of Christ on John's infant heart. In the fullness of the Holy Spirit, John knew Christ while still in his mother's womb.
Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy." (Luke 1:39–44**)
It's reasonable to think that this was the moment of John's regeneration by and filling with the Holy Spirit - the moment that he was saved in meeting Christ, already conceived in Mary's womb. Whatever the timing of John's conversion, in the moment of his conversion, he was converted into knowing Christ, not apart from knowing Christ. And he knew Christ in this moment. And in this moment, he did not jump in being startled by the greeting of Mary. He leaped for his own joy at the presence of Christ. He rejoiced in and worshiped Christ in Elizabeth's womb. This was a supernatural work of God - not in cooperation with John, but His operation on and in John.
Do we see repentance and faith in John here? Absolutely. John was naturally conceived in original sin like the rest of us (Psalm 51:5). He was fallen, having inherited a sin nature from Adam through his father, like the rest of us. Therefore, when the Holy Spirit supernaturally regenerated John's infant heart, giving him eyes to see "the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6), before his eyes were open, John then, in that instant, turned from sin and self to live for Christ, in saving faith in Christ. No one is saved apart from repentance and faith, and John was no exception, even in his infancy. If natural reasoning is pushing against this assertion saying, "But a baby cannot repent and believe, " then natural reasoning must be crushed under the weight of realizing that neither can a baby, left to himself, be filled with the Holy Spirit, yet, John was.
In summary, John was born already born again by the Holy Spirit - "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). He was born full of the Holy Spirit. He was born with faith and joy in the Lord and faithfully living for the Lord, set apart to grow up in and go before the Lord.
God gave John new life in Christ before John could naturally have any conscious idea of being alive, much less of being lost and dead in sin apart from Christ, showing clearly that "it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (Romans 9:16). In his unborn infancy, John could not possibly have willed himself into new life in Christ, nor could he possibly have run his way into new life in Christ. His joy in Jesus was not the prerequisite to being regenerated and filled by the Holy Spirit, but the product of being regenerated and filled by the Holy Spirit, just as the Apostles John and Paul so clearly state is the case for all that are saved. John was in the most helpless state possible in natural human existence, and God's supernatural effect on him, in that state, is a powerful, crystal-clear illustration of what God must supernaturally do for all, for any to be saved in our spiritually helpless state. This is why John the Baptist should convince every Christian of God's active sovereignty, not only in the evangelism of the lost, but also in the salvation of the lost.
This truth has a powerful implication for how we pray for the lost. Pray believing in what God is doing to save the lost. Give up the inconsistency of praying for God to change people's hearts to save them while not believing that He actually will. Pray boldly, confidently, and joyfully for God to sovereignly overrule the rebellion of wicked hearts - for Him to sovereignly remove the dead heart of stone and replace it with a living heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26; Hebrews 8:10). Pray the way Zechariah and Elizabeth should have prayed for John after Gabriel's announcement of God's intentions for John. Look at a lost loved one that you want so badly to be saved, and embrace that burden that rises up in your heart for God to break down the resistance in his or her heart. Ask Him to do just that, kneeling on the solid assurance that He does just that in the hearts of wayward men, women, and children every day.
This truth has a powerful implication for how we evangelize the lost. Evangelize while knowing that no one is within your reach or out of His reach. God's will is for us to take His Gospel into all the world without pride, presumption, or prejudice. There is no heart your words can reach, and there is no heart His Word cannot reach. Therefore, put no confidence in your ability to expound or argue facts - to present the bullet points of a Gospel presentation - to move someone to a "decision" for Jesus. Rather, put all your confidence in God to move you into the right moments, giving you the right words and how to say them (Luke 12:11-12). Memorize Scripture to use it for making the Gospel known, the way Jesus Himself did:
Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
Explain the Scriptures about Jesus (now including the New Testament, of course), while asking Jesus to open minds to understand them now, like He did then.
In absolute humility and abounding joy, we must stand before God, each other, and the lost - absolute humility in realizing just exactly how helpless we are to save ourselves or anyone else apart from God's supernatural heart-changing intervention, and abounding joy in realizing that He actually is supernaturally intervening to change hearts. John's story highlights the biblical truth that all true Christians know at their core: that salvation is all of God and not at all of us, "to the praise of the glory of His grace" (Ephesians 1:6).
*Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the NASB.