It was the third day after Jesus was crucified. As the women went early that morning to anoint the Saviour's body, they were asking: "Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?" They need not have worried, for an angel had already descended from heaven to roll the stone away. But, though they did not know it, there was another difficulty in their way. The chief priests and Pharisees had gone to Pilate professing concern over Christ's prophecy that He would rise from the dead on the third day. They expressed their fears that the disciples would come by night to remove the body. So it was arranged that around the grave would be placed a guard, who "made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch". But the angel's "countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow" and, as a result of that supernatural glory, the watchmen were afraid - "for fear of him keepers did shake, and became as dead men".
The circumstances were such that you might expect any group of sinners, no matter how hardened, at once to repent and turn to Christ. But the outcome was altogether different, as is clear from the subsequent actions of the guards. They accepted a large sum of money from the chief priests, to spread a false story to this effect: Christ's "disciples came by night, and stole Him away while we slept". Clearly, however great the glory of the angel and its effects on the men who formed the guard at the grave, it made no spiritual impression on them whatever.
It was similar in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus asked those who came to arrest Him, "Whom seek ye?" They told Him: "Jesus of Nazareth". And He replied, "I am He". Immediately "they went backward, and fell to the ground". But again there was no saving effect, in spite of the tremendous power of Jesus' words. These were not saving words, and they were not intended to be. The men quickly recovered, and the Saviour allowed them to lead Him away. This once more illustrates the point that no event, however unusual, or even miraculous, can have the least spiritual influence on sinners, for they are dead in trespasses and sins. This was true of most of the Jews while the Saviour was on earth; John commented: "Though He had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him". And we need not be surprised when sinners continue spiritually unmoved by such events as a prolonged illness, a serious accident, or the death of someone close to them - what we might expect to bring them under genuine concern of soul. It ought to be clear that no influence, however severe, will do spiritual good to a sinner unless it is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pharaoh was often moved to make promises to Moses and Aaron when the Lord sent plagues against Egypt. For instance: "Intreat the Lord that He may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go". But the narrative goes on: "When Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them". He was prepared to make promises when he was experiencing the effects of the plagues. The situation may then have looked hopeful to the Israelites, but God, in His sovereignty, was not accompanying these influences with the saving power of the Holy Spirit. Pharaoh was left in his sins; he was allowed to harden his heart - with the result that, when other plagues came, he was all the more resistant to God's voice in connection with these judgements.
There has often been a similar response when sinners have been touched in their consciences as a result of some difficult event in providence, or by a powerful sermon. They accept that they are sinners; they can see that God is displeased with them; they know that they are under condemnation and will perish for ever unless they repent. But they resist these convictions; they are unwilling to submit to God's authority; they want to go on in their sins. And God leaves them to hardness of heart. It is highly dangerous to assume that those who have undergone some spiritual experience have been savingly changed. It is indeed the Spirit's work to bring about conviction in a soul, but conviction is not conversion. Not every religious experience can be described as effectual calling.
On the other hand, after Paul and Silas had been imprisoned in Philippi, the jailer not only had a striking experience, but the Holy Spirit made him a new creature in Christ. It was not the great earthquake - which shook the foundations of the prison so powerfully that all the doors were opened - that had a permanent influence on the jailer. At this point he was about to commit suicide and needed to be told, "Do thyself no harm". But, through the Holy Spirit working powerfully in his heart - though no doubt in connection with the earthquake and the events which followed - he was brought to ask, "What must I do to be saved?" The response was: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house".
Paul and Silas were giving the outward call of the gospel without knowing whether it would prove successful or not. And the jailer did believe, as did his household, though we must bear in mind the further teaching, from the Word of God, which Paul and Silas gave them. Yet, while the earthquake was no doubt a significant factor in what happened, it was not the critical factor. What was critical was the fact that the jailer and his household were called effectually by the Holy Spirit. The Shorter Catechism defines effectual calling as "the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel". It is only when the free offer of the gospel is made effective by the Holy Spirit that the sinner is safe for eternity. So it was with Lydia; the Lord opened her heart - in circumstances where, as far as we know, there was nothing outward of an extraordinary character.
Though earthquakes and other unusual events have been used as subsidiary means in the conversion of individuals, they are most certainly not essential. In particular, as we have seen, supernatural appearances will not bring about a saving change. When the rich man, already in a lost eternity, asked Abraham to send Lazarus "to my father's house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment", it was made clear to him that this was not a means which God had appointed for salvation. We are told that Abraham said to the rich man: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them". Moses and the prophets - the Old Testament scriptures - were the ordinary means, and they were perfectly sufficient. Matthew Henry notes that "a messenger from the dead could say no more than what is said in the Scriptures, nor say it with more authority".
In response to the repeated request of the rich man, Abraham again insisted: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead". So today, the whole Word of God - Old Testament and New - and the proclamation of its message in public preaching, are the means which God has appointed for the salvation of sinners. Matthew Henry comments further that "Scripture is now the ordinary way of God's making known His mind to us, and it is sufficient. It is presumption for us to prescribe any other way." We are not to look for miracles of any kind - though the saving work of the Holy Spirit is most certainly supernatural, for He is a divine Person. But even if such miracles were possible, the account of the rich man in hell should convince us that miracles, including the return of someone like Lazarus from the dead, would be totally ineffective in bringing even one sinner into the kingdom of God.
In the Bible we have the gospel of God, which speaks of a glorious Saviour who died and rose again. When applied by the Holy Spirit, it is a sure salvation, making heaven certain for the believer. Nothing else is needed.
[Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland magazine, October 2006]