Last Sunday my pastor preached on John 5:2-9, the account of the man healed at the pool of Bethesda. It was an excellent and interesting sermon. I have read through the gospel of John many times and yet it had never dawned on me the curiousness of the incident until my pastor pointed it out in the course of his sermon: the man showed no evidence of faith. I don’t know about you but when I think about the healings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, phrases like ‘your faith has made you well’ come readily to mind. Or, Jesus forgives their sins first and then heals them demonstrating that their spiritual ailment was the foremost problem, not their physical one. Many of the commentaries classify the man by the pool as being in the ‘has faith’ category. When my pastor said that he believed that the man showed no evidence of faith in Jesus, I agreed.
The lack of evidence of faith from the man healed in the account at Bethesda has really intrigued me, and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since. This account at Bethesda is primarily about false religion. Jesus was calling attention to and confronting the legalism that the Jews were ensnared in by healing a man on the Sabbath, which was not permitted in their false religious system. But there is another aspect to this event that I would like to point out for your consideration: it affirms the doctrines of sovereign unconditional election and total inability.
R.C. Sproul defines sovereign unconditional election as: God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save (Source).
John MacArthur explains total inability, also commonly refered to as total depravity, this way: What is true of everybody is we have no ability to respond to the gospel. We are completely unable to raise ourselves out of a state of death. We are completely unable to give our blind hearts sight. We are completely unable to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We are completely unable to turn from ignorance to truth. We are completely unable to stop rebelling against God, stop being hostile to His Word. (Source)
So, if we were able to respond to the gospel of our own volition, would it not make sense that this man, who was in need of healing and received a miraculous demonstration of Jesus’ supernatural nature and an admonition to turn from his sin, would choose to believe in Jesus for his salvation from the consequences of his sin? Yes, I believe it would make perfect sense. But he did not; he rejected Jesus. He did not know who Jesus was (v.13). Later after Jesus found him in the temple and warned him to turn from his sin, his response was to go find the religious Jews and defend himself from breaking the sabbath (by carrying his mat), and inform them who healed him: Jesus (v.14-15). Dr. MacArthur in his commentary says of this man:
It is astonishing that he would accept this healing after nearly four decades of terrible distress and then walk away from Jesus and show his loyalty to the Jews who hated Him. This has to be one of the great acts of ingratitude and obstinate unbelief in Scripture (p.178, MacArthur NT Commentary).
That is the power and depth and breadth of our sin nature demonstrated. If exercising faith were dependent on our own reasoning and will, then this man would have all the reasons he would ever need to believe in Jesus. He had miraculous experiential evidence. He encountered the Christ in the flesh. He was warned (and taught) by God Himself in the second encounter with Jesus at the temple later that day. Yet he remained in unbelief. This is clear evidence that it is God who is the deciding action in our salvation: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). In this way, it is God who receives all of the glory for saving us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
There is nothing that any of us do that makes us worthy of being saved. There is nothing we can do in and of ourselves to please God. It is because of who God is that He saves us! He is awesome and worthy of our praise! If you have been given the gifts of repentance and faith, praise God for his unmerited grace and thank Him for His most precious gift! I love the doctrines of sovereign unconditional election and total inability because they render me overwhelmed with awe for God, that He would save a wretched sinner like me!
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Soli Deo Gloria!
Further reading and study:
The Damning Power of False Religion (sermon by John MacArthur)
Unconditional Election (article by CARM)
The Doctrine of Absolute Inability (sermon by John MacArthur)
Are Your Sins Forgiven? (essay by Mike Ratliff)