The Bible speaks clearly about the need for regeneration so one can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People are dead in sins and trespasses. They are incapable of believing in Jesus because they are slaves to sin. A slave cannot free himself/herself. A slave needs to be set free. A dead person cannot live on their own. They need resurrection. God is the only one that holds the ability to set the slave free and resurrect the dead. No story shows the act of God in salvation more than the opening of Lydia’s heart in Acts 16: 13-15 which says:
13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate to the side of the river, where we thought there would be a place of prayer, and we sat down and began to speak to the women who had assembled there. 14 A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying. 15 After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, ‘If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.’And she persuaded us. -NET
This story is a wonderful description of God’s work in salvation. It is important to note that Lydia is described as a “God-fearing woman”. Some point to this and say that she had already believed in God. She chose to place her faith in God and thus was known as “God-fearing”. There are a couple of problems with this understanding.
First, this conclusion does not take into account the common use of the term “God-fearing” in the book of Acts. Luke often referred to Greek people who were partial to the Jewish religion as “God-fearing”. Here is a few instances:
When the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who were speaking with them and were persuading them to continue in the grace of God. -Acts 13:43
But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high social standing and the prominent men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their region. -Acts 13:50
Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. -Acts 17:4
So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the marketplace every day those who happened to be there. -Acts 17:17
Then Paul left the synagogue and went to the house of a person named Titius Justus, a Gentile who worshiped God [worshiped God is the same Greek word for God-fearing], whose house was next door to the synagogue. -Acts 18:7
As you can see Luke uses the term “God-fearing” in a specific context. It is always connected to Gentiles who follow Jewish tradition. This needs to be kept in mind when reading this text because it does not mean that Lydia was saved before her heart was opened. It simply meant that she was a Gentile that was receptive to the Jewish witness. Jews in the time after Christ were not saved simply by being Jews. They needed to believe in the Messiah. Paul points this out in Romans 9:6 when he writes:
It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel
So, if Jews were not saved by being Jews then it would follow that Gentiles that aligned with Jews weren’t saved by aligning themselves with Israel. Just like the Jews they needed a savior and Jesus Christ is that savior.
The second thing is more of a question than a point. If it is true that Lydia was regenerate before hearing Paul’s words then why in the world would God need to open her heart so she could hear what Paul was saying? It would make no sense for Luke to write that God opened her heart if it was not to salvation because afterward Luke writes that Lydia and her household were baptized (verse 15). The Bible is clear that people were to be baptized after they had heard the Word of God and had turned to the Lord in salvation.
This need for open ears and hearts was seen clearly in the teachings of Jesus Christ. John 8:46-47 says:
‘Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? The one who belongs to God listens and responds to God’s words. You don’t listen and respond, because you don’t belong to God’
Notice what Jesus is saying. Jesus gives a clear answer to why the religious Jewish people in front of him didn’t believe. They didn’t believe because they couldn’t believe. Only the people who belong to God can believe and Jesus makes it clear that the ones in front of him were not God’s.
We all need a heart transformation. We cannot force God to change the hearts of those around us but, like Paul, we can be instruments that God uses to bring forth true repentance. Only God can save. Only God can set us free. Only God can bring the dead to life. Jesus’ words in John 5:25 say it perfectly:
‘I tell you the solemn truth, a time is coming – and is now here – when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’.
Thanks for reading.