It is impossible for us to regenerate ourselves. But this does not excuse us from our spiritual responsibility. We can go and hear the Word of God being preached (Rom. 10:17). We can go determined to understand and receive the things revealed to us to be clearly from God.
Many souls are eternally ruined because they simply will not let God speak to them and teach them from his Word. It is true that no man can regenerate himself, even although he hears and receives God’s Word. But God is prepared to come to those who come to him by the way he has told them. He meets souls where he says he will meet them.
As the Word of God is preached, certain things begin to happen in the hearers as the Holy Spirit brings the Word home to them personally. These things usually happen to the person before he is ‘born again’.
The first thing that happens is that the Holy Spirit illuminates or enlightens the understanding, enabling the person to know and to understand spiritually the spiritual truths revealed (1 Cor. 2:9, 11). This is quite different from a natural understanding by the use of reason only.
The Spirit’s work of illumination makes the Word clear to the mind (2 Pet. 2:21). The gospel is understood, not only as true, but as God’s way of righteousness (Rom. 1:17; 10:3, 4). Illumination helps the mind to agree to the truth (Acts 8:13; John 2:23; 12:42). Illumination brings a momentary joy (Luke 8:13; John 5:35). Along with illumination the person may receive some spiritual gifts (Matt. 7:22).
Illumination is not regeneration, nor does regeneration infallibly take place after illumination. When light is shone on God’s saving grace, then the soul sees clearly what is being offered. So illumination prepares the soul for regeneration.
The second thing that happens is that the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin. This is also brought about by the preaching of the Word (1 Cor. 14:24,25). The soul begins to feel a disturbing sense of its guilt as it is brought to face the righteous demands of God’s law. It begins to feel a sense of sorrow or grief for the sins it has done (2 Cor. 7:10). They are now past and can no longer be put right (Rom. 8:15). This leads the soul to feel humbled for its sinfulness (1 Kings 21:29). Now, unless the soul is swallowed up in despair, it begins to look for a way out of its present state of misery (Acts 2:37; 16:30). Often the person begins to reform his life and a great change of attitude follows (Matt. 13:20; 2 Pet. 2:20; Matt. 12:44).
Some neglect this light and conviction or seek to stifle it. Some are overwhelmed by the power and strength of their lusts, the love of sin and the power of temptations. Some think that being enlightened is quite enough and that this is all that God intends to do with them.
All these things which are brought on people by the preaching of the Word are in fact the actions of the Holy Spirit working along with that preaching (Isa. 49:4; Jer. 15:20; Ezek. 33:31,32; John 8:59; Acts 13:41,45,46). Those ‘enlightened’ are said to be made ‘partakers of the Holy Spirit’ (Heb. 6:4).
Objection. If this preparatory work of the Holy Spirit does not lead to regeneration, does the Holy Spirit intend only to do a weak and imperfect work in that soul, or is he unable to bring that soul to ‘new birth’?
Answer. In some, real conversion does take place. This initial work of the Holy Spirit is neither weak nor imperfect, but it can be willfully and stubbornly resisted. In the ‘elect’ the Holy Spirit, of his own sovereign grace, removes this willful stubbornness. The rest he leaves to suffer the righteous rewards of their evil deeds. The Holy Spirit is perfectly free to do what he wants to do. He does what pleases him. However, his works are always good and holy. He fully and perfectly accomplishes what he freely planned and purposed to accomplish.
Illumination no guarantee of salvation
There is an ‘illumination’ which does not lead to salvation. It does not change man’s will and does not give the mind a delight and satisfaction in spiritual things. The mind does not delight in God (Rom. 6:17; 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:13-15; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). It gives no spiritual insight into the glory of God’s grace.
Neither does this illumination purge the conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14). It only convicts the soul of sin and rouses it to condemn many things of which before it heartily approved. Such illumination works on the feelings, arousing fear, sorrow, joy and delight. But it does not fix them on heavenly things (Col. 3:1,2). Nor does it tear out evil desires and fill the heart with heavenly joys. It often leads to a major reformation in lifestyle, even producing the appearance of godliness. But there are three great defects in this illumination.
The first is that it allows raging and reigning sins of ignorance to continue, as it did in Paul before his conversion.
The second is that the reformation of life it stimulates the person to attain seldom leads to getting rid of all known sins, unless for a while the soul is engaged in a flagrant pursuit of self-righteousness.
The third is that this reformation of life, although it may be strong at first, soon fades and decays. Eventually it leaves people as spiritual skeletons.
John Owen (The Holy Spirit p. 52-55)