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16. And many of the children of Israel shall he bring back These words show the shamefully dissolute conduct which then prevailed in the Church, for those in whom conversion to God could take place must have been apostates. And certainly corrupt doctrine, depraved morals, and disorderly government, were such as to render it next to a miracle that a very few continued in godliness. But if the ancient Church was so awfully dissolute, it is a frivolous pretext by which the Papists defend their own superstitions, that it is impossible for the Church to err, particularly since they include under this designation not the genuine and elect children of God, but the crowd of the ungodly.
But John appears to have more ascribed to him here than belongs to man. For conversion to God renews men to a spiritual life, and therefore is not only God’s own work, but surpasses even the creation of men. In this way ministers might seem to be made equal, and even superior, to God viewed as Creator; since to be born again to a heavenly life is a greater work than to be born as mortals on the earth. The answer is easy; for when the Lord bestows so great praise on the outward doctrine, he does not separate it from the secret influence of his Spirit. As God chooses men to be his ministers whose services he employs for the edification of his Church, he at the same time operates by them, through the secret influence of his Spirit, that their labors may be efficacious and fruitful. Wherever Scripture applauds this efficacy in the ministry of men, let us learn to attribute it to the grace of the Spirit, without which the voice of man would have spent itself uselessly in the air. Thus, when Paul boasts that he is a minister of the Spirit, (2 Corinthians 3:6,) he claims nothing separately for himself, as if by his voice he penetrated into the hearts of men, but asserts the power and grace of the Spirit in his ministry. These expressions are worthy of remark; because Satan labors, with amazing contrivance, to lower the effect of doctrine, in order that the grace of the Spirit connected with it may be weakened. The outward preaching, I acknowledge, can do nothing separately or by itself; but as it is an instrument of divine power for our salvation, and through the grace of the spirit an efficacious instrument, what God hath joined together let us not put asunder, (Matthew 19:6.)
That the glory of conversion and faith, on the other hand, may remain undivided with God alone, Scripture frequently reminds us that ministers are nothing in themselves; but in such cases he compares them with God, that no one may wickedly steal the honor from God and convey it to them. In short, those whom God, by the aid of the minister, converts to himself, are said to be converted by the minister, because he is nothing more than the hand of God; and both are expressly asserted in this passage. Of the efficacy of the doctrine we have now said enough. That it lies not in the will and power of the minister to bring men back to God, we conclude from this that John did not indiscriminately bring all back, (which he would unquestionably have done, if every thing had yielded to his wish,) but only brought those back whom it pleased the Lord effectually to call. In a word, what is here taught by the angel is laid down by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, that faith cometh by hearing, (Romans 10:17,) but that those only to whom the Lord inwardly reveals his arm (Isaiah 53:1; John 12:38) are so enlightened as to believe.