Does regeneration precede faith in Christian salvation?

By Spencer D Gear

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to unbelievers and they respond to salvation, what happens first in the new convert – faith, repentance,  regeneration or something else? When growing up in the evangelical church, I understood that regeneration referred to God’s work of causing me to be born again by the Spirit when I was saved. Was this correct or not?

Let’s read some prominent Calvinists.

Views of some leading Calvinists

R C Sproul states: “In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination. He plants a desire for Christ in our hearts. We can never trust Christ for our salvation unless we first desire Him. This is why we said earlier that regeneration precedes faith” (1985, p. 186, emphasis added). Elsewhere, Sproul wrote. “Repentance is not the cause of new birth or regeneration; it is the result or fruit of regeneration” (1992, p. 193).

J I Packer’s view is that “regeneration is monergistic: that is, entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit. It raises the elect among the spiritually dead to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10). Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional, active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause” (1993, p. 158). This is a gentle theological way of saying that regeneration precedes faith.

Charles Hodge considers that “regeneration does not consist in any act or acts of the soul…. Regeneration is an act of God…. It is God who regenerates. The soul is regenerated. In this sense the soul is passive in regeneration, which (subjectively considered) is a change wrought in us…. Regeneration subjectively considered, or viewed as an effect or change wrought in the soul, is not an act…. Regeneration is declared to be a new birth…. The first conscious exercise of the renewed soul is faith; as the first conscious act of a man born blind whose eyes have been opened, is seeing” (1975, pp. 7, 31, 32, 35, 41). So, the renewed, born again, soul receives regeneration and then exercises faith – regeneration precedes faith.

Wayne Grudem maintains that “Scripture indicates that regeneration must come before we can respond to effective calling with saving faith. Therefore we can say that regeneration comes before the result of effective calling (our faith). But it is more difficult to specify the exact relationship in time between regeneration and the human proclamation of the gospel through which God works in effective calling. At least two passages suggest that God regenerates us at the same time as he speaks to us in effective calling [1 Peter 1:23, 25 and James 1:18 NIV]” (1994, p. 700).

With this kind of thinking among leading Reformed thinkers, it is not surprising that it is conveyed to the people in contemporary Calvinistic churches.

The online Calvinists’ views

I’ve been doing some blogging (I’m ozspen) on Christian Forums and came across some Reformed Baptists who claim that regeneration precedes faith. Here are some of their statements:

“With all due respect if there’s no scriptural support for it [regeneration preceding faith] why are there truckloads of articles and sermons and books and church councils and creeds and confessions and statements of faith that use scripture to support it?… For example, here’s a giant article with links to at least 2 1-hour sermons on the topic and scripture is used the entire time.
Jesus Teaches Monergistic Regeneration by John Hendryx ” (Skala #23)

“Not “whosoever believes will be born of God,” but has been. You believe because you have been born of God. You are not born of God because you believe” (faceofbear #60).

“And regeneration happens temporally at the same time as faith. It’s not as if you are regenerated and then at a later point in time you have faith. It’s simultaneous. What we mean by regeneration precedes faith is that regeneration is necessary for a man to exercise faith. As prior to regeneration he is spiritually dead and hostile to God and cannot understand the spiritual things of God” (Skala #69);

But wait a minute: What is regeneration?

Let’s check a few theological definitions of the meaning of regeneration:

Charles Hodge, the Calvinist, claims there is “a consent almost universal” that the word regeneration “is now used to designate, not the whole work of sanctification, nor the first stages of that work comprehended in [Christian] conversion, much less justification or any mere external change of state, but the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life. Regeneration, therefore, is a spiritual resurrection: the beginning of a new life” (1975, p. 5).

Henry Thiessen, a non-Calvinist, states that “from the divine side, the change of heart is called regeneration, the new birth; from the human side it is called conversion. In regeneration the soul is passive; in conversion … it is active. We may define regeneration as the communication of divine life to the soul (John 3:5; 10:10, 28; 1 John 5:11, 12), as the impartation of a new nature (2 Pet. 1:4) or heart (Jer. 24:7; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), and the production of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; 4:24)” (Thiessen 1949, p. 367).

Wayne Grudem, a Calvinist, defines regeneration as follows: “Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. This is sometimes called ‘being born again’ (using language from John 3:3-8)” (Grudem 1994, p. 699).

John Miley, an Arminian, states briefly that “to be born of God is to be born into his family, and to become his child. Sonship is thus immediately from regeneration. This is the clear meaning of the Scriptures” such as John 1:12-13 and Galatians 3:26-27 (1989, p. 397).

Let’s check out a couple of leading exponents of Reformed theology to see what they think of the idea of regeneration preceding faith.

What was John Calvin’s view?

I was reading in Calvin’s Institutes where he equates repentance with regeneration. John Calvin in Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.3.9-10, wrote:

9. Both of these we obtain by union with Christ. For if we have true fellowship in his death, our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin becomes dead, so that the corruption of our original nature is never again in full vigor (Rom. 6:5, 6). If we are partakers in his resurrection, we are raised up by means of it to newness of life, which conforms us to the righteousness of God. In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration, French, “une regeneration spirituelle;”—a spiritual regeneration. the only aim of which is to form in us anew the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam. So the Apostle teaches when he says, “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.” Again, “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds” and “put ye on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Again, “Put ye on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:23, 24; Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 4:16. Accordingly through the blessing of Christ we are renewed by that regeneration into the righteousness of God from which we had fallen through Adam, the Lord being pleased in this manner to restore the integrity of all whom he appoints to the inheritance of life. This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare. The greater is the effrontery of an impure raver and apostate, named Staphylus, who pretends that I confound the condition of the present life with the celestial glory, when, after Paul, I make the image of God to consist in righteousness and true holiness; as if in every definition it were not necessary to take the thing defined in its integrity and perfection. It is not denied that there is room for improvement; but what I maintain is, that the nearer any one approaches in resemblance to God, the more does the image of God appear in him. That believers may attain to it, God assigns repentance as the goal towards which they must keep running during the whole course of their lives.

10. By regeneration the children of God are delivered from the bondage of sin, but not as if they had already obtained full possession of freedom, and no longer felt any annoyance from the flesh. Materials for an unremitting contest remain, that they may be exercised, and not only exercised, but may better understand their weakness. All writers of sound judgment agree in this, that, in the regenerate man, there is still a spring of evil which is perpetually sending forth desires that allure and stimulate him to sin… (my emphasis).

There is no mention here of regeneration/repentance prior to faith.

What about that Calvinistic stalwart, C H Spurgeon?

C. H. Spurgeon (image courtesy The Spurgeon Archive)

If the theology of regeneration prior to faith is alleged to be true, it is a “ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him”, says C H Spurgeon. It is ridiculous because Spurgeon would be preaching faith to a person who was already saved. It would be preaching Christ to one who is already regenerated.

C H Spurgeon, in his sermon, “The Warrant of Faith”, seems to write against the idea that regeneration precedes faith:

Others say that the warrant for a sinner to believe in Christ is his election. Now, as his election cannot possibly be known by any man until he has believed, this is virtually preaching that nobody has any known warrant for believing at all. If I cannot possibly know my election before I believe—and yet the minister tells me that I may only believe upon the ground of my election—how am I ever to believe at all? Election brings me faith, and faith is the evidence of my election; but to say that my faith is to depend upon my knowledge of my election, which I cannot get without faith. is to talk egregious nonsense.
clip_image009[8]I lay down this morning with great boldness—because I know and am well persuaded that what I speak is the mind of the Spirit—this doctrine that the sole and only warrant for a sinner to believe in Jesus is found in the gospel itself and in the command which accompanies that gospel, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” I shall deal with that matter first of all, negatively, and then, positively.
clip_image009[9]1. First, NEGATIVELY; and here my first observation is that any other way of preaching the gospel-warrant is absurd. If I am to preach faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. But you will tell me that I ought to preach it only to those who repent of their sins. Very well; but since true repentance of sin is the work of the Spirit, any man who has repentance is most certainly saved, because evangelical repentance never can exist in an unrenewed soul. Where there is repentance there is faith already, for they never can be separated. So, then, I am only to preach faith to those who have it. Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners. “Nay,” saith one, “but we mean that a man must have some good desires towards Christ before he has any warrant to believe in Jesus.” Friend, do you not know what all good desires have some degree of holiness in them? But if a sinner hath any degree of true holiness in him it must be the work of the Spirit, for true holiness never exists in the carnal mind, therefore, that man is already renewed, and therefore saved. Are we to go running up and down the world, proclaiming life to the living, casting bread to those who are fed already, and holding up Christ on the pole of the gospel to those who are already healed? My brethren, where is our inducement to labour where our efforts are so little needed? If I am to preach Christ to those who have no goodness, who have nothing in them that qualifies them for mercy, then I feel I have a gospel so divine that I would proclaim it with my last breath, crying aloud, that “Jesus came into the world to save sinners“—sinners as sinners, not as penitent sinners or as awakened sinners, but sinners as sinners, sinners “of whom I am chief.”
clip_image009[10]Secondly, to tell the sinner that he is to believe on Christ because of some warrant in himself, is legal, I dare to say it—legal. Though this method is generally adopted by the higher school of Calvinists, they are herein unsound, uncalvinistic, and legal; it is strange that they who are so bold defenders of free grace should make common cause with Baxterians and Pelagians.

Spurgeon rightly states that it is an “unnecessary and ridiculous thing” to preach Christ to a person who is already regenerate. If regeneration happens first, then he is preaching Christ to people who already have it. Regeneration prior to faith is unbiblical theology and Spurgeon admits it up front.

But elsewhere he makes statements of regeneration prior to faith.

We see this particularly in his sermon, “Faith and Regeneration“, where he states:

“We must now pass on to show that WHEREVER IT [FAITH] EXISTS IT IS THE PROOF OF REGENERATION” in his sermon on.

“Faith in the living God and his Son Jesus Christ is always the result of the new birth, and can never exist except in the regenerate. Whoever has faith is a saved man”.

“Many men refuse to see more than one side of a doctrine, and persistently fight against anything which is not on its very surface consistent with their own idea. In the present case I do not find it difficult to believe faith to be at the same time the duty of man and the gift of God.”

So, he is making two apparently contradictory statements: (1) Regeneration precedes faith (this is the equivalent of irresistible grace), and (2) “If I am to preach faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate” (reference above).

Which is it to be? Regeneration prior to faith OR regeneration is NOT prior to faith?

What do the Scriptures state?

Surely this is the key factor. There are verses in Scripture, when understood in context, that teach that faith is logically prior to salvation/regeneration. Check out Luke 13:3; John 3:6-7, 16; Acts 16:31; Romans 3:24-25; 5:1; Titus 3:5-7; and 2 Peter 3:9.

Let’s examine these Scriptures individually.

Luke 13:3: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (ESV).[1]

To avoid judgment (perishing), this verse says that the condition is NOT regeneration first, but repentance. So, for anyone to experience salvation, repentance is required. This is a consistent message of Scripture (eg Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20). These verses do not enforce the theology that regeneration must precede faith.

John 3:6-7, 16: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again'” (John 3:6-7). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

New birth occurs at regeneration. Who is the creator of this new spiritual life? God Himself! In this chapter of John 3, Jesus makes it clear that faith is the condition for being born again, receiving the new birth, or being saved to experience eternal life. He states that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:15) and “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).
What is the means to the end of somebody obtaining salvation or becoming regenerate? Faith! The one who BELIEVES (has faith). That’s a conclusion reached by contextual hermeneutics (interpretation).

Acts 16:31: ‘And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you(B) and your household”‘.

“[You] Believe in the Lord Jesus” and the person will be saved along with his household. The order is the same as for the verses in John 3; “belief” comes before salvation; thus faith is the condition on which a person receives God’s salvation through the Lord Jesus.

Romans 3:24-25: “And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins”

This incredible passage on justification mentions that justification and propitiation are “received by faith”. Yes, God planned this eternal life from before the world came into being (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2) and, thus, before anyone could receive this justification and propitiation, God planned that justification would be “received by faith”. This pattern is consistent in the NT that faith is first (eg John 17:20; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:22; 10:9, 14; 1 Cor 1:21; Gal 3:22; etc, etc).

These verses are very clear that justification and propitiation for believers are received “by faith”. This is not eisegesis, but solid exegesis with contextual interpretation.[2]

Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The text is very clear that justification is received “by faith”. While God is the source through our Lord Jesus Christ, there is no statement here that justification (or regeneration) is the means by which we receive salvation. Justification comes “by faith”. Faith logically precedes justification.

Titus 3:5-7: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, butaccording to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life”.

It is true that these three verses do not use the word “faith” but that regeneration and justification came to us “by his grace”. However this is not a statement to support the view that regeneration precedes faith.
Please note the very next verse where faith (believe) demonstrates faith’s necessity according to Titus 3:8: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (ESV). FAITH, those who believe, comes before good works. Faith is the means to salvation as v. 8 demonstrates and this leads to believers devoting themselves to the ministry of good works.

Eph. 2:8-9 is an explicit parallel to these verses in Titus, also written by Paul, where it is very definite that believers are “saved through faith“: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (ESV).

2 Peter 3:9 states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance“.

The order here is that repentance comes before salvation/rescuing from perishing. The context is the day of the Lord coming (3:1-13) and scoffers coming in the last days (3:3) and challenging, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (3:4). Then there is a description of the heavens and the earth existing and being formed “by the word of God” (3:5). Then the deluge (great flood). By that same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire by the same word of God when judgment and destruction are coming on the ungodly(3:7).

How will people avoid this judgment and destruction? Contextual interpretation indicates that God is patient, not wanting any to perish and all to come to repentance (3:9). This is a core verse in the passage because it gives God’s remedy for escaping the judgment and destruction: “All should reach repentance”.

What about this verse?

Romans 10:17, in the ESV, states the order of salvation clearly: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”.

It does not say that faith comes from a preceding regeneration. The initial reading of the verse indicates that faith is produced by hearing the word of Christ and the word of Christ comes before faith. Here, the order that leads to salvation, by inference, is that someone is sent; there is preaching or evangelism; there is hearing of the word of Christ, and there is believing.

Conclusion

I have provided biblical support for the view that God is the source of salvation / regeneration and that a person’s faith/repentance is the means to receive that salvation.

The monergism[3] (that accompanies a view of irresistible grace) that Calvinists support (and reject synergism[4]) does not have biblical support in my understanding of Scripture (some details are above).

The scriptures are clear that human beings can resist the grace of God and some do that (Matt. 23:37) but God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to salvation/repentance (1 Tim. 2:3-5; 2 Peter 3:9). That’s what one would expect from the loving God (1 John 4:16) who loves everyone (John 3:16) and wants all to come to salvation/repentance (1 Tim. 2:3).

Synergism (God’s grace working with human free will) is God’s way for human beings to be saved. God’s gift must be received for regeneration, justification, propitiation, salvation to be experienced by any person. God acts and people receive. That’s Bible.

It is evident from the Scriptures that the Calvinistic doctrine on regeneration preceding faith is short on biblical evidence – it is in error. In addition, as Spurgeon has stated so well, it is ridiculous to preach the Gospel of Christ to someone who is already regenerated. Why preach faith in Christ for salvation to somebody who is already born again by the Spirit?

Regeneration preceding faith is described by Spurgeon as ridiculous, unsound, uncalvinistic, and legal. Sure sounds like he doesn’t believe in this error that is promoted by other Calvinists! But he is inconsistent, as quoted above. He does believe that “wherever [faith] exists it is the proof of regeneration”.

Notes:


[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] When I presented these verses that I’m discussing here, on Christian Forums, I was told that “it seems to me that not a single verse you asserted teaches that regeneration precedes faith actually has anything to do with it at all. I am scared that you have read into these passages something that is not there. That’s called eisegesis” (Christian Forums –>Congregation–>Christian Communities–>Baptists, “John 1:11-13, Receiving Christ”, 2 April 2011, Skala # 112, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7545666-12/#post57130679 , accessed 2 April 2011).

[3] The “Monergism” website provides this definition of monergism: “The view that the Holy Spirit is the only agent who effects regeneration of Christians. It is in contrast with synergism, the view that there is a cooperation between the divine and the human in the regeneration process. Monergism is a redemptive blessing purchased by Christ for those the Father has given Him (1 Pet 1:3, John 3:5,6, 6:37, 39). This grace works independently of any human cooperation and conveys that power into the fallen soul whereby the person who is to be saved is effectually enabled to respond to the gospel call (John 1:13; Acts 2:39, 13:48; Rom 9:16)” (available at: http://www.monergism.com/ , accessed 3 April 2011).

[4] What is synergism? The evangelical Arminians state: ‘I believe the term “synergism” is not always accurately applied to the Arminian position. The word comes from the Greek synergos, which essentially means “working together”. While monergism (to work alone) may be an acceptable label for what Calvinists believe (God does all the work in salvation), synergism does not always rightly portray what Arminians have historically believed.

‘’The word itself, when taken in a grammatically strict sense, is not a very good description of what Arminians believe regarding salvation. Arminians do not believe that both God and man “work” together in salvation. We believe that we are saved “by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). Since faith is antithetical to works (Rom. 3:20-28; 4:2-5; 9:32; 10:5, 6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:9), it is a misnomer to label Arminian soteriology as synergistic in the strictest sense of the word.

‘Arminian theology, when rightly understood, teaches that salvation is monergistic. God alone does the saving. God alone regenerates the soul that is dead in sin. God alone forgives and justifies on the merits of Christ’s blood. God alone makes us holy and righteous. In all of these ways salvation is entirely monergistic. The difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether or not God’s saving work is conditional or unconditional. Arminians believe that God will not save until we meet the God ordained condition of faith. Faith may be understood as synergistic only in the sense that God graciously enables us to believe, but we are the ones who must decide whether or not we will believe” (Society of Evangelical Arminians, “Is Arminian theology synergistic?”, available at: http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/27, accessed 3 April 2011).

 

Copyright (c) 2011 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 11 October 2015.

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