Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

April 14, 2016

Leighton Flowers | Professor of Theology
Dallas, TX

**This article was previously posted by Leighton Flowers on his website and is used by permission.

Leighton is: teaching pastor in his local church, an adjunct Professor of Theology, and the Youth Evangelism Director for Texas Baptists.

Learn more about Leighton, HERE.
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***Editor’s Note:  Please click on the footnotes in order to follow them as they are not added at the bottom of this article.

Many Calvinists teach that regeneration precedes faith. They say that a person must be born again before he believes. They argue that new life comes before faith.

John Piper, a Calvinistic pastor, puts it this way:

“We can say, first, that regeneration is the cause of faith… Having been born of God results in our believing. Our believing is the immediate evidence of God’s begetting.” [1]

Gordon Olson, a non-Calvinistic scholar, writes:

“Extreme Calvinists put the new birth before faith, since they believe that spiritually dead humans cannot exercise faith and, therefore, need to be born again before they can believe.” [2]

I would not agree with Olson that this doctrine is necessarily an “extreme” form of Calvinism because most of the mainstream Calvinists today do adhere to it. Instead, I would argue that this point has not always been uniformly understood and adopted in the same way by all Calvinists, [3] which is typical with many of the most controversial points within the Calvinistic scheme.[4]

The Calvinistic teaching has wrongly exaggerated the effects of man’s fallen condition resulting in a misinterpretation of man’s responsibility in light of God’s clear revelation. Calvinists say they believe men are “responsible” but they do not mean what most people think when they hear the word “responsible” (able-to-respond freely and thus guilty for that response).

What Calvinists mean is that mankind is justly punished even though they were born “unable-to-respond” willingly to God’s revelation. They do not mean that mankind is morally capable of responding to God’s appeals to be reconciled from their fallen condition (as implied in 2 Cor. 5:20, John 3:16 and elsewhere).

Calvinists insist that man is born dead in sin and therefore “corpse-like” in his abilities to respond to God’s life giving truth. Therefore, according to their logic, God must bring the corpse back to life so that he will certainly believe God’s revealed truth.[5]

Some Calvinists will argue that the order of regeneration and faith is a logical order not a temporal one, meaning that the two happen simultaneously within time.  They teach that at the moment a person is born again he will come to faith. The moment he is regenerated he also places his trust in Christ. It all happens in an instant of time. Yet logically as we think about this transaction, we must put a causal order to it. Does the Bible indicate that a person must be regenerated so that he can believe or does the Bible teach that a person must believe in order to be regenerated? Do we need life in order to believe or do we need to believe in order to have life? That logical order is what is in dispute.

What is not in dispute is that regeneration is the sovereign act of God whereby He imparts His very life and His very nature to the believing sinner (John 1:12-13; Titus 3:5). Man’s first birth is natural; his second birth is spiritual and supernatural. His first birth makes him a member of a fallen race; his second birth makes him a member of a redeemed race. His first birth gives him a depraved nature (Eph. 2:3); his second birth makes him partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). The moment a person is born again he receives a new life (John 6:47; 1 John 5:12) and a new position as a child of God (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1-2). In short, he is a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).[6] We can all affirm these truths.

But what does the Scripture actually say about the logical order of new life and man’s responsibility in attaining it? Which comes first, new life or faith? Let’s observe:

Ezekiel 18:30-32
“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “Repent, Turn away…Rid yourselves…”
  2. “…get a new heart and a new spirit.”

Verse 32 makes it even more simple:

  1. “Repent and…”
  2. “…live!”

Life comes from repentance, not the other way around.

Acts 11:18
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “Repentance unto…”
  2. “…life”

The Gentiles were not granted life unto repentance, but just the opposite according to the text.  And the gospel is the means God grants mankind the ability to believe.  He sent the gospel first to the Jews and then the Gentiles which enabled their faith response (Rom. 1:16, 10:14-17). (Anticipating those who might invoke Act 13:48, please read THIS.)

John 5:40
“yet you refuse to COME TO ME TO HAVE LIFE.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “Come to me…” (through faith)
  2. “…to have life.”

John 6:53
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “Unless you eat…drink” (by faith)
  2. “…you have not life in you.”

John 6:57
“so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “the one who feeds on me…” (by faith)
  2. “…will live”

John 20:31
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “these are written…” (scriptures)
  2. “…that you may believe…”
  3. “…by believing you may have life…”

Life clearly is a fruit of faith and repentance, not the other way around.

Acts 15:9
“He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “He purified their hearts…”
  2. “…by faith.”

It does not say He purified their hearts by regeneration so as to make them have faith. Clearly a purified heart is a fruit of faith, not the other way around.

John 1:12-13
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The right to be born of God is given only to those who believe.

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…all who did receive him…who believed…”
  2. “…he gave the right to BECOME children of God…”

You are not even given to right to become a child of God, much less be born again as his child, UNTIL you “receive him” and “believe in his name.” And while placing our trust in Christ is man’s responsibility, the work of regeneration is all of God’s doing. It does not come by way of inheritance, marriage, works or striving (Rom. 9:30-32).

Galatians 3:26
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “You are all sons of God…”
  2. “…through faith in Christ…”

Obviously, becoming a son (born of God) is a fruit of faith, not the other way around.

John 12:36
“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “Believe in the light…”
  2. “…so that you may become children…”

Ephesians 1:13
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “when you heard the message of truth…when you believed
  2. “you were included in Christ…you were marked in him…”

For more on how to better understand the biblical doctrine of predestination presented in Ephesians 1, watch this.

Galatians 3:2, 5
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?… So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…received the Spirit…”
  2. “…by believing what you heard…”

2 Corinthians 3:14-16
But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…anyone turns to the Lord…” (by faith)
  2. “…the veil is taken away.”

1 Timothy 1:16
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…those who would believe in him…”
  2. “…may receive eternal life.”

Colossians 2:12
“…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…baptism, in which you were also raised…”
  2. “…through your faith…”

James 1:18
“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
The order clearly laid out is as follows:

  1. “…give us brith…”
  2. “…through the word of truth…”

Calvinists teach the word of truth will certainly be rejected by the unregenerate, thus how can the apostle say that the word may be the means of new birth? Birth must precede the word if Calvinism is true, and that is not what the text clearly indicates.

The Philippian jailer inquired, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). If Paul was Calvinistic he should have replied, “You can do nothing to be saved. You were born corpse-like dead in your sin and a dead man can do nothing.  If God makes you alive then you will be convinced to believe our gospel.” But Paul does not hesitate to simply say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  Believe so as to have new life. Repent so as to live!  That is the gospel appeal sent for all to hear it and respond.