A Commentary on Article Five
The Regeneration of the Sinner
of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
Article 5: The Regeneration of the Sinner
We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18
One of the most difficult topics in the Scriptures is a clear understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvific process. It is clear that the Holy Spirit effectuates salvation; what is not so clear is the role the Holy Spirit plays in performing that process, especially where conversion is concerned. At the heart of this issue, is a term called regeneration. Regeneration itself is not an issue in question. The question with respect to regeneration is how it takes place, what it accomplishes and when it takes place. Article 5 addresses these questions.
The Gospel Is Available to Anyone
Statement 5 begins, “We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit.” This sentence is very insightful in and of itself. There are two very important aspects emphasized in this statement. The implication is clear; first of all, “any person” may respond to the gospel message that is secondly, available to anyone and everyone. (Mt 24:14; Mark 13:10, 16:15; Gal 3:8; Romans 1:16) Any person, who hears the gospel message, may respond. This statement also eliminates any question with respect to an individual’s ability to come to God on his own. Salvation is always an individual’s response to God’s initiative. The word “response” by definition is passive to the initiative or invitation of another. In conversion, the initiator of this invitation is always God.
The Gospel Is Available for Everyone
The initiative to respond made available by the gospel is available for everyone. In order for any person to respond, the gospel has to be available for anyone and everyone. God has chosen to reveal who He is and what it is that He has planned to do as well as what He has already done through His Son, Jesus in and through the gospel message. The gospel message itself has as its purpose God’s directive of reconciling a sinful world unto Himself. This message is revealed to all through the teaching and preaching of the Word of God. The gospel message is absolutely central to the conversion experience for Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6) John 1:1-14 lays the foundation for Jesus’ relationship to and responsibility for the gospel, grounded especially in the statement, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Response of Repentance and Faith
The third phrase states, “any person who responds to the gospel ‘with repentance and faith’ is born again.” Repentance and faith are what bring the lost, unregenerate individual to new birth. Notice the relationship between the intentional use of the words “responds” and “is born again.” The response is to God’s initiative of reconciliation and that response brings about new birth. While the statement, “any person who responds is born again” is both grammatically and theologically correct, the phrase, “with repentance and faith” are included to underscore the importance of both in the salvific process. (Repentance: Mt. 9:13, Lu. 15:7, 24:47; Acts 26:20; 2 Peter 3:9… Faith: Luke 7:50; Eph. 2:8)
Regeneration or Repentance
It is commonly understood that repentance is necessary for conversion; the issue is the relationship of repentance with respect to regeneration. There are two passages of Scripture that speak directly to this issue of responding to the gospel with respect to repentance and being born again. The first is found in the Book of Acts the second chapter; Peter has just preached one of the most powerful messages ever preached, with the exception of those preached by the Lord Himself. Peter quoted Joel 2 as he said, “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21 NKJV) When Peter finished his message the Bible records the following event: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:37-39 NKJV) It is clear in Peter’s message to those listening that repentance was essential for their receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is a direct reference to the indwelling that the disciples had just experienced themselves! Conversion takes place when the Holy Spirit moves into the repentant heart and not before. Regeneration takes place when the Holy Spirit moves into the repentant heart and not before.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul deals with repentance with respect to Godly sorrow that comes by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in the lost person’s heart. He says, Godly sorrow produces repentance; repentance is not something that God effectually gives to an individual. Repentance is a change of heart that is wrought by Godly sorrow that elicits a response. God allows sorrow for sin to move the unregenerate to a repentant response through faith and that response brings about regeneration. Regeneration takes place when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in an individual’s heart following repentance. Paul makes this abundantly clear as he spoke to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:8. (see also 2 Cor. 1:22, 3:3, 5:5; Eph. 1:4)
Regeneration or Revelation
Consider the following passage in Ephesians Chapter 1. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph. 1:14) Here Paul acknowledged their having trusted Christ AFTER hearing the word of truth, “THE GOSPEL of your salvation” and then notice something very interesting; Paul says, “having believed, you WERE sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Clearly, the sealing that took place in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit followed, not preceded the believing the Word of Truth. Revelation is the key to regeneration, which is synonymous to conversion.
It appears a couple things are evident. First of all, hearing the gospel prompted a response. It is the natural progression of revelation to elicit a response. Now, Paul says, “having believed” indicating their response to this gospel, they were THEN sealed by the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is not possible without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the new believer’s heart. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that gives the old man his new nature. God does not give this new nature to believe; the new nature comes when an individual is born again or from above and this takes place when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the repentant heart. It is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that provides the change of heart. It is clear that belief in this word of truth, which is the gospel of salvation, must be believed in order to live. God does not make us alive so that we can believe; we believe so that we can be made alive when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. It appears that this passage of Scripture settles that argument.
The Role of Faith
One of the statements surrounding this issue is the relationship of faith in the salvific process. Some have taken Ephesians 2:8 and have tried to read more into that verse than it actually says. There are those who suggest that regeneration precedes repentance also will contend that regeneration precedes faith and since God brings about regeneration He also is directly responsible for faith exercised in the believing individual. Ephesians 2:8 does not support this concept. Faith in this passage is the vehicle through which the gift of salvation is achieved. Faith itself is not the gift from God that Paul is speaking of here. Consider the following: “For by grace are you saved; it is the gift of God not of works lest anyone should boast.” The phrase dealing with the role of faith can be eliminated altogether and the thrust of the verse is not changed. Gift in this verse refers to salvation. Faith is not God’s gift to man; faith is man’s response to God’s gift in Jesus that brings salvation. Faith is always man’s response.
The second part of Hebrews 11:6 is perhaps the best definition of faith anywhere. In this verse Paul says “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” So, what does Paul do? Paul goes on to explain what it is that God is looking for that will please Him. Notice how the verse ends; “those who come to Him must believe He is”; we must believe He is what? Paul is saying men must believe that God is everything He says He is and that is why revelation is so important. God wants everyone to know Him and His plans and His promises that will make life full and abundant.
There is a final part of this declaration: Paul says, “that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” This statement has a number of ramifications that are indeed interesting. This certainly supports the statement in the affirmation, “any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith;” for no one would suggest that responding and diligently seeking Him are not synonymous. Being a rewarder of those who seek Him acknowledges the fact that God is promising that He will always do everything He has said He will do. So, a great working definition of faith from Hebrews 11:6b could well be, “Faith is believing God is everything He says He is and He will do everything He says He will do.” If anyone really believes that, their faith will be seen in the way they live their life on a daily basis. This is what James is speaking of in the second chapter of his epistle. Faith is man’s response to God’s initiative. It is not something God gives to anyone.
The Power of the Holy Spirit
In proceeding, the statement on salvation affirms that “any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again ‘through the power of the Holy Spirit’.” The gospel is indeed the power of God unto everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) Salvation is the effectual working of the Holy Spirit in the heart of an individual who through repentance and faith believes. Salvation is of the Lord. (Ex. 14:13; 2 Chron. 20:17; Lam. 3:26; Jnh. 2:9)
A New Creation in Christ
The affirmation concludes with the following: “He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.” At conversion, an individual is justified and given a position of right standing before God when he is adopted into God’s family. There is a point in every born again believer’s life when he passes from death unto life; when he as Jesus told Nicodemus, is indeed “born again” or “from above.” As a side note, it is this new birth that seals the new born believer for eternity and provides for his eternal security.
“We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.”
The Scriptures are clear: revelation and not regeneration are responsible for conversion. Paul says the Scriptures, which are God’s self-revelation, are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15) This is a very important statement. For once again, revelation and not regeneration leads to saving faith. This is why Paul is able to say that he is “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’.” (Romans 1:16-17) Simply put, when God reveals Himself to individuals through His Word, a response required from that individual. This is the essence of revelation. Revelation and not regeneration is the key to conversion.
Revelation Must Precede Regeneration
Revelation MUST precede regeneration. “How does revelation speak to fallen man?” It has to be understood that if God created mankind, then He would naturally want man to know who He is and what it is that He wants both for man and from man. Since it is abundantly clear God does speak to man, the question must be asked, “Can God speak to sinful men?” The answer has to be “yes He can.” To try to assert otherwise is to challenge God’s omnipotence and His Sovereign ability to do anything that He chooses to do. In Colossians 1:19-20 Paul writes, “For it pleased the Father that in Him (Jesus) all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
Through His self-revelation God is seeking to reconcile a lost world unto Himself. When revelation is presented, a response is required. When God speaks, a response is expected. It simply makes no sense for God to speak if regeneration is required before an individual can respond positively to revelation. The argument that revelation is the means God uses to accomplish the end is a moot point if effectual call and God’s decretive will are primary in the salvific process as Calvinism posits. In addition, there is no need for God to seek to reconcile a lost and separated world unto Himself, if regeneration was required on His part first. If regeneration were the reality Reformed Theology suggests, there would be no need for God to “seek to reconcile the world unto Himself” for His decretive will and effectual call would eliminate the need for reconciliation altogether. Regeneration itself would accomplish reconciliation. This idea of regeneration preceding repentance and saving faith simply is not a scriptural concept given the reality of revelation and reconciliation. Regeneration is absolutely essential given the tenets presented in the Doctrines of Grace.
A Ministry of Reconciliation
In 2 Corinthians Chapter 5, verses 20 and 21 Paul lays out what he identifies as a ministry of reconciliation. As ambassadors for Christ, he says it is as if God “were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Here is the splendor and simplicity of Paul’s ministry so excellently shown. God reconciles the world to Himself through the cross. He offers life in Christ as opposed to death in the world. Paul not only received this gift of reconciliation from God that resulted in a new life in Christ for him, but he says he was given a responsibility as a new creation in Christ to become a conduit of this reconciliation from God to others who were lost, needing to surrender to self and to be reconciled to God in Christ Jesus.
The Scriptures, which are God’s self-revelation, are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:16) This is a very important statement. For once again, revelation and not regeneration leads to saving faith. This is why Paul is able to say that he is “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’.” (Romans 1:16-17) Simply put, when this revelation is revealed by God, there is a response required from man.
The Essence of Salvation
This is the essence of salvation. Man’s response to God’s provisions is what determines his destiny. God does not make this choice for anyone. God gave man the choice to choose. God told Adam, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Gen 2:16-17 NKJV) God determined the consequences of Adam’s choices. God has provided a Lamb to take away the sin of the world. The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:14-17 NKJV)
Once again, God has determined the consequences of men’s choices and those choices will determine His choice where eternity is concerned for those who believe.
In closing, I would like to quote Jonathan Edwards, one of the stalwart theologians referred to regularly by the Calvinist camp. He is speaking to the issue of God being the author of sin in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, section IX. He writes,
“If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.” But, he argues, “willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his ‘positive agency’.” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.iii.v.ix.html)
Now if I understand this statement, Edwards is arguing that God ordained sin corporately and not individually where specific sins are concerned. Edwards suggests God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission but not His ‘positive agency’.”
I like Edwards’ suggestion. I suggest God’s solution for sin which results in conversion is basically the same for conversion as Edwards has suggested for sin; God has willed that people be saved (corporate election) and has established a world whereby conversion WILL take place by His Divine will but not His “positive agency”(regeneration).
Regeneration does not precede repentance and saving faith in the salvific process. Repentance and saving faith bring about regeneration when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the heart of the newly born-again child of God.