Does Regeneration Precede Faith?
*As this is a summary of Dr. Allen’s manuscript, some footnotes that would normally appear may have been omitted.
“Most Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes faith,” said David Allen at the March 21-22 John 3.16 Conference held at North Metro First Baptist Church outside Atlanta, Ga.
Allen cited Boettner, Pink, Sproul and Piper to support his statement, but he later cited other Calvinists who hold a different position, or are ambivalent on the issue – even Calvin himself in his commentary on Eph. 2.
Many Calvinists base their view of regeneration preceding faith on their view of total depravity as equivalent to total inability and on interpretations of verses including John 1:12-13; 3:1-16; Eph. 2:1-10, e.g.
“The phrase ‘regeneration precedes faith’ is fraught with ambiguity,” Allen said, asking “what is meant by the words regeneration, faith, and precede, and whether precede means to precede logically or temporally.”
Allen asked if the phrase denotes “mediate regeneration by means of the Word as many Calvinists affirm, or immediate regeneration, with no use of means, where only the Spirit acts directly and immediately, as other Calvinists affirm. Part of the confusion over this issue is a failure to carefully define terms,” he said.
After noting the importance of not misrepresenting Calvinists and their beliefs, Allen noted that most Calvinists say there are three things that must be distinguished regarding the regeneration before salvation process:
1) temporal vs. logical order
2) regeneration and conversion
3) initial regeneration from final regeneration
Regarding point 2, we have this citation from Allen’s notes regarding what the BFM says of the ordo salutis:
“Notice the BFM treats regeneration neither as prior to or subsequent from conversion. Rather, it treats regeneration and conversion as concomitant realities of the beginning of salvation. Separating salvation into (regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification), article IV of the Baptist Faith and Message treats regeneration and conversion as part of one event. Regeneration is ‘a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ What is the antecedent of ‘which’? Most likely it is ‘conviction of sin,’ the nearest phrase. Regeneration does not precede conversion and vice versa.”
Calvinists’ belief that regeneration precedes faith is largely based on their tenet that man is spiritually dead and thus is unable to exercise faith unless first regenerated by God.
Allen offered extensive exegetical evidence controverting this claim, but SBCToday offers the following verbiage from Allen’s notes, which he related almost verbatim at the Conference.
Allen said this in reference to Ephesians 2:1-10:
“Part of what is driving the ‘regeneration precedes faith’ issue is a flawed anthropology drawn partly from Ephesians 2. With respect to Ephesians 2:1-10, when Paul speaks of the unregenerate as being ‘dead in sins’ there is no question that ‘dead’ is being used metaphorically. In Scripture, ‘death’ is often used metaphorically to express alienation from God and ‘life’ is used to express union with God via salvation (See Aquinas and O’Brien in Ephesians, [Pillar Commentary]). This death is ‘on account of’ or ‘with respect to’ our sins (notice the nouns are in the dative and there is no preposition in the Greek text). Many Calvinists suggest that this passage either 1) overtly teaches human inability (usually moral inability) in the sense of ‘one cannot because they will not,’ affirming the Edwardsian distinction between natural and moral inability of sinners to respond to the gospel; or 2) implies human inability to respond to the gospel (John Eadie, Ephesians, 121, argued that ‘dead’ implies inability.). There are other biblical figures of speech used to connote depravity which do not indicate or imply total inability. Calvinists assume their definition of spiritual death is correct and then superimpose it on the word ‘dead’ in Ephesians 2. Notice in the broader context the separation motif in Ephesians (2:12, 13, 19, 4:18). Notice also the parallel passage in Colossians 2:12-13, where Paul affirms that even though people are spiritually dead, they can still exercise faith in God.”
Allen noted that spiritual death means primarily separation from God, not a total inability to respond to God. Calvinists make a significant linguistic mistake by pushing the metaphor “dead” beyond its legitimate metaphorical boundaries. This can be seen when Paul’s use of the metaphor of “dead” as used in Romans 6:1-14 is compared to Eph. 2.
Also from Allen’s notes:
“According to the Bible, the unsaved who are spiritually dead have the ability to:
Act in accordance with conscience (Gen. 3:7)
Hear God (Gen. 3:10-13)
Respond to God (Gen. 3:10-13)
Adam and Eve died spiritually when they ate the fruit.
But they were still capable of hearing from/responding to God. (Gen. 3:10-13).
Repent of sins (Luke 15:18-19)
The prodigal son, in a state of deadness (Luke 15:32),
still recognized his sin and returned to the father.
Seek God (John 3)
Fear God (Acts 10:2)
Pray to God (Acts 10:2)
Both Nicodemus and Cornelius were ‘seeking’ God before their regeneration.
But if they are dead in their sins, how can this be?
Know the truth about God (Rom. 1:18-20)
Perceive God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:18-20)
Again if they are spiritually dead in the sense of total inability, how can this be?
Some Calvinists point out that in Ephesians 2, the word “faith” does not occur until verse 8, but the first work of God, “make us alive,” is mentioned in verse 5. Hence regeneration precedes faith. Not so fast!
1. Ask yourself, “Does the reference to faith in v. 8 follow the activity of v. 5? Does faith follow our seating in heavenly places in v. 6? Does faith follow our future glorification in v.7? Of course not.
2. Furthermore, one should take note of the perfect tense in v. 5 and its context. Paul is talking about a broader issue than regeneration. He is talking about salvation which includes regeneration and conversion. If regeneration is a part of salvation, and it is, and if faith precedes salvation, and it does, then faith also precedes regeneration. One simply cannot split hairs on this in Ephesians 2:1-10.
It is interesting what John Calvin himself said about this text: “[Paul] does not mean that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”
The great Greek scholar A.T. Robertson pointed out that in the Greek of Ephesians 2:8-9, grace is God’s part and faith is our part. The antecedent of “this” is not “faith” or “grace,” but is the entire act of being saved by grace conditioned by faith on our part (Word Pictures).
1. The capacity of faith means one can do otherwise than believe.
2. No one can exercise saving faith on his own apart from enabling grace.
3. To accuse non-Calvinists of believing otherwise is a straw man.
4. The question is whether God sovereignly chose to create humanity with the ability to exercise faith and whether God restores that ability by enabling grace through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God apart from selective regeneration.
A “principal cause” is an efficient cause which produces an effect by virtue of its own power. An “instrumental” cause is an efficient cause which produces an effect by virtue of the power of another cause.
In salvation, grace is the principal cause and faith is the instrumental cause.
Consider this syllogism with respect to Ephesians 2:8-9:
1. “Through faith” is the instrumental cause of “made alive.”
2. Instrumental cause necessarily precedes its effect – “made alive.”
3. Faith precedes regeneration.
The only place an effect can precede its cause is on Star Trek.
Allen’s presentation used numerous scriptural and historical references controverting in a scholarly yet understandable way that regeneration does not precede faith. Whereas we struggled not to post his notes in their entirety, we leave you with these concluding remarks of Allen’s:
“Spurgeon said: ‘Arminianism marries Christ to a bride he did not choose.’ I say Calvinism marries Christ to a bride in a shotgun wedding where she did not have the choice to turn down his proposal” [with respect to regeneration and with respect to the faith that supposedly follows since no one who is regenerated can refuse to exercise faith in the Calvinist scheme].
As Ken Keathley pointed out: God’s call may not be irresistible, but it is unavoidable according to Acts 17:30-31. (“The Doctrine of Salvation,” A Theology for the Church)
1. There is no Biblical text that connects faith and regeneration in a grammatical
structure that prescribes an order that supports regeneration preceding faith.
2. There is no statement in Scripture which precludes faith preceding regeneration.
3. There are many biblical texts connecting faith and regeneration that support faith
4. There are texts that would seem to preclude the possibility of regeneration
preceding faith. (See Timothy Nichols’ Masters Thesis, “Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual
Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10,” 2004)
Moderate Calvinist Bruce Demarest said: ‘Faith does not appear to be an effect of regeneration. Clear biblical texts suggest that the act of faith logically precedes regeneration. John 1:12-13 – receiving Christ in faith results in the new birth. John 7:37-39 – faith precedes the gift of the Spirit in regenerating power. 1 John 5:1. The notion that God regenerates prior to the sinner’s response of penitent faith (chronologically or logically) appears to be biblically unwarranted.’ (Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 264-65).
There is no scripture anywhere that directly says regeneration precedes faith. That is a theological deduction that some Calvinists make that is driven more by their system than it is by Scripture. The Scripture says things like ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,’ as Paul said to the Philippian jailor in Acts 16.
Note the difference on this issue between two of our earliest Calvinist Southern Baptist theologians:
JAMES P. BOYCE: Regeneration precedes faith. Logically the enabling act of God must, in a creature, precede the act of the creature thus enabled. But this logical antecedence involves actual antecedence, or the best conceptions of our mind deceive us and are not reliable. For this logical antecedence exists only because the mind observes plainly a perceived dependence of the existence of the one on the other. But such dependence demands, if not causal, at least antecedent existence. Here it is only antecedent. . . . There is not only antecedence, but in some cases an appreciable interval. This must be true of all infants. There is no reason why it should not be true of some heathen. (Boyce, Abstract, 381).
JOHN L. DAGG: Faith is necessary to the Christian character; and must therefore precede regeneration, when this is understood in its widest sense. Even in the restricted sense, in which it denotes the beginning of the spiritual life, faith, in the sense in which James [2:17] uses the term, may precede. But a faith which exists before the beginning of spiritual life, cannot be a living faith. (Dagg, Manual of Theology, 277-ff.)
Here Boyce articulates both a logical and temporal antecedence to regeneration, whereas Dagg, at the very most, articulates something of a simultaneous understanding of faith and regeneration.
I’ll give Methodist Thomas Oden the final word: “God’s love and grace are the originating causes of salvation. The atoning death of Christ is the meritorious cause. The Spirit of God is the efficient cause. The Word of God is the instrumental cause. Faith is the conditional cause. The glory of God is the final cause. (Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit, 3:118)
Soli Deo Gloria!”