Dr. David L. Allen, 2013 John 3:16 Presentation, Part 1/3

May 15, 2013

Below is a portion of a March 21-22, 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentation.

Read the Baptist Press article about the conference here: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=39992

A free e-book containing the 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentations is scheduled to be released at SBC Today on May 30, 2013.

Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

David L. Allen, Ph.D.



            Most Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes faith. Consider the following statements:

“A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved.”[1]

“A man is not regenerated because he has first believed in Christ, but he believes in Christ because he has been regenerated.”[2]

“We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again that we may believe.”[3]

“Faith is the evidence of the new birth, not the cause of it.”[4]

“. . . regeneration is the necessary precondition and efficient cause of faith in Jesus Christ.”[5]

“the revived [regenerated] heart repents and trusts Christ in saving faith as the only source of justification.”[6]

Some Calvinists believe that regeneration can occur in infancy and remain inactive until faith years later.[7] Other Calvinists reject the notion that regeneration precedes faith.[8]

Why do most Calvinists believe regeneration precedes faith? There are two reasons. First, most Calvinists define total depravity to mean total inability in the sense that a person cannot exercise faith unless regenerated. Second, appeal is made to key Scripture passages such as John 1:12-13; 3:1-16; Eph. 2:1-10; and 1 John 5:1. We shall consider these reasons in a moment.

The phrase “regeneration precedes faith” is fraught with ambiguity. What does one mean by “regeneration”? What does one mean by “faith”? What does one mean by “precede” (logically or temporally)? Are we talking about mediate regeneration (by means of the Word of God) or immediate regeneration (no use of means, but the Holy Spirit acts directly and immediately on the person to effect regeneration)? Part of the confusion over this issue is a failure to carefully define terms and draw careful distinctions.


Key Distinctions Concerning Regeneration and Faith

Most Calvinists say there are three things that must be distinguished when it comes to the issue of regeneration preceding faith. The first distinction is between temporal and logical order. A majority of Calvinists argue that temporally, regeneration and conversion are simultaneous events. But they often see a necessary logical order. For example, Sproul says:

“. . . when Reformed theology says regeneration precedes faith, it is speaking in terms of logical priority, not temporal priority. We cannot exercise saving faith until we have been regenerated, so we say faith is dependent on regeneration, not regeneration on faith.”[9]

John MacArthur states: “From the standpoint of reason, regeneration logically must initiate faith and repentance. But the saving transaction is a single, instantaneous event.”[10] I agree with the later part of this statement, but why must the former be the case? Notice MacArthur’s use of the terms “reason” and “logically.”

Concerning the phrase “when we were dead” in Eph 2:5, Sproul remarks: “Dead men do not cooperate with grace. Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith.”[11] But this only adds to the confusion. How can an effect be logically prior to its cause? How can an effect be temporally simultaneous with its cause? It would appear Sproul’s use of the word “first” indicates temporal priority. What sense does it make to say that something is “logically” prior but not “temporally” prior? Sproul is assuming his definition of what it means to be “dead.” Wayne Grudem stated: “Yet there are several passages that tell us that this secret, hidden work of God in our spirits does in fact come before we respond to God in saving faith (though often it may be only seconds before we respond).”[12] If regeneration occurs “seconds before we respond in saving faith,” then there is both a logical and a temporal precedence for regeneration. Notice the contradiction between what MacArthur says and what Grudem says about the temporal aspects: things cannot be “instantaneous” and yet be separated even by “only seconds.”

A second distinction made by most Calvinists is between regeneration and conversion. Some suggest conversion follows regeneration. Salvation is by faith, but not regeneration, according to some Calvinists. Others argue that regeneration and conversion occur simultaneously, but causally regeneration is “prior” to conversion. For the Calvinist, one can only respond in repentance and faith after God has given new life. But again, it makes no sense to speak of a logical priority if one can only speak of faith as occurring after God gives new life.

For example, Hoekema states: “When Nicodemus and the jailer believed the gospel message, they came to realize that God had given them new life in regeneration. They became aware of their regeneration through its results.”[13] But at this point one must ask how this is not both temporal as well as causal? Hoekema attempts to explain the problem by using an illustration of a water faucet. The turning of the faucet handle immediately releases the flow of water. The two events are simultaneous but the turning of the handle was causally prior to the flow of water. But imagine for a moment that we have a see-through glass faucet. Can the water get past that internal mechanism which releases the water without the knob being turned? If the water cannot run first or simultaneously, then there is an actual chronology to the event and not just a logical order. As we will see below, salvation and regeneration appear to be inseparable in Scripture.

Millard Erickson pointed out how Calvinist John Murray, who strongly affirms regeneration precedes faith, appears to entangle himself in contradiction when he stated: “The faith of which we are now speaking is not the belief that we have been saved, but trust in Christ in order that we may be saved.”[14] If “trust in Christ” is necessary “in order that” one may be saved, how can it not be a logical necessity, if not also a temporal necessity? Salvation by faith cannot be reduced to mean only “justification by faith” because biblically salvation by faith entails more than justification.

Moderate Calvinist Bruce Demarest feels this pinch when he 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.[15]

A third distinction made by most Calvinists is that of initial regeneration and final or complete regeneration. In early Reformed theology, regeneration was viewed in a wider sense than it is often viewed by Calvinists today. Calvin himself used the term “regeneration” to describe one’s total renewal, including conversion. Thus for Calvin, there is no distinction between regeneration and conversion. Later Reformed theologians began to distinguish between regeneration in a narrower sense and a broader sense. When they do this, there is usually no Scriptural evidence cited for this distinction. Where is the Scriptural justification for this distinction?[16]

Those who affirm such a distinction expand the definition of regeneration to include any work of God in the sinner’s life before he believes the gospel. In initial regeneration, humans are totally passive. This would be “initial” regeneration.[17] Complete regeneration is said to occur at conversion where the first evidences of the implanted new life appears. But where is the Scriptural evidence for this distinction? This is an assertion Calvinists make based on theological deduction rather than Scripture.

Most Calvinists seem to argue that regeneration in the narrow, initial sense is brought about by the immediate act of the Holy Spirit, but regeneration in the broad sense is brought about mediately by the Word of God. By the “immediate” act of the Holy Spirit is meant the notion that God acts monergistically to bring about the new birth and hence man’s faith cannot enter into the picture at this point.

It might be helpful to note the differing interpretations of the relationship between regeneration and effectual calling among Calvinists themselves. Here there are three distinct views. Some, such as Berkhof, distinguish the two and place calling after regeneration.[18] Others, such as John Murray, distinguish the two and place calling before regeneration.[19] Still others, like Hoekema, combine the two as one.[20] This illustrates once again the fact that Calvinism as a system is not monolithic and the fact that the Scripture cannot be sifted and shaken to yield a clear ordo salutis.

Demarest demarcates two broad approaches to the subject of regeneration among the Reformed. He speaks of “Presumptive and Promissory Regeneration” as advocated by those in Covenant Reformed theology and “Regeneration a Work of God in Response to Faith” as advocated by those he calls “Reformed Evangelicals.” In the system of Covenant Reformed theology, infants of believing parents are baptized not to become regenerated but because in some important sense they already posses the seeds of faith and regeneration. Baptism is a sign of the promise the covenantal grace God is working in the elect, including infants. Virtually all reformed covenant theologians affirm the logical priority of regeneration preceding faith.[21]

There is more diversity on the issue among Reformed Evangelicals. Some view regeneration as logically prior to conversion while others place conversion as logically prior to regeneration. For example, A. H. Strong understood regeneration and conversion to be chronologically simultaneous, but logically, regeneration precedes conversion.[22] Millard Erickson views faith as preceding regeneration. According to him, temporally, conversion and regeneration occur simultaneously. Logically, faith is the condition of regeneration.[23] This is also Demarest’s view:

In order to safeguard the truth that holistically depraved sinners come to Christ only by the divine initiative, many Reformed theologians place regeneration before conversion in the ordo salutis. The preceding Scripture texts indicate that effectual calling is conceptually distinct from regeneration. The power that brings sinners to Christ inheres in the Spirits effectual call rather than in the new birth itself. That is, the Spirit’s effectual call is a movement preliminary to regeneration; it stops short of effecting in believers a radical re-creation, whereby the latter participate in the divine nature. Logically speaking, the called according to God’s purpose convert, and so are regenerated. Not only is this position biblical, but we avoid the difficulty of positing, logically at least, that regeneration precedes personal belief in the Gospel, repentance from sin, and wholehearted trust in Christ.”[24]

From a Southern Baptist perspective, it is interesting to note that the Baptist Faith and Message 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 the broad biblical concept of salvation into the four categories of regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification, article IV 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.

The Scripture itself does not set forth a clear ordo salutis (“order of salvation”) with respect to all of the terms that are used to describe salvation. Thus, speculating an ordo salutis is always problematic and should be avoided. The first generation of reformers refused to speculate in this area and even warned about such speculation. Later generations of the Reformed showed a willingness to seek, in the name of systematic theology, to pull back the curtain on that which God has not chosen to reveal in Scripture. As Malcolm Yarnell once said to me, “If one deigns to speak of a logical order from eternity apart from divine revelation, then one speaks with both ignorance and arrogance.”

David L. Allen
Dean, School of Theology and Professor of Preaching
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas

                  [1]Lorainne Boettner, Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936), 101.

                  [2]Arthur W. Pink, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 55.

                  [3]R. C. Sproul, Chosen By God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1986), 73.

                  [4]John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 63.

                  [5]Robert Reymond, New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 708.

                  [6]ESV Study Bible, 2531.

                  [7]See, for example, J. P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Louisville, KY: Charles Dearing, 1882), 381; and with reference to Abraham Kuyper, see E. Smilde, Een Euew van Strijd over Verbond en Doop (Kampen: Kok, 1946), 105-06.

                  [8]See, for example, Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway); 264-65; and Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 944-59.

            [9]R. C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology: Understanding the Basics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 195.

                  [10]John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 255.

                  [11]R. C. Sproul, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1994), 105.

                  [12]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 702.

                  [13]Anthony Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 111.

                  [14]John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 136. See M. Erickson, Christian Theology, 945.

                  [15]Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 264-65.

                  [16]Grudem informs us that there are “several” passages that indicate regeneration precedes saving faith, but only lists John 3:5 (a passage we will address below). He then proceeds to list other passages to support the notion that “our inability to come to Christ on our own, without an initial work of God within us. . . ,” is not possible, a point all non-Calvinists agree with. But these verses he cites don’t teach that regeneration precedes faith. That is Grudem’s deduction. See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 702.

                  [17]See L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 465-69; and Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 93-94.

                  [18]Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 470-72.

                  [19]John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 104; 119-20.

                  [20]Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 106.

                  [21]Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 285-87; 289-91.

                  [22]A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1889), 793.

                  [23]Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 944-47.

                  [24]Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 227.