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.
Key Scripture Passages on the Relationship Between Regeneration and Faith
Exegesis must always precede systematic theology . . . logically and temporally! Can the notion of regeneration prior to faith be demonstrated exegetically?
In John 1:12-13, the use of the aorist tense verb translated “were born” indicates a past event, and often the inference is drawn that the act of the new birth precedes the act of believing. However, nothing in the grammar or syntax mandates such an interpretation. The verb is passive in voice, indicating that the act of being “born of God” was initiated by God and the one being “born” is the recipient of God’s act. However, one should not conclude that this excludes any participation by man. Nothing in the Greek of the text permits us to draw that inference. Finally, nothing is said that would indicate that being born of God was an act of man’s self-determination or man’s independent free will. None of us believes that “man’s self-determination” has anything to do with our salvation. None of us believes in any free will that is “independent” of God’s sovereignty. Free will does not vitiate God’s sovereignty nor does it eliminate the absolute necessity of God’s grace acting first on man before man can respond to God in faith. Why were the people in John 1:11 not given the right to be adopted? Was it because they weren’t regenerated? No, it was because they had not received Christ. Verse 12 gives the conditions for adoption: receiving Christ and believing on his name.
As even many Calvinist commentators point out with respect to John 1:12-13, there is nothing in this passage that speaks to a Calvinist ordo salutis. It is not exegetically possible to find “regeneration before faith” in John 1:12-13, temporally or logically.
Appeal is often made to this passage to argue the case for regeneration preceding faith. All Christians agree that regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit as verses 5-8 indicate. This sovereign work is required for salvation to occur, as verse 3 indicates. Every person is dependent upon God for salvation. Salvation is truly a divine work of grace, from beginning to end. Without regeneration, there is no salvation.
Nicodemus was confused by this and queried Jesus for further information. Jesus proceeded to speak to him about faith. Faith is required for salvation. No one is saved apart from faith. John 3:16-18 state the only way to escape final judgment is to believe in Christ. Without faith, there is no salvation.
Notice that the phrase “see life” in verse 3 is equivalent to “enter the kingdom” in v. 5. This sense of “see” is evident also in John 3:36 and 8:51. The point is one must be born again to participate in the life of the kingdom, not that the new birth must precede faith. Salvation requires a response of people known as faith and a work of God known as regeneration. In John 3, Jesus did not treat these as part of an order of salvation, but as descriptive of a single event in a person’s life.
Regeneration and conversion (which includes faith and repentance) are two different ways to speak of what is required for salvation. One emphasizes divine action; the other emphasizes human action. This passage does not indicate that regeneration is prior to faith, temporally or logically.
1 John 5:1
1 John 5:1 states: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God….” “Whoever believes” is a present tense participle. “Born” is a perfect tense verb. Some Calvinists suggest the perfect tense indicates completed past action with continuing results and draw the conclusion that faith is the result of being born again. The argument is that the verb “born” is in the perfect tense denoting an action that precedes the faith in the participle “whoever believes.”
This is an unwarranted and erroneous interpretation. Consider two examples. John 3:18 states: “He who believes is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already. . . . ” “He who believes” is a present participle. “Not condemned” is a perfect tense verb. Yet here it is clear that the “believing” precedes “not being condemned.” Consider 1 John 5:10 – “he who does not believe God has made Him a liar. . . .” “He who does not believe” translates a present participle. “Has made” translates a perfect tense verb. Here again, the perfect tense verb, “making God a liar,” is a result of the present participle, “not believing,” not its cause.
Many Calvinists argue that the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces a range of results expressed by present participles, and faith is one of them. However, exegesis always trumps systematic theology. Likewise, context and sentence structure trumps theology. Let’s compare John 3:18 with 1 John 5:1 to see if the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces the result of faith. Notice the order of events in John 3:18 is A then B. In 1 John 5:1 the order is B then A. Both make use of the perfect tense. The same grammatical structure that places being born of God before faith can also be used to describe justification as occurring after faith. See Rom 5:1. The grammar of the verses does not address an ordo salutis. The use of the perfect tense in Greek provides no support for the notion of regeneration preceding faith. To suggest otherwise is to fail to distinguish between tense and aspect in Greek verbs and verbals.
Furthermore, with respect to 1 John 5:1, contextually the simple initial act of believing is not under consideration by John. John is talking about the ongoing life of faith as a believer. The new birth precedes the ongoing life of faith obviously. But that is something altogether different from saying the new birth precedes the initial act of faith. John’s use of “born” nowhere precludes the possibility of faith preceding regeneration. One may argue for regeneration preceding faith, but one cannot argue against faith preceding regeneration. The most that can be said from the Greek present participle and perfect tense verb combination is that the actions are contemporaneous.
The broader context of John’s writings indicate he would not teach that regeneration precedes faith and elsewhere teach that faith is a condition for life as he does in John 20:31. This precludes the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.
Part of what is driving the “regeneration precedes faith” issue is a flawed anthropology drawn partly from Ephesians 2. With respect to Eph 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. 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. 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 the separation motif in Eph 2:12, 13, 19, 4:18. Col 2:12-13 indicates even though unbelievers are spiritually dead, they can still exercise faith in God. Spiritual death means separation from God, not a total destruction of all ability to hear and respond to God.
Consider Romans 6:1-11. The phrase “died to sin” occurs three times (vv. 2, 10, 11). Twice it refers to the condition of believers (2, 11), but in verse 10 the phrase refers to Jesus. Paul personifies sin as a tyrant, a dictator, who attempts to rule over believers. This phrase is Pauline shorthand for “died to sin’s authority.” The two usual interpretations given to Rom 6:6 specifically and the entire passage generally follow an errant trajectory that leads to the debate between the eradicationists (who argue that our sin nature is eradicated at conversion) and the counteractionists (who argue that our sin nature must be counteracted with the divine nature indwelling believers). In the context of Rom 6, to be “dead to sin” does not have anything to do with one’s sin nature. Both the eradicationists and the counteractionists are wrong. What has been changed at conversion that causes believers to be “dead to sin” is not their sin nature, but their relationship to sin. Sin no longer has authority over the Christian. Because of what Christ has done on the cross and our union with Him, we are now dead to sin’s authority. But our “deadness” does not preclude our ability to choose to sin as believers, as Rom 6:12-14 makes perfectly clear.
Now the point is this: the metaphorical concept of “dead” in Romans 6 simply cannot be understood to mean total inability. To counter that the context of Romans 6 is about the life of the believer while the context of Eph 2:1 is the state of the unbeliever changes nothing. The point still remains: the metaphorical use of “dead” in Scripture simply does not inculcate all the nuances that a literal use of “dead” conveys.
Part of what it means to be “dead” is to be unbelieving. How can one have a new heart (regeneration) apart from faith? To be “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) need not be understood that the unsaved are so depraved that they have no capacity to understand and/or respond to God. After all, Eph 2:8-9 does state that their salvation is “through faith.” One might argue, as many Calvinists do, that the faith in Eph 2:8-9 is given by God prior to or concomitant with salvation understood as conversion, but here also this exegetical approach runs into problems. It faces a grammatical problem because “faith” is a feminine noun in Greek and “this” is neuter. This makes it next to impossible that “faith” is the antecedent of “this.” It also faces a syntactical problem because three compliments follow the “this”: 1) not of yourselves, 2) God’s gift, and 3) not of works. As some have pointed out, to connect faith with the first two in some sense is perhaps possible, but not with the third. Otherwise, one winds up with redundancy and tautology (the gift which God gave is a gift) since faith and works are already contrasted. Better, as most exegetes take Eph 2:8-9, is to construe “this” with the entire preceding clause or sentence (2:1-7).
Some Calvinists argue that regeneration logically precedes faith and that faith is a part of conversion, but not a part of the initial act of regeneration. In this approach, faith is a part of the effects of regeneration, not the condition for regeneration. However, the Scripture is replete with passages making faith the condition for regeneration, not the result or effect of regeneration. The will to believe in Christ is the free decision of a sinner, but it is a decision that cannot be made without the prior tandem work of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
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)
Repent of sins (Luke 15:18-19)
Seek God (John 3)
Fear God (Acts 10:2)
Pray to God (Acts 10:2)
Had prayers and alms recognized by God (Acts 10:4, 31)
Know the truth about God (Rom. 1:18-20)
Perceive God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:18-20)
But some Calvinists point out that in Ephesians 2, faith does not occur until verse 8, but the first work of God to make us alive is verse 5. Hence regeneration precedes faith. Not so fast!! There are two problems with this. First, does the faith of v. 8 follow v. 5? Does faith follow our seating in heavenly places in v. 6? Does faith follow our future glorification in v.7? Of course it does not. Second, the context for the perfect tense of v. 5 suggests a broader definition which includes regeneration. If regeneration is a part of salvation and if faith logically precedes salvation, it also logically precedes regeneration.
One can see the absurdity of Shedd’s attempt to defend regeneration preceding faith in the trenchant comments of Roy Aldrich:
For example, Shedd says: ‘The Calvinist maintains that faith is wholly from God, being one of the effects of regeneration.’ This results in a strange plan of salvation. Because the sinner cannot believe, he is instructed to perform the following duties: 1. Read and hear the divine Word. 2. Give serious application of the mind to the truth. 3. Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration. Thus an unscriptural doctrine of total depravity leads to an unscriptural and inconsistent plan of salvation. Doubtless the sinner is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1b). If this means that regeneration must precede faith, then it must also mean that regeneration must precede all three of the pious duties Shedd outlines for the lost. A doctrine of total depravity that excludes the possibility of faith must also exclude the possibilities of ‘hearing the word,’ ‘giving serious application to divine truth,’ and ‘praying for the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.’ The extreme Calvinist deals with a lively spiritual corpse after all. If the corpse has enough vitality to read the Word, and heed the message, and pray for conviction, perhaps it can also believe.
Calvinists sometimes miss 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 Greek scholar A.T. Robertson pointed out that in the Greek,
“Grace” is God’s part, “faith” ours. And that (kai touto) [is] neuter [in gender], not feminine (taute), and so refers not to pistis [pisteos—“faith,” feminine] or to charis [charity—“grace,” feminine also], but to the act of being saved by grace [sesosmenoi] conditioned on faith on our part.
Man cannot exercise saving faith on his own apart from enabling grace. But the very nature of faith itself means one can do otherwise than believe. It is not true that man’s free will unassisted by enabling grace is sufficient to believe. To accuse non-Calvinists of this is a straw man. 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 for all apart from selective regeneration.
Philosophically, 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. When it comes to salvation in Eph 2:8-9, the Scripture indicates that grace is the principal cause and faith is the instrumental cause of salvation. One might illustrate this from the following syllogism:
1. “Through faith” is the instrumental cause of “made alive.”
2. Instrumental cause necessarily precedes its effect.
3. Therefore, faith precedes regeneration.
The only place an effect can precede its cause is in Star Trek.
Calvinists smuggle the notion of inability to believe into the meaning of “dead” in Eph 2:1-3. They then interpret faith as a direct gift of God given only to the elect. Faith is indeed a gift of God but not in the sense that God only gave the gift to some. Faith is a gift because it affords man the capacity to believe, the possibility to believe, the content of belief, the persuasion of truth, and the enabling to believe. The theological contention “faith is a gift of God” is not coextensive with the grammatical contention “faith” is the antecedent of “this” in Eph 2:8-9. The latter would prove the former, but the theological point does not depend only on the grammatical line of evidence. Any understanding of the grammar and syntax admits the possibility that faith is a gift; at issue is whether the grammar here proves or even addresses it.
Wallace, in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, provides a summary of the views on the connection between grace and faith in Eph 2:8-9:
1. Grace as antecedent
2. Faith as antecedent
3. Adverbial rendering without an antecedent – “and at that; and especially”
4. Grace by faith Salvation as conceptual antecedent
Paul’s repetition of “by grace you are saved” makes the antecedent clear. It is a summary of his main thought in 2:1-7. He reintroduces this clause at the beginning of v. 8 by means of the Greek conjunction gar, translated “for.”
In conclusion with respect to Eph 2:1-10, one enters into regeneration through the doorway of faith – not the reverse. The issue boils down to what one believes “faith” is and how it is exercised by the human subject. If the human will is not somehow actively involved from beginning to end in the activity of faith, then man is a mere inactive object when he is regenerated. This is what some Calvinists in fact affirm. Furthermore, faith is non-meritorious. Salvation by faith does not stand in contradiction to salvation by grace. The Calvinist seems to be saying: “if by faith (not given directly by God), then by works and not by grace.” The Scriptures teach: “by faith, not by works, but by grace.” As Rom 4:16 states: “It is of faith that it might be according to grace.” Faith is the condition for receiving salvation, not the ground for it. The atonement of Christ on the cross is the ground for salvation. Therefore the exercise of faith on the part of the sinner does not logically entail either 1) faith is a work, or 2) faith is meritorious.
If a man were regenerated before faith, at the point of regeneration he would be a regenerated unbeliever. If a man believes and is not regenerated he would be a believing unregenerate. When viewed chronologically, it is difficult to find a nanosecond of a difference between faith and regeneration. Regeneration as an act of God on the human soul occurs in the nano-second one believes. The notion of “regeneration before faith,” temporally and/or logically, is a flawed concept, as some Calvinists have themselves argued. At the very least, faith is logically antecedent to regeneration.
David L. Allen
Dean, School of Theology and Professor of Preaching
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas
See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 164. Barrett stated with respect to verse 13: “This birth is conditional upon receiving Christ and believing on his name.”
See, for example, D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: InterVarsity/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 126; Andreas Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 39.
See Brian J. Abasciano, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? The Use of 1 John 5:1 as a Proof Text,” Evangelical Quarterly 84.4 (2012), 318-20.
As with John 1:12-13, many Calvinist commentators refrain from arguing that this passage teaches regeneration precedes faith – see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 185-206; Andreas Köstenberger, John, 117-28.
For this section, I have relied heavily upon the excellent work of Brian Abasciano, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? The Use of 1 John 5:21 as a Proof Text,” 307-322. Abasciano provides the best and most substantive Greek grammatical analysis of the issue with respect to 1 John 5:21 I have seen anywhere.
A point well-made by Dan Musick in his post on this subject at http://danmusicktheology.com/faith-precedes-regeneration/. Musick examines several texts to which Calvinists appeal in an effort to support the notion of regeneration preceding faith.
See Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1966), 85. Aquinas’ Commentary on Ephesians can be accessed online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Eph2.htm#1. See also Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 155-63.
John Eadie, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 121, argued that “dead” implies moral inability, not natural inability, following the trajectory of Jonathan Edwards.
See N. Geisler, Chosen But Free, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2001), 63.
Adam and Eve died spiritually when they ate the fruit but they were still capable of hearing from God and responding to God.
The prodigal son, in a state of deadness (Luke 15:32) still recognized his sin and returned to the father.
Both Nicodemus and Cornelius were “seeking” God before their regeneration. But if they are dead in their sins, how can this be?
Roy Aldrich, “The Gift of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 122 (July, 1965), 248. See also W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 2:512-13.
John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, & Colossians, in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. by David Torrance and Thomas Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965; 1996), 145.
A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 525.
See the discussion in Ronnie Rogers, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist (Bloomington, IL: CrossBooks, 2012), 55.
Boris Hennig, “The Four Causes.” Journal of Philosophy 106(3), (2009), 137–60.
Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will – Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 167.
See the excellent discussion of this issue in Timothy Nichols, “Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10” (ThM thesis, Chafer Theological Seminary, 2004), 76.
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 334-35.
See, for example, Erickson, Christian Theology, 944-59; Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 264-65; and Geisler, Chosen But Free, 274-81. See the excellent discussion of this by non-Calvinist Steve Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” Whosever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 134-140.