Instantaneous or Progressive Regeneration?
Monergism.com refers to statements made by R.C. Sproul in an excerpt from his book, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit. Sproul makes the following statements concerning regeneration in salvific process.
One of the most dramatic moments in my life for the shaping of my theology took place in a seminary classroom. One of my professors went to the blackboard and wrote these words in bold letters: “Regeneration Precedes Faith”
In this scheme of things, the initiative falls with us. To be sure, God had sent Jesus to die on the cross before I ever heard the gospel. But once God had done these things external to me, I thought the initiative for appropriating salvation was my job.
These words were a shock to my system. I had entered seminary believing that the key work of man to effect rebirth was faith. I thought that we first had to believe in Christ in order to be born again. I use the words in order here for a reason. I was thinking in terms of steps that must be taken in a certain sequence. I had put faith at the beginning. The order looked something like this:
“Faith – rebirth -justification.”
I hadn’t thought that matter through very carefully. Nor had I listened carefully to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. I assumed that even though I was a sinner, a person born of the flesh and living in the flesh, I still had a little island of righteousness, a tiny deposit of spiritual power left within my soul to enable me to respond to the Gospel on my own.
A monergistic work is a work produced singly, by one person. The prefix mono means one. The word erg refers to a unit of work. Words like energy are built upon this root. A synergistic work is one that involves cooperation between two or more persons or things. The prefix syn – means “together with.” I labor this distinction for a reason. At issue was this: Is regeneration a monergistic work of God or a synergistic work that requires cooperation between man and God? When my professor wrote “Regeneration precedes faith” on the blackboard, he was clearly siding with the monergistic answer. After a person is regenerated, that person cooperates by exercising faith and trust. But the first step is the work of God and of God alone.
These giants of Christian history derived their view from Holy Scripture. The key phrase in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is this: “…even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have you been saved)” (Eph. 2:5). Here Paul locates the time when regeneration occurs. It takes place ‘when we were dead.’ With one thunderbolt of apostolic revelation all attempts to give the initiative in regeneration to man are smashed. Again, dead men do not cooperate with grace. Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith.
This says nothing different from what Jesus said to Nicodemus. Unless a man is born again first, he cannot possibly see or enter the kingdom of God. If we believe that faith precedes regeneration, then we set our thinking and therefore ourselves in direct opposition not only to giants of Christian history but also to the teaching of Paul and of our Lord Himself.
According to Sproul’s understanding of the salvific process, the unregenerate man is dead in his trespasses and sin and as a result, he is totally incapable of responding by faith to God and as Sproul notes, “there is no possibility of faith.” Sproul also indicates the point at which regeneration takes place is instantaneous; while the lost person is in a depraved state, dead in his sin and totally depraved, he is infused with “one thunderbolt of apostolic revelation” which is according to Sproul the irresistible initiative in regeneration that brings about repentance and saving faith and justification is accomplished.
Now with respect to this “one thunderbolt of revelation” or irresistible grace or effectual calling, regeneration would have to be instantaneous or otherwise it would have to be by default progressive and that would mean that at some point an individual would no longer be depraved or unable to begin the process of responding to God. So given the instantaneousness of regeneration or the absence of regeneration, one would have to understand that for the Calvinist, the preaching of the gospel to the unregenerate is useless. Sharing one’s testimony with the unregenerate is a waste of time because they are not even effective much less effectual because of the totally depraved state of the unregenerate individual. Since God’s efficacious calling is solely what brings about regeneration, preaching and teaching and witnessing prior to regeneration have no bearing on one’s repentance and saving faith and justification. Regeneration occurs at God’s sole command and conversion is automatically the result.
This must be understood. The preaching and teaching of the Word of God to the unregenerate cannot be made the means God uses to accomplish the end; unless one is willing to relegate the role of regeneration to a progressive one. This would be tantamount to accepting a picture of prevenient grace followed by or leading to irresistible grace. For if regeneration is progressive, then what you have is a form of prevenient grace with an irresistible conclusion and then the question comes into play, what determines when and how prevenient grace becomes irresistible. To counter this possibility is the work of effectual calling in the regeneration process. Effectual calling cannot be progressive but rather must be instantaneous or else it could not be considered effectual.
Given this fact, regeneration as defined and presented by Calvinism does not line up with the Scriptures because the Scriptures are clear, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom 10:17 NKJV) It is clear in the Scripture that the preaching of the gospel is what brings about conversion. Nowhere in the Scripture is it even hinted that regeneration or an efficacious calling is what effectuates conversion. Consider the following passages of Scripture:
14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!”
16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom 10:14-17 NKJV)
25 Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began 26 but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith — 27 to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen. (Rom 16:25-27 NKJV)
16 For I am 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17 NKJV)
Even as Paul speaks about the power of the gospel to save those who believe, it is the power of the spoken Word that brings new life; not God’s effectual calling. The gospel has no appeal whatsoever to the person who has not been regenerated. Dead people cannot hear spoken words. This is the foundation to total depravity. It is simple. According to the Calvinist platform, effectual calling and regeneration bring about conversion, not the preaching of the cross or the gospel.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Cor 1:18-25 NKJV
14 Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:14-16 NKJV)
22 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. 23 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
(Luke 7:22-23 NKJV)
Jesus says it plainly here; blessed are those who hear this message being preached to them and are not offended because of Me. It is the power of the spoken Word that has the power to touch men’s hearts and change their lives! This is the real emphasis of John chapter 1 where Jesus is
Identified as the incarnate Word, Who “was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:1-5 NKJV) The Word that spoke the world into existence and breathed life into Adam is the same Word that can breathe spiritual life into our sin hardened hearts and make us whole again.
6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:6-10 NKJV)
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:8-13 NKJV)
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Cor 15:1-11 NKJV)
It is crystal clear; the Bible does not speak of nor even support a salvific possibility of God regenerating an individual outside of the work of the Word of God and its proclamation. It is the proclamation of the gospel that causes lost men to see their sin and their need of a Savior and to hear God’s promise to save those who believe. Calvinism errantly seeks to establish new birth as the sole result of God’s predestined will and subsequent effectual calling, which is not contingent at all upon the proclamation of the gospel because prior to that effectual calling, the gospel has no effect at all on the lost, unregenerate person.
Now this brings up another point. Monergism posits God and God alone in the salvific process. The Calvinist will contend that God and God alone regenerates the lost person and that person repents and is saved. Man plays no part in the process whatsoever. So when it comes to believing, it is God plus nothing (any response from the individual prior to regeneration) that brings about conversion. Why is it then that the Calvinist will argue that it is God plus man that is responsible to bring the message to the unregenerate man? Why would monergism not apply in the sharing of the gospel as it does in the receiving of the gospel? If God does not need man’s participation in receiving the gospel, why does He need man’s participation in the sharing of the gospel? The truth is, it is not necessary for that sharing has no effect unless and until God makes the unregenerate able to hear and understand and then gives him the ability to respond to that message.
Calvinism which posits salvation by regeneration or effectual calling simply is not supported by the Scriptures and needs to be once and for all put to rest.
Dr. Bob Hadley
Pastor Westside Baptist Church
Daytona Beach, FL
Chancellor, Atlantic Coast Bible College and Seminary