John Calvin: In His Own Words
Article four: Faith or Regeneration?

by Ron Hale

He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, and Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.


Remember the classic conundrum that asks: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The secular mind can kick this can down a long road arriving only at one’s wit’s end. A Christian worldview sees the answer immediately. On the fifth day of creation, God created every winged and flying fowl according to its kind (Genesis 1:20-23). I’ve seen chickens fly, especially in high winds; and any country kid knows a chicken is a fowl. We also had a small flock of raucous Guinea fowl. Mom never fried one; therefore, I assumed it was more for looking at, sort of like the Peacock down the road at Mr. Jeter’s place.

Next! This brainteaser is solved.

Alright, which comes first, (gulp) faith or regeneration in the order of salvation? To ask it another way: does regeneration precede faith in conversion?

In his own words, John Calvin gave his opinion in writing commentary on the Gospel of John as he dealt with verse 13 in Chapter One:

 

“Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God.

It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later.”[i]

[Addendum by Ron Hale: “It has been pointed out to me that Calvin went on to say, ‘I reply, both statements perfectly agree; because by faith we receive the incorruptible seed, (I Peter 1:23) by which we are born again to a new and divine life.'” (Please see comments between Ron and Andrew Wencl.)]

I was astounded a number of years ago to learn that some Calvinists believe regeneration precedes faith and devotedly defend this premise. In fact, they would reverse Calvin’s ordo salutis by placing regeneration first in this order. Some have said they are teaching that a person must be born again before he or she believes in Jesus. They would teach that God’s life must precede faith since they teach that spiritually dead people (totally depraved people) cannot exercise saving faith. Some would refer to this as “total inability,” and they believe the lost sinner is as dead as a corpse in a mortician’s morgue – can’t see, hear, breathe, or respond. Therefore, holding to this position requires the spiritually dead person to be completely unable to respond to God similar to dead and decaying Lazarus coming forth from a tomb after experiencing new life at the command and call of Jesus.

Dr. Kendell H. Easley postulates that regeneration precedes faith, therefore, he would disagree with Calvin and identify more with the reformers coming after the Synod of Dort, he writes:

Regeneration happens at the moment of conversion. Yet, the logical relationship between the Spirit’s regenerating work in a sinner and that sinner’s repentance and faith has been the focus of much heated discussion. Is faith the basis upon which the Spirit regenerates or is faith the fruit of regeneration? The biblical language, emphasizing regeneration as moving from death to life and as sovereignly worked by the Spirit, appears to favor the latter view and understands faith itself as a gift from God. One illustration sometimes used is that human infants breathe because they have been born, not in order to be born.”[ii]

Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Seminary has a different perspective. His approach seems to care only what the Bible teaches and there is no hint of having to defend an all-encompassing theological system (Calvinism or Arminianism) based on the answer. Dr. Yarnell is seeking to answer a question posed to him via the Internet:

“Do you teach that regeneration precedes conversion at SWBTS?”

The person asked for a detailed answer and got one. Here it is, verbatim.
In my systematic theology lectures on soteriology, I discuss this issue, which comes under the general heading of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). First of all, please realize that most discussions of the ordo salutis are highly speculative and quickly become independent of divine revelation as they flee toward human speculation and philosophy. This includes both the Calvinist (Synod of Dort) and Arminian/Wesleyan systems. I teach my students to reject both systems as human innovations and stick strictly with Scripture.

Let us focus upon John 3 as an example of how this works. In verses 1-18, both regeneration and faith are discussed by the One who saves us. Faith, as you know, is one side of the coin of conversion, and indicates full trust in God; repentance is the other side of that coin. Regeneration means to be born again, or to be born from above. Let us discuss both faith and regeneration from this passage.

  • Regeneration is a sovereign, mysterious work of the Holy Spirit (vv. 5-8), yet Jesus says it is required for our salvation (v. 3). This means that we are dependent upon God for our 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, or believing in the sense of full trust, is required as well if we are to be saved. The world is facing judgment and the only way to escape that judgment is if one will believe in Christ and what He came to the world to do through His incarnation, death, and resurrection (vv. 16-18). Without faith, there is no salvation.

Jesus, however, did not stop with faith. He also proceeded to speak of the redeemed life.

  • Faith, if it is true faith, will issue forth in a changed life, or Repentance (vv. 19-21). If we are of the Light and welcome in the kingdom of Light than we will practice deeds of Light. In other words, repentance, or the changing of our life to follow Christ, is part and parcel of faith! (Indeed, one may not claim to know God’s grace without being a disciple who seeks to obey His Lord in all things. Saying “Jesus is Lord” is the basic Christian confession, so salvation without lordship is nonsensical. Indeed, anyone who says they have Jesus as savior without having Jesus as Lord is deceived and deceiving.)

We are not done, so hold on to your seat. Regeneration, a work of God, is required of us for our salvation (John 3:1-8). Faith, our personal response to Christ and his cross, is required of us for our salvation (John 3:9-18). And repentance, our personal following of Christ and taking up our own cross, is integral to our salvation, too (John 3:19-21). Now, Jesus did not treat these as part of an order, but as descriptive of a single and profoundly momentous, and indeed the most important, 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. Yet, even the human action that is required is also a gift, for faith and repentance are the gifts of God, too!

  1. Regeneration is required for salvation (John 3:3). Regeneration is a gift of God (John 3:5-8).
  2. Faith is a human duty (Mark 1:14). Faith is a divine gift (Eph. 2:8-9).
  3. Repentance is a human duty (Matt. 4:16, Acts 17:30). Repentance is a divine gift (John 16:8-10).


When Jesus and the apostles talk about the great and beautiful truth of salvation, they describe something so great that it is beyond our capability and comprehension. And yet, God demands of us to exercise all that he gives us to exercise in faith and repentance.

My friend, Regeneration is required and is a gift; Faith is required and is a gift; and, Repentance is required and is a gift. And nowhere in Scripture is there any indication that any of these things are prior to the other. REGENERATION AND CONVERSION ARE CONCOMITANT ACTIONS OF GOD THAT ALSO DEMAND HUMAN RESPONSE!

This is why our denomination’s confession treats regeneration neither as prior to or subsequent from conversion. Rather, it treats regeneration and conversion as concomitant realities of the one moment we understand to be the beginning of salvation. Separating salvation into four moments (regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification), article IV of the Baptist Faith and Message treats regeneration and conversion as part of one moment: 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.” And Southern Baptists believe this because they follow the Jesus Christ of the Bible, and although they respect John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, they will walk with those two only insofar as they follow the Bible. Baptists are Biblicists: no more, no less.

Or, if you want a simple answer to your simple question, “Does regeneration precede conversion?” The answer is, “No, but neither does conversion precede regeneration.” Calvinists and Arminians would respond that they are not speaking of a temporal order but a logical order, and I would respond that if one deigns to speak of a logical order from eternity apart from divine revelation, then one speaks with both ignorance and arrogance.

May I ask you a question, good sir? Have you responded to the free offer of God’s grace in Christ Jesus? God sent His only begotten Son to become a human being, to die upon a cross to atone for the sins of the world, and to rise from the dead so that those who believe in Him might also have eternal life. Jesus died on the cross for your sins; Jesus rose from the dead for your resurrection. Do you know Him as your personal Lord and Savior? Have you been born again? Have you repented and believed? If not, I beg of you to follow Jesus, who came preaching, “Repent and Believe in the Gospel!”[iii]

Blessings and you may follow the link to: http://www.baptisttheology.org/questions.cfm


[i] Calvin’s Commentaries, John 1:6-13 at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/comment3/comm_vol34/htm/vii.ii.htm

[ii] Kendell H. Easley, 52 Words Every Christian Should Know, Holman Reference, Nashville, 2006, 87.

[iii] http://www.baptisttheology.org/questions.cfm