Regeneration: When Does New Life Begin?

January 17, 2014

by Ron F. Hale

(Comments pre-moderated)

Viewpoints on the doctrine of regeneration collide and clash in the evangelical blogosphere. Is the sinner regenerated prior to faith or subsequently?  It boils down to the question of “when?”

Reformed theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul shares his personal experience: “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.’”[1]

With polarizing gravitas, Sproul declares, “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.”[2]

In stark contrast, my dramatic moment came a decade ago when realizing that many New Calvinists in the SBC teach that a sinner is regenerated or “born-again” in order to believe.  To say it another way, the sinner believes because he or she has been born-again (regenerated).

All of my SBC teaching and training had taught me that the regenerating work of God happens “as” or “after” a sinner (under conviction by the Holy Spirit) responds to the Gospel through repentance and faith. In other words, the sinner believes in Jesus and eternal life is imparted by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. The person becomes a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and partakes of a new nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

Consequently, if you believe a sinner is dead as a corpse (totally depraved and unable to freely respond to God) and faith is a gift given to particular ones (the elect), and only those individuals sovereignly and unconditionally elected before the foundation of the world will be irresistibly drawn to Christ – then it is highly likely you believe that regeneration precedes faith.

Dr. Kendell Easley wrote a book entitled 52 Words Every Christian Should Know (2006). Easley sides with Sproul on the matter of regeneration preceding faith. He defines the word in this manner:

Regeneration or being born again refers to God’s act of making a person alive spiritually. This is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit by which sinners are given new spiritual life enabling them to relate to God in faith, love, obedience, and delight.”[3]

Easley makes his position clearer as he says, “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 as sovereignly worked by the Spirit, appears to favor the later view and understands faith itself as a gift from God.[4]  John Frame would agree with Sproul and Easley as he states, “The Spirit regenerates us, producing faith.”[5]

Conversely, Dr. Kenneth Keathley, senior associate dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, makes the case for faith preceding the new birth (regeneration) and lays out three strong biblical arguments, they are:

First, the many appeals in the Bible calling sinners to respond to the gospel imply that conversion results in regeneration. The Scriptures are presented as the seed the Spirit of God uses to bring about new life (I Pet. 1:23; James 1:18,21; I John 3:9). That the Word of God is the Spirit’s instrumental means indicates that faith leads to regeneration.[6]

Second, the Bible presents conversion as the condition to salvation, not the result of being saved (John 1:12; 3:16,18,24,36,40; Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:22, 26; 4:3,5; 5:1). The apostles repeatedly promise their hearers that, if they will repent and believe, then they will be saved (Acts 2:38; 16:30-31). The Apostle John put special emphasis on the necessity of the new birth, but he presented faith as the condition to becoming a child of God (John 1:12-13) and to receiving eternal life (“By believing you may have life in his name,” John 20:31).[7]

Third, Keathley uses a point made by Dr. Norman Geisler … that if regeneration is prior to conversion, then salvation is no longer by faith. If one is already regenerated before he believes, then faith is not a condition to salvation but the evidence of having been saved. However, sola fide is the testimony of Scripture (Rom. 10:9-10).[8]

Geisler’s point is well taken – a “born again unbeliever” is difficult to imagine even if the time span is infinitesimally small. Charles C. Ryrie has asked, “… for it may as well be argued that if a sinner has new life through regeneration, why does he need to believe?”[9]

Dr. Gary L. Nebeker questions the view of faith being given as a gift to some: “The concept of infused faith for salvation bears a marked resemblance to the sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, faith becomes a transmitted and efficacious element, which God gives to men for salvation. Again, it must be emphasized that faith is not a substance, but a human response prompted by the Holy Spirit.”[10]

Could it be that Reformed divines fought so hard in guarding Church orthodoxy against pelagianism (and semi-pelagianism)[11] and for salvation being purely and solely of God that they missed the living reality that God looks for a free and loving response of faith as the Holy Spirit draws the sinner through the Gospel?

In Luke 7, the “sinful” woman drenches the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints His feet with expensive perfume. Meanwhile, the Pharisee is nauseated by this nonsense. Finally, Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” How? Why? When? What for?

Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

The Bible is null and void of teaching that saving faith is a special gift of God to a privileged and particular few.  The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (to whosoever), and as the sinner hears the Word of Truth, he or she is born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God (I Pet. 1:23).

©Ron F. Hale, January 5, 2014


[2] Ibid.

[3] Kendell Easley, 52 Words Every Christian Should Know, (Nashville, Holman Reference, 2006), 86.

[4] Ibid. 87.

[6] Kenneth Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007), 743. Also, Dr. Keathley believes that conversion is made up of two distinguishable yet inseparable parts: repentance and faith, 728.

[7] Ibid. 743.

[8] Ibid.743.

[9] Basic Theology, (Wheaton: Victor, 1986; reprint ,Chicago: Moody, 1999), 326.

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Clay Gilbreath

Thank you Brother Ron. There are 2 big issues where I strongly disagree with Calvinism – this one, “does regeneration precede faith?” and the other: “does God cause all things?” Thank you for the great article.

Christian

This was so well written. How can anyone believe otherwise? When I chose to put my faith in Jesus instead of self I was saved! Praise The Lord!

volfan007

Ron,

When you said, “Could it be that Reformed divines fought so hard in guarding Church orthodoxy against pelagianism (and semi-pelagianism)[11] and for salvation being purely and solely of God that they missed the living reality that God looks for a free and loving response of faith as the Holy Spirit draws the sinner through the Gospel?” you hit the ole nail squarely on the head.

Another great article. Thanks, Brother.

David

Marty Comer

Ron,

It seems that those who argue that “regeneration precedes faith” often elevate their Reformed Systematic theology over a clear biblical theology. When someone presupposes a theological template and then attempts to overlay that template on the scriptures to validate a preconceived theological system, it can lead to all kinds of problems. The clearly biblical approach proffered by Dr. Keathley is compelling and seems to allow the scriptures to speak for themselves without looking at them through the presuppositions of Reformed theology.

    Tim G

    Marty,
    Your comment is spot on! That is a great description of how the Reformed approach is applied and fails!

    Ron F. Hale

    Marty,
    Yes, I agree with your comment about bringing theological presuppositions to overlay the Scriptures, as Tom Douglas noted below, that we all bring forth a certain lens or “system” in intrepreting the Bible. Actually, I am working on a future article that trys to spell that out a little and show the outcome of our presuppositions. For instance, John Owen once wrote of John 3:16 …”God so loved his elect throughout the world …. .” Well, I could never see it that way in a thousand life times; yet, some do.

    Blessings!

Norm Miller

Ron:

Given the biblical evidence offered by Dr. Keathley, you, and others, I cannot fathom how Presbyterians or anyone else would hold to any other position than what you have so ably indicated, here. Others have previously noted that Calvin’s pentagram of postulations depends on interpreting total depravity as total inability; and thus it would follow in that system that totally “unable” people must be regenerated first in order to have/express any faith. And, of course, according to that system, this process is what makes grace irresistible: if God regenerates you to have faith, then you will have no choice but to follow through and become a Christian. It is all so logical for the New Calvinists; but whether it is THEOlogical is the question. Your essay above has not only answered that question, but it raises several other subsequent and serious ones to consider. Thank you. — Norm

    Robert

    Norm you wrote that:

    “Given the biblical evidence offered by Dr. Keathley, you, and others, I cannot fathom how Presbyterians or anyone else would hold to any other position than what you have so ably indicated, here.”

    I agree, if we look solely at the available biblical evidence we conclude that faith precedes or occurs simultaneously with regeneration (not after regeneration).

    But the problem is the *Calvinist theological system* in which biblical evidence must be reinterpreted to fit with the system (rather than vice versa).

    You mention the Presbyterians which brings up an analogous situation and another error. Consider baptism. The available biblical evidence clearly leads to the conclusion of believer baptism. But Presbyterians and others who hold to covenant theology must reinterpret the biblical evidence to fit with their covenant theology (rather than vice versa). So they end up with the unbiblical position of paedobaptism.

    It is significant that Calvinists/Reformed people often make both of these errors (regeneration preceding faith and infant baptism) because of their holding to false theological systems. And it is not a matter of intelligence or commitment to the truth of the Bible as there are some absolutely brilliant Presbyterians who advocate, defend, and support these errors because of their commitment to their mistaken theological systems. Unfortunately, a person’s theological system will trump their intelligence, what the Bible actually presents every time.

    Robert

      Norm Miller

      Some Cs attempt to justify infant baptism as a corollary to OT circumcision. What of infant girls in this age of grace?

    wingedfooted1

    “Thus, in the complex process by which the Spirit applies, and the believer receives, the benefits of Christ’s redemption, there is the change of nature usually known as regeneration, the mystical union with Christ, the source of spiritual life, and saving faith, which is the sinner’s act of appropriating Christ and his benefits. The first two are implied in effectual calling, and the third grows out of it. Effectual calling viewed Christ-wards effects spiritual union with him; viewed man-wards it produces regeneration, and in the sphere of man’s activity it evinces faith in Christ.” – (Westminster Shorter Catechism Project: The Presbyterian Standards; Chapter 15: Effectual Calling; Union with Christ; Regeneration)

    “But, when thus quickened and renewed by the effectual call which results in regeneration and union with Christ, the sinner is able to answer the call by the response which his personal faith gives.” – (Westminster Shorter Catechism Project: The Presbyterian Standards; Chapter 15: Effectual Calling; Union with Christ; Regeneration)

    Norm,

    Agreed. Within itself, it all makes perfect sense, but there isn’t any biblical evidence to support it. And yet our calvinists brothers and sisters, with all sincerity, truly believe this is to be the case.

    Romans 11:17 (NKJV)….
    “So then faith comes by (spiritual regeneration? No. spiritual freedom? No. But rather….) hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

    Hebrews 4:2 (NKJV)…..
    “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word (of God) which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with (spiritual regeneration? No. spiritual freedom? No. But rather…..) faith in those who heard it.”

    God bless

      Norm Miller

      Faith comes by hearing the word of God. Hmmm? Does opting for the Presby position not denigrate the power of God’s Word? Good point, WF1.

        wingedfooted1

        “Yes, men believe the gospel to be saved. No question about it. I believe it, I preach it, I call all men to do it. I just know that no man will do it unless and until the miracle of regeneration takes place first. God must open the heart. God must enlighten the mind. God must grant faith. And when God draws one of His elect to Himself, He draws them to Christ through the gospel. The unfailing result of being drawn by the Father is looking to, believing in, coming to (all present tense actions) the Son. It is the nature of the new creature in Christ to believe in Him.” (James White: Debating Calvinism, page 305)

        “Regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit which brings us into a living union with Christ, only refers to the first step in the work of God in our salvation. It is universally agreed among evangelicals, myself included, that the second step, faith in Christ, must be exercised by the sinner if one is to be justified (saved). Therefore, justification is conditional (on our faith) … but our regeneration (or spiritual birth) is unconditional; an expression of God’s grace freely bestowed, for it is unconstrained and not merited by anything God sees in those who are its subjects. Regeneration and Justification, although occurring almost simultaneously are, therefore, not the same. Regeneration has a causal priority over the other aspects of the process of salvation. The new birth (regeneration), therefore, is what brings about a restored disposition of heart which is then willing to exercise faith in Christ unto justification.” (John Hendryx: Monergism Vs. Synergism: monergism.com)

        Yes, brother, only in calvin-land is a sinner “in Christ” before he believes in Christ.

        Go figure.

Robin D. Foster

Ron

” if regeneration is prior to conversion, then salvation is no longer by faith. If one is already regenerated before he believes, then faith is not a condition to salvation but the evidence of having been saved.”

Thanks for bringing out what Keathley and Geisler have already stated. This to me is the drop dead argument against regeneration preceding faith.

Tim G

Ron,
This is well done! The “faith” aspect is a must for it is written all over the Bible. We miss Jesus if we weaken faith!

Danny Davis

Amen and Amen. Thank you.

Chris

Question. Brother Ron, how do you understand the Baptist Faith and Message at this point, which teaches that sinners respond to regeneration in repentance and faith?

“A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It 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. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace. Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.”

Thanks,
Chris

    Tim Rogers (@Timothy_Rogers)

    Chris,

    You make the same mistake many make when they try to prove the BF&M advocates Regeneration before salvation. You are looking at it totally to make your point. Two things to remember. 1.) Adrian Rogers was the chairman of that committee. I can assure you at no place will you ever find Dr. Rogers advocating such a position as you posit the BF&M makes. 2.) Your copy & paste job reveals you are not reading the statement correctly. If one goes to the statement one will find that your last two sentences are not part of the paragraph but a separate paragraph. Thus, these last sentences are statements explaining “Regeneration” http://www.sbc.org/bfm/bfm2000.asp

      Chris

      Tim,
      First, cut down the accusatory tone. I’m not trying to “make a point” or “prove” anything. I don’t believe regeneration precedes faith temporally – and I never look to the BF&M to make my point, I look to Scripture. …

      Second, my question was how Ron understands the comment.

      Third, the statement specifically states that sinners “respond” to regeneration with repentance and faith. I want to know how Ron understands that issue in light of his article. That is all. Saying that Adrian Rogers didn’t believe in a temporal precedent of regeneration has nothing to do with my question. If Calvinists and non-Calvinists are going to use the BF&M as a common confession of faith, it would help to understand how each understands the document.

      Chris

        Tim Rogers (@Timothy_Rogers)

        Chris,

        How can you say I have an accusatory tone? I merely stated what you said. You said the BF&M sinners respond to regeneration. I merely pointed out that in your position advocates a presumed position.

      volfan007

      Chris,

      I also just don’t see the BFM2K teaching that regeneration happens before salvation, either. I just don’t really see what you’re apparently seeing.

      David

    wingedfooted1

    Chris,

    Look carefully at the first sentence.

    “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus.”

    Notice it reads “whereby BELIEVERS become new creatures in Christ Jesus”.

    If regeneration precedes faith, then the sentence should read….

    “whereby UNBELIEVERS become new creatures in Christ Jesus.”

    God bless.

    Donald Holmes

    Chris,
    Years ago I personally contacted members of the the BF&M 2000 committee and have been assured that there was no intention to advocate Regeneration preceding Faith. If the words awkwardly permit that interpretation, they reminded me that the BF&M is not inspired and any weakness in the wording should be forgiven. Two members specifically said that they cannot see the syntax advocating that position. That being said, Dr Mohler did not respond, but another member said that idea was never under consideration.

    Donald

    Rick Patrick

    Sometimes I think Calvinists are simply prone to getting things out of order. They view men as guilty before they sin and regenerate before they believe. They even install men as leaders before they are members—more on this later. Calvinists put the cart before the horse, “gesundheit” before “kerchoo” and “you’re welcome” before “thank you.”

    Ron,
    What an amazing article—thanks for your brilliant research and insightful analysis.

    Chris,
    Grammatically, we are trying to identify an unclear antecedent for the “to which the sinner responds” clause. Two legitimate options exist. If the antecedent is the main clause topic of “regeneration” then the sinner is responding to his rebirth and the BFM views regeneration as preceding faith. The other legitimate option is to view as the antecedent the closest noun—”conviction of sin.” In this case, the sinner is responding in a process of repentance and faith considered instrumental in “wringing” the change of heart that is regeneration, and accordingly, the BFM views faith as preceding regeneration.

    Here’s another example: “He has never visited Rome, which is amazing.” What exactly is amazing? The fact that he has never visited Rome? Or the city of Rome itself? It could be either, depending upon the context and any further clarifying statements. I have to wonder if the ambiguity here was intentional.

      Norm Miller

      Rick:

      Rome is amazing — both in reality and in proper grammar. If one wants to express amazement about someone who has never visited Rome, then the sentence should be restructured: “It is amazing that he has not visited Rome.”

      Per your wondering “if the ambiguity here was intentional,” I would be disappointed deeply to learn if that were true. Grammatical subterfuge for the purpose of harmony is wrong at its heart. Whereas (if) it may have been ambiguous intentionally for the sake of harmony, such grammatical guile would have placed the theological preferences of men above the truth of Scripture. How tragic, to say the least.

    Ron F. Hale

    Chris,
    First, there have already been some great comments to your question.

    Preceding your “regeneration” quote in the BFM, it says of salvation …”and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” … and … “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”

    I think these statements best interpret the statements that follow. Also, history gives us clues.

    The New Hampshire Confession of 1833 is the template for the 1925 and therefore the 1963, and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message confessions. The NHC represented a move away from the very reformed Second London Confession.

    While the Second London Confession affirmed unconditional predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace – the NHC did not. Mullins, Hobbs, and Rogers served as chairmen of our three BFM confessions and they did not personally support “regeneration preceding faith.”

    I see the BFM as supporting … conversion (repentance and faith) as a free response to the Gospel and we are given New Life by the grace of God.

    Blessings!

Pam Knight

Ron, I know that I have thanked all you guys a thousand times for your continued faithfulness in sharing the Truth about this issue, but I just have to say it again. Thank you so much. Ron, whether it is you or Norm or David or Peter addressing this issue, as I read it my heart fills with hope and my eyes fill with tears to the point I can hardly read. I can’t wait to get through reading it and share it on my facebook page praying each time that this will be the words that the Holy Spirit uses to explain to my son where he has gotten off track in scripture and doctrine. So just remember when God is moving you to share there are moms and dads and others out here thankful for your availability to the Lord.
In Christ
pam knight

Tom Douglas

Ron,

Wonderful article on faith preceding regeneration. I see faith as coming freely from the sinner and is the means by which we grab hold of all of the promises we have in Christ including regeneration. Nevertheless after viewing the Bible’s description of the lostness of humanity, I always wonder about anyone’s ability to believe without God opening his/her heart to receive the gospel as God did for Lydia in Acts. On another note, I would warn some of those condemning the “Calvinist theological system” that everyone approaches Scripture with a “system” or lens for interpreting the Bible. The understanding of the Bible through a particular lens is seen with Jesus Himself as he re-interpreted Jewish law in the Sermon on the Mount and then explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus how Moses and the rest of the OT spoke of His coming, suffering, and resurrection. The NT authors further “systematize” how to view the OT as they penned their gospels and preached their sermons quoting from the OT with the view of the resurrected Christ and the Trinitarian God. Non-reformed brothers employ the “whosoever” passages to assist in the way they interpret passages that heavily suggest unconditional election like Ephesians 1. In those instances, that’s a theological grid or system. Perhaps we find such tension because God wants us to live in tension and prefers us to be humble in our search for understanding. Perhaps John’s gospel puts in ear shot of one another a verse that states “the Spirit blows where He will” with one that states “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” so we can genuinely offer the good news to all and genuinely give God all the credit and glory for anyone’s salvation. Thanks for this article and for the others challenging us to go into all the world and make disciples. God bless.

Ron F. Hale

Thanks everyone for your kind comments (both pro and con) — I have been out of pocket today by sharing in the funeral of a dear family member and some family time. I will seek to share some responses tomorrow.
Blessings!

James D. Gallé

This is a very good, quick overview of the issue of whether regeneration precedes faith or not. Faith cannot simultaneously be treated as a condition for salvation and something that is “bestowed” selectively on certain persons as a divine gift. The call to repent, believe and be baptized into Christ is indiscriminate in nature. Repentance and faith are not “caused” or brought about as the result of divine regeneration. The Calvinist notion of regeneration preceding faith is essentially non-relational. As far as the evangelized are concerned,* one does not enter into union with Christ by the Spirit of God prior to the human response of repentance and faith in Christ. Though influenced by the Holy Spirit and the word of God, human repentance and faith are not caused by God.

Supposing the Calvinian concept were true, however, the reason for the non-elect’s unbelief ultimately would lie in the decretive will of God, God’s withholding of “the gift of faith”. In other words, in Calvinism “the reprobate” do not believe because they cannot believe. According to an “eternal decree”, God has unilaterally decided who will and will not respond positively to the good news before the foundation of the world. Yet God will still hold the non-elect morally responsible for their failure to trust in Christ. Surely this is not good news at all (at least for a certain portion of humankind.

* I am deliberately avoiding the inclusivist-exclusivist controversy concerning the destiny of the evangelized.

Andrew Barker

I do wonder if R.C. Sproul and the many others who advocate regeneration proceeding faith have adequately considered the flip-side of their belief. They argue from a position which is at pains to point out that salvation has nothing to do with us and we are unable to help ourselves! On the face of it, this may sound plausible and even laudable, I mean you can’t knock someone for admitting their own worthlessness, can you?

The ‘flip-side’ is this. If I believe that I am not in any way responsible for God working in me for salvation, why should I believe anything different about God working in me for sanctification? After all, if God’s grace is irresistible in salvation why would it not be the same in my life and the way I live it? Surely the God who saved me, will do it all for me?

The stressing of man’s natural inability to respond to God in any way is a constant feature in Reformed theology. But it does not sit well with the gospel accounts of how Jesus dealt with people who displayed faith. Never once did Jesus rebuke a person for demonstrating faith in Him. There was never a rebuff. It was always a commendation such as “your faith has made you whole.” God has determined that salvation is a gift which is available only through faith. The exercising of such faith is an act of obedience to God’s word and should never be confused with any attempt on our part to boast that we have ‘saved ourselves’.

Norm Miller

Ron:
In reading after some Calvinists, and from my conversations with them, many appeal to Abram, aka Abraham, as an illustration of election. Shall we not also look at him as an illustration of showing faith and believing God, and *then* being considered righteous?

Yes, we shall.

Gen 15.6: “And [Abram] believed in the Lord, and [the Lord] accounted it to him for righteousness.”
Ga. 3.6-9: “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” (Hmmm? Corporate election?)
Rom. 4.3: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’”
Jas. 2.23: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God.”

QUESTIONS: Did Abram have to believe God? Was he forced? Did he not have a choice? Or, did Abram freely choose of his own volition to exercise libertarian free will, and *then* believe God, which was counted as righteousness (the result of regeneration *after* belief)?

ANOTHER QUESTION: Why did the Holy Spirit of God initially say this of Abram — that his belief was counted as righteousness — and why so many other citations as inspired by the Spirit? Is God reiterating that faith comes before regeneration? Whereas Gen. 14 says Abram was blessed of God in battle. So, too, does Matt. 5.45 say the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

‘Twould seem the ordo salutis for Abram was (is) as your essay so strongly opines. — Norm

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