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.