Regeneration

 

Michael Bremmer

 


 

"Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature's night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke: The dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth,and followed Thee" -C. Wesley (1)

It is important to begin by mentioning that the word "regeneration" does not describe an identical phenomenon with all writers. Some writers use regeneration to describe the spiritual renewal of the image of God in man. John Calvin, for example, uses regeneration in this very broad sense: "In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration, the only aim of which is to form in us a new the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam" (2).

Later some 17th century theologians used regeneration and conversion synonymously.The very talented Puritan theologian John Owen writes: "Now concerning this whole work, I affirm, that the Holy Spirit does make use of it in the regeneration or conversion of all adult persons, either by the word preached, or by some other application of light and truth to the mind derived from the word." (3) Still others understand effectual calling and regeneration as identical. The Westminster Confession of Faith (4), for example, reflects this view. More recently, Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema in his excellent chapter on regeneration writes: "I prefer to think of regeneration (in the narrow sense) and effectual calling as identical (6).

Definitions of regeneration that include effectual calling, conversion, or sanctification are termed "unrestrictive." Definitions that exclude effectual calling, conversion, and sanctification are termed "restrictive." These categories can lead to confusion when defining regeneration, and when examining the relationship between regeneration, effectual calling, conversion, and sanctification, or when reading the ideas expressed in the writings of others. We always need to be certain that the words we use have the same meaning to all.

In this article, regeneration is limited its restricted sense. Regeneration, then, is "An inner recreating of fallen human nature by the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit (Jn.3:5-8) (7).

THE NECESSITY OF REGENERATION

Our Lord said in no uncertain words, "Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3.3). The verse is better translated, "Unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God," or "reborn from above." The word "Again" is the Greek word anothen and is used in verse 31, "He who comes from above ( anothen ) is above all." Our Lord is stressing to Nicodemus the necessity of being reborn from above, from Heaven, even to see (understand) or enter the kingdom of God. This statement is similar to the one our Lord made to the Jews, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day," and, "For this reason I have said on you," that reason being their unbelief (vs. 64), "that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father" (Jn. 6.44, 65). Our Lord reminds Nicodemus, the Jews, and us today, that apart from a supernatural work of God, no one can come to God. The reason for this is because of humanity's spiritual condition.

THE AUTHOR OR REGENERATION

There are only three views that one can take regarding the author of regeneration: Either God alone is the author of regeneration, man and God are coauthors of regeneration, or man alone regenerates himself. The last view most Christians will recognize as false. The second view, that God and man are co-workers in regeneration, is known as synergism . The first view, that God alone is the author of regeneration, meaning, God regenerates whom He pleases without the cooperation or consent of the one whom He chooses to regenerate, is known as monergism . I am emphasizing this for a good reason. This difference, between whether regeneration is monergistic or synergistic, is one of the foremost reason for the two opposing theologies of Arminianism and Calvinism. In other words, what you believe the Bible teaches about who regenerates and how, will determine whether you will be a Calvinist or Arminian-if you remain consistent in your thinking. For if regeneration is monergistic, then unconditional election is also true. Similarly, if regeneration is synergistic-that God regenerates those who believe-, then election is conditional, based on foreseen faith. So you see, what you believe about the nature of regeneration will affect much of your theology.

Monergistic means that we are entirely passive in regeneration-We contribute nothing. This does not mean that God does His work, then it remains within our ability whether to be reborn or converted: "Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of the raising of the dead" (8). In other words, God alone regenerates, and He does so without the help, cooperation, or consent of those He chooses to regenerate. This is proven by:

(i) Consider the three most used images of regeneration in Scripture: "a new creation," the new birth," and "a resurrection to life." All convey the idea that man is completely passive. We are no more active participates in regeneration than we were active participates in our creation, physical birth, or will be in our resurrection. In other words, if we must repent and believe to be born again, then we are the instruments of our new birth. However, according to Scripture, this makes as much sense as saying we have been the cause of our creation, physical birth, or future resurrection.

(ii) Our Lord indicates that regeneration is monergistic. In that remarkable discussion with Nicodemus explaining how the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people, Jesus said: "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3.7-8). In explaining regeneration to the bewildered Nicodemus, Jesus illustrates the work of the Holy Spirit with wind. As the wind comes and goes as it pleases, so to the Holy Spirit works as He please. Clearly, the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is monergistic. If regeneration is synergistic, conditional on what we do, then we can predict when and where the Holy Spirit will work, falsifying Jesus illustration to Nicodemus.

(iii) "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lust of our flesh, indulging the desires of our flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. BUT God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even WHEN we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been Saved)"(Eph. 2.1-5). The apostle Paul tells the believers at Ephesus that regeneration occurred when "we were dead in our transgressions" (Eph. 2.5). Dead men do not cooperate with God's grace. According to Paul, regeneration is monergistic.

(iv) "And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord open her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16.14). Notice carefully the order. God first opened Lydia's heart, then she responded to the things spoken by Paul.

(v) "Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn. 1.13). The interpretation of "bloods" and "flesh" is difficult. Perhaps John is saying to the Jews that being born a Jew will not make them born again. However, what is of interest here for this discussion is the last phrase. Note carefully what John says. We are born again not by any act of our will. Regeneration can not be an act of human will because it is the human will that is changed by regeneration

(vi) Monergistic regeneration is the inevitable out come of the doctrine of Original sin and inability. Because of our fall in Adam (9) all born since Adam, except the blessed Lord Jesus Christ, are spiritually dead (Eph. 2.1-5), slave to, children of, and followers of Satan (Acts 26. 17-18; 1 Jn. 3.10; Eph. 2.1-2), dwell in darkness, (Jn. 1.4-5), cannot understand spiritual truth, (1 Cor. 2.14), at enmity with God (Rom. 8.7), do not seek after God (Rom. 3.10), think the gospel is foolishness (1 Cor. 1.18), are slaves to sin(Rom. 6.20), and have evil and corrupt hearts (Ecc. 9.3; Jer. 17.9). Summarizing this plight of humanity, the Westminster Confession of Faith says: "Man, by his fall and state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself there unto"(10) This is what the Reformed call inability. It does not mean that because of the fall we cannot choose, but since we choose according to our nature we will never choose to believe and follow Christ. How then is it possible that regeneration is synergistic? How can I, a fallen sinner, dead in sin, at enmity with God, enslave to sin and Satan, choose to trust and serve Christ?

Arminian View

The Wesleyan Arminians who hold to the Biblical doctrine of original sin recognize the problem. Their solution is prevenient grace: "Christian theology refers to this gracious activity of God as "prevenient grace" The word "prevenient" (or "preventing") means "coming before, preceding, or antecedent." God's prevenient grace creates and prompts our spiritual desires, drawing us to faith in Jesus Christ. Through prevenient grace,God comes to us in our unregenerate state to turn our thoughts to Himself and to enable us to experience him personally." (11)

The Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace fits very well in their over all scheme of theology and enables them to maintain the doctrine of original sin and yet reject monergistic regeneration and its obvious implication of unconditional election. The problem with it, however, is that no clear Biblical support exists for it, and seems merely to be a doctrine contrived out of necessity. In the words of R. C. Sproul, "Why then, all the fuss? My guess is that it is because if we conclude that regeneration is monergistic, that salvation is by grace alone, we cannot escape the glaring implication that leads us quickly and irresistibly to sovereign election" (12). In other words, Arminians must have their doctrine of prevenient grace, despite the total lack of Biblical evidence, or they are force to accept unconditional election.

The Biblical implication of Original Sin is that unless given a new nature, unless the heart of stone is first removed and a heart of flesh is given (Ez. 36.28), faith in Christ for salvation is impossible (Jn. 6.44). Yet once given, by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible not to have faith in Christ for salvation (Jn. 6.37) for the very same reason that the unregenerate will never choose to believe: we choose according to our nature.

REGENERATION AND FAITH

One implication of what has been said so far is that regeneration, causally, occurs before faith. This is only logical. How is it possible for one who is dead in sin, enslaved to lust, Satan, and the world, at enmity with God, exercise faith (1 Cor. 2.14)? Man by nature cannot exercise saving faith. We are not regenerated because we believe, we believe because we are regenerated. Paul writes to the believers at Thessalonica: "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Thess. 2.13). Note the order the apostle Paul gives: first sanctification by the Spirit, then faith in the truth. The same order can be noted in Acts16.14 previously mentioned.

But how often have we heard preachers and evangelist exhort people to believe in Jesus and be born again? If true, then we have played a part in our new birth-a view that the Scriptures do not support. We DO play a part in our conversion, but remember that we are discussing regeneration not conversion.

WHAT REGENERATION IS

"Regeneration," says Dabney, "is a supernatural renovation of the dispositions which determine the moral purpose, and of the understanding in the apprehension of moral and spiritual truth; the whole resulting in a permanent and fundamental conversion in the actings of the whole man as to sin and holiness-the flesh and God" (13). Charnock defines regeneration as, "A mighty and powerful change, wrought in the soul by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit, wherein a vital principle, a new habit, the law of God, and a divine nature are put into, and framed in the heart, enabling it to act holy and pleasing to God, and to grow up therein to eternal glory" (14).

It follows therefore that regeneration occurs on a subconscious level. Although the effects of regeneration are perceived (i. e. conversion), regeneration is not: "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3.8). "Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God"(Jn. l.13).

Regeneration is an instantaneous change affecting the whole person. It is a rebirth from death to life (Eph. 2.5), from darkness to light (Col. 1.13). Regeneration is not a process like sanctification. We are never between death and life, or darkness and light. At this very moment we are either spiritual alive or dead in our sins and trespasses.

The change produced by regeneration is in the very root of our being; it is a radical change, a change which affects the whole person-the intellect, the will, and the emotions(2 Cor. 5.17). It is a change from enmity to love. It is the giving of a new heart and the removing of a heart of stone. It is such a deep-rooted change that when the gift of faith(Eph. 2.8; Phil. 1,29) is given, we willingly receive and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the change wrought in regeneration is not a superficial or temporary change, but is a work which ensures that the one whom God regenerates repents,believes, and whose faith endures to the end.

WHAT REGENERATION IS NOT

(i) Conversion. Regeneration differs from conversion in that conversion is what we do because of God's work of regeneration. "Regeneration is a spiritual change, conversion is a spiritual motion. In regeneration there is power conferred; conversion is the exercise of this power. In regeneration there is given us a principle to turn; conversion is our actual turning . . .Conversion is related to regeneration, as the effect to cause" (15).

Regeneration differs from conversion in that conversion (faith and repentance) always follows. Regeneration makes conversion possible. Conversion is the outward evidence that regeneration has taken place. Another difference is that in regeneration we are passive; it is God who acts. In conversion we are active; We act by exercising faith and repentance. This does not mean that while God regenerates we have the option to be converted or not. Conversion always follows regeneration. The person whose heart has been renewed, and has been recreated in the image of God, given new life and a holy disposition, willingly embraces Christ in faith and repentance. (Acts 5.31; 11.18; 13.48;16.14; 18.27; Phil. 1.29; 2 Tm. 2.25-26; 2 Thess. 3.2) John Murray, in one of his best works, writes: "Regeneration is inseparable from its effects and one of the effects is faith. Without regeneration it is morally and spiritually impossible for a person to believe in Christ, but when a person is regenerated it is morally and spiritually impossible for that person not to believe. Jesus said, 'All that the Father giveth me shall come to me (Jn. 6.37), and he was referring in this case surely to the giving of the Father in the efficacious drawing of the Father mentioned in the same context (Jn. 6.44, 65).Regeneration is the renewing of the heart and mind, and the renewed heart and mind must act according to their nature" (16).

HWhile regeneration and conversion seemingly occur simultaneouslyH, causally regeneration is before conversion. This point can be illustrated by turning on a light switch. Although the shining of the light and the turning of the switch seemingly occur simultaneously, causally the turning of the switch must be first. The same is true with the relationship between regeneration and conversion. We often confuse the two because we are experientially aware of our conversion, but not our new birth that precedes conversion. Although tied together, we must not confuse the conversion experience with God's supernatural work of regeneration.

(ii) Justification. Regeneration is and inward work; justification is an outward declaration that one is righteous in God's sight. Regeneration is God giving a new holy disposition; Justification is based on what Christ has done for us; Regeneration is the Holy Spirits work in us. By justification we are reconciled to God; By regeneration we are renewed in the image of God. (17)

(iii) Sanctification. Regeneration is a once completed act; sanctification is a continual process, begun in regeneration, making the believer subjectively holy and righteous.

(iv) Effectual Call. Regeneration differs from effectual calling in that the effectual calling draws out the new life and points it in a God-ward direction. It secures the exercise of the new disposition and brings the new life into action. Obviously, the effectual calling is on a conscious level while regeneration is on a subconscious level.

OBJECTIONS

If it is true that God regenerates whom He pleases, and that without this supernatural work of God repentance and faith are impossible, then how can God justly condemn those who do not believe? This objection is based on the false assumption that ability limits obligation, that God cannot command that which we cannot not do, unless of course He gives us the power to do. Since, then, God commands all to repent and believe, so Arminians argue, all have the power to repent and believe. Yet no where in Scripture will anyone find the man made axiom, "ability limits obligation." What we do find, however, are statements such as: "You are to be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5.48). According to our Lord Jesus Christ, God's righteous standard is His own perfect character. If God only commands what man has the power to do, or that God only commands those things that He gives the power to do, then everyone has the power to be as perfect as God! Those confronted with this statement have only one of two choices: Either accept that God commands things we cannot do, or make the word "perfect" to mean something other then its obvious intent. God commands repeatedly not to sin, yet Scripture clearly teaches that all sin (1 Jn. 1.8-10). Again, there are one of two ways of understanding these facts considering the present discussion: Either accept that God does command things we cannot do, or make sin to mean something other than any transgression of God's law. The fact that all sin, Christian and Pagans, even when God has commanded us not to sin, and that God will and does justly judge sin, is proof of the error "ability limits obligation" as any honest inquirer needs.

A second objection to the reformed view of regeneration is that it violates human freewill. If God regenerates whom He pleases, without the cooperation of the individual, then we do not have freewill. Yet the Bible clearly states we do have freewill. Therefore, so the argument goes, the Reformed view of Regeneration cannot be true.

The fallacy with this argument is the assumption that if God regenerates first, before repentance and faith, then the subsequent conversion of the sinner is not a free choice. However, we argue that it is a free choice because for a choice to be truly free, the choice must be our own; the choice must be according to our nature. In the words of D. M.Lloyd-Jones "The will is never forced. What happens is that the Holy Spirit, by putting a new disposition within us, this new ability, enables us to appreciate the truth. What used to be foolishness' suddenly becomes meaningful to us, becomes wonderful; and because we now see what it is, we desire it. The important factor is not the will itself, but that which governs and controls the will. The will is merely a kind of executive faculty; it is always determined by something else. Formerly it was determined by the devil; but know the Holy Spirit reveals these things to us and we desire them. No man is ever saved against his will, or brow beaten into salvation. You are given such a view of it that you want it with your whole being. You formerly rejected it, and regarded it as folly, now you see its glory and you embrace it with all the energy of your will" (18).BECAUSE of regeneration, we freely choose to believe the glorious gospel of grace.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE

(i) The doctrine of regeneration has an obvious relevance to the Lordship salvation controversy. Although the issues involved in the Lordship debate are admittedly complex, one is nonetheless forced to ask whether a person who has been regenerated might produce no outward change in behavior and character? Is it possible for a "new creature," to live like the old? Is it possible that "the imparting of new life," "there creating of the image of God," "the governing dispositions made holy," as various theologians have defined regeneration, might produce no outward change? Produce no desire to serve God? Produce no commitment to Christ's Lordship? The Scripture states that the idea is impossible: "No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 Jn. 3.9). John does not mean that Christians do not sin, for the Apostle has already stated Christians do sin (1.10). John IS saying Christians do not practice sin because they are born again.

(ii) Since regeneration is a change wrought by God alone, many Christians need to evaluate their belief and methodology of evangelism. Can you persuade a dead man to come to life? This does not mean that we should not use methods, or that we should not evangelize. We mean only two things. First, we are never to put our trust in our well plan methods of evangelism. We must put our faith in God alone. God saves, not our cleverly conceived and wordy presentations. Second, we must be sure that whatever method we use in evangelism we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. HFleshly appeals to come to Jesus for wealth, healing, hell-fire insurance, etc. will only increase the tares(Mt. 13:24-30) in ChristendomH. HGod alone saves; God alone regenerates; God does use means to accomplish salvation-but they must be His means. The means that God has chosen to bring his people to Christ is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul states that the gospel is "the power of God" for salvation (Rom. 1.16)H.

We must have Paul's heart AND message for effective evangelism: "And when I came to you brethren, I did not come to with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the wisdom of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified....And my message and preaching were not persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but in the Power of God" (1 Cor. 2.1-5). Pink writes: "Neither the logical arguments advanced by the mind, hypnotic powers brought to bear upon the will, touching appeals made to the emotions, beautiful music and hearty singing to catch the ear, nor sensuous trappings to draw the eye-none of these are of the slightest avail in stirring dead sinners. It is not the choir, nor the preacher, but the Spirit that quickeneth'" (19).

Of the some 36% (20) of the population claiming to be born again, how many's faith rest on the wisdom of men instead on the power of God?

(iii) If what has been said about regeneration is true, then believers cannot lose their salvation. Since the sin question is answered in the atonement, then the only way one could lose their salvation is to stop believing. Yet in order for the believer to stop believing one must change their nature. Since they could not change their nature in the first place, then they certainly cannot change it afterward. True believers cannot stop believing for that is against their nature.

(iv) "The doctrine of regeneration places the Christian faith in an unusual position. On the one hand, Christians reject the current secular belief in the goodness of the human and optimistic expectations arising there from. The very insistence upon regeneration is a declaration that without external help and complete transformation there is no possibility that genuine good on a large scale will emerge from mankind. On the other hand, despite the pessimistic assessment of the natural powers of the human, Christianity is very optimistic: with supernatural aid humans can be transformed and restored to their original goodness. It was in regard to God's ability to change human hearts, enabling us to enter his kingdom, that Jesus said, With men this is impossible,but with God all things are possible' (Matt. 19:26)" (21)

(v) Salvation, form start to finish, is all the work of God. Soli Deo Gloria! To HIM ALONE be all the praise and glory!

END NOTES
(1) I believe it is true what has often been remarked, that the Wesleys were far better hymn writers than theologians.
(2) Inst. 3.3.9 2
(3) John Owen, The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power, P. 180.
(4) Westminster Confession of Faith
(6) Anthony Hoekema, Saved By Grace, P. 106
(7) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 924
(8) Cannons of Dort
(9) See article on Original Sin
(10) Chapter 9 section 3.
(11) Prevenient Grace, by Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal
(12) The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, p. 108
(13) Systematic Theology, p. 561. Visit Phil Johnson web page for works by R. L. Dabney.
(14) Regeneration, p. 89
(15) Regeneration, P. 90.
(16) Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 106.
(17) See article See Justification By Faith.
(18) Romans: 8.17-39, p. 247.
(19) The Gospel of John, p. 357
(20) Absolute Confessions, p. 87.