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Does Regeneration Precede Faith? Apparently Not.

DOES REGENERATION PRECEDE FAITH? APPARENTLY NOT.

Paul Copan

“Regeneration precedes faith.” This affirmation is one that many in the Reformed tradition take as axiomatic. We must be “born again” in order to “enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). After all, if we’re “dead in our trespasses and sins,” we need to be “made alive” in order to repent, be “made alive” and be “saved” (Eph. 2:1-5; cp. Col. 2:13). We all know that spiritually dead people can’t repent and be saved. Regeneration precedes faith!

I would disagree this axiom.  Though some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree with me, let me offer a couple of reasons.

First, the spiritually dead can still receive divine influences and graces, which can lead to salvation/regeneration. Hebrews 6:4-6 refers to “those who have been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” but who, in the end, do not inherit final salvation. For many theologians—both Reformed and non-Reformed alike—these persons were never saved in the first place. But if so, they still have been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the word and power of God. If I may say it: Not bad at all for a spiritually dead person!  So if it’s possible for a spiritually dead person to have this kind of “enlivening” experience, it seems far too strong to say that those who are alienated from God—the spiritually helpless—will necessarily be totally “unresponsive” to divine influences and graces of all kinds. Can’t God use such influences to awaken and convict unbelievers, even if they end up “always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51)?

Second, as I’ve indicated, this “regeneration precedes faith” axiom isn’t evident within Scripture. If anything, faith precedes regeneration. I’ll say more on this shortly. But first a couple of speedy clarifications. (a) Faith does not precede God’s general and genuine invitation for people to participate in his kingdom: Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.” (Mt. 22:9). (b) Nor does this faith precede God’s initiating grace to enable people to respond to God’s universal command for all people without exception to repent: “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Act 17:30). Of course, some people can resist, quench, and grieve the Holy Spirit. They can repudiate the divine initiating grace that makes possible the fulfillment of God’s command to repent: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Act 13:46).

Before we explore a few Scriptures, it might be worth mentioning here the ordo salutis—the “order of salvation.” Reformed theologians are particularly keen on referring to the logical sequence or ordering of God’s salvation. Here is one such example from R.C. Sproul:[1]

  • Fall
  • Election
  • Outer call
  • Union with Christ
  • Inner Call
  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Repentance
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Assurance
  • Glorification

While I have no problem with systematization per se, I do have my doubts about so specific an ordering. The late New Testament scholar R.T. France—one of my favorite commentators—suggests that such precise attempts at an ordo salutis are often artificial and misleading.[2]  I concur. While “fall” obviously precedes “faith” or “glorification,” we must be careful about too rigidly ordering categories of “regeneration,” “justification,” “adoption,” and even “sanctification.” For example, even though we have been “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1), we still await a future justification as well (Gal. 5:5: “the hope of justification/righteousness”). And I wonder: Can we confidently and dogmatically insist that the relational category of “adoption” is logically subsequent to the forensic category of “justification”? I would be a bit more tentative—especially since both adoption and justification have a future dimension as well (Rom; 8:23; Gal. 5:5). Should we ask which of these is logically prior in this future state? Also, even though Abraham was “justified” or “declared righteous” by God in Genesis 15:6, didn’t he obediently respond by faith to God’s earlier call to leave his homeland to go to a place God would show him (Gen. 12:1, 4; cp. Heb. 11:8)?

Furthermore, although many theologians refer to “sanctification” as being a process, some evangelical scholars have questioned this by calling it a status conferred upon believers at conversion.[3] I won’t go into details here, but it is certainly clear from Scripture that, as God’s people, we are called “saints”—holy ones, sanctified ones (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2). Indeed, see 1 Corinthians 6:11, where the past event of having been “washed” occurs alongside our having been both “justified” and “sanctified.”

Even the Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof noted that the Word of God “does not explicitly furnish the believer with a complete order of salvation.”[4] Another Reformed theologian, Millard Erickson, rejects the very “regeneration precedes faith” axiom itself. He opts, rather, for the priority of God’s effectual calling (an intensive and effectual working by the Spirit), which is prior to regeneration (which completes the initiating work of the Spirit).[5] It seems to me that Scripture is not so clear on the specific order of the salvific details, and so we should be cautious about over-dogmatizing.  Of course, understanding a basic order of salvation is important for us as “mere Christians”: that we are fallen, that we need God’s initiating grace, that we must receive that grace and repent, and that, God helping, we persevere with a view to final glorification.

So what about those Scriptures that run contrary to the “regeneration precedes faith” idea? The following texts indicate that faith precedes regeneration and initial salvation (cp. Eph. 2:5, where to be “made…alive” is connected with having been “saved”):

Luke 8:12: “Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved.” (Faith/believing results in salvation.)

John 1:12: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (Faith/believing precedes salvation.)

John 3:15-16: “…so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Faith/believing precedes regeneration.)

Acts 2:38: “Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (See a similar passage in Acts 3:19-21: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away [cleansing from sin], in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord [regeneration?]; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.”) (Repentance/returning [which includes faith] leads to regeneration—receiving the Spirit.)

Acts 11:18: “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’” (Repentance leads to regeneration.)

Acts 16:31:Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Faith/believing leads to salvation.)

Romans 10:9-10: “…if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Faith/believing results in salvation.)

1 Corinthians 1:21: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (Faith/believing precedes salvation.)

I could add other texts, but I trust this will suffice. And for a bit more theological context to our discussion, see chapter 6 of my coauthored book An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (IVP Academic). But let me offer a few concluding remarks to put things in perspective:

First, God must initiate salvation. In doing so, God routinely exerts genuine, salvifically-directed influences of all kinds even they are in the end rejected. Because God must initiate salvation, we can reject Pelagianism—that, in themselves, humans have the capacity to live sinlessly. We also reject semiPelagianism—that humans can, without divine aid, take the first earnest steps toward God, who then responds to us; this view, held by John Cassian, was condemned at the Council of Orange in France in 529. Indeed, we see repeatedly throughout Scripture that the initiative God takes in freely offering salvation is resistible (e.g., Psalm 81:10-13; Isa. 5:1-7).

Second, we should be careful about over-dogmatizing an order of salvation when the Scriptures are less than clear on a number of them. Let us strive to keep the main thing the main thing.

Third, as believers called to love one another, we should avoid castigating others as “semi-Pelagians” who do not embrace a Reformed view of “regeneration precedes faith.” If we did, we would have to condemn respected Reformed theologians like Millard Erickson, who acknowledge that the Scriptures do not teach this. But beyond this, we should exhibit a charitable spirit to those with whom we disagree on secondary and tertiary matters: “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

 

[1] See chapter 5 in R.C. Sproul’s Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1994).

[2] See R.T. France, “Conversion in the New Testament,” Evangelical Quarterly 65 (1993): 291-310.

[3] For example, David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1941), 416.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 901-78.

3 Responses to “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? Apparently Not.”

  1. Steven Augustine 2015-12-04 at 5:14 pm

    Dr. Copan,

    Thanks for this article. The Reformed position has historically been a bit more complex than presented here. Calvin in the Institutes advocates regeneration following faith, but this has to do with a much bigger view of regeneration than usually talked about nowadays. Calvin would certainly say the inward call and gift of faith are, by definition, prior to the exercise of faith. The effectual motions of the Holy Spirit among the elect are anterior to, logically, any human response. That’s just good Western theology (c.f. 2nd Council of Orange, 529AD. Luther also presents faith as anterior to regeneration, but would would have agreed with Calvin that the Word and Spirit do their work anterior to human response in the hearts of the elect. Arminians have historically kept to the priority of grace in conversion too (prevenient), though they dispute that election is unconditional.

    That said, the term “regeneration” in its old usage was nearly synonymous with sanctification. All the Reformers, if asked whether faith was a gift apart from the will of men, would say, “Yes.” If asked whether the gift of faith itself is a product of regeneration or the beginning of it, the standard way of speaking would be to say faith is the beginning of regeneration (following the justification and sanctification order) – but would not for a moment suggest that the faith itself was not an effect of the calling.

    I wish modern Reformed language would return to the 16th century way of speaking since it is more consonant with the language of Scripture. However, the impetus behind widening regeneration to include calling and the gift of faith fits well with the data: God was at work when we were rebels. It’s an understandable evolution of theological terms.

    Thanks!
    Steven Augustine Badal

  2. Steven Augustine 2015-12-04 at 5:18 pm

    Just a correction to my above comment. I meant the term regeneration for the 16th century Luminaries was a little narrower than the later use. The underlying theology is essentially the same, the term just took on bigger meaning later on.

  3. Nice to hear from you, Steven. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and insights. A good number have commented on Facebook as well. I do think that the topic of salvation is indeed broad and multi-faceted. R.T. France’s concerns about the ordo salutis are worth heeding about drawing our categories too rigidly when the Scriptures seem considerably less clear on the matter.

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