The doctrine of regeneration before faith is mainly professed by those who hold to a Calvinistic soteriology. To avoid misrepresenting this position, I went to the big names in the modern reformed camp. John Piper states clearly that regeneration is the cause of faith.1 R. C. Spiral recounts his experience as he went to seminary, then finally gets to the point and says:
The key phrase in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is this: “…even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace have you been saved)” (Eph. 2:5). Here Paul locates the time when regeneration occurs. It takes place ‘when we were dead.’ With one thunderbolt of apostolic revelation all attempts to give the initiative in regeneration to man are smashed.
Sproul sounds very confident, and I frankly cannot understand where he draws all that confidence from. How he derives, from that sole verse, that regeneration occurs before faith, is beyond me. There’s simply nothing in that verse that could speak either in favour or against the classic calvinistic ordo salutis . The verse, together with the next one, is simply describing what God achieves in the salvation of a person, and what it entails. It’s undoubtable that an unsaved person is dead in their sins, though Calvinists have an overloaded understanding of this phrase (but this is not the issue at hand). When one is saved, by virtue of what salvation means, they pass from death to life (John 5:24). In the verse quoted by Sproul, then, Paul is simply describing what occurs at salvation: from being dead, you go to be alive; but he saysabsolutely nothingabout faith coming before or after regeneration. In fact, faith is not even mentioned in this passage. Sproul brings his presuppositions to the text, which lead him to believe that a man in such a state needs to be fully regenerated in order to express faith. But that’s the very point he’s trying to prove, and the text he provides says nothing about it.
What’s even worse is that Paul actually starts the letter with a passage that seems to provide some clear data as to what the order of salvation is. In Ephesians 1:13 we read:
In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit
The primary sentence here is “In Christ you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”. How and when did that happen? Paul explains it: when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him. The order is clear: hear the gospel, believe, receive the seal of the Holy Spirit. Since regeneration doesn’t happen without the Holy Spirit (see reference below about Titus 3:5), faith comes first.
The danger of analogies
For a while I wrestled with this myself. The main idea that kept coming to mind was the one of «being born again». I used to think: if one has no part in their own natural birth, what part can one ever have in their spiritual birth? However, and you should agree with me, that’s not something I derived by sound exegesis, it is just an analogy. And one must be careful not to take analogies too far, similar to how the Calvinist’s analogy of the spiritually dead man is far removed from what the text actually means.
In essence, whilst it can be natural to think of the spiritual birth as being analogous to the natural birth, if a sound exegesis leads somewhere else, i.e. to a birth that is actioned upon a faith that follows the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then we must take the Scriptures over the analogy, however compelling the analogy may be.
Exegetically, we can provide a good number of passages that clearly make faith a condition to salvation, and we already have in our introduction. Not only is that something we can provide direct proof texts for, but it is the only way you can make sense of all the statements in the Bible where people are told to believe in order to have life (e.g. John 6:27–29). If they had to be regenerated before faith, then the person is already saved by the time they express faith, and faith is no longer a condition for, but the result of salvation (just like Piper says). Why then bother to tell people to believe? Simply tell them to wait for God to regenerate them, and if that doesn’t happen, well, tough. Of course many Calvinists would oppose this line of thinking, but I argue they would do so inconsistently. More consistent are those who are oddly called hypercalvinists. Frankly, I see hypercalvinism as logically following from the premises of calvinistic soteriology.
Regeneration before faith simply makes faith, and thus human response, unnecessary for salvation, despite the many commands to man to respond to the gospel with faith in Christ. You are left with only God regenerating you; then, as a result, you now accept the things of God, including Christ’s work. Faith in Christ’s work, in this schema, was never the means through which we received grace (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Let’s look at some more passages
What is regeneration, anyway?
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5 ESV)
This verse is quite explicit in stating that regeneration is essentially the means by which the Lord saves. And thus, it’s equal to the new birth, or to be born of the Spirit (John 3:3)
Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;(1 Peter 1:23)
In verse 25, Peter says that «this is the word that was preached to you». Essentially, it’s the gospel. The gospel is then the means through which one is born again. If you don’t hear the gospel, you can’t be born again, and this is clearly stated by Paul somewhere else (Romans 10:14).
Now, let’s go to what Paul says in Romans 10:17:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
The NIV puts it this way:
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.(Romans 10:17 NIV)
Or in a traditional KJV based on the Textus Receptus, we read:
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.(Ro 10:17 KJV)
The core message of the verse doesn’t change. Faith can be born in a person only through hearing the word about Christ, that is, the Gospel.
Thus, putting Romans 10:17 together with 1 Peter 1:23, we have the complete thought: one is born again (regenerated) through faith after they’ve heard the Gospel. This ties in with Ephesians 2:8–9, which states that «by grace you have been saved through faith». John repeats this concept in his first epistle when it says that «everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith» (1 John 5:4).
From these verses, we can see again, just as we saw with Ephesians 1:13, how the order is: hearing the gospel » faith » new birth (regeneration).
Are we done with the Scriptures, yet? Not quite.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.(John 1:12–13 ESV)
As some Calvinist brethren are quick to remind us, there is nothing in this passage that speaks to a Calvinistic ordo salutis;2 it is not exegetically possible to find “regeneration before faith” in John 1:12–13, temporally or logically.3
The order in these verses is clear: they first believed, then they were given the right to become children of God, who birthed them.
but these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.(John 20:31)
You get life by believing. You believe first, then get life. The order is, once again, faith first, then regeneration.
What does Peter say about this? During his sermon at Pentecost:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(Acts 2:38)
Now, you’ll notice that Peter uses the word “repent”, which in Greek is a word that means “change of mind”. The Jews needed to change their minds about Jesus, the object of Peter’s sermon; they needed to acknowledge He is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, and that salvation comes by placing our trust in Him. What’s the order again? You repent first, then you receive the Spirit. And without receiving the Spirit, you haven’t gone through the process of regeneration, as we said earlier (Titus 3:5).
Though I am sure I could go through some more texts, I want to conclude this section by recalling Ephesians 2:8–9 once again. If faith were really the result of regeneration, then this passage would be at the very least inaccurate. In other words, if regeneration before faith were true, then we are not saved by grace through faith; we would be saved by grace, full stop. Faith would simply be the result of that salvation. And that’s clearly not what the text says.
Not that I believe in monergism at all, nor is it vital for me to be so academic and pompous-sounding about everything; at the end of the day, no one has ever got saved, or ever got an answer to prayer because they know whether or not the salvation process was monergistic or not. Nonetheless, I want to recall a discussion I found myself involved in some time ago; a discussion where I was the only one that wasn’t a reformed Calvinist.
Amongst other things, they maintained that sanctification is ultimately monergistic, though synergistic in the day by day life of the believer on earth. The core of this argument was that sanctification would never happen if God didn’t initiate the process and would never successfully complete if God didn’t remove our sins completely at glorification, giving us a whole new physical nature, too. If the Calvinist is willing to have this view of sanctification, what’s stopping them to have the same view for salvation? The salvation of anybody would never have happened if God didn’t take the initiative, and it would never be successful if God didn’t guarantee it the moment we believe (Ephesians 1:12–13). Yet faith remains an obligatory response for a person to be saved (Romans 10:13–15), and Scriptures show that faith precedes regeneration, both logically and temporally.
The accusation that man’s faith apart from regeneration is actually undermining Christ’s merit for salvation is preposterous. It’s like saying that someone who takes a hypothetical cure for cancer has any merit whatsoever in curing his own cancer. The merit would be entirely on the scientist that discovered the cure; the patient just took the medicine.
- Note how the Calvinist needs to dodge all the clear verses I shall be quoting in the rest of this article, and resort to a particular verse (1 John 5:1), in a letter written for a specific purpose (the assurance of the believer), and fiddle with verbs’s tenses, in order to support their case. Good exegesis should take the clearer verses first, then try and clarify the less clear ones on the basis of that. But this cannot be done if you have a pre-commitment. See “ David L. Allen,Does Regeneration Precedes Faith?, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Fall 2014, Vol. 11, №2 ” ↩
- See the discussion in Ronnie Rogers, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist (Bloomington, IL: CrossBooks, 2012), 55. ↩
- Boris Hennig, “The Four Causes.” Journal of Philosophy 106(3), (2009), 137–60. ↩