Hands up if you have heard a Calvinist say this before. I have. Ad nauseam. The argument goes like this: the Calvinist (who usually holds that saving faith was not a genuine expression of the sinner reaching out to the Saviour to be saved upon conviction of the Gospel) will tell you that if you hold to the view that your faith is actually yours, then faith becomes a good work. Since the Bible teaches that you are saved by grace through faith apart from works, the non-Calvinist view of saving faith is considered impossible, because that would contradict the teaching of the Bible regarding the role that good works play in salvation.
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.