An Effort to Get the Horse Before the Cart: A Study of Regeneration and How it Precedes Faith

A couple months ago, I was asked to provide evidence from Scripture how regeneration could precede faith. The medium of the conversation, Facebook, provided limited means to do this. Taking the time to work out the theology through biblical study, scholarly research, examination of church history, and prayer has rewarded me with a greater grasp on the doctrine. Putting this into writing has also allowed the theology derived from the Scriptures to flow into a system of logic and inspire worship at the same time. That has been the motivation behind this: the desire to worship God rightly. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, “We worship what we know” (Jn. 4:22 ESV). One cannot rightly worship if one does not have an accurate knowledge of God. Worship is a matter of ascribing worth to an object, acknowledging the worthiness of it. We will never be able to fully worship God without error until we are glorified in Him in heaven, but we can and should seek to worship Him rightly by seeking to know Him as revealed in His Word as best as we can. Worship is the goal of theology, and the practice of theological study to the best of one’s ability is part of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37 ESV). To that end, let us press in to know God’s glory in the doctrine of regeneration.

I believe a helpful way to begin is to explain a few terms. First, what exactly is faith? The author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 ESV). Faith is a belief, an assurance of something that is not plainly visible. It is important to note that faith is not just a belief about something, but a conviction regarding the truth of the object of one’s faith. On this note, the author of Hebrews writes, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6 ESV). Those who have this faith will go on living by this same faith (Rom. 1:17). It is by this faith that one is justified, something Paul says in Romans, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10 ESV).

So what exactly is justification? Let’s look at Romans again.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Rom. 3:21-26 ESV

In this we see that justification involves Jesus being the propitiation for the sins of His people. This means He satisfies the wrath of God against the sins of the people while His righteous life is credited to those for whom He has died. Indeed, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21 ESV). This gift is to be received by faith, something that must be possessed by anyone who would be saved. R.C. Sproul writes, “Luther said, ‘justification is by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone,’ and then he went on to say, ‘the faith that justifies,’ Luther said, ‘is a fides viva;’ a living faith, a faith that is alive” (“Regeneration Precedes Faith”).

This is where the dilemma comes in. In order to have faith, it must be given by God. It is clear from the Scriptures that those who have not been born again do not have any genuine faith. They may say they believe God, but just as the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders in their day, they hate God and seek to put to death all that is truly of God, just as Jesus was put to death. They may read the Scriptures and study them, but the words find no place in them (John 8:37). If faith is a characteristic of being alive in God, then the absence of faith means to be dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:5). One thing is certain, dead people cannot do anything. This is true physically and spiritually. Paul makes this clear:

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Rom. 8:6-8

Consider how important that last sentence is, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” What does this imply in light of Hebrews 11:6, “[W]ithout faith it is impossible to please [God]”? This clearly means those who are not alive in God are totally dead in sins and incapable of having saving faith. The Psalmist paints the picture clearly:

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Ps. 14:2-3)

Ps. 14:2-3

Understanding the dead condition of sinners, the solution is very clear. They must be born again; or, to say it another way, they must be regenerated.

Spiritual rebirth, or regeneration, involves the Holy Spirit giving life to the spirit of an individual and placing saving faith inside that same person. They come alive spiritually and behold God as being the truly glorious God He is through eyes of faith. Thomas Schreiner writes, “Regeneration or being born again is a supernatural birth. Just as we cannot do anything to be born physically—it just happens to us!—so too we cannot do anything to cause our spiritual rebirth” (“Does regeneration necessarily precede conversion?”). It is a work of God, “so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9 ESV). This means that regeneration precedes faith.

It is necessary through the understanding of the Scriptures to come to this view. Just as one flips a light switch on and the light bulb begins to shine, so God brings life to a sinner so they may exercise faith and be justified. The nature of the individual must change so they may begin living in the new nature of the Divine. This was rediscovered in the Reformation. R.C. Sproul writes:

If there’s one phrase that captures the essence of reformed theology, it is the little phrase, regeneration precedes faith. That is the power of faith, the power of believing, is a result not of an act of our will independently, but it is the fruit of God’s sovereign act of changing the disposition of our hearts and giving to us the gift of faith.

“Regeneration Precedes Faith”

To see this more fully, let’s turn to the Scriptures.

In 1 John 2:29, we read, “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (ESV). We read a similar statement in chapter 5, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 Jn. 5:1). The Greek word for “has been born” is γεγέννηται, which is a passive perfect verb. This means that the one who has been born again is practicing righteousness because he has been born again. The righteousness being practiced is the fruit of the new birth. Remember that righteousness is that which pleases God, faith. The fruit of the new birth is faith. Thomas Schreiner writes, “We can make two observations from these texts. First, in every instance the verb ‘born’ (gennaô) is in the perfect tense, denoting an action that precedes the human actions of practicing righteousness, avoiding sin, loving, or believing” ( “Does regeneration necessarily precede conversion?”). His second observation is compelling.

Second, no evangelical would say that before we are born again we must practice righteousness, for such a view would teach works-righteousness. Nor would we say that first we avoid sinning, and then are born of God, for such a view would suggest that human works cause us to be born of God. Nor would we say that first we show great love for God, and then he causes us to be born again. No, it is clear that practicing righteousness, avoiding sin, and loving are all the consequences or results of the new birth. But if this is the case, then we must interpret 1 John 5:1 in the same way, for the structure of the verse is the same as we find in the texts about practicing righteousness (1 John 2:29), avoiding sin (1 John 3:9), and loving God (1 John 4:7). It follows, then, that 1 John 5:1 teaches that first God grants us new life and then we believe Jesus is the Christ.

“Does regeneration necessarily precede conversion”

We see then from an exegetical standpoint that regeneration must precede faith as the cause of faith which in turn is the necessary component of good works and the means by which we overcome the world.

A second Scripture that makes this teaching clear is Ephesians 2. In the first 10 verses, we read:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Eph. 2:1-10 ESV

The language here paints the picture of man’s desperate condition with striking detail. Apart from grace, we are “sons of disobedience,” living “in the passions of our flesh,” “by nature children of wrath,” which are all descriptions of the condition laid out in the first verse, “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” The statement “children of wrath” is very similar to the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” mentioned in Rom. 9:22 (ESV). Before salvation, we are in no way any different in our condition than those unbelievers around us who later are cast into hell. The elect walk about the earth like those who are not elect and reserved for God’s righteous judgment against sin due to their willful disobedience. This is to show His glory in both His righteous judgment and His magnificent grace, but the judgment is deserved by both people groups. They do not repent on their own accord because they will not. The want to is not there. They are totally depraved.

In this same condition, God, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7 ESV). This is clearly a miracle of God. While we were willing rebels and cosmic traitors against the King of kings, God made us alive together with Christ. This is only because of His righteousness being credited to us so that the Holy Spirit may give us life, and therefore faith. This is similar to the Old Testament text, “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’” (Ezek. 16:6 ESV). It is also similar to the condition of Lazarus, to whom the Lord said “Lazarus, come out” (Jn. 11:43 ESV). The picture Paul is painting shows that all people are truly spiritually dead before salvation, that the new birth is truly a new birth. They cannot will it for themselves, they cannot do anything! R.C. Sproul writes:

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. Again, dead men do not cooperate with grace. Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith. This says nothing different from what Jesus said to Nicodemus. Unless a man is born again first, he cannot possibly see or enter the kingdom of God. 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.

“Regeneration Precedes Faith”

Sproul makes a comparison between Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus said Nicodemus could not even see the Kingdom of God, the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit, because he had not been born again and was therefore spiritually dead. The conclusion is simple, dead people can’t see just as spiritually dead people cannot exercise faith.

As a final piece of evidence for this doctrine, let us examine John 6. Jesus feeds the 5,000 who then follow Him across the Sea of Galilee. When they come to Jesus, He says to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn. 6:26 ESV). When asked what they should be doing, Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn. 6:29 ESV). Now, some might read this and think, “Aha! Here is a text that shows Jesus believed these unbelievers could simply exercise their own free will and believe!” Quite the contrary. When Jesus explains who He is, explaining what must be believed in order to believe in Him, they grumble and reject Him. What is Jesus’ response? “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:43-44 ESV). He uses words such as “draws” and later says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn. 6:65 ESV).

Jesus was saying that unless one is granted the grace to come to God, to believe in in Him, no one will. The want to will not be there, so it will never happen. Unbelievers will always rebel unless God grants the grace to have faith, which is regeneration. To see the clarity of this teaching in this text, observe this excerpt from an article by John Hendryx:

Just to demonstrate that “come to me” is identical to “faith” see that just prior to verse 37 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” Here we observe that Jesus uses the phrase “believe in me” and “come to me” interchangeably. Even more clear is that the context of John 6:63-65 forces us to understand “come to me” to mean “believe in me” or “have faith in me.” In verse 64 Jesus says, “‘But there are some of you who do not believe’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.  65 And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’”

If we place these statements all together, (understanding that “come to me” and “believe in me” are synonymous), then the magnitude of the Jesus’ words become evident, for it allows for no synergistic interpretation. And what does this have to do with regeneration? Well in verse 6:63 Jesus directly alludes to it: “It is the Spirit that quickens [gives life, regenerates]… No one will believe in Me unless God grants it… and ALL to whom God grants it will believe”. Jesus is making sure that no one thinks that anything apart from Jesus is what saves them.

“Jesus Teaches that Regeneration Precedes Faith”

Spiritual rebirth really is a new birth, just as Jesus teaches. One cannot believe unless they are alive. The flesh cannot do anything fleshly, such as breath or walk, unless it is born and is alive. So it is with the spirit. It cannot exercise faith unless it is alive with the Spirit of God. Jesus makes this clear to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (Jn. 3:6-7 ESV).

We have seen from Scripture many truths that can be deduced from the Word of God. Spiritual death is a real, genuine death. Nothing can proceed that is of faith from the spiritually dead person. They will always sin, even in their good works (Isa. 64:6). The alternative is to believe that we are only half dead, like that of The Princess Bride, able to mumble words of faith when given a slight quickening of the spirit like that of the air being blown into Westley’s half dead lungs. This is nowhere seen in the Scriptures. Regeneration is a causative miracle. The miracle causes faith to proceed from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit into the child of God. They are born again. Why else would it be referred to as a new birth if it did not actually share in the same nature of a physical birth, a coming into existence? It would otherwise be more likened to the turning over of a new leaf, a resolution to change one’s path. This is not so in the Scriptures, but is said to be the act of God making us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5).

That is why this doctrine is so important. Who gets the glory for our turning to Christ? Monergism, the system of thought where regeneration precedes faith, looks at salvation being entirely the work of God, while synergism believes man makes the decisive action of turning to Christ. It depends entirely on the will of man to turn to God according to synergism. If that is the case, then what is the distinguishing factor between those who do not come to Christ and those who do? It must come down to someone being wiser, smarter, possessing a godlier character, etc. In other words, the credit goes to them in some measure or another, even if it is only in a small way. We cannot say salvation is only of the Lord according to this view, because in some measure it must also be of our goodness as well. This is not the view of the Scriptures. John says, “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” (Jn. 1:12-13 ESV). Remember, they were born, they became children, so the receiving happens after the granting of the right to become children of God. John 6 showed us that the granting includes the drawing, the coming, the receiving, and the believing. Why is this so? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9 ESV).

Lastly, I want to state something that is more of a pastoral concern, which relates to how we conduct ministry and evangelism. If we reverse the ordo salutis, the order of salvation, to believe faith results in regeneration, then we will run the risk of expecting too much of unbelievers. What I mean by this is that there are many who may say, “All you have to do is believe” and expect that the person can simply pray a prayer and be saved on the spot. That is a very dangerous belief. This may sound strange to read, but one must remember the essence of faith. It contains a knowledge, a relational knowledge, of the object it has set its gaze on and hold a conviction regarding the truth of that same object. If unbelievers are enemies of God and cannot do anything pleasing to Him, then they cannot and will not do this! We must approach evangelism in a way that understands and acknowledges this by not simply taking people at their word when they say they have believed, but rather disciple them and allow some time to prove the sincerity of their confession to see if they have truly been born-again and have become a new creation. They may pray a prayer and become regenerated in the middle of that prayer, but the confidence the believer sharing the gospel has is not in the sinner’s sincerity. It is in the power of God to raise the dead and cause the same sinner to demonstrate the power of the gospel by walking in newness of life.

John Hendryx writes well on this subject:

I have often heard preachers say to people, “all you need to do is believe,” as if this were the easiest thing in the world, but the natural man is unwilling to submit to the gospels’ humbling terms. It is a massive affront to our pride to believe that we have no hope save in Jesus alone. J.I. Packer once wisely said, “Sinners cannot obey the gospel, any more than the law, without renewal of heart.” We see this at work in this passage when, at the end of John chapter six many of those who previously were with Jesus left because his teaching was too hard, and only the twelve were left. Peter confesses belief however, and Jesus says to him, “…have I not chosen you?” But what is so hard about this passage that everyone else leaves Jesus? It is hard because the gospel of grace alone strips man of all hope that he could have to contribute something, be it ever so small, to his own salvation. Never underestimate the reality of our sinful nature deceiving us this way. The gospel forces us to see our own spiritual impotence and bankruptcy in contributing anything, or even lifting a finger toward our own salvation. But of those who do believe the gospel, we can know with certainty that the Holy Spirit has quickened them and is doing a work of grace in them. Trusting Christ is the immediate result of the new birth, not the cause of it, as John notes in his first epistle.

“Jesus Teaches that Regeneration Precedes Faith”

This proof of trusting in Jesus involves walking in newness of life, performing “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 ESV).

The truth that we are regenerated before exercising faith is unpopular because it magnifies God and diminishes our pride. It helps clarify the point of evangelism, however. The goal of evangelism is NOT the salvation of sinners. That is the means to an end. What is that end? The Lord answers in Isaiah: “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa. 43:6-7 ESV). The glory of God is the end of the means of evangelism. Ephesians says it this way, “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6 ESV). He is glorified by demonstrating the goodness of His just wrath against sin in both the damnation of sinners and in the cross. Seen much more clearly against the backdrop of this just wrath, God is glorified also in His amazing grace towards the redeemed who are saved out of pure grace and nothing to do with them. We see, then, that God is loving us by giving us Himself and sharing His glory with us. This is amazing love, because we would not even want it if not for him regenerating us so that we might believe and be justified. That is pure grace, unconditional and glorious. To that end, soli Deo Gloria: to God alone be the glory!

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