Faith and Regeneration in the Scriptures:
Which comes first?

By
Daniel D. Musick, B.A., Wheaton College, 1973
M.A., Theology, Wheaton Graduate School, 1978

Regeneration (παλιγγενεσία)

The word “regeneration” occurs only twice in Scripture.

In His prophecy regarding the future regeneration of the world, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (παλιγγενεσία), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matt. 19:28 ESV)

Elsewhere Paul writes regarding the regeneration of individuals: “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)

Please note three observations regarding these verses.

First, in his letter to Titus Paul distinguishes between regeneration and salvation. And, it is by regeneration that we are saved. Salvation can be used in a broad sense that includes the entire process from pre-creation foreknowledge, to regeneration, to escatalogical glorification and inheritance of the kingdom (Rom. 8:29-30, Matt. 25:34), or in this narrow sense, following regeneration. Biblical statements indicating we are saved by faith do not prove we are regenerated by faith.

Second, our Lord's use of παλιγγενεσία raises the possibility of this term having both a narrow use and a wide use. Paul's usage appears to be narrow, in the context of baptism - "by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit." Christ's usage suggests a possible broader usage - "in the new world (παλιγγενεσία), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne." The transformation from old to new could include more than the transition that occurs in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor. 15:52) to include all the prophecies leading up to and following this moment in time. On the invividual level a broad use of the term "regeneration" could include years of preaching or lengthy catechism instruction prior to salvation. This could posit faith in the middle of regeneration, such that faith neither precedes nor follows regeneration. The focus of this document is the narrow meaning of regeneration found in Titus.

Third, the word “faith” does not occur in either passage, nor in their immediate contexts. The safest and the most accurate conclusion is that Scripture is silent regarding the ordo salutis of regeneration and faith.

This brief study, while conclusive, does not not satisfy those of either pursuasion. Does regeneration precede faith, or does faith precede regeneration? John Calvin wrote, "A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God's truth is attacked and yet would remain silent." Being faithful stewards of God's Word entrusted to us compels us to defend it.

Regeneration: Related Terms and Passages

While Scripture is silent in its narrowest language, we can look at the three related terms and passages about regeneration to see if an order can be ascribed: (1) The new birth. (2) Life. (3) God's raising of the sinner from death to life. These are not without limitations.

(1) Birth. Although similar, birth does not equal new birth; γεννάω does not equal παλιγεννάω. The "παλι," the "again" of "born again," includes the removal of the old. This could include earlier hearings of the Gospel, conviction of sin, repentence and faith, which could precede birth, but which may be part of the broader definition of regeneration.

(2) Life. Life does not equal regeneration. Note, however, that without life neither birth nor rebirth exists. No life, no regeneration. The word "life" also has different meanings, including this life we live in the flesh, regeneration life, and eternal life resulting from regeneration. For example, faith precedes and is a condition for eternal life (John 3:16), but is that identical to regeneration life?

(3) God's raising of the sinner from death to life. (Eph. 2:1-10, Col. 2:11-14) The key question when studying these passages is whether the passage is referring specifically to regeneration. A second consideration has to do with the position of the word faith in these passages, and the challenge of ascribing an order.

Regeneration: Guiding Hermeneutics & Scope

(1) The first principle of interpretation is one I never studied in exegisis or hermeneutics, but given the intensity of this discussion, I raise it to focus our thinking. It is simply this: Are you willing to walk the plank for your view? This is an integrity issue; the way we exegete honors or dishonors Christ. It's also a stewardship issue; we want to be found faithful. (1 Cor. 4:1-2) We also need to remember the strictness by which teachers will be judged. (James 3:1) Theology is not a game.

(2) The second hermeneutic is my committment here to a narrow level of exegesis. There are two distinct levels that must be considered when searching the Scriptures to determine which comes first, regeneration or faith.

The first level is direct statements. Although there are no direct statements in Scripture which say that regeneration precedes faith or that faith precedes regeneration, we can study and possibly find an order of faith and regeneration from related terms and statements.

The second level is context. There are numerous broad Biblical and theological contexts which can affirm either ordo salutis. Positions supported by context alone are inconclusive.

The focus of this document is the first level of exegesis, direct statements. In exegesis context is king, but direct statements trump context. Truths gleaned from direct statements instruct the broader contexts of Scripture.

(3) The third hermeneutical principle is to examine the grammatical structures of Biblical statements. Three types of structures can help us determine if there is an ordo salutis regarding faith and regeneration.

Conditional statements - "if this, then that" - with the antecedent preceding the result. For example, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9 ESV) Believing (antecedent) precedes being saved (result).

Purpose or result clauses – “in order to” or “so that.” The action precedes the purpose or result desired or intended by the action. For example, “A person is not justified (result) by works of the law but through faith (action) in Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 2:16) Faith precedes justification.

Instrumental clauses – the means preceding and leading to the subsequent result. For example, we are justified (result) by faith (means). (Rom. 5:1) Here as well, faith precedes justification.

(4) A fourth consideration has to do with the scope of this study. It our intent to examine Scriptures that indicate a logical order, not a temporal order. It is assumed that faith and regeneration occur simultaneously. This study focuses on the logical order.

(5) A fifth principle that will help guide us through this discussion is the principle of preclusion. Are there statements in Scripture that render impossible a specific order of salvation? For example, Jesus rose from the grave and ascended into heaven. This precludes, renders impossible, the possibility of anyone ever finding his body.

We will now examine the three expressions related to regeneration in light of these hermeneutical principles.

Born (γεννάω)

3 Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born uagain." 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:3-8 ESV) Missing from our Lord's dialog here with Nicodemus is the word "faith" or "believe."

8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 14:8 ESV) Here, as well, is no mention of "faith."

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3 ESV) In this verse there is no mention of the word "faith" or "believe." God's causing us to be born again does not preclude the possibility of his giving us grace to believe before being born again.

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 ESV) Nothing in the text indicates whether faith follows the word and precedes the new birth or or whether it follows the new birth.

Born (γεννάω) - The 1 John Passages

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29 ESV)

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9 ESV)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7 ESV)

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 John 5:1 ESV)

For 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 ESV)

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (1 John 5:18 ESV) The word "faith" appears only in 5:1 and 5:4.

In 1 John 5:1 the Greek word for "believe" is a present participle and the Greek for "born" has a perfect tense. Some conclude from this that faith results from birth. But this is not always the case, as in John 3:18 and 1 John 5:10, where the opposite is true - the perfect tense action follows the present participle. The present tense verb and the following perfect participle do not prescribe order.

In 1 John 5:4 it might be concluded that since we are able to overcome the world because of our new birth, our faith, which is also able to overcome the world, procedes from the new birth. But that is an interpretation and the conclusion is unwarranted from the text. Our faith is the victory that has overcome the world, just as it is faith that can move mountains (Matthew 17:20) because it is given by God (Phil. 1:29).

The context of John's use of the word "born" might suggest faith flows from birth, as do practicing righteousness (2:29), not continuing to sin (3:9), loving others (4:7), and overcoming the world (5:4), but this is an interpretation that is not based on the Greek syntax, but on a broader theological context.

Life (ζωή)

John 3:36 - Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. The present participle, "the one who believes" (πιστεύωv) coupled with the present tense verb "has" (ἔχει) does not designate order but concurrence.

John 5:24 - "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." Here John uses the same words, "πιστεύωv" and "ἔχει," with the same tenses as in 3:36. Concurrence is demonstrated here in the phrase "whoever hears my word and believes him." Regeneration does not occur before hearing Christ's word. "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Rom. 10:17 ESV) The logical order is: Word of Christ -> hearing -> faith.

John 5:40 - ". . . yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life." There is no mention of faith here.

1. Conditional Statements: John 3:14-15, 16, 6:40

John 3:14-15 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “ (ESV)

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. “ (ESV)

6:40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (ESV)

Notice from above.

1. Believing is a condition for eternal life, and therefore it precedes life. The antecedent precedes the result.

2. Do these verses refer to regeneration life? Is the modifier “eternal” used by John to distinguish the new life from the life listeners already have by virtue of being born into this world, or to distinguish between regeneration life and eternal life? Forcing the latter distinction is awkward, and it appears to be contrived. This would appear to preclude the possibility of regeneration life preceding faith.

2. Purpose or Result Clauses: 1 Timothy 1:15-16

15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (ESV)

The action, faith, precedes the purpose or result desired by the action, eternal life. Is the author referring to the eternal life that follows regeneration, or to regeneration life that is also eternal? Inserting a break here - pressing a distinction between the life that is a necessary part of regeneration and the eternal life continuing from regeneration is extremely awkward; it appears to be contrived. It would appear that Paul sees one continuous life here, faith preceding both the regeneration life and the eternal life. This appears to preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.

3. Instrumental Clauses: John 20:31

John 20:31 But these 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. (ESV)

Just as we are justified by faith, so we have life by believing. Faith precedes life. John's statement would suggest that this includes regeneration life. To distinguish between regeneration life and the continuing eternal life appears contrived and awkward here as well. This appears to preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.

Faith precedes life. Life is part of, or a subset of, regeneration. Therefore faith precedes regeneration only if we can be certain the life in these verses is regeneration life and not the subsequent eternal life. Can we be cetain? Is Scripture that clear? Can we walk the plank for that view?

Regeneration: Made us Alive Together (συζωοποιέω)

Ephesians 2:1-8

1. And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 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— 3 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. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

When Scripture talks about God raising us from death to life in verses 4-5 above, most would agree that it is talking about regeneration. The problem with the passage is that the word "faith" in verse 8 is not grammatically connected to the regeneration described preceding it.

Those who believe faith precedes regeneration point to grace and faith connected to the regeneration in verses 1-5 with the instrumental, “by faith” in verse 8 and the salvation from death which precedes the being made alive.

Those who believe regeneration precedes faith point to the time of regeneration, “when we were dead,” hence the inability to believe, and the word “faith” not appearing until verse eight.

At the end of the day support for either ordo salutis becomes contextual, which falls outside the scope of this document.

Regeneration: Raised with Christ (συνεγείρω)

Instrumental Clause: Colossians 2:11-12

"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (ESV)

Paul weaves together here two pictures of the regenerative work of Christ.

The first is circumcision. Notice that Paul is not referring to physical circumcision, but to the circumcision that is "without hands." This is a Spiritual work of Christ.

The second is baptism. Notice that Paul does not write that we are raised by the hands and arms of those who baptized us, but "through faith." This, too, is a Spiritual work of Christ.

Notice also that the apostle does not write, “You were given faith through being raised with him,” as many would assert, but rather, “You were also raised with him through faith.” If this is regeneration, it is through (διὰ) faith; faith precedes being raised with him. This statement precludes the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.

Conclusions

There are no statements that say that faith precedes regeneration or that regeneration precedes faith.

There are no statements that say that faith precedes birth or that birth precedes faith.

Faith always precedes life; there are no statements in Scripture where life precedes faith.

Faith precedes being raised from the dead in only one statement; there are no statements in Scripture where being raised from the dead precedes faith.

There are several Biblical statements that preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith; there are no statements that preclude the possibility of faith preceding regeneration.