Faith Precedes Regeneration
There are two views of the ordo salutis regarding regeneration and faith. The purpose of this page is to evaluate the later reformed position represented by R.C. Sproul at "Regeneration Precedes Faith."
Daniel D. Musick,
B.A., Wheaton College, 1973
M.A., Theology, Wheaton Graduate School, 1978
Sproul's view of Regeneration and Faith
The teaching that regeneration precedes faith is one attempt to defend Christian orthodoxy against semipelagianism, best defined as man's plagiarism of God's work in salvation. It ascribes to the individual the natural ability to believe the Gospel apart from God's grace. Semipelagianists generate their own faith apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This faith is a work of the old nature, the flesh. Would-be Christians who generate their own faith, their own works and their own salvation for the wrong reasons are not Christians. And in similar manner those who bear the name of Christ who fall back on their own efforts to save themselves have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4). Hence, having the correct faith is of monumental importance; it carries eternal consequences.
Dr. Sproul champions the historic orthodox position that it is impossible to be saved apart from God's work. One way he accomplishes this is by teaching that regeneration precedes faith.
2 He defends this position with three primary sources.
The first are the theologians throughout history. "Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield - even the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught this doctrine."
2. Common Sense.
The second defense is common sense - How can a dead person believe? Here Dr. Sproul explains.
Is regeneration a monergistic work of God or a synergistic work that requires cooperation between man and God? When my professor wrote 'Regeneration precedes faith' on the blackboard, he was clearly siding with the monergistic answer. After a person is regenerated, that person cooperates by exercising faith and trust. But the first step is the work of God and of God alone.
The reason we do not cooperate with regenerating grace before it acts upon us and in us is because we cannot. We cannot because we are spiritually dead. We can no more assist the Holy Spirit in the quickening of our souls to spiritual life than Lazarus could help Jesus raise him from the dead."
The third defense is Scripture. Dr. Sproul references six passages.
These giants of Christian history derived their view from Holy Scripture. The key phrase in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians is this: '...even when we were dead in trespasses, 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.'
Nor had I listened carefully to Jesus' words to Nicodemus. I assumed that even though I was a sinner, a person born of the flesh and living in the flesh, I still had a little island of righteousness, a tiny deposit of spiritual power left within my soul to enable me to respond to the Gospel on my own. Perhaps I had been confused by the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome, and many other branches of Christendom, had taught that regeneration is gracious; it cannot happen apart from the help of God. (John 3)"
Another passages in the Bible clearly teaches that regeneration precedes faith see:
1 John 5:1 - "everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God", John 1:13, Rom 9:16
John 6:63, 65 "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life... Therefore have I told you that no man can come to me, unless it be given to him by my Father."
Evaluation: Sproul's view of Regeneration before Faith
Dr. Sproul boldly upholds Christian orthodoxy regarding man's inability to save himself apart from God's work, but there are some apparent problems with his use of the later reformed ordo salutis to accomplish this.
Dr. Sproul asserts that Augustine believed that regeneration precedes faith, and he also quotes John 6:63, 65 as support for his view.
8 If Augustine had believed the same ordo salutis as Dr. Sproul, you would expect Augustine's sermon on this passage to support Dr. Sproul's position. When we examine the sermon, however, we find the opposite is true: the Father draws, he gives us faith and understanding, and then follows opening, illumination and quickening, the giving of life by the Spirit.
'But,' saith He, 'there are some among you that believe not.' He said not There are some among you that understand not; but He told the cause why they understand not 'There are some among you that believe not,' and therefore they understand not, because they believe not. For the prophet has said, 'If ye believe not, ye shall not understand.'(2) We are united by faith, quickened by understanding. Let us first adhere to Him through faith, that there may be that which may be quickened by understanding. For he who adheres not resists; he that resists believes not. And how can he that resists be quickened? He is an adversary to the ray of light by which he should be penetrated: he turns not away his eye, but shuts his mind. 'There are,' then, 'some who believe not.' Let them believe and open, let them open and be illumined. 'For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed, and who should betray Him.' For Judas also was there. Some indeed, were offended; but he remained to watch his opportunity, not to understand. And because he remained for that purpose, the Lord kept not silence concerning him. He described him not by name, but neither was He silent about him; that all might fear though only one should perish. But after He spoke, and distinguished those that believe from those that believe not, He clearly showed the cause why they believed not. 'Therefore I said unto you,' saith He, 'that no man can come unto me except it were given to him of my Father.' Hence to believe is also given to us; for certainly to believe is something. And if it is something great, rejoice that thou hast believed, yet be not lifted up; for 'What hast thou that thou didst not receive?'
Sproul also states that Luther supports the Calvinist ordo salutis. Here, as with Augustine, this is simply not the case. For example, in his Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Luther wrote, "Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God (cf. John 1). It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active powerful thing is faith!"
And, in his commentary on Galatians Luther wrote:
Paul as a true apostle of faith always has the word "faith" on the tip of his tongue. By faith, says he, we are the children of God. The Law cannot beget children of God. It cannot regenerate us. It can only remind us of the old birth by which we were born into the kingdom of the devil. The best the Law can do for us is to prepare us for a new birth through faith in Christ Jesus. Faith in Christ regenerates us into the children of God. St. John bears witness to this in his Gospel: 'As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name." (John 1:12.).'
The Book of Concord, the 500 plus page statement of faith for all the historic Lutheran churches, affirms throughout that regeneration is by faith. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, Philip Melanchthon wrote:
This special faith, therefore, by which an individual believes that for Christ's sake his sins are remitted him, and that for Christ's sake God is reconciled and propitious, obtains remission of sins and justifies us. And because in repentance, i.e. in terrors, it comforts and encourages hearts, it regenerates us and brings the Holy Ghost that then we may be able to fulfil God's Law.
While Calvinists bear his name, most do not follow Calvin's ordo salutis. It may be accurate to say that Calvinistic ordo salutis endorses regeneration preceding faith, but it is not accurate to suggest that Calvin himself supports the Calvinistic ordo salutis. While Calvin states in his commentary on 1 John 5:1 that "no one can have faith, except he is born of God," he also begins his commentary on the passage saying that "God regenerates us by faith."
Calvin details his ordo salutis in his commentary on John 1:13. He writes:
The Evangelist says that those who believe are already born of God. Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God.
One might conclude here that Calvin believes that regeneration precedes faith. Calvin makes the same observation, but his conclusion differs. He continues, "It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later."
Because he is part of the reformed tradition, it would be expected that he would support the later reformed ordo salutis in which regeneration precedes faith.
If Whitefield had believed regeneration precedes faith, that order should be apparent in his sermons. It is, however, conspicuously absent. In his sermon titled, "On Regeneration," he addresses the problem of those who outwardly confess the Christian creeds yet who have not inwardly been born again. He continues:
It remains, therefore, that this expression, "If any man be in Christ," must be understood in a
Second and closer signification, to be in him so as to partake of the benefits of his sufferings. To be in him not only by an outward profession, but by an inward change and purity of heart, and cohabitation of his Holy Spirit. To be in him, so as to be mystically united to him by a true and lively faith, and thereby to receive spiritual virtue from him, as the members of the natural body do from the head, or the branches from the vine.
Later in the sermon Whitefield writes: "Let each of us therefore seriously put this question to our hearts: Have we received the Holy Ghost since we believed? Are we new creatures in Christ, or no?"
Whitefield clearly suggests here not only that it is possible to believe without receiving the Spirit, but he also clearly expresses his view that the unbeliever is mystically united to Christ by faith; hence, faith precedes union with Christ, the inward change, and receiving the Holy Spirit.
Aquinas taught that God provides prevenient grace. Prevenient grace has been defined as "divine grace that precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer."
Prevenient grace, however, is not regeneration. In their attempts to garner support for their ordo salutis, Calvinists alter definitions. Prevenient grace is not regeneration, no matter how widely you stretch the definition.
The Broad Theological Definition of Regeneration.
When reading theologians today it is imperative that we understand the definitions of the terms Calvinists such as Dr. Sproul use. In order to establish credence for their ordo salutis, many Calvinists broaden the theological definition of regeneration. According to Scripture, regeneration is God's transformation of the sinner from death to life. According to Calvinists, regeneration is any work of God in a sinner's life before he believes the gospel. Proof that Dr Sproul employs a broad definition lies in the fact that he references the Father's drawing to Christ (Jn. 6:44)
19 to support his view that regeneration precedes faith. Calvinists also defend their ordo salutis by referencing God's opening of Lydia's heart (Acts 16:14).
If we allow Calvinists to mix and stretch definitions, as Dr. Sproul does, then every Christian who believes that God draws people to Christ before they believe would agree that regeneration precedes faith. I would be included. But the Father's drawing to Christ is not regeneration. And God opened Lydia's heart, but that was not regeneration.
As a result of this broad, mixed theological definition, many Calvinists use a faulty methodology to support their ordo salutis. When quoting Augustine and the reformers, Calvinists do not search their writings to determine how they use words like "faith" and "regeneration." Rather, they ignore them. Instead, many Calvinists support their views with theologians' texts demonstrating God's sovereign work in the lives of sinners before they believe.
Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Whitefield do not support the Calvinists' ordo salutis. They teach, instead, that faith precedes regeneration. Aquinas believes in prevenient grace, but he does not call it "regeneration." There is a difference.
2. Common Sense
Many Calvinists appeal to the Lazarus analogy, and they build much of their argument for regeneration preceding faith on common sense:
They ask, "How can a dead man believe?"
The problem with the Lazarus analogy is that the unregenerate are conscious; Lazarus was not. Those who impose common sense and human reason on Scripture have to face another Biblical reality:
How can God regenerate someone without first removing the condemnation of death?
The removal of original sin and its condemnation requires justification, which is by faith (Rom. 5:1); faith precedes justification. Adam fell and died because he was condemned; he was not condemned because he died. Reversing Adam's sin required first removing the condemnation - which is justification - before restoring life. Justification was accomplished for us at the Cross, and His work must not be compromised by an unbiblical ordo salutis.
Dr. Sproul references six passages to support his ordo salutis. As with the theologians he quotes we find that the passages from which he quotes often contradict his ordo salutis.
John 3 - Nicodemus
Jesus starts out the dialog telling Nicodemus he needs to be born again, and in verses 15 and 16 Jesus prescribes the necessary response for being born again.
Dr. Sproul writes: "Unless a man is born again first, he cannot possibly see or enter the kingdom of God. (vs. 3)"
21 I agree with this statement, but the fact that Jesus doesn't use the word faith here does not support the thesis that regeneration precedes faith. Jesus could have just as easily had in mind the following order of salvation.
From an evangelistic methodology Calvinists have a problem. Would Jesus tell Nicodemus he must be born again (vs. 7) and walk away, not giving a call, just letting the Spirit blow where He wishes? Never! Instead, Jesus presses upon Nicodemus the urgency of being born again. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. . ." (vs.14) In Moses' day there were no doctors, no hospital emergency rooms. The sting of the scorpion meant death. God's wrath was on Nicodemus (Jn. 3:36). In no uncertain language our Lord warned Nicodemus, "Behold, today is the day of salvation." The answer to our Lord's call is faith in Him. The necessary precedent, the condition for this life - this eternal life, of which regeneration is the beginning, is faith. "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.
Christ's words to Nicodemus, in context here, contradict the Calvinists' ordo salutis. Faith precedes life, of which regeneration is the beginning.
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 , 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (ESV)
Dr. Sproul correctly "locates the time when regeneration occurs. It takes place 'when we were dead.'"
22 From a human point of view, it makes sense. His conclusion, however, is unwarranted when he writes: "Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith."
When Sproul compares spiritual death to physical death, he alters the meaning of the word "death."
"A person who is physically dead cannot speak, cannot breathe, cannot laugh, cannot walk. . . But a spiritually dead person can do all of these things. It's wrong to say that a spiritually dead person can do nothing. Even the Calvinist would have to admit that he can reject Jesus Christ, he can pray, he can read the Bible, he can sin and he can even do good works in a vain effort to try to earn his salvation. He has ability to do all of these things."
Regardless of how Paul understood spiritual death he did not treat Jewish unbelievers as corpses. "And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures." Luke continues, "And some of them were persuaded." (Acts 17:2, 4 ESV)
The litmus test for semipelagianism is not the belief that regeneration precedes faith; it's the 529 Council of Orange, which condemned semipelagianism. Note that the language of the members is quite different from that of many Calvinists, particularly in Canon Five. Here we see that the very desire for faith is a gift of grace, and it is by this faith that we come to regeneration, hence, faith precedes regeneration. The will is not dead. The Holy Spirit amends our wills and turns them from unbelief to faith. What the council does condemn is any claim we make that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace.
Canon 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism Ś if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And again, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.
Notice here as well the distinction the council members make between regeneration and what many Calvinists would call prevenient grace: "the very desire for faith" and "the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith." Prevenient grace is distinct from regeneration, and it precedes regeneration. This is the historic Catholic view, and this is the historic Protestant view, except for the post reformation Calvinists.
Most Calvinists can not regard the authors of the Council of Orange in 529 as monergists without changing their ordo salutis. In their zealous enthusiasm Calvinists condemn the "synergists" who condemned semipelagianism, the very issue that drives the most Calvinists to conclude regeneration precedes faith.
Another problem most Calvinists have with the Ephesians 2 passage is their belief that since the word "faith" does not occur until verse 8, the first sovereign work of God is to make us alive in Christ (vs. 5). This is a vapid argument. Pressing an order on the Ephesians passage raises several issues.
1. Does the faith of verse eight follow the salvation of verse five? Does salvation precede faith, since Paul mentions salvation in verse five but he doesn't mention faith until verse eight?
2. Does faith follow our seating in heavenly places in verse six?
3. Does faith follow our future glorification in the coming ages of verse seven since the word "faith" does not appear until verse eight? As with the John 3 passage the argument is based on a faulty hermeneutic.
A more critical question is this: "From what are we saved, if not the death (2:1-3, 5) from which we have been regenerated?"
Most Calvinists would argue that Paul is using a narrow definition of salvation, which is by faith, and which does not include regeneration. "God saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration." (Titus 3:5) Regeneration precedes the narrower definition of salvation Paul uses here in his letter to the Ephesians. The problem for Calvinists with the Titus passage is that there is nothing there to support their ordo salutis.
The context for the perfect tense of salvation in verse five, salvation which is by faith, still suggests a broader definition which includes regeneration. If regeneration is a part of, or a subset of, salvation, and if faith precedes salvation, it also precedes regeneration. Rather than supporting Dr. Sproul's belief that regeneration precedes faith, it appears to me that Paul's language leans more toward faith preceding regeneration.
Additional proof that supporting an ordo salutis with word sequence is a vapid hermeneutic becomes obvious when we examine John 1:12-13. "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (ESV) "Believed" in verse 13 precedes "born" in verse 14. Calvinists who apply the same hermeneutic to this passage as they would to Ephesians 2:1-8 have a serious problem.
"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life... Therefore have I told you that no man can come to me, unless it be given to him by my Father."
Dr. Sproul evidently quotes this passage because he equates the Father's drawing to Christ with regeneration, hence altering the definition. If we broaden the definition of regeneration to include the father's drawing, everyone would agree that regeneration precedes faith. In like manner, if we broaden our definition of cheese to include sand and rocks, everyone would agree that the moon is made of cheese.
"Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (ESV)
This verse needs little explanation when examined in its context.
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (ESV)
There's an elephant in the room. Let's talk about it.
Why were the people in verse 11 not given the right to be adopted? Was it because they had not been regenerated? No, it was because they did not receive Christ. In verse 12 John gives God's condition for adoption: receiving Christ and believing in His name. The obvious flow of the passage is (1) Receiving Christ and believing in His name. (2) God's granting the right to become His children and being born of God. Faith, then regeneration and adoption.
In his sermon on John 1:1-14 Luther wrote: "But what is here said remains unchangeable: Not of blood, not of the will of the flesh nor of man, but of God, is this new birth. We must despair of our own will, works, and life, which have been poisoned by the false, stubborn, selfish light of reason; in all things listen to the voice and testimony of the Baptist; believe and obey it. Then the true Light, Christ will enlighten us, renew us, and give us power to become the sons of God."
Let's look at the verse in context.
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." (ESV)
Absent from this passage is the word "faith." There is nothing in this context to support the view that regeneration precedes faith. Most Calvinists can argue from this passage that God's salvation is monergistic, but not that it is without faith.
1 John 5:1
A final verse Dr. Sproul references to support his view that regeneration precedes faith is 1 John 5:1 "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God." He cites the verse, but provides no explanation.
Traditional later reformed support from this passage is based on the Greek verbs in this passage. The verb for believe is present tense: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christů" It's also a participle; a more literal translation is "Everyone believing that Jesus is the Christ..." The second verb for "born," is perfect tense: "...has been born of God."
According to later reformed exegesis and interpretation the perfect tense carries with it the idea of past action with continuing results. Being born of God produces results continuing into the present. When the present participle, believing, is coupled with the perfect tense verb, being born of God, faith is the result of being born again. The voice is passive; God alone accomplishes this birth. Faith is the result of regeneration; regeneration produces, and hence precedes, faith.
This interpretation, however, is unwarranted from the tense of the Greek verbs. There are at least two examples in John's writings where, rather than the present tense participle resulting from the perfect tense verb, the perfect tense verb results from the present tense participle.
One example is John 3:18. "Whoever believes (present participle) in him is not condemned (perfect tense)." Believing removes, and hence, precedes, not being condemned. Expressed positively: "Whoever believes (present participle) in him is has been justified (perfect tense). Believing is not the result of having been justified; rather, faith precedes justification.
A second example is 1 John 5:10 "Whoever does not believe (present participle) God has made (perfect tense) him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son." The perfect tense, making God a liar, is a result of the present participle, not believing.
The most you can conclude from the Greek present participle and the perfect tense verb is that the actions occur contemporaneously. There is regeneration and there is faith. The Greek tenses do no more to establish the order of salvation than the conjunction "and" in the previous statement.
Most Calvinists also resort to the use of the Greek word, genna˘, to be born. They teach that whenever this word occurs as a perfect verb, it produces a range of results expressed as present participles, of which faith is one.
"If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him" (2:29).
"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" (3:9).
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God" (4:7).
"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him" (5:1).
We can make two observations from these texts. First, in every instance the verb "born" (genna˘) is in the perfect tense, denoting an action that precedes the human actions of practicing righteousness, avoiding sin, loving, or believing.
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 (3:9), and loving God (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.
If this were the only passage in Scripture that references regeneration and faith, I would favor the later reformed position, but I could not be dogmatic about it. It's the strongest argument of many Calvinists, but it is not without its problems.
1. The raw text of 1 John 5:1 carries more weight than the context of word association; in exegesis context is king, but sentence structure trumps context. Let's examine the two verses above side by side:
"Whoever believes (present participle) in him is not condemned (perfect tense)." John 3:18. (A then B)
"Everyone who believes (present participle) that Jesus is the Christ has been born (perfect tense) of God." 1 John 5:1 (B then A)
The perfect tense provides no support for regeneration preceding faith.
2. From John's use of genna˘ it would be appropriate to suggest that regeneration might precede faith, but to write, "It follows, then . . ." is to grasp an opinion that rests on thin ice. The conclusion is unwarranted.
3. John's uses of genna˘ nowhere preclude the possibility of faith preceding regeneration. You can argue for regeneration preceding faith, but you can't argue against faith preceding regeneration.
4. John's use of the verb genna˘ allows for at least four scenarios in which faith precedes regeneration.
First, a sinner believes, he's born again, and he continues in the present believing. John's reference could be to the ongoing faith of those who have been born of God.
Next, if faith and regeneration occur simultaneously, there's no time gap between faith and regeneration. Everyone who believes has been born again and everyone who has been born again believes. It's impossible to be born again and not believe; it's impossible to believe and not be born again.
A third scenario has to do with John's terminology. He uses the phrase "born of God" to designate "Christians," a term he never uses. The phrase, "born of God" can be substituted with the term, "Christian." Look at how the emphasis shifts.
Everyone who practices righteousness is a Christian. (2:29)
No one born of God keeps on sinning because he is a Christian. (3:9)
Whoever loves is a Christian. (4:7)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a Christian. (5:1)
John is not laying out here an ordo salutis. He is characterizing Christians, those who have been born again.
32 It's inappropriate to force results from the perfect tense.
Consider this fourth scenario.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. (1 John 5:1)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been justified. Is this true?
According to later reformed ordo salutis, being born of God precedes faith which precedes justification. (Rom.5:1)
If the same grammatical structure that places being born of God before faith can also allow justification after faith, then the grammatical structure of the verse does not really address the order of salvation. John could have been writing from the same time-order orientation.
5. The broader context of John's writings. John would not teach here that regeneration precedes faith and elsewhere present faith as a condition for life. "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." (John 20:31) You cannot have life without regeneration; birth is the beginning of life; it is part and parcel of life: faith then life (regeneration the beginning of life and continuing through eternity). Calvinists separate regeneration life from eternal life: regeneration life then faith then eternal life.
John's statement here not only supports the view that faith precedes regeneration, but it also precludes the possibility of regeneration preceding life.33
The argument from the Greek tenses is without merit. When examined in the context of John's first letter, the argument from John's use of genna˘ is, at best, tenuous. When examined in the context of other writings, the belief that regeneration precedes faith is without merit and it is precluded by clear Biblical statements contradicting that view.
Regeneration and Faith: Concluding Comments
Calvinists' belief that regeneration precedes faith is based on faulty exegesis, a vapid hermeneutic, altered definitions and Scriptures taken out of context. On this issue they clearly abandon sola scriptura.
Most Calvinists present a lot of Biblical support for their belief that regeneration precedes faith, but none of it is conclusive. They have no Biblical texts connecting faith and regeneration in a grammatical structure that prescribes an order that supports their view. Neither do these Calvinists have any words from Scripture which preclude the possibility of faith preceding regeneration.
In contrasts to these Calvinists we do find in Scripture passages that support the teaching that faith precedes regeneration, and these are conclusive. There are Biblical texts connecting faith and regeneration in a grammatical structure that supports this view. And we find in Scripture at least five passages that preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.
The only reasonable conclusion from Scripture is that faith precedes regeneration.
Calvinists such as Dr. Sproul often fail to properly define Pelagianism, semipelagianism and historic orthodoxy. The essential differences are as follows.
1. Pelagianism: Grace is not needed in order to be saved. This heresy was condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage.
2. Semipelagianism: Grace is not needed in order to believe and be saved. This heresy was condemned in 529 by the Second Council of Orange.
3. Historic Orthodoxy: Grace is needed in order to believe and then be regenerated and saved.
4. Calvinism: Grace and regeneration are needed in order to believe and be saved.
Failure to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy has turned many regeneration before faith Calvinists into Pelagiaphobics, but they are our brothers and our sisters, salt-of-the-earth people, and I love them. On this issue, however, they are wrong.
Dr. Sproul concludes: "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."
35 This statement is unfortunate. It's offensive, inflamatory.
These Calvinists have isolated themselves from the mainstream of historic Christian doctrine. There are more Arminians than there are Calvinists. There are more non-Armenian, non-Calvinist Christians than there are Calvinists. Catholics don't believe in regeneration before faith, and there are more Catholics than Calvinists. Lutherans don't believe in regeneration before faith, and there are as many Lutherans as there are Calvinists.
Many Calvinists teach that if you are not one of them you are an Arminian; this simply is not true. Calvinists also teach that if you are Arminian you are semipelagian; this is also false. They accuse Catholics of being semipelagian, and they are not. This type of language precipitates cults, and this agressive, errant teaching splinters and divides churches and denominations. If you are a regeneration-before-faith Calvinist please restrain yourself! I am your brother.
May God open your eyes to His truth!
1R.C. Sproul, "Regeneration Precedes Faith," accessed June 17, 2012, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/sproul01.html.
2This view is popular among Christian leaders with a later reformed view of Scripture. For example, watch John Piper - "Believing is the Evidence of the New Birth," accessed September 28, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsPzSKI6jvY. In his meassage, "The Doctrine of Regeneration, Part 1," accessed February 4, 2013, http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/90-297, John MacArthur also teaches that regeneration precedes faith.
3Sproul, Loc. cit.
9Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Volume 7, St. Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospel of John, "Tractate XXVI, Chapter VI. 60-72," 288, accessed June 17, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.pdf.
10Martin Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, accessed August 12, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/l/luther/romans/pref_romans.html.
11Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, accessed June 23, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.pdf.
12Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, Article IV (II): Of Justification, accessed June 23, 2012, http://bookofconcord.org/defense_4_justification.php.
13Calvin's Commentaries, 1 John 5:1-5, accessed June 23, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/comment3/comm_vol45/htm/v.vi.htm.
14Calvin's Commentaries, John 1:6-13, accessed June 23, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/comment3/comm_vol34/htm/vii.ii.htm
16Selected Sermons of George Whitefield, "On Regeneration," p. 500, accessed October 28, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/whitefield/sermons.pdf
17Loc. cit., p. 507.
18"Prevenient Grace," Wikipedia, accessed June 23, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prevenient_grace.
19Sproul, Loc. cit.
20Ben Henshaw, "Does Regeneration Precede Faith?" accessed August 12, 2012, http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/29.
21Sproul, Loc. cit.
24George Zeller, "Does Regeneration Precede Faith?" accessed August 5, 2012, http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/reformed/regenera.htm.
25"The Council of Orange (529)," accessed August 5, 2012, http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/ORANGE.htm.
26For example, John Hendryx, "Monergism vs. Synergism," accessed August 12, 2012, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/whatismonergism2.html.
27Salvation is used in Scripture in a broad and in a narrow sense. In the broad sense it extends from the period before the foundations of the world were laid to the future reign of Christ. The tense here is perfect, referring to the time God regenerated us. While we must guard against mixing definitions - regeneration and salvation are not the same - Paul does use the narrow definition of "salvation" here. The primary content of salvation at the beginning verses of the passage is the transformation from death to life. This salvation is by grace (vs. 5 & 8) and through faith (vs. 8). Faith precedes salvation, and the regeneration which comprises this salvation. In context it appears that regeneration is a subset of salvation. If not, to what else can Paul be referring with the use of that term "salvation?" Salvation is by or through faith (2:8), faith precedes salvation, and faith is a condition for being saved. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31); "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." (Romans 1:16); "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." Romans 10:9 (ESV); See also 1 Corinthians 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:14.
28Sproul, Loc. cit.
29Martin Luther, Martin Luther's Sermons, John 1:1-14, accessed July 22, 2012, http://www.trinitylutheranms.org/MartinLuther/MLSermons/John1_1_14.html.
30Romans 5:1 "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (ESV) John's words in 3:18 do not support the view that faith precedes justification; I write that only to demonstrate the errant conclusions that can be drawn from isogeting the text.
31Daniel Spratlin, "Does regeneration precede faith?", accessed July 8, 2012, http://carm.org/does-regeneration-precede-faith.
32Joe Holden, "Faith Precedes Regeneration" 1John 5:1 "Who Are in the Faith," accessed August 12, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBvl8TMdSo4.
33John 3:15-16 "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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
34John 3:14-18, 6:40, 20:31; Colossians 2:12, and 1 Timothy 1:16.
35Sproul, Loc. cit.
36"List of Christian Denominations by Number of Members," Wikipedia, accessed August 5, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations_by_number_of_members.
Page by Dan Musick, 2012. Designed by Erich Musick, 2002. Please send any questions or comments via the contact form.