Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Does Faith Lead to Regeneration or Vice Versa? Part 1

At the time of conversion every true Christian comes to have saving faith.  This faith involves believing the basic truths of Christianity and also trusting in Christ for personal salvation. 

At conversion too every true Christian is regenerated by God.  This is also referred to as being born again or born of God or begotten by God.  Regeneration is an act of God that enables a person to be His child and to have a Holy Spirit-empowered, supernatural form of life.

So Christians have faith and they have been regenerated.  But what is the relationship between these things?  Does God respond to our faith by regenerating us?  Or does He cause us to be regenerated, which leads to our having faith? 

Most Calvinists claim that no one can have saving faith until they are regenerated.  Those who take this view therefore argue that regeneration must lead to faith. 

All, or at least almost all, non-Calvinist segments of the church believe that God responds to faith by regenerating.  And some Calvinists agree with this.  In what follows I will be supporting this majority position.

GOD’S WORK IN PEOPLE BEFORE THEY HAVE FAITH

Those who say that regeneration leads to faith often point to biblical texts that refer to God’s work in people’s lives before they have faith.

For example, in John 6:44 Jesus states: 
‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.’  
It is often argued that verses like this one imply that a person must be regenerated in order to have faith.

It is true that by His grace God is always heavily involved in people’s lives before they come to faith.  And it is true too that no one can have faith without His awakening and enabling.  All Christians agree on this. 

However, it is unwarranted simply to assume that the activity of God in a person’s life leading up to the point they first have faith has to include regeneration.  Verses like John 6:44 don’t in fact tell us anything about the relationship between faith and regeneration.

GOD’S CHOICE AND HUMAN FREEDOM

Many Calvinists claim that regeneration must lead to faith, or God wouldn’t be the one who alone decides who is and isn’t saved. 

Calvinists believe that those who become Christians couldn’t possibly have chosen to reject Christ.  And they believe that those who don’t become Christians couldn’t possibly have chosen to accept Him.  In Calvinist theology, God sees to it that those He has chosen become Christians, and that those He hasn’t chosen don’t.

By contrast, most Christians believe that God gives people a genuine ability to choose or reject Christ.  I side with the majority on this point. 

However, even if, for the sake of argument, we were to say that God alone decides who is saved, that wouldn’t have to mean that regeneration leads to faith.  God could awaken people enough to have faith, then cause them to have faith, and then respond to that faith by regenerating.

As I have already noted, there are Calvinists who accept that faith leads to regeneration.  And the idea that regeneration must lead to faith or God couldn’t be the only chooser of who is saved is a mistake.

JOHN 1:11-13

John 1:11-13 tells us: 
11 He [Jesus] came to what was His own, but His own did not accept Him.  12 But as many as did accept Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those believing in His name, 13 who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of a man, but of God. 
In this passage accepting Jesus implies faith

In the above translation I have kept the Greek participle pisteuousin in the last clause of v. 12 as an English participle, ‘believing’, although that makes the English rather clumsy.  I have done this so as to keep the ambiguity of pisteuousin as regards the time this word is referring to.  There are two possibilities:

(1) It could be referring to those who accepted Jesus believing in His name at the time they accepted Him.  In this case v. 12 means: 
‘But as many as did accept Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believed in His name . . .’  
(2) It could be referring to those who accepted Jesus believing in His name at the present time.  In this case v. 12 means: 
‘But as many as did accept Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name . . .’ 
If (1) is correct, then the text is saying specifically that those who accepted Jesus believed, i.e., had faith, at the time they accepted Him. 

However, even if (2) is correct, the text is clearly implying that these people also believed in Jesus’ name, i.e., had faith, when they first accepted Him.

In this passage, then, the accepting of Jesus is certainly an accepting of Him in faith. 

God responds to faith by regenerating

So we are told that those who accepted Jesus in faith were given the right to become children of God, i.e., to be regenerated.  But the wording in these verses strongly implies that being given this right is God’s response to their accepting Jesus in faith.

If it were true that regeneration leads to faith, we would expect this passage to read: 
‘He came to what was His own, but His own did not accept Him.  But as many as had been given the right to become children of God, they accepted Him . . .’ 
This, however, is not what the text says.

Verse 13 doesn’t mean that regeneration leads to faith

Verse 13 tells us that ‘the will of a man’ is not something that leads to regeneration.  It is sometimes argued that this shows that faith, which involves use of the human will, doesn’t lead to regeneration.

Verse 13, however, is simply saying that regeneration has nothing in common with normal procreation.  ‘Man’ in ‘the will of a man’, translates the Greek word aner, which refers specifically to a male.  And the text is saying that the decision of a man to sleep with a woman is not part of what causes regeneration.  Verse 13 is not saying that regeneration is not God’s response to faith, which would in any case seem clearly to contradict what v. 12 has just said.

Summing up

John 1:11-13, then, strongly implies that faith leads to regeneration.

THE HOLY SPIRIT

In John 3:5 Jesus says: 
‘. . . unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ 
And in John 3:6, 8 he refers again to being ‘born of the Spirit’.

In these verses being born of the Spirit means regeneration, as everyone agrees.

Comparing John 3 with John 20

The words in John 3:5, 6, 8 about being born of the Spirit seem to be connected to John 20:22.  In this verse, after His resurrection Jesus breathes on His disciples and says: 
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’  
By 20:22 John’s Gospel has reached the stage where Jesus, having completed His work on the cross, is now able to give the Spirit.  Everything that has previously been said about the Spirit in this Gospel can now be put into effect. 

It is difficult to believe that being born of the Spirit in 3:5, 6, 8 and receiving the Spirit in 20:22 refer to two separate things.  Instead, in this Gospel being born of the Spirit, i.e., regeneration, is apparently one of the key things that is involved in receiving the Spirit. 

I think receiving the Spirit is probably a broader term than regeneration, but it seems to at least include regeneration.

Comparing John with Galatians 3

There are other verses in the New Testament where Christians are explicitly said to receive the Spirit.  And we can use what we have learned from John’s Gospel to gain insight into the meanings of these other texts. 

Actually, to keep things concise I will look at just one of these other verses, Galatians 3:2.

In this verse Paul asks the Galatians: 
‘I want to learn this one thing from you.  Did you receive the Spirit by the deeds of the Law or by hearing with faith?’ 
In the context the implied correct answer to Paul’s question is obviously ‘by hearing with faith’. 

Importantly, there is no good reason for treating receiving the Spirit in Galatians 3:2 and receiving the Spirit in John 20:22 as concepts that differ substantially in meaning. 

It is true that different biblical authors do at times use terms in different ways.  Nevertheless, there seems to be no reason for thinking that this is the case here.  So it is reasonable to treat receiving the Spirit in each text as more or less the same thing.

We saw above that receiving the Spirit in John 20:22 seems to include regeneration.  So it makes sense to think that receiving the Spirit in Galatians 3:2 also includes regeneration.

Crucially, in Galatians 3:2 receiving the Spirit is by faith.  So, if receiving the Spirit in this verse involves regeneration, as it seems to, then regeneration must be by faith.

So when we read Galatians 3:2 in the light of information from John’s Gospel, we have a strong piece of evidence that faith leads to regeneration.

Other New Testament passages that refer explicitly to receiving the Spirit are Acts 2:38 and Acts 8:5-17.  Both of these also provide strong support for the position that faith leads to regeneration.

Comparing John with Ephesians 1

One other verse I want to discuss briefly is Ephesians 1:13.  Here Paul states: 
‘In Him [Christ], you also, after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed in Him you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.’  
Being sealed with the Spirit means being given the Spirit as a seal, i.e., as a mark signifying ownership by God.  Therefore this verse implicitly refers to Christians receiving the Spirit.

Again, there is no good reason for thinking that the receiving the Spirit in view here differs substantially in meaning from the receiving the Spirit of John 20:22.  And, as we have seen, receiving the Spirit in John 20:22 is best understood to include regeneration. 

Ephesians 1:13 says ‘having . . . believed . . . you were sealed with the Holy Spirit’.  This is clearly telling us that believing leads to receiving the seal of the Spirit.  So if receiving the seal involves regeneration, as it seems to, then faith leads to regeneration.

Ephesians 1:13 therefore counts as another strong piece of evidence that faith leads to regeneration.

Acts 9:10-17; 11:17; 19:1-7 are other passages which also strongly suggest that faith leads to the regenerating work of the Spirit. 

Summing up

To sum up this section, then, there are biblical passages which strongly imply that faith leads to Christians receiving the Spirit for regeneration.

REFERENCES TO LIFE IN JOHN’S GOSPEL

The Gospel of John includes numerous references to Christians having ‘life’ or ‘eternal life’. 

Faith leads to life

There are passages in which faith clearly leads to experiencing this (eternal) life:

In John 3:14-15 Jesus says: 
14 . . . the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life.’ 
In John 3:16 Jesus states: 
‘. . . God gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life’. 
In John 5:40 Jesus criticises people with these words: 
‘. . . you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.’ 
In John 6:40 Jesus says: 
‘This is the will of God, that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in Him might have eternal life.’ 
And John 20:31 states: 
‘. . . these have been written, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, . . . and that believing you may have life in His name.’ 
So in John’s Gospel faith leads to (eternal) life. 

Life and regeneration connected

It is very difficult to believe that this theme of (eternal) life should be separated from the theme of regeneration found in John 1:12-13; 3:3-8.  Instead, regeneration in these passages should be viewed as the act of God by which (eternal) life begins.  There are four reasons for this:

(1) There is the similarity between the concepts of regeneration and (eternal) life to take into account.

Regeneration is about entering into a form of supernatural life.  But the (eternal) life referred to in John’s Gospel is also a form of supernatural life.  So it seems very implausible that both these things concern supernatural life and yet are unconnected.  Instead, by far the most natural conclusion to draw is that the (eternal) life is the life that comes from the regeneration.

(2) Standing in the prologue as it does, John 1:12-13, with its reference to regeneration, seems to be introducing a major theme in John’s Gospel. 

Regeneration is about two key things, one, becoming God’s child, and, two, entering into a form of supernatural life.  However, in this Gospel the theme of Christians being God’s children is not especially stressed, but the theme of life is.  Therefore, it makes sense to think that John 1:12-13 is looking forward to the theme of (eternal) life in the Gospel. 

I think these verses do look forward to the theme of being God’s children as well, but they are surely also looking forward to the theme of (eternal) life.

(3) Everyone agrees that the theology and thought-world of John’s Gospel and 1 John are very similar. 

In 1 John 5:1 we read: 
‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God.’  (I will discuss this verse in part 2 of the article.)  
And 1 John 5:13 states: 
‘These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ 
In 5:1 those who believe have been born of God, i.e., regenerated.  And in 5:13 those who believe have eternal life.  It seems that as far as 1 John is concerned, those who have eternal life are those who have been regenerated. 

Given this, and given the closeness of 1 John to the Gospel of John, it makes sense to think that in the theology of the Gospel too those who have (eternal) life are those who have been regenerated. 

(4) In John’s Gospel (eternal) life is typically something that Christians possess as soon as they believe. 

John 3:36 states: 
‘The person who believes in the Son has eternal life.’ 
In John 5:24 Jesus says: 
‘The person who believes the One who sent Me has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life’. 
And in John 6:47 He says: 
‘The person who believes has eternal life’.    
In this Gospel, then, both regeneration and (eternal) life apply to people at the time they become Christians.  It is not the case that regeneration applies to our life here on earth, while (eternal) life applies only to our life after death. 

The combined weight of these four points provides an extremely strong piece of evidence that in John’s Gospel the regeneration referred to in John 1:12-13; 3:3-8 is understood to be the act of God by which (eternal) life begins.

Drawing a conclusion

We have seen, then, that John’s Gospel teaches that faith leads to (eternal) life.  And we have also seen that this Gospel teaches that regeneration is the act of God by which (eternal) life begins.  Therefore, faith must lead to regeneration.


Part 2 of this article can be found here.

See also:



Should Hands Be Laid on New Christians?