At its heart, the Christian gospel message is that if a person has faith in Jesus Christ, their sins will be forgiven and they will be reconciled to God.
Another important part of this message is that if a person has faith in Christ, God responds by causing that person to be regenerated, which is also known as being born again. Regeneration involves receiving a Holy Spirit-empowered, supernatural form of life.
Receiving forgiveness and being regenerated, then, are two aspects of what is involved in becoming a Christian, and they both follow on from a person coming to saving faith.
Those who claim that regeneration leads to faith
You will often hear Calvinist Christians claiming, however, that faith does not lead to regeneration, but that it is actually regeneration that leads to faith. Most Calvinists believe that God causes some people to receive the Spirit in regeneration, and that this leads to their coming to faith in Christ.
It is true that not all Calvinists take this view. Some side with the majority Christian position that faith leads to regeneration. But most Calvinists claim that regeneration leads to faith.
This idea fits very poorly with the Bible
This idea that regeneration leads to faith actually fits very poorly with the teaching of the Bible.
There are one or two passages which might at first sight seem to teach this. However, they can easily be interpreted in a different way.
Just as importantly, there are numerous passages which strongly support the position that faith leads to regeneration. These include John 1:11-13; 3:14-16; 5:40; 6:40; 20:31; Acts 2:38; 8:5-17; 9:10-17; 11:17; 19:1-7; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13.
For a defence of the majority Christian position that faith leads to regeneration, see my article, “Does Faith Lead to Regeneration or Vice Versa?”
Why do so many Calvinists say that regeneration leads to faith?
Since the Bible teaches that faith leads to regeneration, why is it, then, that so many Calvinists claim that regeneration leads to faith? What motivates them to say this?
There seem to be two reasons.
First, many Calvinists wrongly think that a person can only have saving faith if they have first been regenerated.
And second, many Calvinists seem to wrongly think that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election requires that regeneration leads to faith.
Let’s think about each of these points in turn.
Saving faith does not require prior regeneration
Firstly, then, many Calvinists think it is impossible for a human being to have saving faith without first being regenerated.
Those who take this view often point to biblical texts that refer to God’s work in people’s lives before they have faith.
For example, in John Jesus states:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (English Standard Version)
Calvinists often argue that this verse implies that a person must be regenerated in order to have faith. Jesus is saying, so the argument goes, that no one can come to Him in faith unless the Father first draws that person by regenerating them.
It is right to say that the coming to Jesus in this text is a coming in faith. However, it is unwarranted to assume that the drawing by the Father must include regeneration. That is to read something into the text that simply isn’t there.
It is true that this verse is teaching that God always works in people’s lives before they come to saving faith. No one can come to faith without His awakening and enabling. All Christians agree on this.
However, it is wrong to just assume that the activity of God in a person’s life leading up to the point when they first have faith has to include regeneration. In fact, all God needs to do is to awaken and enliven the person enough for them to have faith. And there is no good reason to think that this enlivening must go as far as regeneration.
It is a mistake, then, to think that people need to be regenerated in order to have faith.
Regeneration leading to faith is not necessary for unconditional election
There also seems to be a second reason why many Calvinists think that regeneration must lead to faith. Many seem to believe that the doctrine of unconditional election is dependent on regeneration leading to faith.
Unconditional election is a key doctrine of Calvinism. It is the belief that God alone chooses who is saved, and that human beings have no real say in the matter. All Calvinists believe that those who become Christians could not possibly have chosen to reject Christ, and that those who do not become Christians could not possibly have chosen to accept Him.
In Calvinist theology, God sees to it that His chosen ones become Christians, and that those He has not chosen do not. So Calvinists believe that when a person comes to faith in Christ, God has fully caused that person to have faith.
Most Christians do not take this view, but believe that God gives people a genuine ability to choose or reject Christ. Personally, I prefer the view that people usually have genuine ability to choose or reject Him, although this is something that I have not yet been able to reach a clear conclusion on.
It seems that many Calvinists think that in order for God to cause people to come to faith, He must regenerate them prior to their having faith.
However, the issue of whether or not God causes people to come to faith in Christ should not be confused with the issue of the relationship of faith to regeneration.
Even if we were to say, with Calvinists, that God fully causes people to come to saving faith, there is no need to assume that people have to be regenerated before having faith. The following series of steps would fit just as well with Calvinism:
(1) God awakens those He has chosen for salvation, so that they are capable of having saving faith.
(2) He causes these people to come to faith.
(3) He responds to that faith by regenerating (and forgiving).
In fact, a minority of Calvinist theologians accept that God works according to these steps. They rightly understand that unconditional election can easily fit with faith leading to regeneration.
A pointless idea
We have seen, then, that faith does not depend on prior regeneration. And we have seen too that the doctrine of unconditional election does not depend on regeneration leading to faith.
Not only, therefore, is the idea that regeneration leads to faith a wrong one. It is also a pointless one. It is not necessary for Christian beliefs generally. And it is not even necessary for Calvinist beliefs.
When Christians come up with a wrong idea because that idea is necessary for holding some other (wrong) belief, that is frustrating enough. But when Christians come up with a wrong idea that is not even necessary for anything else, that is even more frustrating.
And this seems to be what has happened here. Calvinists have come up with the unbiblical idea that regeneration leads to faith, because they think that the Christian faith and the Calvinist theological system depend on this idea.
But these things don’t depend on this idea at all. If we accept, as we should do, that faith leads to regeneration, this in no way has to conflict with the Christian faith or with Calvinist theology. And even some Calvinists accept this.
The idea that regeneration leads to faith is not just pointless and unnecessary. It causes problems too, not least in the way that it distorts the gospel message.
Part of this message is that coming to Jesus in faith leads to a person being born into new life. See John 1:12-13; -16; ; ; . We need to keep this part of the Christian message intact. And this can only happen if we insist that faith leads to regeneration.
I would therefore encourage any Calvinists who are reading this to firmly reject the unbiblical idea that regeneration leads to faith. But this can be done without rejecting Calvinism.