UNDERSTANDING THE TIMES
Which Came First? Faith or Regeneration
July 20, 2005
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Put on your thinking caps! Let me ask you a question. What do you think: must a person believe in order to be born again, or must one be born again in order to believe? To restate the question in theological terms, does faith precede regeneration, or does regeneration precede faith? To put it even more precisely, is faith the activity of a regenerated heart, or is it the activity by which we receive regeneration?
Now, why, some of you may be wondering, would anyone want to ask such an abstract, impractical, and frankly, boring question? Well, I trust that I can offer a convincing reply. Indeed, there are at least three reasons why this is an issue of the utmost importance for faithful Christians to understand, and about which we ought to have a biblical view.
To begin with, this issue involves the heart of the good news and the grace of God. One’s answer to this question necessarily reflects one’s understanding of the whole of the gospel message. For instance, if you say that belief must precede the new birth, then you must also say (1) that all men are not really spiritually dead before regeneration; (2) that saving faith is not a gift of God; (3) that the natural man does accept the things of the Spirit; (4) that an unbeliever can believe at any time by his own power, apart from God’s regeneration; and, (5) that men can come to Christ without the Father drawing them.
Now, these are serious contentions, to say the least. Moreover, there is a real danger of losing sight of vital biblical truth in our generation if we do not come to grips with this question. Two of the great emphases bequeathed to evangelical Christians from the sixteenth century reformers by our Lutheran and Calvinist forebears, in their Herculean labor to recover the biblical gospel, are the inability of man and the sovereign grace of God in salvation. These biblical doctrines are compromised by the assertion that faith precedes regeneration.
Nevertheless, it would not be unfair to say that the majority of evangelical pulpits preach precisely that today.
Finally, far from being an abstract or impractical question, this question has direct impact on matters of daily Christian living, like assurance of salvation and an understanding of the magnitude of God’s grace. Consider the two following scenarios.
A woman approaches her minister after his Sunday morning sermon entitled “What It Really Means to Have Faith in Christ.” She is a faithful church member, she loves the Lord, she reads the word, she prays regularly, but she is racked with worries over assurance. She fears that her faith may have been misdirected when she committed herself to Christ several years before. “I know so much more now about what it means to follow Jesus,” she explains to her pastor. “I wonder if I knew enough then to be born again. I wonder if I was totally sincere,” she continues. “What if my faith was imperfect when I first believed? What if my motives were flawed? Pastor, how full does faith have to be before God gives the gift of the new birth?”
Then another scenario several years ago after a college Bible study on the effects of sin, a Bible student at one of the local state universities approaches his group leader, Ed, with a question. “Tonight, Ed, you said that the Bible teaches that people are spiritually dead because of sin, right?” “Yes,” his teacher responded. Bob goes on, “And we saw that spiritual death is always accompanied by unbelief, didn’t we?” “Yes,” Ed answers a second time. Then Bob queries again, “Well, then, how can anyone believe in Christ for salvation if everyone is spiritually dead? Where does the ability to believe come from?”
Now these two very different sorts of questions are connected to a proper understanding of the relationship between regeneration (the new birth) and faith.
A biblical view of this issue will, on the one hand, aid this woman in her search for assurance, and on the other hand lead the student to a deeper appreciation of how far God goes to save helpless sinners.
There are many well-meaning evangelicals today who are quite adamant in their assertion that faith precedes regeneration, and it would not be difficult to multiply examples. For instance, one theologian recently insisted that God cannot (and, to say the same thing, God will not) regenerate a heart that will not admit him. More often, though, we hear it put positively: any person who is willing to trust in Christ as his personal Savior and Lord can receive the new birth.
Now behind these positions lie three presuppositions:
First, that the natural man is not spiritually dead in sin. Though he is at enmity with God and a slave to sin, and morally and spiritually blind, this view says he is not so dead in sin that he cannot believe in God for salvation. That is, this view says that all men are capable of ordinary initial saving faith, and they do not need to be regenerated to exercise it.
Second, this view believes that regeneration is God’s gift in response to man’s faith, but that the faith itself is not a gift. Jesus, salvation, the gospel, grace, the Holy Spirit, and regeneration—yes, these are gifts of God. But the initial personal faith of the believer is not a gift. God gives us the new birth when and only when we first choose to be reborn. Until we believe, God does nothing and can do nothing to bring us to faith in Him. He loves us because we first loved Him, says this view.
Third, this view says it would be unfair of God to require faith of those who are unable to believe; or, it would be unfair of God to regenerate those who were unwilling; to teach that men are spiritually dead and unable to believe, and also that they must believe, this view says, makes no sense. It would be unjust for God to regenerate some but not others. The person who holds this view thinks that divine regeneration prior to faith is unfair.
But however pious or well-intentioned are such views, they are actually dangerous to the believer’s spiritual life, first and foremost because they distort and contradict clear biblical teaching, and they place human reason over the expressed teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, a faith before regeneration view entails certain unavoidable consequences.
First, it robs glory from God by teaching that the ultimate ground of our salvation, that which distinguishes us from the lost, is our unaided free choice rather than the grace of God. It tends to build up the pride of a converted sinner: “I chose God,” someone will boast, “and was reborn as the result.” In other words, God loved me savingly, but only in response to what I did. I chose God; the unconverted person did not; and, hence, my choice is the difference between us. God could not save me without my unaided choice of Him.”
And thirdly, it robs assurance from the believer. He or she begins to question the first motions of the heart towards God: were they really sincere, or flawed? Did I have enough faith? Was it misdirected? How can I know that my initial faith was good enough to warrant regeneration?
Now, whatever the current popular view is, God’s word clearly teaches that regeneration is prior to faith, not that the new birth takes place apart in time from the exercise of faith in Christ; no, that’s not what we’re saying. Those things come together in time. Theologians would say they are concomitant: faith always accompanies regeneration, but regeneration is prior to faith in production; that is, a sinner believes in Christ because God has regenerated him, not vice versa.
The reasons for this are simple and biblical.
First, the Bible teaches that all men are spiritually dead and thus unable to believe. All are under sin and none has the fear of God. In fact, there is no one who seeks God. Romans 8:7, 8 makes very clear the spiritual condition of man before regeneration: those who are in the flesh are hostile towards God, cannot please God, and are not even able to obey the law of God. Jesus Himself insists that men are slaves to sin.
Furthermore, Paul and Jesus both tell us that the natural man cannot see or understand spiritual things. This is why Paul describes the unregenerate as “dead in trespasses and sin”; not simply under condemnation for sin, but unwilling and unable to change. Such persons are in no shape to exercise saving faith.
Second, the Bible teaches that regeneration is the work of God. The work of God can change our hearts and release us from spiritual bondage. Two Old Testament prophets in particular emphasize that God must give us new spiritual life if we are to follow after Him: “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit, and I will put my Spirit within you,” promised the Lord through Ezekiel. Likewise, he said through Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, on their heart.” But perhaps it’s the Gospel of John which most clearly shows that regeneration is God’s work. “The Son gives life to whom He wishes”; “The Spirit gives birth to spirit”; “You must be born again,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. But John had already told us that believers were born “not of natural descent nor of human decision, nor or a husband’s will, but of God.”
A person can no more choose to be reborn than a baby can choose to be born. God must do this great spiritual work. As our friend, John Blanchard, puts it: “Becoming a Christian is not making a new start in life. It is receiving a new life to start with.”
Third, the Bible teaches that God must enable us to believe. Paul tells the Philippians, “To you it has been granted to believe….” In other words, God empowered them to have faith in Christ. In Ephesians 2:8, our whole salvation, including our faith, is called “the gift of God.” Faith is called the fruit of the Spirit’s work in the Book of Galatians, and the Scripture also insists that saving faith results from a regenerate heart. For instance, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God”, not ‘will be born of God.’ In other words, faith is the result and evidence of regeneration.
Paul puts it even more strongly: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That is, nobody can believe without the Spirit’s power. Luke describes Lydia’s initial experience of faith in this way: “The Lord opened her heart to respond” to Paul’s message.
You see, faith itself is the fruit of regeneration, not the cause of it. You must be alive before you can believe.
Now, many Christians stumble on this subject because their minds cannot unravel this gospel paradox. On the one hand, men must believe on Christ to be saved; and on the other, that he cannot believe unless God regenerates him. It is not, as we have seen, that the Bible is unclear on the matter; it is that this teaching is hard for prideful humans to swallow.
But consider the words of our Savior. Our Lord Jesus Himself says, on the one hand, “Come to Me, all….” and on the other, “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” Is Jesus contradicting Himself? No. Is He insincere in His invitation to all? No. His teaching stresses beautifully both man’s responsibility to believe and the necessity of God graciously to give us new spiritual life before we are able to put our trust in Him.
In other words, God turns us to Himself because we are unable and unwilling to turn ourselves to Him. If He did not turn us, we could not and would not even want to turn to Him in faith.
Now, there are a number of important spiritual applications of this teaching.
First, the believer’s assurance is bolstered. One realizes that God loved him first, not in some vague, general, universal way, but in a very particular way; and that his faith is only the fruit of God’s gracious initiative. Hence, one no longer needs to go through endless worries about how sincere he was when he believed at first: “Was I 100% pure in my motivation?” No, you weren’t. Of course your faith was imperfect, but that it was there at all is a sign that God was at work, because saving faith is always the result of a prior work of God in regeneration. This teaching gets us away from endless and hopeless introspection about the quality of our faith in the past when we first believed, and it gets our minds on the object of our faith: Christ, as He is offered in the gospel—where the Bible tells us that it should be, and which results in the sort of healthy assurance which ought to characterize robust Christian experience.
Secondly, this issue matters because through it all pride is banished, because we recognize that even our belief by which we receive all the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work is a gift of God. Any other view gives man cause to say in the deepest recesses of his heart, ‘I chose to believe by my own will’s unaided power, and in that way, save myself.’
Third, the Bible’s teaching is acknowledged, even if we don’t understand everything about how it works. The gospel paradox of regeneration before faith provides the opportunity for us to trust in the express teaching of Scripture, even when our minds are stretched in striving to comprehend the fullness of the Bible’s doctrine.
And finally, all glory is given to God who saves us, and not we ourselves. Even our faith by which we were received into salvation is God’s spiritual gift to us. Praise be to God for such a glorious salvation. As we sang last Sunday morning,
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.”