Read this quote carefully:
We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
Did you find anything wrong with that quote? The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look. Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?
We’re discussing regeneration. It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers. Let me try and make it as clear as I can.
Regeneration has several aliases. The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1). Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced. It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life. This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.” There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present. We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.
Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated? Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”? It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5). It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16). In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.
Let’s dig into this a little deeper. What does the new birth do? It brings someone to spiritual life. Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance. Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…” Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse. It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Regeneration precedes repentance and faith. It must.
Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures. Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together. You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8). Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.” Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness. However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.
In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology. The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s. Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp. The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.” He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective). Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision. In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.” Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.” Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.
In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well. These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration. The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website. Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording. When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian. It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.
Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse. Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible. For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that. The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration. The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification. If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.