Like Button

Monday, January 03, 2011

Faith Precedes Regeneration?

I've argued for some time that the Bible requires that for the Natural Man to come to faith he must first be regenerated. I've offered a host of Scriptures and biblical reasons for this. It is, in fact, the most basic differentiation between "Arminian" and "Calvinist". Everything else flows from there.

Arminians, of course, have always sought for proof of their position: Faith precedes regeneration. The assumption is that because it has been prevalent for so long it has always been prevalent. In truth, it's a fairly young idea in terms of prevalence, a spawn of Charles Finney's position that humans have all it takes to be saved. He is the one that popularized the "altar call" and made "decisional regeneration" the position of so many today. But I need to be fair. It is highly unlikely that the people today who argue for decisional regeneration -- the idea that faith precedes regeneration, that we are regenerated after we believe -- do so out of loyalty to Finney. So let's set that aside. If we are charitable to each other, it must be clear that we each hold our position based on Scripture, not on "Calvin" or "Arminius" or "Pelagian" or "Finney" or whatever other source you might wish to quote.

The "killer" verse, then, that has been hoisted up the flag pole most recently is from John 1:
He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:11-13).
Follow the reasoning. Some did not receive Him. Those who did receive Him did so by means of belief. When they believed they were given the right to be children of God. Thus "believe" clearly precedes "children of God", or faith precedes regeneration. The suggestion has even been made that anyone who believes otherwise is a mutilator of Scripture.

First, let's acknowledge that this passage can suggest this sequence. That is, to believe this line of reasoning is not "mutilating" the passage. So, admitting that, why would I think otherwise? Well, there is a massive amount of Scripture that suggests that this sequence is impossible. (I'm not bringing it up again; you can find it.) So I'm faced with an apparent contradiction. Either all of the plain stuff I read elsewhere is wrong (or my understanding of it is wrong), or this doesn't say what they say it says. So I read this over again.

What do I see? I see an affirmation that regeneration must precede faith. How? Well, it goes like this:

* Who was adopted (given the right to be called the sons of God)? Those who received Christ.
* Who received Christ? Those who believed.
* How does one believe? By being born of God.
* How is one born of God? It is not of human origin in any sense at all.

The Arminian holds that we believe by our own faith, our own choice, our own effort. (I know, "effort" is not a word they'll accept. Fine.) Of course, that's with God's urging and pleading and calling and all that, but the final choice is ours. This is "decisional regeneration" -- we decide -> God regenerates. As for me, I cannot see in what possible sense I can understand John 1:13 to say with such emphasis that it's not in any way, shape, or form a human thing and still mean that, in the final analysis, it's human belief that finalizes the deal.

I have to believe, then, that regeneration precedes faith, and that John 1:12-13 agrees. I do not believe this alone. Here is a short list of those who write about regeneration, faith, and John 1:12-13:

Founders Ministries

Asahel Nettleton


Robert Reymond

Reformation Theology

J.I. Packer


Grace Valley Christian Center

Jeff Paton

Orthodox Presbyterian Church

On Southern Baptist Eisegesis

The Way of Salvation

(I'm not providing the link, but Paul Washer considers decisional regeneration "idolatry".)

Now, numbers do not make something true (as the whole global warming fiasco has shown), but it's worth considering the ideas presented in all these cases, isn't it? And, if not, perhaps one of you kind folks can help me out with the vast numbers of passages I'm having troubles with like this and this and, for good measure, all of this. I'll just be waiting over here. Thanks.

And then Pastor John Samson over at Effectual Grace posts this. Seriously, we are not in cahoots.


Marshal Art said...

As it happens, the local Christian radio station runs a number of half-hour broadcasts of various preachers. One of them is the pastor of a church in my area that we will most likely join soon. I listen to him on my way to work in the morning and this morning the subject was regeneration. Though I'm unable to sit in the care to hear the last 10 minutes, he was commenting on John 1:12-13. He was basically saying that the two cannot be rightly viewed in isolation; they must be viewed together. It sounded as if he was splitting the difference, that like there is no light without the sunrise, the sun must rise in order to have light. He gives the right, but we must receive. A joint operation, one might say. I believe the whole week will be on this topic of regeneration, so I hope to have something more. Too bad I have to miss that last ten minutes every day.

In the meantime, the Gen 6 stuff doesn't account for Noah's righteousness at all. It only states that he was indeed righteous, almost as if he always was. I only mention it because to use the story to speak of the state of Natural Man, I would expect some counterpoint. Just sayin'. The rest I have to get to later.

Stan said...

On Noah ...

If we take Genesis 6 as saying that Noah was righteous all the time (as you indicate, it gives no indication of "became", but almost appears to be "always was"), then we have a problem. First, there is the contradiction of Rom 3:23 -- "All have sinned". Then there is the problem of the self-made righteous man. And, of course, there is the violation of human nature (which included "inclined only to evil continuously" in Gen 6). But I find that the sequence of the passage is interesting:

Gen 6:8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.
Gen 6:9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.

Notice that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord before he was called "a righteous man". That is, God has no need to show unmerited favor to someone who merits His favor. I would suspect, then, that we're looking more at cause and effect than simple statements. Because Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, Noah was declared "blameless". I need to point out, also, that "blameless" and "sinless" are not the same. Several biblical characters are called "blameless". David was "blameless" and Job was "blameless", for example. But "blameless" doesn't mean "sinless"; it means "without blame". That simply says that all obligations have been met, so to speak. For whatever sin they had committed they had repented and sacrificed and done what God required. Not that they had not sinned, but that their sin was dealt with. There was nothing new hanging over their heads, as it were. So Noah would be declared righteous by God (actually on the same basis that we are) because God chose to show him unmerited favor.

On the "joint operation" ...

I wonder what you would say (because "joint operation" -- "synergism" -- is the standard view) to John when he claimed that this "born of God" had absolutely nothing to do with human choice or effort? As I said, if "it's human belief that finalizes the deal", how could John say that it was "not of" any of those things at all?

Jason from CA said...


My first time commenting here, but thanks for the post and your blog! I've enjoyed reading, and have found it to be thought provoking and helpful.

Just wondering your thoughts on the following stance:
1) Natural man cannot seek God.
2) Christ died for all to make it possible for anyone to put their faith in God
3) Those that ultimately put their faith in God are called the elect (elect, His own, His sheep).
4) God will work regeneration in the elect as they continue to seek God.

I've been following authors on both sides of this issue, and it seems the bigger difference between Arminians and Calvinists are the scope of #2 and whose power causes #3. I'm getting the impression that both agree on #1.

I'm not very good at thinking through these things, so feel free to point out any inconsistencies. Let me know what you think!


Marshal Art said...

"As I said, if "it's human belief that finalizes the deal", how could John say that it was "not of" any of those things at all?"

I hope to hear more on this from the pastor, but until then:

I'd say it still works. Receive or not receive, believe or not believe, we can't make ourselves children of God. Only God can do that.

more later

Stan said...

The problem, Marshall, is that in your scenario "receive" and "believe" are functions of human will. They produce the result, "born of God", just as pulling the trigger on a gun produces the result of shooting someone even if you didn't build the gun, make the ammunition, or load the weapon.

Stan said...

Hi, Jason, and welcome to the conversation.

The idea you are describing is called "Molinism" or "Middle Knowledge". God knows in advance who will choose Him, so based on foreseeing their choice of Him, He chooses them. Here's the problem. Romans 9 says, "It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (Rom 9:16). It is neither human choice nor human effort. It is not "choosing Christ" (human choice) or "seeking God" (human effort). It is God's choice. Romans 9 goes on to say, "He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (Rom 9:18). That pretty much leaves out simple foreknowledge. Further, earlier Paul writes of Jacob and Esau, "For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls" (Rom 9:11). That is, the reason God chooses whom He chooses is not foreseen actions or choices, but "God's purpose".

Now, I know a lot of people (I once was one of them) really like the "foreknowledge" idea, but it doesn't really work, especially if you factor in the descriptions of Human Nature.

Marshal Art said...

"The problem, Marshall, is that in your scenario "receive" and "believe" are functions of human will. They produce the result..."

First of all, today's broadcast was on an entirely different topic, so I'll have to inquire directly of the pastor to see how he'd elaborate.

As to the above quote, they ARE functions of human will, but do not produce the result because neither by themselves can cause regeneration. As I said, believe or not believe, it doesn't matter without then being given the right by God. Rather than your gun anaology, I see it more as being offered a room to sleep in. I can accept the offer or not, I can even refuse to believe the offer really exists, but I've got nothing to do with whether the offer is given. That the offer exists is not dependent upon my acceptance of it. Conversely, I won't get a room to sleep in no matter how willingly I'll accept it if it wasn't offered in the first place.

I've got a slant (for lack of a better term) on Romans 9, but I need to think on it more before I try to articulate it.

Stan said...

"believe or not believe, it doesn't matter without then being given the right by God."

The sleep analogy is a real problem because nothing happens. You are offered a bed or a room or something and nothing happens. But the gun analogy indicates that something happens (it fires), just as in the question of regeneration something happens. Now, the thing that happens may be complex, as in the gun firing. Trigger pull, gun design, loaded weapon, properly made bullets, all of this goes into it. Pulling the trigger, then, does not fire the weapon in one sense because it wouldn't happen if all the rest wasn't done first. On the other hand, even if all the rest are in place, the gun won't fire if someone doesn't pull the trigger.

So, here we have God doing all that "other stuff" -- the sending of His Son, the crucifixion/resurrection thing, the plan for forgiveness, the regeneration itself ... but that result will never actually occur if you don't "pull the trigger" -- "believe". So you, in the final analysis, were the last cause of the event and it absolutely required you to believe, to choose ... and it therefore could not have been if you didn't do it. That means that it was "of human will", at least to some degree.

Marshal Art said...

Nope. My analogy is still better.

God offers His Peace, His Rest, His Salvation.

The landlord offers his peace of mind in the form of the room, rest in the bed in the room, and salvation from the dilemna of where to spend the night out of the elements.

Both exist and are offered despite my choosing or ignoring. What "happens" takes place after I (or someone else) take(s) up the offer. And unless God is an indian giver and doesn't come trhough (even if, actually) He's still soverign. He chose me by the offering of the right to be called a child of God. He chose me by whatever means He used to draw me to Him.

Stan said...

As you wish.

Marshal Art said...

Thank you, Westley.

(See The Princess Bride)

Stan said...

Wow! You got that. That was exactly where it came from.

Of course, that was not agreement. Even with your fictional innkeeper, with all that he offers, you get no benefit at all until you choose to take advantage of it. It cannot then be said that it is "not of human will".

Marshal Art said...

But is that not the same if I refuse to believe in God, or rebel against Him? Or are you suggesting that such could simply not be the case?

I keep thinking on my own case and I feel I'm screwed. Though I was brought up to believe, I made a conscious decision to continue doing so a an adult. I feel the arguments for God's existence and the truth of the Bible outweigh any argument against. While I consider myself saved, I certainly don't consider myself perfected or even a good example of what a Christian should be. I struggle with my dark side and improve because I feel it's what a Christian does. The line between being compelled by Him and compelled by conscious desire to BE Christian is thin indeed.

With this in mind, I feel that I'm basically one who has accepted that room but doesn't always act as if I have a place to stay. Have I the right to say I'm a boarder of my landlord?

Stan said...

No, remember the topic/premise. John 1:13 says that the "born of God" event does not occur at all by human effort or human will. You (and most others) are suggesting that it is indeed human will that determines when God's efforts finally come to fruition and produce regeneration. And the question is not about what we do after regeneration. There is no "autopilot". We have to cooperate with God (synergism) after regeneration. (We call that "sanctification".)

So the original premise, my original claim, is that John 1:13 requires that the "born of God" that occurs can only occur by God, that human effort or will can have anything to do with it. That is not what you are claiming.

Sherry said...

Hi, Stan.
What do you think of altar calls in churches or Billy Graham-like crusades in which people are invited to come forward to pray and make a decision to follow Christ? In the church I attend, people are asked by whoever is speaking to simply raise a hand during a public prayer, as a sign that they are repenting and making the decision to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They are welcomed to the family of God and encouraged to talk to someone about their life-changing decision afterwards. (If they are someday baptized, they make a public confession of their faith.)

I would imagine that you don't think much of such events, because obviously they require human effort, with us creatures thinking we are choosing God rather than Him choosing just some of us. I have heard of people feeling the tug of God and the tug of the world and choosing to stay in the world, at least for a while longer. Do you think such "invitations" and "acceptances" are just misguided, futile acts of deceived people?

I've visited churches where I think people can probably warm pews for DECADES and never actually make a decision to enter into a new life with Christ because it seems opportunity to do such a thing is never even discussed or presented! I would imagine most or many people attending such churches probably just assume that they are "in" because of their church attendance, the belief that they're good enough, God-revering people compared to many others, and/or because long ago they became a member of their church. By "in" I mean in God's good graces and will likely make it into Heaven someday, too. Isn't this much more apt to happen in Calvinist churches? Nobody is telling a whole lot of pew occupants that there should be a particular date and time in their lives when "old things pass away and, behold, all things become new", are they? I'd be interested in hearing your feelings about opportunities being presented for people to make this decision.

Somewhat beside the point, I take big issue with any earthly church organization trying hard to get people to become members of it, because I believe we became members of THE worldwide Church of Jesus Christ the moment we decided to follow the Lord. (You don't think we decided to do that though, so... okay, however that happened at that particular moment in time.) Nowhere in scripture are we instructed to join some man-made denomination church down here on Earth. Membership is for statistical purposes, perhaps in hope people will feel a commitment and maybe even an obligation to stay, then maybe also feel called to help with various needs that arise, to better ensure they will espouse only the correct doctrine if they become teachers or leaders, and at times maybe even to be able to get an idea what might be coming in monetarily from month to month in order to be able to budget. I feel fortunate to be attending a church that has never, ever pushed membership. It simply is not an issue there at all! However, not being just another of God's many created beings but actually choosing to call Him your Father and your God and becoming a member of (a child adopted child into) the family of God is an issue taken very seriously there.

Anyway, again, I wonder how you feel about people being encouraged in a group setting to make such a decision? Do you find it to be impossible? Terribly presumptuous? Just an emotionally-driven action? How do you feel about the Rev. Billy Graham and the ministry to which he has devoted over 6 decades of his life?

Stan said...

It's a funny thing about altar calls. They weren't really practiced until the 1800's (get that ... 1800 years after the Church got its start). They became popular from Charles Finney who believed that if you got people excited enough they'd be able to save themselves.

Having said that, inviting people to Christ and asking for a decision aren't bad in my estimation.

You see, the common misconception when I say "Regeneration precedes faith" is "Well, he doesn't believe that we have any choice in the matter." I do, in fact, believe that we choose Christ. I simply believe that we do so after we are enabled to do so. He gives us the faith and we exercise it. He gives us a living spirit and we can choose Him. It would be silly to ignore the fact that the Bible repeatedly calls on us to choose. I don't (ignore that).

So I see "altar calls" (although I'm not thrilled with them) and calls for decisions (that's okay) as a good thing. We are told that we are supposed to confess with our mouths, so a public thing is a good thing. (I'm not actually impressed with "Keeping you heads bowed and your eyes closed." It's like "Sure, we're asking you to make Jesus your Lord and Savior, but let's not let anyone know, okay?")

As it turns out, despite all the bad press, the rise of the missionary movement of the 19th century didn't come from Arminian churches. It came from Calvinist churches. Have you heard of Evangelism Explosion? That was a Calvinist pastor's work. Calvinists believe that God chooses and God calls and it cannot be stopped, so Calvinists (in their right minds) believe that it's a no-lose situation. "Hey, guess what?! I get to be part of God's work!! And I cannot fail!!!" The opposite view, on the other hand, is quite daunting. "Oh, man, I can't believe it! I meant to share the gospel with that fellow but he was hit by a car. I wonder if he went to Hell because I failed to (share the gospel, give a good message, give a convincing explanation, you fill in the blank)?"

I understand the membership thing, although I do know that many churches use it as an accountability thing. If you're not willing to commit and you're not willing to identify with that particular church, under what terms are they going to be able to trust you and to be sure you are doing what is right (teaching, serving, whatever)?

And, no, Calvinists aren't more prone to lukewarm Christianity. All churches are. They have been accused of being "the frozen chosen", but the Calvinists I've known who "get it", who really see how astounding grace is under this view, have been anything but "frozen". I think you'll find tares among the wheat in every church.

Stan said...

But beyond that, how have you been? Well, I hope.

Bubba said...

Stan, I didn't expect our exchanges to occur over quite that many weeks, and since I'm adding a return to grad school to an already quite busy schedule, I probably won't be able to converse much for quite a while. I might shoot you an email after grad school wraps up in August.

Until then, it might be helpful for everyone reading this thread for me to ask for some clarification.

You write, "He gives us a living spirit and we can choose Him."

Can we choose otherwise? After God gives us a living spirit, can we choose not to accept Him?

Either answer strikes me as problematic: since we have new life in Christ, it seems inconceivable for one to be regenerated but not choose Christ.

But, on the other hand, if one "can choose" Christ but CANNOT choose otherwise, it's hardly a true choice: it's like a dictatorship claiming to be democratic because it holds elections, when El Capitan is the only person ever permitted to be on the ballot.

"You see, the common misconception when I say 'Regeneration precedes faith' is 'Well, he doesn't believe that we have any choice in the matter.' I do, in fact, believe that we choose Christ."

If we cannot choose otherwise, it's hardly a choice.

Marshal Art said...

Regarding your last comment to me, it begs the question: How can my believing (and thereby qualifying for the right to be called a child of God) diminish God's sovereignty, particularly if the whole procedure is by His design? I don't deny that being born of God is His effort and will and gift. Whether or not one accepts a gift does not alter the fact that the item is a gift and that it is freely offered by the one who gives it.

I guess more to the point, John 1:12-13 does NOT support your contention that regeneration comes before faith. That is, of the verses you've offered in support of this position, these aren't the best for the task. It says the opposite; that being born of God, not a human achievement, requires our acceptance of the gift. Saying that being born of God is not a human achievement doesn't change that. I'll need to review your other Scriptural offerings.

Stan said...

Good luck in your grad school studies.

I have always seen this "Can we choose otherwise?" approach as problematic. It assumes a view of "free will" that mandates Absolute Free Will ... that God doesn't get any say in it. It assumes that if no one ever chooses anything but "x" (whatever "x" may be), then it's not "free will". The mandate of the pot ... sorry, the viewpoint ... is that for a choice to be genuine, it has to be possible to choose something else.

I see this as problematic because it eliminates something I cannot afford to lose -- God's omniscience. If God knows all things and knows all things perfectly (where "all things" includes "the choices I make"), then is it possible for me to choose anything but what God knows I will choose? If the answer is "Yes", then God is not omniscient. If the answer is "No", then the whole question of "Can we choose otherwise?" goes away.

It bothered me for a long time that anyone would not choose Christ. I mean, what's to choose? "Here you go ... all that Christ is for your damnation. He becomes sin for you, and you become His righteousness. You surrender certain eternal torment in favor of love, joy, peace ..." Well, you get the idea. Who would not choose that? So from that perspective the question "Could we choose otherwise?" seems equally baffling.

In the end it boils down (for me) to, not the theoretical "Could we choose otherwise?", but to "Does anyone choose otherwise?" To the former, I'd chalk it up to infinite "what ifs" that have no bearing on reality if the answer to the latter is "No". If every time I offer my kids chocolate chip cookies they say, "Yes", that doesn't require that they never had the choice. The fact that no one ever does choose otherwise doesn't (in my view) require the end of "free will" (with lowercase letters as opposed to the god, "Free Will", that so many humans seem to demand).

Stan said...


I'm having a hard time finding a question I asked you about diminishing God's sovereignty. Still ...

The claim I've made is that John 1:13 demands that "born of God" is not by human will or effort. We both agree that the actualization of "born of God" is God's work, but the point I've tried to make (that no one has even attempted to answer) is that if "born of God" is triggered (thus the gun analogy) by your choice, then it cannot be said that it is not by human will or effort.

I used this illustration long ago, so you may have seen it, but I'll try it again. Imagine a town. We'll call it "Big Rock". It's called Big Rock because a massive boulder sits atop a hill overlooking the town. This boulder seems precarious, but it has never moved. There is a small keystone at the base that holds it securely in place. So it is just an oddity and people live in its shadow just fine. One day a young boy is walking the hillside and sees the little stone. Curious, he yanks the stone out of place. The boulder is loose now and rolls down the hill and through the town, crushing everything in its path. Now, consider. The boy didn't put the boulder there. He didn't make the hillside or place the keystone. He didn't ordain gravity or build the town where it was. All he did was pull out a little rock. No big deal. He didn't push the boulder, didn't do anything that set up the disaster. So ... who is culpable for the destruction? Obviously the boy is because he did the single thing required that put all the rest in motion.

That's how it works here. If "choose Christ" puts the miracle of "born again" in motion, even if the "born again" process is nothing you can accomplish by yourself, you are still "responsible". It is still "by human will". Or, to put it in your terms, certainly making the choice doesn't alter the fact that the gift was freely offered. It does deny that it is "not of human will". It is a gift given because you chose to receive it and, therefore, is certainly of human will.

Bubba said...

Stan, I don't think that my approach "mandates Absolute Free Will," but though I know what the term means when used by others, I'm not quite sure what you mean by it.

(We aren't free to decide what choices are made available to us, nor are we free to set the rules of the game -- the consequences for choosing A over B are entirely in God's hands -- but we ARE truly free to decide among the choices God gives us. I wonder if what you mean by "absolute" free will, most would mean "actual" free will.)

I absolutely affirm God's omniscience: He knows what each of us will choose. But His knowing doesn't imply His compelling us to choose, nor does it imply that all so-called choices are really one-option choices.

Your view on God's omniscience almost seems to point toward an overly anthropomorphic deity governing a mechnanistic universe: as if God exists in time like the rest of us, but the universe unfolds ABSOLUTELY predictably, and so THAT is how He knows the end from the beginning.

Instead, I believe God is timeless, that He exists outside time. God knows what we will choose, but that doesn't mean our choices are really just accepting the one option that is before us.

We can agree to disagree on that. My primary point is to address this one comment:

"You see, the common misconception when I say 'Regeneration precedes faith' is 'Well, he doesn't believe that we have any choice in the matter.'"

That doesn't appear to be a misconception at all. You seem to believe that genuine choice between two or more options somehow precludes God's omniscience. Saying that one couldn't have chosen otherwise IS telling us that one doesn't have a choice in the matter.

On that note, I'm choosing to focus on more pressing matters. I'll try to send you a line, sometime. Until then, do take care.

Stan said...

Bubba appears to be moving on toward other endeavors (like grad school), and I wish him well. I do think I need to reply, even if he doesn't get to see it, so that others who might wonder the same thing would have an answer.

First, when I say "Absolute Free Will", I mean "Free Will untouched", so to speak. It is free will without inclination or influence. If, for instance, a person is inclined only to eat bacon (I knew someone like that), then it isn't "free will" if he only eats bacon. That choice was made for him by his own inclination. Nor is it "free will" if someone is going to choose "A" and I talk her into "B" because I brought influence (or, perhaps, "undue influence"). This kind of "Absolute Free Will" of which I speak must be absolutely free ... of anything, essentially. Oh, and I don't believe it exists.

My point about God's omniscience was that choices are real. God knowing which choice you would make and, therefore, that choice being the only choice you could make didn't nullify choice. There were options. Thus, affirming that all who are regenerated choose Christ doesn't necessarily deny choice. Neither the fact that everyone chooses what God knows they will choose nor the fact that everyone who is regenerated chooses Christ nullifies the fact that they are genuine choices. That is, no one who is regenerated is forced to choose Christ; they just all do as a function of their own nature, their own strongest inclination.

As a sidenote with an eye to a possible secondary question, I would say that "free will" -- not the "Absolute Free Will" that I deny, but genuine "free will" -- is defined as making choices without coercion. I am quite sure that free will always operates based on our strongest inclination, so "free will" without inclination makes no sense.