Regeneration, Justification, Sanctification
Here is a question from a visitor out of our mailbag with my response following....
Hey John, I have read a lot of your website and I appreciate the tremendous effort you have put into something that you feel very strongly about. I have carefully examined Calvinism for several years now, and find it to be thoroughly unbiblical. I find Calvinist exegesis to be very strained and artificial. I have only found more of the same at your website. I do, however, want to make sure that I properly understand any Calvinist doctrine before criticizing it. So my question has to do with regeneration, justification, and sanctification. If these terms are defined in the way that theologians usually define them, then I think Calvinism has a serious difficulty to overcome. I have not seen any articles posted on your website that address this issue. So what am I talking about?
What is regeneration? It seems to me that regeneration in the Calvinists scheme refers to being freed from sin so that one can respond to the gospel message. It is the work of irresistible grace. It is being born again (given spiritual life). Calvinists also believe that we are justified by faith, but that regeneration precedes faith and justification. What I do not understand is how one can be given spiritual life, be â€œborn againâ€, and not yet be justified. Are we then saved before we are justified? If we are already given new life (which is what regeneration means), then why the further need for faith or anything else? If Christâ€™s atoning satisfaction for our sins is not placed on our account until we are justified through faith, then how can one be regenerated before they are forgiven? How can one be given new life while they are still under the wrath of God? If sin is the cause of our spiritual death, how can we be freed from sins deadly influence before we have been forgiven?
What about sanctification? Is regeneration the beginning of Godâ€™s sanctifying work (most Calvinist authors that I have read would say it is), then again, how can one begin to be sanctified (made holy) before they are forgiven? I have yet to read a Calvinist deal with this problem. Perhaps you can help me understand.
Thanks for your email. That is a fair question It appears you are thinking of these things in terms of a temporal order, while the Scripture does not really warrant such thinking. You must remember, regeneration (the new birth) is also a redemptive benefit of our union with Jesus Christ. All spiritual blessings have Jesus Christ as their fountain.
Salvation does not merely narrow in on justification but must be seen multi-perspectivally. The work of the Holy Spirit is a necessity if one is to be saved. If a person only heard the gospel but the Holy Spirit did not first open his eyes, unplug his deaf ear and turn his heart of stone to a heart of flesh, then no one would ever come to faith in Christ. Correct? Left to ourselves without the Spirit's help, man is utterly impotent and does not understand spiritual things and, in fact is hostile toward them (John 3:19, 1 Cor 2:14). So if you admit ANY work of the Holy Spirit prior to salvation, then you also acknowledge that justification is not the only work going on in salvation. There is much more. The Spirit is working in a person's heart both before and after faith. 1 Thess 1: 4, 5 teaches this ..."For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you NOT ONLY IN WORD, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." The question is, then, whether you agree this work prior to faith is regeneration, which you seem to reject. But if salvation is not wholly of God, then why do you pray for the salvatiton of unbelievers? What can God do for them?
Now, back to the emphasis of your question ...
We believe the Bible teaches that regeneration is like unto a new creation. Consider, God creates the world and it exists. There was no time that elapsed between the creation and its actual existence. God spoke and creation came into existence at his command. It did not hesitate. When Lazarus was raised form the dead, there was no time that elapsed between when Jesus called him out and he was raised and breathing. The raising was Jesus' work, the breathing his, but due to Jesus' gracious gift of life. Or when a pool ball strikes another one, WHICH BALL STRIKES THE OTHER FIRST? Neither. They strike each other at the same time, but only ONE of these, due to motion, was the cause of the other. So likewise, the order of regeneration preceeding faith is CAUSAL, not temporal. Faith presupposes the existence of spiritual life. Otheriwse, you should ask yourself, why does one person believe the gospel and not the other? Did one have more spiritual insight than the other by nature? This again would leave room for boasting.
And frankly there is nothing strained about the belief that regeneration is the work of God alone. There is nowhere where the new birth is spoken of in the imperative as if it were a command. Take John 6:63-65 for example. It says it is the spirit who gives life and the flesh counts for nothing... no one can come to me [believe in Jesus] unless God grants it, and in the same chapter talking about the same topic, Jesus said all that the Father give to Him WILL COME TO HIM [believe in Him]. Look carefully, the "giving" of the father to Jesus precedes the coming (faith). So taken together these passages teach that no one can believe in Jesus unless God grants it and ALL that God grants to Jesus will believe. This is a universal positive and a universal negative, not leaving any room for any position of ineffectual grace. Jesus does not leave us room for this. After Peter acknowledged him to be the Son of God, Jesus, making sure that Peter did not glory in his own faith, said, flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven. In John 6:44 he repeats the same concept - not only does he say that "no one can come unless God draws him" but in the same verse says that those same people God draws will be raised up on the last day. In other words, the same persons the Father draws will be raised up in the last day.
While you may not like what you see here, you can hardly call this strained exegesis. It would actually be strained to see it any other way. ASK YOURSELF, according to John 6:37, HOW MANY OF THOSE THAT THE FATHER GIVES THE SON ALSO BELIEVE ON HIM??
Answer: ALL ("ALL that the Father gives to me will come to me") Any synergistic rendering of this verse is unfaithful to the text.
I do not believe we are reading into it ... but taking the Lord at his plain words. Even if you don't like our conclusion, you must admit that it is easy to see how we can understand it this way from the text.
We affirm that faith is not produced (or does not come from) our unregenerated human nature. It is strained to conclude from the Bible that those still dead in sin can believe without regeneration. It is like saying a blind man can see before being healed. But once healed, he hears. No time interval is required. In fact, Ephesians 2:5 says that WHILE WE WERE STILL DEAD IN SIN, HE QUICKENED US" In other words, when we were still natural men, without the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit came to give us new life. That new life (union with Christ) was the cause of all other blessings.
"Faith" likewise is natural to our new nature, just like breathing. The preacher cast forth the seed of the gospel but only as the Holy Spirit germinates it in our hearts will be see the beauty, truth and excellency of the gospel. Apart from new eyes that God grants us, no one will see its beauty.
As for sanctification ... regeneration is the fountain, sanctification is the river. No one is sanctified before they are forgiven. That is ridiculous. Remember, this is not a temporal order. It is God, outside of time, entering in to it to touch man by uniting him to Christ. All spiritual blessings have their source in our union with Christ. From God's perspective it is via regeneration, from our perspective, faith. But faith is the instantaneous response to God doing a work of grace in us, not the reverse, according to the plain teaching of Scripture.
Furthermore, we are justified, because of Christ and His finished work. So the grace of Jesus Christ (from the cross) is "ultimate" while faith is only "penultimate". Faith gives glory to God because like all spritual blessings it is a gift. You cannot hold back and say "Lord I thank you for everything else, but faith is mine and I did it apart from You." No we must also thank God for our faith and even the humility to believe. Otherwise you could pray, "thank you Lord I am not like other men who do not have faith. When you granted grace to all, they did not make use of it, BUT I DID". See such boasting is natural to those, perhaps unconsciously, who do not believe faith is a gift. It is Jesus Christ that makes us to differ from others, not Christ plus our fallen will (John 1:13, Rom 9:16). He first raised us up, quickened us that we may have faith.
Our two different views may be seen as follows: Imagine two parents and both of their children are playing in the yard. The child runs into the street when a car is coming. The first parent simply stays at the curb and calls out to the child hoping he will respond to his calls. The second parent sees the child run into traffic and, at the risk of his own life, runs out, scoops up the child to make CERTAIN that the child is safe. Which parent loves their child? Answer. The one who gets the job done. The first example is unlike any kind of love I have ever witnessed, except for exceptionally selfish people. Yet this is the kind of "love" you would have us think of God. Likewise if someone was drowing in your scheme, we would sit in the boat while our friend drowned and only help them if they first reaced out their hand to help themselves. But a true friend would dive in and make certain his friend did not drown. To you God has the capacity to save those he loves but doesn't unless they meet a condition. In it, he loves no one in particular except those who first love him back. It seems that such a love is conditional. Sorry, but this is not the Biblical God. God's love gets the job done. We are required to believe and obey but none of us would unless Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Hope this helps understand better... I pray you ponder what I have written to you and draw your own conclusion before God about what I have pointed to in the Scripture.