Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Faith and Regeneration: Which Comes First?


This is basically a theological version of the "chicken and egg" conundrum. Occasionally it amuses me that Calvinists and Arminians (and others) are so apt to come to blows with regard to this question (I am referring to the theological one, not the chicken/egg question). As far as chickens and eggs are concerned, the answer is quite obvious from this text:

Genesis 1:20-23 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
God created "birds," not eggs, on the 5th day. "Eggs" are the intended method by which they will be fruitful and multiply. I hope you can appreciate what a great mystery has just been solved here. 

Unfortunately, the ordering of faith and regeneration does not have such an easy solution. Let's examine all of the texts related to the topic of "regeneration" to see whether they answer this question.


1. The Greek noun παλιγγενεσία (PALIGGENESIA) appears twice in the New Testament:
Matthew 19:28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
This text is clearly not referring to individual, salvific regeneration, so it has no bearing on the discussion.
Titus 3:4-8 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
This text, which clearly refers to individual, salvific regeneration, and even mentions faith in close proximity, does not give any hint of which came first.

2. The Greek verb ἀποκυέω (APOKYEO) is used once in the context of spiritual birth:
James 1:16-18 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
There is no mention of the ordering of faith and regeneration here. What is undeniable is that God alone regenerates, and that it is "of His own will" that He has regenerated His people.

3. The Greek verb ἀναγεννάω (ANAGENNAO)  appears twice in the New Testament, both times in I Peter:
I Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
This text, while not explicitly addressing our question, only speaks of the role of faith as a protection for believers after regeneration has occurred. Rather than mentioning our faith as the cause of regeneration, Peter speaks only of God's mercy as the cause.
I Peter 1:22-25 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” 
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
This text, while mentioning regeneration and the preached Word of the Gospel, offers us no indication of the ordering of faith in the equation. If anything, we might refer back to verses 20 and 21, which tell us plainly that "through Him [we] are believers in God." This gives all of the credit for the origination of our faith to Christ, and not to our own act of will in exercising faith. The true sight and knowledge of Him (as proclaimed in the Gospel) produces faith, as surely as the sight of a raging hurricane produces awe and dread.

4. The Greek verb γεννάω (GENNAO) is sometimes used in the context of spiritual birth, or regeneration:
John 1:9-13 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
On the surface, this passage might seem to place faith ahead of regeneration. However, the text does not specify at which point regeneration occurred. Rather, it shows that the "right" of sonship was given to those who believed. Thus, the right of sonship follows upon faith. This right is given to those who are born of God and have believed.
John 3:1-8 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This text says much about the new birth, but gives us no indication of the ordering of faith and regeneration. It simply tells us that regeneration is necessary to salvation. Although faith figures prominently in the remainder of the chapter and the book of John, there is no conclusive evidence of ordering here. 

There are several passages in I John that mention spiritual birth:
I John 2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.
There is no evidence of the ordering of faith and regeneration here, unless we take "practicing righteousness" to include initial belief in Christ.
I John 3:9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
No evidence of the ordering of faith and regeneration here.
I John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
No evidence of the ordering of faith and regeneration here.
I John 5:1 Everyone who believes (Present Active Participle) that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, (Perfect Passive Indicative), and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him (Perfect Passive Participle).
On the surface, this verse might seem to teach that regeneration occurs before faith. However, it could be interpreted the other way. Thus, there is ultimately no conclusive proof of the ordering of faith and regeneration here. If anything, the verb tenses might point toward regeneration preceding faith.
I John 5:4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
Although faith and regeneration are both mentioned, there is no evidence of the ordering here.
I John 5:18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
No evidence of the ordering of faith and regeneration here.


So, if all of the New Testament passages dealing with regeneration are ultimately silent (or at least inconclusive) on this issue, what was the point of this exercise? We arrive at three conclusions:
  1. The subject is not definitively settled by the Biblical text itself (perhaps God has not deemed this to be an area in which we need to have a settled certainty).
  2. Any position that insists on a particular ordering must be driven by something other than the text (such as soteriology, systematic theology or philosophical considerations).
  3. Upon thorough consideration of these texts, three possibilities remain: 
    • Faith precedes regeneration
    • Regeneration precedes faith
    • Both occur simultaneously
I would favor the third option and recommend it for consideration by all. As a Calvinist, the second option would seem to be the next best. Based on the Biblical text, there can be no doubt that regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, reconciliation, sanctification and all other good gifts are given to us by God, and are not from ourselves. That is GREAT NEWS, regardless of your stance with regard to the order.