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The Order of Salvation - Part II

Regeneration or the New Birth

This obviously prompts us to ask another question. What precisely was it that the Holy Spirit did in Jerry that he did not do in Ed? What was it, if anything, that the Holy Spirit did in Jerry that elicited the appropriate response to the call issued in the gospel? The answer is regeneration. Or to use an expression that everyone today knows, Jerry was "born again." Jerry believes the gospel because there has taken place within him a radical and spiritually pervasive transformation in which his mind, soul, heart, indeed his entire personality has been renewed by the Spirit of God.

Who or what is the cause of this radical spiritual transformation that the Bible refers to as "regeneration" or being "born again"? Pelagians understand regeneration to be nothing more than reformation, a mere exchange of one set of habits for another set (achieved, of course, by a free act of will). Since man is not constitutionally depraved, that is, depraved by nature, being at worst the innocent victim of bad examples and other circumstances beyond his control, he does not need re-creation, only redirection.

Arminians believe that regeneration is brought to pass by the divine will and human will working in conjunction with one another. Or if they say that God alone regenerates, he does so only when and because the individual believes by a free act of will, or does not resist the overtures of grace. For example, we are told that "God cannot and to say the same thing - will not regenerate a heart that will not admit him. God respects the sovereignty-within-limitations with which he endowed man at creation” (William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975], p. 86).

Calvinists insist that the sole cause of regeneration or being born again is the will of God. God first sovereignly and efficaciously regenerates, and only in consequence of that do we act. Therefore, the individual is passive in regeneration, neither preparing himself nor making himself receptive to what God will do. Regeneration is a change wrought in us by God, not an autonomous act performed by us for ourselves.

Man's status in regard to regeneration is that of a recipient, not a contributor. Man is spiritually, in relation to regeneration, what Lazarus was physically, in relation to resurrection: dead, passive, unable to do anything at all, wholly subject to the will of him who gives life and breath to whomever he desires. Consequently, as Shedd explains,

"the new life is not implanted because man perceives the truth, but he perceives the truth because the new life is implanted. A man is not regenerated because he has first believed in Christ, but he believes in Christ because he has been regenerated. He is not regenerated because he first repents, but he repents because he has been regenerated” (Dogmatic Theology, 2b:509). 

Here, then, is my point.

In the doctrine of regeneration we are asserting that beneath and before all positive human response to the gospel, whether faith, repentance, love, or conversion, there is a supernatural, efficacious, and altogether mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. This work of the Spirit is both prior to and the effectual cause of all activity on the part of man. To sum up, the Holy Spirit regenerates a person in order that a person may convert to God.

The doctrine of man's total moral depravity, the bondage of the will, the teaching of Scripture on faith and repentance as God's gifts to his elect, as well as the doctrine of grace, all converge to demand that we understand regeneration to be prior to and therefore the cause of faith. What follows is a brief discussion of two passages in the Gospel of John that have great relevance for our study (see also Titus 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3,23-25; 1 John 5:1).

1.            John 1:11-13

"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."

It is likely that here John is addressing unbelieving Jews who imagined that natural descent from Abraham was sufficient to guarantee admission into the family of God. Several observations are in order.

We must first determine the relationship between the divine begetting (v 13) and the human exercise of faith (v 12). Is receiving Christ (v 12) the prerequisite of the new birth (v 13), as if to say that the new birth is conditioned upon receiving Christ and believing on his name? Or is the begetting by God the root, cause, and presupposition of faith (as I have been arguing)? The latter is surely correct, and for several reasons.

First of all, John 1:13 is parallel with John 3:6 ("that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit"). The point of the latter text is that all human and earthly effort can do nothing but produce that which is human and earthly. It cannot generate spiritual life.

Second, in John 6 coming to Christ (faith) is impossible for a man unless God draws him. In other words, John 6 denies to man any willingness to respond positively to the gospel apart from effectual grace. Are we to believe that John 1 affirms what John 6 denies? Certainly not.

Third, verse 13 says that God imparts life. The emphasis, as in John 3, is obviously on the divine source, origin, and cause of new life in Christ as over against any human or earthly or physical contribution.

Fourth, to suggest that human faith precedes and causes divine begetting (i.e., the new birth) destroys the point of the analogy. The point of describing salvation in terms of "divine begetting" is to highlight the initiative of God in making alive or giving birth to that which was either dead or nonexistent. To suggest that man can act spiritually before he exists spiritually, that he can behave before he is born, is not only ridiculous but also undermines the force of the analogy between physical begetting and spiritual begetting.

Fifth, even though the threefold negative in verse 13 refers primarily to physical begetting or aspects of the human reproductive process, it would seem extravagant for John to speak in this way if, after all, the human will does contribute to regeneration or in some way precedes and conditions the work of God.

What exactly then, does verse 13 mean? In general, the point of verse 13 is that birth into God's family is of a different order from birth into an earthly human family. One does not become a child of God by the same process or as a result of the same causal factors as one becomes a physical child of Abraham.

Let us now look at each of the three negations. First, one does not become a child of God by being "born of bloods." The plural form of the word blood may be explained in one of three ways: 1. the ancient belief that birth was the result of the action of blood, in this case, the blood of one's father and mother; 2. the blood of many distinguished ancestors; 3. drops of blood. Whichever of these views (or perhaps another one) that you adopt, the point is that spiritual life is not genetically transmitted!

Second, spiritual birth is not "of the will of the flesh." This probably refers to sexual desire, although "flesh" in John does not mean sinful lust. "'The will of the flesh' is that desire that arises out of man's bodily constitution” (Leon Morris, 101).

Third, spiritual birth is not caused by the "will of man." It may be that since the word for "man" here is the Greek word for a male rather than a female, the phrase refers to "the procreative urge of the male," thus making it a more specific expression of the previous (second) phrase. In ancient days the man was looked upon as the principal agent in generation, with the woman no more than a vessel for the embryo. If these three phrases do not rule out all conceivable human causes in regeneration, the final phrase does. If regeneration is "of God," with no additional comment, then surely it cannot be of anything or anyone else.

2.            John 3:3-8

"Jesus answered and said to 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 he born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?' Jesus answered, 'Truly truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into 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 the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.'"

This passage has been the focus of discussion for several issues not directly related to our subject. I do not intend to address them or to be sidetracked by questions concerning Christian baptism and the like (although I would like to say that a reference to Christian baptism is nowhere to be found in the text).

The reference to being born “of water” should be interpreted against the background of the Old Testament in which water was frequently a symbol for purification or cleansing from the pollution of sin. See Exod. 30:20-21; 40:12; Lev. 14:8-9; 15:5-27; Num. 19; 2 Kings 5:10; Ps. 51:2-3; Isa. 1:16; Jer. 33:8; Zech. 13:1. We should note especially Ezek. 36:25-26, the passage I believe our Lord had particularly in mind: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Thus to be born “of water and Spirit” is to be purified from the guilt of sin and inwardly renewed, both of which are wrought in us by the sovereign regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

I only wish to make a couple of brief but important observations.

We are told in verses 6-8 of the manner of regeneration. In verse 6 we are told that "each birth completely conditions the character of its product. The natural [i.e., the flesh] cannot produce anything but the natural, and by an invariable law does produce the natural. The supernatural [i.e., the Spirit] alone produces the supernatural, and it infallibly secures the supernatural character of its issue. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and it is only that which is born of the Spirit that is spirit” (Murray, “Regeneration,” Collected Writings, 2:185-86). Human nature is capable of propagating or producing only human nature. It is unable to produce anything that transcends its character as human. Simply put: like produces like. Or better yet: you can't get a spiritual effect from a physical cause.

The illustration our Lord employs in verse 8 is especially instructive. Like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit is invisible and mysterious (you "do not know where it comes from and where it is going"). Like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit is efficacious and sovereign (it "blows where it wishes") and cannot be pinned down by human contrivance. And like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit reaps observable fruit ("you hear the sound of it"). John Murray summarizes the message of our Lord with these words:

"While the wind is invisible, irresistible and not subject in any way to our will, it does manifest its presence where it is: we hear its effects. So is it with the new birth. It manifests itself in the fruit of the Spirit-"that which is born of the Spirit is spirit". By a secret, incomprehensible operation when, where, and how the Spirit pleases, he begets, or gives birth to, men, and this is a birth that becomes manifest in the fruits that are appropriate to its nature and purpose” (187-88).

What we have been looking at is the order or process in which salvation is received by the elect of God. We have been concerned with how the Good Shepherd draws his sheep unto himself. As is frequently the case, the hymn writer has a way of bringing it all together in a most satisfying way:


"I know not why God's wondrous grace

To me He hath made known,

Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love

Redeemed me for His own.


I know not how this saving faith

To me He did impart,

Nor how believing in His Word

Wrought peace within my heart.


I know not how the Spirit moves,

Convincing men of sin,

Revealing Jesus thro' the Word,

Creating faith in Him.


But I know whom I have believed,

And am persuaded that He is able

To keep that which I've committed

Unto Him against that day."