Monday, August 25, 2014

Regeneration Precedes Faith: What Others Mean vs What PBs Mean.


The new birth is an incredibly important Christian doctrine. When it comes to having a proper understanding of our eternal salvation, few doctrines provide as much explanatory power as the bible's teaching on the new birth. Nowhere is this more true than when the new birth is represented on a timeline along with the exercise of faith. Since both the new birth and the exercise of faith are events in time, it follows that there are only three possible timely relationships between the two.

The Three Camps of Regeneration and the Exercise of Faith

  • CAMP 1 - Regeneration precedes the exercise of faith in time.
  • CAMP 2 - The exercise of faith precedes regeneration in time.
  • CAMP 3 - Regeneration and the exercise of faith are simultaneous.

All Christian groups that affirm the reality of regeneration and the exercise of faith can be described by their adherence to one of these three scenarios. Broadly speaking, the vast majority of the professing Christian world falls into CAMP 2 which is, again broadly speaking, the doctrine of Arminianism. That would include Roman Catholics, most Southern, Missionary and Independent Baptists, virtually all Methodists, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, Nazarines, Lutherans, Presbyterians... you get the picture.

Those not found in CAMP 2 are composed of various churches who regard their doctrine as "Reformed" or "Calvinistic" such as the Reformed Presbyterian denominations, some "Reformed" or "Calvinistic" baptists, the Protestant Reformed Church, and Primitive Baptists.

Depravity Alone Affirms the First Statement


Primitive Baptists believe that the well established doctrine of total depravity alone is sufficient in establishing that regeneration must precede any exercise of faith in time as a matter of logical necessity (Romans 3:10-18), but we go on to find manifold testimony of that truth in numerous passage of scripture, the verb tenses of which leave no room for any remaining doubt on the matter ("were born" - John 1:12-13, "is passed" - John 5:24, "is born" - I John 5:1). Given that the vast majority of professing Christians teach that one must believe in order to become born again, we recognize that this places us very much in the minority. But we cannot help but point out that the Lord Jesus Christ taught that "except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) It seems evident to us that to teach that the exercise of faith is a prerequisite to the new birth is nothing short of teaching "except a man see the kingdom of God, he cannot be born again" - precisely the opposite of our Lord's instruction.

The Importance of Affirming that Regeneration Precedes Faith IN TIME


While I have written a fair amount on this blog in opposition to CAMP 2, the purpose of this post is to examine the teaching of those who would, at face value, appear to be in agreement with the Primitive Baptist assertion that "regeneration precedes faith." When one examines the writings of those who claim to embrace this fundamental precept, one finds that while these brethren boldly wave the "regeneration precedes faith banner," what they actually mean by this proclamation is that "regeneration and the exercise of faith are simultaneous." In other words, while their banner appears to be that of CAMP 1, their actual residence is found to be in CAMP 3, and one only finds this out when they delve more deeply into the fine print of their writings on the topic. Admittedly, they arrive at this position through equivocation on what is intended by the term precede. It is for this reason that when making reference to the truth that "regeneration precedes faith," I have purposed to always include the words "in time" to underscore that I am making an explicit chronological reference, not some so-called "logical" relationship between the two. More on that in a moment.

A closer look at what is taught among the NeoReformed under the moniker of "regeneration precedes faith" is helpful in demonstrating that CAMP 3 is their true dwelling place, and in identifying why their position is both illogical and distinct from the bible's testimony on the matter.

BEGIN TRANSCRIPT OF THE NEW BIRTH by RC SPROUL------------------

"Regeneration Precedes Faith"(Sproul)

"REGENERATION PRECEDES FAITH. This assertion that captures the heart of the distinctive theology of historic Augustinian and Reformed thought is the watershed assertion that distinguishes that theology from all forms of semi-Pelagianism. That is, it distinguishes it from almost all forms of semi-Pelagianism." (The New Birth, R C Sproul)
Properly understood, the new birth distinguishes sovereign grace theology from all other soteriologies in the Christian marketplace – since it insists that eternal life is imparted prior to any spiritual exercise on the part of man whatsoever. (I John 5:1, Titus 3:5) It is impossible to underestimate the importance of that singular observation in establishing God's people in a right understanding of their eternal salvation.
"There is one historic position of semi-Pelagianism that advocates the view of a universal benefit that embraces all mankind as a result of the atonement of Jesus. This universal benefit is the universal regeneration of all men — at least to the degree that rescues them from the moral inability of their original sin and now empowers them with the ability to exercise faith in Christ. This new ability to believe makes faith possible but by no means effectual. This type of regeneration does not bring in its wake the certainty that those who are born again will in fact place their trust in Christ." (Sproul)
Sproul is far too generous here, in my opinion. This "type of regeneration” is precisely no regeneration at all, so far as the scriptures are concerned. To define regeneration in this way is to commit an identity fallacy, that is, it is to define the eternal life imparting act of regeneration as a non-eternal life imparting prevenient grace, a notion that has absolutely no basis in scripture whatsoever. All that said, this is admittedly a nit based more on his rhetorical tactics than anything else. Sproul goes on to say...


Objections to "Regeneration Precedes Faith" (Sproul)

"For the most part, however, the statement, “Regeneration precedes faith,” is the watershed position that creates apoplexy in the minds of semi-Pelagians. The semi-Pelagian would argue that despite the ravages of the fall, man still has an island of righteousness left in his soul, by which he still can accept or reject God’s offer of grace. This view, so widely held in evangelical circles, argues that one must believe in Christ in order to be born again, and so the order of salvation is reversed in this view by maintaining that faith precedes regeneration." (Sproul)
Sproul is correct in this assertion. It is clear that the majority of evangelicals affirm the false view that faith precedes regeneration and that it is the complete opposite of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ who insisted, "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) In opposition to this teaching, the majority view insists, "Except a man see the kingdom of God, he cannot be born again."
"However, when we consider the teaching on this issue as found in John’s record of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, we see the emphasis that Jesus places on regeneration as a necessary condition, asine qua non, for believing in Him. He says to Nicodemus in John 3:3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then again in verses 5–7, Jesus says, “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 must-ness of regeneration of which Jesus speaks is necessary for a person to see even the kingdom of God, let alone to enter it. We cannot exercise faith in a kingdom that we cannot enter apart from rebirth." (Sproul)
This is a good affirmation from Sproul, one with which Primitive Baptists would no doubt agree, albeit without feeling much need to invoke "sine qua non" in their efforts. 
"The weakness of all semi-Pelagianism is that it invests in the fallen, corrupt flesh of man the power to exercise faith. Here, fallen man is able to come to Christ without regeneration, that is, before regeneration. On the other hand, the axiom that regeneration precedes faith gets to the very heart of the historic issue between Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism." (Sproul)
More to the point, the doctrine of regeneration is the battleground issue in the war of salvation by sovereign grace vs salvation by works. 
"In the Augustinian and Reformation view, regeneration is seen first of all as a supernatural work of God. Regeneration is the divine work of God the Holy Spirit upon the minds and souls of fallen people, by which the Spirit quickens those who are spiritually dead and makes them spiritually alive. This supernatural work rescues that person from his bondage to sin and his moral inability to incline himself towards the things of God. Regeneration, by being a supernatural work, is obviously a work that cannot be accomplished by natural man on his own. If it were a natural work, it would not require the intervention of God the Holy Spirit." (Sproul)
Let's pause here to draw out a few key observations regarding Sproul’s position:
  1. Regeneration imparts spiritual life. Good.
  2. Regeneration inclines a man toward God. Good.
  3. Regeneration cannot be accomplished by man on his own. True but...
I am not fond of the wording of Sproul's third qualification. Taken at face value it could be interpreted to imply synergism - that regeneration can be accomplished by man with God's help. While Sproul goes on to demonstrate that this is not what he intends, I believe a more thoughtful wording of that point in his introduction is helpful in removing any confusion. I would prefer, "Regeneration is not an act of man, but an act of God alone."
"Secondly, regeneration is a monergistic work. “Monergistic” means that it is the work of one person who exercises his power. In the case of regeneration, it is God alone who is able, and it is God alone who performs the work of regenerating the human soul. The work of regeneration is not a joint venture between the fallen person and the divine Spirit; it is solely the work of God." (Sproul)
Good clarification – but a more careful wording of the preceding paragraph would be most helpful in removing the appearance of contradiction and help prevent any misunderstanding based on sound-bite theology which would take advantage of this statement by removing its contextual qualifiers.

"Regeneration is Immediate" (Sproul)

"Thirdly, the monergistic work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit is an immediate work. It is immediate with respect to time, and it is immediate with respect to the principle of operating without intervening means. The Holy Spirit does not use something apart from His own power to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life, and when that work is accomplished, it is accomplished instantaneously. No one is partly regenerate, or almost regenerate. Here we have a classic either/or situation. A person is either born again, or he is not born again. There is no nine-month gestation period with respect to this birth. When the Spirit changes the disposition of the human soul, He does it instantly. A person may not be aware of this internal work accomplished by God for some time after it has actually occurred. But though our awareness of it may be gradual, the action of it is instantaneous." (Sproul)
Here Sproul affirms that regeneration is immediate by which he means “instantaneous” as well as “without intervening means.” This would seem to affirm that Sproul does not believe that the gospel is the instrumental means of the new birth, but his wording leaves some room for doubt, given the number of times that I have heard NeoGrace theologians define "immediate" as "mediate" by asserting that "the preached word of God is the direct power of the Holy Spirit." I am of the opinion that there is insufficient detail in Sproul's statement to establish his position on gospel means one way or the other.   

Sproul goes on to say that “a person may not be aware” of this internal work for some time. I would state it this way – a person cannot be aware of this internal work, but can be aware of its subsequent effects.  This is because the new birth is not an observable event, as it occurs at an instantaneous point in time void of duration. As a result, only the evidentiary fruits of regeneration are observable even as the Lord taught, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) The statement “a person may not be aware of this internal work… for some time after it has actually occurred” seems to be an explicit admission that there is a separation in time between regeneration and the exercise of evangelical faith. Indeed, how can someone exercise evangelical faith and not be aware of such? 


"Regeneration and... Faith are Simultaneous" (Sproul) - Huh?


Elsewhere, we find that Sproul denies that regeneration precedes faith in time:
"Remember that in Reformed theology’s ordo salutis regeneration precedes faith. It does so with respect to logical priority not temporal priority. Reformed theology grants that God’s act of regeneration and the believer’s act of faith are simultaneous, not separated, with respect to time. The ordo salutis refers to logical dependency. Faith logically depends on regeneration; regeneration does not logically depend on faith. Again, the priority is logical, not temporal. Regeneration is the necessary condition of faith; faith is not the necessary condition of or for regeneration" (Willing to Believe, R C Sproul, p.193-194)
Stated more plainly, R C Sproul insists that “regeneration precedes faith” and that what is meant by this phrase is that "regeneration and faith are simultaneous." In other words, what Sproul believes is not what it appears to be at face value to any reasonable observer.

Consider the following: In Sproul's argument, since regeneration and the exercise of faith are simultaneous, it follows that regeneration cannot exist apart from faith, neither can faith exist apart from regeneration. This observation alone means that Sproul's assertion that "faith is not the necessary condition of regeneration"is false, because his system requires that they are simultaneous and thus one cannot exist without the other. Stated more plainly, if regeneration and the exercise of faith are simultaneous, and one cannot exist without the other, then they exist in a logically co-dependant relationship, and therefore one cannot be in any sense logically precedent to the other.  Let me state that another way for clarity.

  • If regeneration and the exercise of faith are simultaneous,
  • And true regeneration cannot exist apart from faith,
  • And true faith cannot exist apart from regeneration,
  • Then regeneration and faith are equally co-dependent on each other,
  • Thus it is illogical to insist that faith logically depends on regeneration,
  • Because regeneration is likewise logically dependent upon faith.

Clearer still - if regeneration does not have to precede faith chronologically, then there is absolutely no basis for asserting that it must precede faith logically.

This is yet another strong affirmation for why regeneration must precede faith, not in some logical sense with no reference to time whatsoever, but in time, precisely as both the verb tenses (John 1:12-13, John 5:24, I John 5:1) and depravity of man logically require (Romans 3:10-18, Psalm 10:4).  In other words, the position that regeneration precedes faith in time is the correct interpretation because it considers both line-upon-line as well as precept-upon-precept - it reconciles the verb tenses with notion of depravity.
"Fourthly, the work of regeneration is effectual. That is, when the Holy Spirit regenerates a human soul, the purpose of that regeneration is to bring that person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That purpose is effected and accomplished as God purposes in the intervention. Regeneration is more than giving a person the possibility of having faith, it gives him the certainty of possessing that saving faith." (Sproul) 
Well, not exactly. The purpose of regeneration is to impart spiritual life and the capacity of faith to one of God’s children. They are not “brought to saving faith in Christ”, but rather given the capacity of faith in Christ as part of salvation. To be perfectly clear, man does not place his God-given faith in Christ; rather, the faith that God gives IS faith in Christ. The gospel is that which teaches him about this Christ and forms the basis of an admonition to exercise his faith through belief of that truth and to live in accordance with the truth.
"The result of our regeneration is first of all faith, which then results in justification and adoption into the family of God." (Sproul)
This is another problematic assertion on Sproul's part. Faith is not the reason we are justified and adopted into the family of God, but rather, adoption places us in the family of God which is the reason God's people are regenerated. The apostle Paul said it this way, “And BECAUSE YE ARE SONS, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father.” (Gal 4:6) Likewise, justification results from Christ’s obedience (Rom 5:19), not ours (Rom 3:20). Faith is the evidentiary fruit (Gal 5:22) by which God's people lay hold of the preexisting truth of our justification in Christ (Heb 10:14). Stated another way, believing something doesn't make it so. The gospel teaches something that is so and God-given faith is the capacity to embrace the truth that already is.
"Nobody is born into this world a child of the family of God. We are born as children of wrath."  (Sproul)
Again it is our “sonship” that causes regeneration (Gal 4:6) and thus faith, Sproul has it backwards.  Moreover the bible does not say that “we are born as children of wrath”, it says we “were by nature children of wrath.”  This distinction is important.  This passage is not stating that we become children of God upon the exercise of faith; that would be akin to the Arminian notion that believing turns a goat into a sheep.  Paul's statement points out that there was nothing in our nature, that would have singled us out for adoption; because adoption is all of grace born of election and God's sovereign will in dispensing mercy (Exodus 33:19).  
"The only way we enter into the family of God is by adoption, and that adoption occurs when we are united to God’s only begotten Son by faith." (Sproul)
We are united to Christ long before we ever exercise faith.  Faith is just the means whereby we come to understand and experience this truth in our conscience. But our union with God has many facets and they extend back to a covenant arrangement before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5) else none of the experimental dimensions of our union with Christ would ever come to pass (Galatians 4:6). 
"When by faith we are united with Christ, we are then adopted into that family of whom Christ is the firstborn. Regeneration therefore involves a new genesis, a new beginning, a new birth. It is that birth by which we enter into the family of God by adoption." (Sproul)
Sproul is doubling-down on the notion that regeneration is the genesis of adoption, when the bible's testimony is that because we are sons, and thus already adopted, God sends forth his regenerating spirit (Galatians 4:6). The bottom line here is that Sproul wrongly attributes adoption to regeneration, and he relegates the ordering of regeneration and faith to a mere "logical" order instead of chronological order. Both of those teachings are false and they are the hallmarks of dwelling in Camp 3, irrespective of one's claims to be in Camp 2.    
"Finally, it’s important to see that regeneration is a gift that God disposes sovereignly to all of those whom He determines to bring into His family." (Sproul)
Wrong again. Regeneration is a gift (John 3:8) that God dispenses sovereignly (Romans 9:15) to those who are his sons (Galatians 4:6), not so that those who are not his sons might become his sons. Regeneration is a covenantal manifestation of existing sonship, not the origin of sonship.

The Importance of Affirming that Regeneration Precedes Faith in Time


Importance of correctly understanding the relationship in time between regeneration and the exercise of faith cannot be overemphasized. On occasions too numerous to count, I have had this discussion at some length with a variety of Christians with whom I disagree. As a result I have been repeatedly told that Primitive Baptists are "overly concerned with the ordo salutis" (i.e., order of salvation) and that "you should just focus on preaching the gospel and recognize that the secret things are of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 29:29a) I could not more strongly disagree with this sentiment. If all scripture is profitable, and it is (II Timothy 3:16-17), and the notion that regeneration precedes faith in time is taught in the word of God, and it is (I John 5:1, I Corinthians 2:14), then it is likewise certain that this teaching is not a "secret thing" (Deuteronomy 29:29a) but a revealed thing (Deuteronomy 29:29b) and thus it is profitable.  It is incredibly important that we understand the order of salvation taught in the word of God if we are to have a proper understanding of the salvation by sovereign grace taught in the bible.

In closing, lest I be accused of being "a lone Primitive Baptist who possesses an unprecedented and unprofitable fascination with the order of salvation that has no credible support outside the PB ranks" - I submit the following testimony for your consideration:
"Here then is this great, central, and vital doctrine of regeneration. There can be no question at all but that from our standpoint this doctrine, together with the doctrine of the atonement, is incomparably the most important doctrine of all, and there is a sense in which we cannot understand Christian doctrine and Christian truth without being clear about the doctrine of regeneration. And yet I would suggest that this doctrine is seriously and sadly neglected among us. Oh, I know that lip service is paid to it and that people talk very glibly and generally about being 'born again.' But to what extent do people study it? To what extent have we really looked into it and discovered what exactly it means?" (Effectual Calling and Regeneration, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones)
While we would no-doubt take issue with the particulars of Martin Lloyd-Jones's view of the effectual calling and the new birth, Primitive Baptists could not agree more with his statement regarding the importance of these doctrinal truths. We believe that rightly dividing the truth on this matter is essential to having a sound understanding of the faith once delivered to the saints.

FINALLY - The truth is as follows:


In the interest of clarity, we submit for your review a list of biblical truths that must inform any proper understanding of the work of our eternal salvation.
  • Regeneration imparts eternal life (Ephesians 2:1).
  • God is sovereign in the dispensation of his saving grace (John 3:8, Exodus 33:19).
  • Regeneration precedes the exercise of faith in time (I John 5:1, John 5:24).
  • Therefore regeneration and the exercise of faith are NOT simultaneous (John 3:3).
  • Sonship stems from election and adoption (Ephesians 1:4-5).
  • Sonship is the basis for regeneration (Galatians 4:6).
  • Therefore regeneration is NOT the basis for either sonship or adoption.
  • Regeneration is the basis of the exercise of faith (Galatians 4:6).
  • Therefore the exercise of faith is not the basis of regeneration.
Until one understands these fundamental precepts, I believe it is no understatement to say that one's understanding of the Christian doctrine of salvation by sovereign grace remains hobbled by contradictions and confusion.


4 comments:

  1. What do you do with Galatians 4:5? Seems adoption was not before the cross.....

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    1. Brother Mike,

      First off, thanks for taking a moment to interact and to stir up the spiritual mind. I think your question is a good one and I can see why someone might interpret the statement, "To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." (Galatians 4:5) as an indication that adoption did not occur before the cross. That said, I do not believe that is what this verse is teaching.

      I believe that "receiving the adoption of sons" has to do with a regenerate man's ability to receive the explicit truth of his redemption and adoption as a result of the finished work of Christ as heralded in the gospel message for example. This does not make adoption so - rather, it makes adoption an experimental reality in the life of a child of God.

      Romans 8:14 teaches "For as many as are led by the spirit of God they are the sons of God." Of this observation I would want to ask - Was Abraham led by the spirit of God when he went out, not knowing whither he went? (Hebrews 11:8) I believe it is impossible to say anything other than "yes, Abraham was led by the spirit of God." OT examples could be multiplied but I believe it is sufficient to state that if Abraham was led by the Spirit of God, then he was a son of God, and all of God's human sons are sons by adoption, and in Abraham's case this was before the cross.

      That's my thinking on the matter - do you agree?
      TETH

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  2. What do you do with Galatians 4:5? Seems adoption was not before the cross.....

    ReplyDelete
  3. You have got some great posts in your blog. Keep up with the good work.
    Kevin Xu

    ReplyDelete