My desk is temporarily clear of end of semester grading, so I’d like to share my heuristic take on an issue which recently came up in class. Like any good Reformed theologian, I have always argued that regeneration precedes faith. I cut my teeth on Ephesians 2:1-5, which states that “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” until “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” Dead people cannot do anything no matter how hard you cheer (see the Cavaliers on Monday night), so obviously we must be made alive before we can put our faith in Christ.
The problem with this tidy analogy is that there are other Scriptures which seem to indicate that faith precedes regeneration. 1 John 5:1—“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (though belief here may merely be proof that one is regenerate); John 1:12—“Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (though adoption is not the same as regeneration). While these Scriptures are open to alternate interpretations (see parenthetical comments), the clear implication of John 3 is that Nicodemus would be born again if and when he believed in Jesus.
In general, Reformed theologians argue that regeneration must precede faith, while evangelical Calvinists often claim that faith precedes regeneration. I don’t think either side is in theological trouble, for both insist that the effectual call precedes regeneration and faith.
The most serious objection to the Reformed view is that they believe that regeneration occurs without means. But they would easily respond that God’s effectual call supplies the Holy Spirit and the Word which accomplish regeneration. The most serious objection to the evangelical Calvinists is that they have fallen into synergism, but they can easily respond that their faith is the fruit of God’s effectual call, so God accomplishes both our faith and regeneration.
While I think that both views are acceptable biblically and theologically, I’d like to offer a third way that builds on a suggestion from John Calvin. I use the term “third way” to signal to my postmodern readers that what I’m about to share is very right.
Calvin provocatively said that regeneration is a process. It “does not take place in one moment or one day or one year,” but occurs “through continual and sometimes even slow advances” (Institutes, III.3.9). Calvin here is equating regeneration with the entire process of sanctification, but what if our initial regeneration also contains a logical process that occurs in a single temporal moment?
If the moment of our spiritual rebirth is analogous to our physical birth, then is it possible that the Spirit conceives new life within us, which prompts us to faith and repentance, which then culminates in our live birth? What if the moment of regeneration looks like this: conception –> faith –> birth? In this way regeneration (as conception) both precedes and follows faith (as birth).
I don’t know if anyone has ever suggested this, which is never a good sign. So I’m not saying this is my view, but I’m asking if anyone can spot a biblical or theological problem that I may have overlooked. Does my suggestion fit the biblical evidence?
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