faith and regeneration: which comes first?

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?







28 responses to “faith and regeneration: which comes first?”

  1. Brian McLaughlin

    Your suggestion is interesting, but I’m not sure how much it does. As a Pro-Lifer, I’d say that life begins at conception so you still have true life, true birth at conception, which is the same as the Reformed view.

    One thing that you and Calvin have hit (I’m sure he got it from you) is the progressive nature of salvation. We all know that the Bible speaks of salvation in terms of past, present, and future. There is definitive and progressive and future sanctification. I recently heard from a Lutheran theologian – and you’ll have to check this one – that Luther almost speaks of justification as recurring throughout life. Calvin says regeneration is a process.

    Is it possible that rather than a sequential “golden chain” there is a lot more progressive nature in every aspect of salvation?

  2. mikewittmer


    Good point–I’m not trying to “do” anything except explain how faith might in some sense follow and precede regeneration. I’m only attempting to solve a theological riddle, not change anyone’s life.

    Interesting point about Luther. McGrath said that the early Luther at least identified justification with sanctification. Of course, Luther went in the opposite direction of the Roman Catholics. They equated J with S and eliminated J, while Luther’s equation of J with S eliminated S.

    I don’t know how we can progress in justification–at least as Protestants. We’re either justified in Christ’s alien righteousness or we’re not. Luther’s “Two Kinds of Righteousness” distinguishes between alien and proper righteousness–the latter I’d say we can grow in but not the former.

    As always, thanks for your helpful insights!

  3. Jonathan Shelley


    Interesting and thought provoking. As Arvin Vos points out, there is quite a bit of (unintentional?) similarity between Aquinas and Calvin on grace, faith, and regeneration. The key, I think, is carefully nuancing the types of grace and faith at work in the life of the believer (or should I say pre-believer?) Off the top of my head, operative grace leads to co-operative faith, which leads to conviction, repentance, and regeneration (saving grace) which then leads to saving faith, which marks us as children of God and co-heirs with Christ (rebirth).

    Next, can we discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? My answer: 42.

  4. A thought-provoking post, Dr. Wittmer. Thanks for putting it out there. Thanks also to Brian and Jonathan for their good thoughts.

    I don’t have much to add but my safe landing place is on God’s sovereignty and grace — that somehow the saving of a sinner, known and ordained in the infinite mind of God, occurs in time and space: in the death/resurrection of Christ, in the lives of his people as they come to faith, in the consummation … So we should joyfully study the Ordo salutis like this … with the result of any analysis being our joyful, awe-filled, humble thanks to God for Christ!

  5. Mike –

    You state, “I don’t know if anyone has ever suggested this, which is never a good sign.” I, like you, am not sure I want to claim the view as my own, but I have suggested it before. Of course, some might consider this to be an even worse sign than if nobody had suggested it…

  6. I wonder if our attempts to systematize gets in the way here. While there may be a logical order, is it necessarily chronological/sequential? Lest we try and fit our theology into a pre-conceived ordus salutis, it is possible that all occurs from our vantage point in a single act. In fact, given divine simplicity, does God see things/do things IN sequence? In some sense, all things which have been, are, will be, have already been done in the overall providence of God.

    I would offer:
    A logical order (not chronological; God sees things as sequence but not in sequence) of God’s redemptive plan unfolding would be: (1) creation – God decides to create; (2) election – God, in allowing the Fall, chooses some and not others unto eternal life; (3) general call to all for salvation (Tit. 2:11; Mt. 13:3-9; 18-23; 22:14); (4) specific call to the elect (2 Cor. 4:6; 1 Pt. 2:9); (5) conversion of the elect – believe, receive, repent, trust, submit, etc.; (6) regeneration – transformation of one’s nature from sinner in rebellion against God to saint at peace with God (Jn. 3:3; Rom. 6:6; 5:1); (7) justification and reconciliation – a right moral standing before God and a new relationship with God as loving Father (the latter would include reconciliation, adoption, and union with Christ); (8) sanctification – empowerment to live a life pleasing to God (2 Pt. 1:3); (9) continuation – a steadfast life pleasing to God (Phil. 1:6); (10) glorification – actualized immortal state with God in heaven (1 Jn. 3:2; Rev. 21:7).

    Just thinking…

  7. Todd

    Um, Jonathan, there’s NO WAY 42 angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  8. Jonathan Shelley


    You make an excellent point.

    I know 42 is the answer, I just don’t know what the question is.

  9. Dan Jesse

    Dr. Mike,
    If faith leds to birth, who out there has been born? If St. Paul is correct in saying that we need to work out our faith in fear and trembling, I think we would never get to new life. We would always be trying to reach this idea of “faith”.

    I think that we have turned faith into a nice and neat operation, were once you verbalize belief or intellectual assent, you have faith. I’m not sure it works like that, but what do I know, I’m just a philosopher?

  10. Yooper

    “faith and regeneration: which comes first?”

    -Could it possibly be a tie?

  11. mikewittmer


    I’m glad to hear that you thought of it first! If anyone suggests I’m not sufficiently Reformed I’ll send them your way.


    I am assuming a logical, not chronological order. I like your ordo salutis, though I note that yours has faith before regeneration–how do you fit that into Eph. 2?


    Surely even a philosopher can understand the difference between the origin of faith and its flowering! 🙂

  12. Yooper

    2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

  13. Hey Mike:
    By Eph 2 I trust you had vv 1-10 in mind. Do you find sequence (logical or chronological) in this passage? Rather specifying sequence here, I see Paul offering in summary form of God’s movement in our lives by grace; sequence was not his intent, albeit one clearly is unregenerate prior to being regenerate. In fact, although a logical sequence seems likely in Eph. 1:13 “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,” the grammar suggests no sequence since the participle “having believed” is coordinate with the main aorist verb “marked in him”. See Stanley Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament and Carson’s Showing the Spirit (page references not avail to me since my library is at home).

  14. Apologies for the poor editing above. I intended…

    “Rather than specifying sequence here, I see Paul offering in summary form a picture of God’s movement in our lives by grace; sequence was not his intent, albeit one clearly is unregenerate prior to being regenerate.”

  15. Raymond

    I’m not sure I agree that John 3 implies that Nicodemus must believe in order to be regenerated. That seems to be the foundation of your argument for “evangelical Calvinists” who place regeneration after faith. First, there is no mention of believing in Jesus prior to vs. 16. The subject of regeneration finds its focal point in 3:8 where Jesus speaks of the sovereignty of the Spirit in regeneration. It is not contingent on the act of believing.
    Much more could be said concerning the Reformers but I do not think the passage lends itself to the conclusion of faith being prior to regeneration.

  16. rey

    IF Nicodemus doesn’t have to believe to be regenerated then there is no point in Jesus confronting him. He is clearly appealing to his free will to get him to do something. Anyone who can’t see that has merely gauged out their eyes. Even John Calvin deep down knew that free will exists. Why else would he burn Servetus at the stake? How could a false teachers affect the elect in a predestinatory schema? If the world is deterministic then Servetus could have no effect so there is no point in killing him. Calvin couldn’t even convince himself fully of determinism, so you’d have to be a total dolt to let him convince you.

  17. Andrew Cowan

    I’m fairly late to this party, but I will throw in my 2 cents. I think that a large part of the problem is underdetermination about what is meant by the term “regeneration.”

    I think that I am correct in asserting that Paul only uses the word once, in Titus 3:5. There, it appears to be a term used in synonymous parallelism with “renewal” (the word Paul uses in Rom 12:2) and I think that it thus refers to a post-faith experience.

    The problem is that in Reformed theology, the word “regeneration” has been used by many to refer to the Spirit’s work of opening one’s heart to believe the gospel (Acts 16:14), which is not what Paul seems to use the word to mean. Thus, good Reformed folk want to assert that regeneration precedes faith, but that is to say the right thing with the wrong word. They are right that there is some work that God does in effecting faith, but this work should not be called “regeneration.” That’s just not how Paul would use that word. Thus, although I agree with the original post that there are valid points in both views and I appreciate the attempt at a third way, I think that Paul’s use of the word ought to constrain us to say that “regeneration” refers to a post-faith enlivening/renewing work of the Spirit, but it is nevertheless God’s effectual call and opening of the heart to listen to the gospel that brings about faith.

  18. Dane Gjesdal

    But we have to appreciate the struggle that the Reformed theologian has with this point that belief is a condition for regeneration (rebirth) in John 3. The Evangelical Calvinist needs to understand this struggle as well for anything short of the Reformed thinking on this point is Wesleyan at heart. It is an empirical fact in Reformed reasoning that regeneration has to precede “belief” regardless of what John 3 states. One who is dead (Reformed understanding of dead) can’t believe or have faith because they are dead. They are trapped by their physical illustration of death that then leaves no room to truly understand John 3 or any of the numerous references that faith and belief are conditions to regeneration. The problem is their understanding and description of “spiritual death”. They have made it too clean and physical in illustrating it logically that they are then stuck.

    My encouragement is to go through scripture and try to understand the “death language” and “Life Language” and not over state it by taking the analogy to far by using the physical to illustrate the spiritual. My suggestion is that the “death language” in context means simply within itself “powerless”. In regards to “life” it means to “empower”. So when Paul describes being “dead to sin” he is simply stating that sin does not have “power” over him. That does not mean that he will never sin, but that sin has lost its “power” or hold on him. The same in regards to those who are unregenerate, they are “dead” in sin; they are “powerless” to save themselves. That’s it. They are depraved and unable to save themselves. Leave it at that. Does this mean that God’s grace can’t work before regeneration giving them a glimmer of light that draws? Does this change their nature? No. Does this bring them to the point of being “natural”? No. Does this change their “death” condition? No. They are still powerless to save themselves. God’s grace is what enables and draws the soul by conviction and love “cutting us to the heart” where we by grace can exercise faith and believe. (We are saved by grace through faith) At that point we are regenerated; we become a “new creation”. We are “babes in Christ” and the process of regeneration takes us ultimately to the place of glorification. I also do believe that this is resistible.

    Grace simply empowers the sight and faith of one who is dead, but and does not empower or change the “death” condition. Their spiritual condition is powerless to save without grace, and not until this grace is used to exercises faith is Christ does one pass from death to life. I would see this in the fact that Nicodemus sought out Jesus by night and wanted to know more. He “saw” something, he “heard” something that enabled and drew him to the Messiah as an unregenerate man. This has to be grace, because Nicodemus is just not that good, but grace is.

  19. B.J. Charles Spurgeon

    Regeneration through Faith,

    Col 2:12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
    Rom 4:16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace;

    Regeneration after forgiveness of Sin

    Eph 2:5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
    Col 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

    Repentance and Faith is a Gods Gift earned by Christ

    Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
    Phil 1:29 For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake;
    John 11:52 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
    John12:32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
    1 Pet 2:25; by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

  20. It could be that the conception aspect is the same as the Arminian view of Prevenient Grace. Because of Total Depravity, the Holy Spirit works on the heart of every human to an extent so that they are able not to be purely evil all of the time (Common or Restraining Grace_), and likewise He opens their eyes and enables them to repent and believe.

    God said that He would pour His Spirit out on all mankind (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18). Jesus said that He will draw all men to Himself (John 12:32); as He is the light that came into the world (John 12:46) that enlightens every man (John 1:4-10), in order that He might save the entire world (John 12:47). This is by the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of their sin (John 16:8), precisely because they did not believe in

    Jesus (John 16:9). Jesus taught in the parable of the wedding feast that all are invited or called (Matthew 22:9-14), but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14).

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  27. markmcculley Gaffin review of Horton’s book on Covenant Union— “Throughout Part Two Horton voices reservations about the Reformed doctrine of regeneration. He finds problematic the way it has been formulated, in particular the notion that regeneration produces a habitual change and involves the infusion of new habits.. This he sees as a lingering residue of the medieval ontology that eventually made the Reformation necessary. …I share fully Horton’s concerns about the notion sometime present in Reformed treatments of the ordo salutis that regeneration is prior to effectual calling and produces an antecedent state addressed in effectual calling. That notion is quite problematic and ought to be rejected”

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