Reformed Theology and Regeneration


This paper is by David Dunlap, Bible & Life Ministries, Inc. (3116 Gulfwind Drive, Land O'Lakes, FL  34639.  It is taken from a larger work entitled Limiting Omnipotence--The Consequences of Calvinism--A Study of Crucial Issues in Reformed and Dispensational Theology.  This paper is reproduced with the author's permission.


In 1883 on the island of Krakatao, in the Straits of Sunda, a volcano erupted, splitting mountains from top to bottom and scattering rock, landscape, and debris into the sea. Nothing was left of the island but a lifeless mass 100 feet deep of lava and volcanic ash. Observers estimated that 36,000 people lost their lives, thereby making this one of the deadliest eruptions in history. Scientists declared positively that no animal or vegetable life would be able to survive. Nevertheless, over the next three years, flowers and ferns began to sprout out of the dark soil. Seeds had been carried there by the wind and the sea. By 1897, many portions of the ground were covered with vegetation. Soon the entire island was covered with plant growth, and an array of birds, animals, and insects populated the island. This account vividly illustrates what takes place spiritually when the life of God completely transforms the sin-darkened souls of men through faith in Christ. The name the Bible gives for this experience is regeneration or “quickening” (KJV).

The term “new birth” never occurs in the Bible; the noun “regeneration” occurs only twice in the Bible (Titus 3:5, Mt. 19:28). The Greek word translated “regeneration” is “palingenesia”, which, when broken down into its component parts, means “born-again” (“palin”= again; “genesia”= birth). While the term new birth never occurs, related words occur many times, such as “new creation”, “born again”, and “new man”.

What is regeneration? Regeneration is the one-time experience of receiving new life in Christ, when the work of a new creation is begun, and the process of sanctification is set in motion. The regenerate man is no longer the man he once was. By virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit, the new life (created after the image of God) has come into the souls of men. This new nature has its own desires, affections, and interests—they are all spiritual, rooted in Christ, and God-centered. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit”; the new nature is spiritual, for it shares the nature of the One who imparts it. The believer is made “a partaker of the divine nature...” (2 Peter 1:4). However, the old nature remains within the believer, struggling with the new.

The Reformed View of Regeneration

Students of Holy Scripture offer differing views on the divine order in regard to the new birth. This debate is not merely an academic exercise, but one which has far-reaching consequences. Clear biblical thinking in this area greatly helps the serious Christian. Current Reformed theology teaches that regeneration, or new birth, must precede faith. It maintains that since unregenerate man is dead and unable to respond to the gospel, he must first be “born again” so that he can receive the gift of faith. This regenerative work of God will only take place in the lives of the elect as God irresistibly draws them. This all must take place in this order; otherwise biblical salvation, it is maintained, is no longer of God in His grace, but rather of man through self-effort. Calvinist professor Dr. R. C. Sproul sets forth this position when he writes:

In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination. He plants a desire for Christ in our hearts. We can never trust Christ for our salvation unless we first desire Him. This is why we said earlier that regeneration precedes faith. [R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1986), p. 118]

In a similar vein, concerning regeneration Reformed psychologist Jay Adams writes:

Only God can bring life to dead souls to enable them to believe. He does this when and where and how He pleases by His Spirit, who regenerates, or gives life leading to faith...As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died. [Jay Adams, Competent To Counsel, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), p. 70]

On the other hand, non-calvinists teach that new birth occurs after an unregenerate man exercises faith in Christ. The unregenerate man, after he is drawn by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, enlightened by the power of the Word of God, gripped by grace, and prodded through prayer, is then enabled by God to exercise faith in the finished work of Christ. Although unregenerate man is dead in trespasses and sin and at enmity with God, this does not mean that he is unable to express faith. God's sovereign design does, however, lay emphasis upon the infinite power of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, the will of God, and the Word of God. Without this work of God, no man would ever be saved.

Regeneration and Infant Salvation

Calvinism also teaches that infants, when yet unborn, are regenerated, even though they have no knowledge of Christ; and that, upon birth, infant baptism is to be practiced as a sign that the child is regenerate. John Calvin believed that all the children of believers were spiritually regenerated in the womb. To complete the salvation process Calvin also suggested that God granted a unique, supernatural faith to these infants in the womb. This would certainly add a new twist to the term “child-like faith.” But how is this all possible? John Calvin writes:

But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null. Infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be regenerated by the Lord. ...Many He certainly has called and endued with true knowledge of Himself, by internal means, by the illumination of the Spirit, without the intervention of preaching. [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol.11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1962), p. 541,542]

The issue of the salvation of the children of the elect soon occupied the minds of many leading Calvinists. How could one know if the children of the elect would eventually come to Christ, or might some never come to trust Him as Savior? Calvinists reasoned: if only the elect are regenerated and only the regenerated can be saved, is there any way of knowing if children are elect? John Calvin, comforted the hearts of many by stating that God had already made provision for that need. He suggested that all the children of the elect will be saved. Calvin writes:

Our children, before they are born, God declares that He adopts for His own when He promises He will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. In this promise their salvation is included.  [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol.11; (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1962), p.525]

What are the spiritual consequences of such speculation? First of all, if this is true, we need not concern ourselves with the spiritual condition of our children and our grandchildren. Why? Because if we are elect, our children are also elect, which means their children are also elect, and so on, until our family line comes to an end. While a Calvinist may find comfort in this view, he needs to flip the coin to see what lies on the other side. If it follows that a “Calvinist” child is elect and will be saved because of his parents' election, would it not also be true that if that child never believes in Jesus Christ, this proves that the parents were never elect? If a parent proves not to be elect, it would mean that his father could not be elect either. The Calvinist “election domino” must logically fall in both directions. Furthermore, Scripture stresses that children are not saved because the parents were elect but because children themselves possessed faith in Jesus Christ unto salvation (Acts 16:31-32,2 Tim. 3:14-15).

The Reformed View and the Scriptures

Many have noted that the Reformed view of regeneration is in stark contrast to Scripture. The Bible clearly establishes that the blessings of salvation, the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, eternal life, and regeneration never precede faith, but are always the result of faith.

• Ephesians 1:13 states, “In whom also after that you believed, you were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise.” At the time of belief, as a result of faith, the believer receives the sealing of the Holy Spirit.

• John 3:16 “...that whosoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. Again the same truth is emphasized—belief precedes salvation.

• Acts 16:31 “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your house.” The order of salvation is clear; belief is first and then salvation follows. Faith is a condition of salvation.

• Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Regeneration is not a condition for receiving justification. But notice it is faith first, followed by justification. This is the pattern we have throughout the Bible in virtually every verse which is connected to this subject.

The godly Bible teacher Samuel Ridout, setting forth the great importance of faith prior to new life, writes:

Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (I Peter 1:23). New birth is by the word of God. That it is a sovereign act of God, by His Spirit, none can question. But this verse forbids us from separating, as has sometimes been done, new birth from faith in the gospel. It has been taught that new birth precedes faith; here we are told that the Word of God is the instrument in new birth. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God”; “the word which by the gospel is preached.” Thus while we can distinguish between faith and new birth, we cannot separate them. John 3:3 and 3:16 must ever go together. There is no such anomaly possible as a man born again, but who has not yet believed the gospel. [Samuel Ridout, Numerical Bible, Vol.6, (NY : Loizeaux Bro., 1903), p. 148-149]

Similarly, Dr. John Walvoord, former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, sets forth the necessity of faith before eternal life or regeneration is received:

Eternal life is not possessed until faith in Christ is exercised. Eternal life is not to be confused with efficacious grace, or that bestowal of grace which is antecedent to faith. Eternal life is to be identified with regeneration and is received in the new birth. It is resultant rather than causative of salvation, but is related to conversion or the manifestation of the new life in Christ. [Everett F. Harrison, editor, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p. 195]

Very often, Reformed writers will use Ezekiel 36:26 to garner support for the view that regeneration precedes faith. This verse reads, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” However, it appears from a careful contextual study of this passage and related verses, that the Calvinist view is not supported. Firstly, we find that this passage is not addressing individual believers and the manner in which they are to be saved, but rather, the prophetic “house of Israel” (v.17). The thrust of the prophet's argument is what God in His grace will do to restore Israel to her land in a future day. Regeneration of the individual unbeliever is not the context, but rather, the nation of Israel. Secondly, in an earlier passage Ezekiel writes, “Cast away all your transgressions ...and make yourself a new heart and a new spirit”( 18:31). Here, the responsibility is placed in the hands of man for a new heart and a new spirit. The gift of a new heart signifies the new birth of the nation of Israel through the new covenant, by the renewal of the Holy Spirit. However, Ezekiel also conditions the reception of the new heart upon repentance (18:31). Those who use this passage to support the view that regeneration of the unsaved precedes faith appear to be guilty of stretching Scripture to fit a particular theological view.

The Reformed View and Logic of C. H. Spurgeon

Many have seen great difficulty with the Reformed view of regeneration. One of the most obvious shortcomings is that if a man has been regenerated, what need does he have then for faith? For he is saved already, albeit without the biblical prerequisite— faith. If regeneration precedes faith, then faith is unnecessary, for the one regenerated is saved already. Even some respected Calvinists have pointed out this apparent theological contradiction. Calvinist C. H. Spurgeon, in his famous sermon “The Warrant of Faith”, argues this point with his characteristic style:

If I am to preach faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. Am! only to preach faith to those who have it? Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners. [C. H. Spurgeon, Sermon: Warrant of Faith, (Pasadena,TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1978), p.3]

Spurgeon, with great insight, points to three weaknesses in this traditional Reformed position. Firstly, regeneration prior to faith will be a great barrier to preaching the true soul-saving gospel. He says, “ is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ.” For if someone is regenerated already, why must the gospel be preached? Hereby, the great themes of the gospel message such as sin, judgment, love, and grace are rendered unnecessary. Secondly, it eliminates the reality of the spiritual battle in winning souls for Christ. Spurgeon says, “...and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already...Am I only to preach faith to those who have it?” Where is the spiritual battle, prevailing prayer, and power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism? For they are saved already. There is no earnest wrestling with souls for the cause of the gospel. Thirdly, it makes the preacher wait at bay with the gospel. Spurgeon writes, “Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine?” Are preachers to wait with the spiritual cure, the gospel, until a lost soul is regenerated and then, when he is saved, bring him the gospel? This view takes the urgency and the “Now” out of gospel preaching. Scriptures are clear, “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”(2 Cor. 6:2). According to the “prince of preachers” this view of regeneration is a hindrance to one who brings good news and a contradiction of the general tenor of Scripture.

Regeneration and the Preaching of the Gospel

This leads us to consider the consequences of the Reformed view of regeneration upon gospel preaching. We must admit that some great Reformed gospel preachers were used of God to bring many to Christ, including Whitfield and Spurgeon. But this was in spite of the inconsistency between their theological position and the message they so effectively proclaimed. Anyone reading Spurgeon's sermons, for example, will discover that while he frequently uses the word “elect”, he did not do so in such a way that sinners could not be included if they so desired. However Reformed theologians have produced a system that is as unorthodox as it is inconsistent. Unfortunately, this theology has been a great hindrance to the unfettered proclamation of the gospel. Eighteenth century Calvinistic theologian Dr. John Gill, illustrates the withering effect of Calvinist theology on the preaching of the gospel. During the tenure of Dr. Gill at a Reformed church, this congregation, which at one time numbered 1, 200, dwindled down to a mere shadow of its original size. C. H. Spurgeon, though a Calvinist himself, pointed to Calvinism as the reason for the marked decline:

During the pastorate of my venerated predecessor, Dr. Gill, this Church, instead of increasing, gradually decreased...the system of theology with which many identify his (Gill's) name has chilled many churches to their very soul, for it has led them to omit the free invitations of the gospel, and to deny that it is the duty of sinners to believe in Jesus. [Iain Murray, Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching, (Calisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1995), p. 120]

To the Calvinist, the preaching of the gospel is an exercise in futility if a person has not been regenerated. According to the Calvinist, the first thing that the unbeliever must get is regeneration. But regeneration is given sovereignly and irresistibly by God alone. There is nothing an unsaved man can do to produce regeneration; furthermore, there is nothing he would want to do since he is dead, without even the slightest desire for spiritual things. We now discover one of the great inconsistencies in Calvinism: the work of the unbeliever as a “living-dead man.” Calvinism states that total depravity means the complete inability to desire, understand, think, or learn about God and His salvation. However, on the other hand, Calvinism insists on the depraved man seeking, learning about, and praying to God for his regeneration. Notice the explanation of Calvinist writer, W. G. T. Shedd, in Dogmatic Theology, as he writes:

The Calvinist maintains that faith is wholly from God, being one of the effects of regeneration. [W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol.11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), p. 472,512-514]

In another place Shedd explains that since an unbeliever is unregenerated, there are certain steps necessary before he can be saved:

One, read and hear the divine Word . . . Two, give serious application of the mind, and examination of truth in order to understand and feel its force . . . Three, pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit both as a convicting and regenerating Spirit . . . prayer for regenerating grace is a duty and a privilege for the unregenerate man. [W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol.11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), p. 472,512-514]

The popular Calvinist writer A. W. Pink also insists that the unbeliever must plead with God for his regeneration before he can be saved. He writes,

. . . his first duty is to set his 'seal that God is true' . . .  His second duty is to cry unto God for enabling power—to ask God in mercy to over come his enmity, and draw him to Christ; to bestow on him the gifts of faith and repentance. [A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), p.160]

Is this the New Testament message of salvation? Is the evangelist to exhort the lost to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit? Is there a New Testament example of anyone ever charging one who is lost to pray for regeneration? I suggest there is no such example. Is the unbeliever to pray for the gift of regeneration or to believe on Christ? The high price of salvation has been paid in full by our Lord, and He invites the sinner to believe on Him and receive eternal life. Does a criminal need to plead and beg for his prison release, while the warden stands before him with the signed pardon in his outstretched hand? It is not a time for a prisoner to beg and to seek, but a time to receive. In like manner, the work of the cross is complete, the ultimate price has been paid by Christ for every man, the gospel offer goes to all, now the sinner must receive it by faith. This strange new gospel turns the salvation of God into something to be sought, instead of something that is to be received. Is our gospel message “believe and thou shalt be saved” or pray and seek and ask for regeneration? The New Testament is clear: the work of salvation is finished by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ; the unsaved need not pray for regeneration, but believe on the Lord Jesus Christ “and thou shalt be saved”.

Regeneration and Relationship to Christ

Calvinism teaches that God first regenerates the elect, and then at a later point in time, this leads to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Reformed view of regeneration, our new life in Christ is separated from a new relationship with Christ. Calvinism teaches that a baby is regenerated in the womb, and a person can be regenerated for years before he is saved. However, when the Holy Spirit does His work of regeneration in our lives, at the same time He relates us to a Person, and the gift of eternal life unites us to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. John writes, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). It is certainly a strange “regeneration”, to be alive by the Spirit of God, but not know Christ by faith. Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, in his Systematic Theology explains the link between regeneration and relationship:

The important fact, never to be forgotten in the doctrine of regeneration, is that the believer in Christ has received eternal life. This fact must be kept free from all confusion of thought arising from the concept of regeneration which makes it merely an antecedent of salvation, or a preliminary quickening to enable the soul to believe. It is rather the very heart of salvation. [L S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. VI, (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), p. 117]

The Word of God teaches that a man receives life by receiving Jesus Christ as Savior. That is why our Lord said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life...” (John 14:6). He did not say, “I have  the way, the truth, and the life”, as though the indwelling Christ was simply a force or power or merely an agent who gives eternal life. Our Lord, before raising Lazarus from the dead, says, “I am the resurrection, and the life.. .“(John 11:25); not “I have  life to impart.” This brings home to us the fact that if we are to have life, we must have Jesus Christ. Since Jesus Christ is the life, the Spirit must bring us into a living, vital union with Him. New birth or regeneration can never be divorced from a living relationship with Christ. John the apostle writes, “He that has the Son has life; and he that has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12). In the epistles of the apostle Paul, we find that he uses the carefully chosen and deeply meaningful term “in Christ” to explain this truth. Paul states, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (creation)...” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul never imagined regeneration to precede faith in Christ, which in turn would precede the relationship of Christ in us, the “hope of glory”. The New Testament doctrine is clear: the Holy Spirit of God produces new birth, which gives us new life, and that new life is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

The work of regeneration is conditioned upon faith. Faith must precede new birth. It is God alone who imparts this new life in Christ. This new life in Christ provides a new nature or disposition, by which we now have a relationship with God. The spiritual order of God's work of regeneration may have been best summarized by Sir Robert Anderson when he wrote:

It is by the Word that the sinner is born again to God. As Scripture declares, ‘We are born again by the word of God”— living and eternally abiding word of God.” And to bar all error, it is added: “And this is the word by which the gospel is preached unto you “— preached, as the Apostle has already said, “with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.” Not the Spirit without the Word, nor the Word without the Spirit, but the Word preached in the power of the Spirit. God is never arbitrary; but He is always sovereign. Men preach; the Spirit breathes; and dry bones live. Thus sinners are born again to God. [Sir Robert Anderson, Redemption Truths, (Kilmarnock, GB: Ritchie, 1940), p. 152]


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