Which comes first, faith or regeneration? That is indeed the question. I cannot think of a more important theological issue with respect to the controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism. It is the defining feature concerning the question of whether or not God’s saving grace is irresistible. Calvinist James White would seem to agree,
The question is: Does [God raise sinners to life] because men fulfill certain conditions, or does He do so freely, at His own time, and in the lives of those He chooses to bring into relationship with Himself through Jesus Christ? The question is normally framed in the context of the relationship of faith and regeneration. Do we believe to become born again [regeneration], or must we first be born again before we can exercise true, saving faith? (Debating Calvinism, pg 198)
Many Arminians choose to focus on the proof texts offered by Calvinists in order to deal with their claim that God’s grace is irresistible. While this is a noble approach (and one we will deal with in a future post) it is far more effective to examine the Biblical evidence which directly addresses the question of priority. Does the Bible tell us anything about this subject, or must we rely on the prior claims of a theological system as James White implies,
Objections to irresistible grace are, by and large, actually objections to the previously established truths of the doctrines of grace [i.e. Calvinism]. Obviously, if God is sovereign and freely and unconditionally elects a people unto salvation, and if man is dead in sin and enslaved to its power, God must be able to free those elected people in time and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ, and that by a grace that does not falter or depend upon human cooperation. (ibid. 198)
James White seems to freely admit that the claim that regeneration precedes faith is not primarily derived from Scripture, but upon a prior commitment to the Calvinist understanding of unconditional election and the deadness of man in sin. He seems to be saying that the case for irresistible grace is Biblically weak unless one first adopts the Calvinist theological system that necessarily leads to it. If that is what James White is implying [and he would likely object] then I completely agree.
There are several problems with the belief that regeneration precedes faith:
1) It does not theologically comprehend the nature of justification.
2) It does not theologically comprehend the correlation between regeneration and sanctification.
3) It is not sufficiently “cross-centered” or “Christocentric”.
4) It actually downplays the seriousness and nature of man’s deadness in sin.
5) It does not seriously consider the necessity and implications of union with Jesus Christ with regards to all spiritual blessings.
The Bible is clear that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Not even Calvinists will argue with that. One only needs to read Rom. 3:21-5:21 and Gal. 3 to plainly establish that God justifies on the basis of faith. What is comprehended in justification? Justification is the act of God by which he forgives us of our sins and declares us righteous. This forgiveness and righteousness rests solely on the merits of Christ’s blood, and is enjoyed only by those who come to be in union with Him. Consider the following passages,
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” (Rom. 5:1,2 NIV)
“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Rom. 5:9, 10 NIV)
“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” (Rom. 3:22-25 NIV- emphasis mine)
“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession- to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13, 14 NIV- emphasis mine)
“..so that Christ might dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Eph. 3:17 NIV- emphasis mine)
These passages teach us much regarding the nature of justification. Prior to being justified God’s wrath abides on us (5:9). We can only be at “peace” with God after we have been justified (5:1). We can only be justified by coming to be in union with Jesus Christ through faith, and it is only through this union that the soul cleansing blood of Christ is applied (Eph. 1:13; 3:17; Rom. 5:2, 9, 25).
To claim that regeneration precedes faith, is to claim that God can bestow life apart from the blood of His Son. It is to claim that God gives life prior to the removal of sin. Since it is sin that causes spiritual death, our sin must first be removed through Christ’s blood before God can give us life. As long as sin remains, death remains. If God can bestow life (regenerate) apart from the the application of Christ’s blood, then the atonement becomes less than the necessary means by which a holy God reconciles sinners to himself (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21-23). For this reason, the Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace is not sufficiently Christocentric, does not theologically comprehend the nature and necessity of justification, ignores the necessity of union with Christ for salvation, and downplays the seriousness of sins deadly effects.
The Bible is clear that the new life belongs only to those who have been justified through saving union with Christ. Look again at Rom. 5:10,
“For if when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” [ NIV- emphasis mine]
It is only through union with Christ, wrought by the reconciliation of His blood, that we can experience regeneration. Only when we come to be “in Christ” can we experience the life that flows from Him, and this union results from faith (Eph. 1:13; Rom. 5:1). Consider Col. 2:12,
“…having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God who raised Him from the dead.” [NASB- emphasis mine]
While Paul mentions baptism, our baptism is nothing more than a public display of what God has already done in the heart. According to this passage, we are raised to life “through faith” in the “working [or power] of God”. The context also makes it clear that this spiritual resurrection is the result of being “in Christ” (verses 6-13).
Paul tells us in Galatians that the life of Christ that dwells within him is “by faith in the Son of God” (2:20). He also proclaims in Ephesians that all spiritual blessings, including being made “alive together with Christ” (2:5) and being “raised up with Him” (2:6) are “by grace…through faith” (2:8- emphasis mine).
A further problem that the Calvinist insistence that regeneration precedes faith fails to address is the theological correlation between regeneration and sanctification. F. Leroy Forlines observes,
…justification must be prior to regeneration [because] regeneration is the beginning of sanctification. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 260- emphasis his)
He goes on to quote Calvinist Louis Berkhof who says, “regeneration is the beginning of sanctification.” (ibid. 260)
…and concludes by stating,
If indeed it is true that regeneration is ‘the beginning of sanctification’ (Berkhof, a major Calvinist theologian), and if indeed it is true that God cannot enter with His sanctifying grace until the guilt problem is solved by justification (Haldane, one whose Calvinistic credentials are not in question), Calvinism is in trouble with its view of having regeneration prior to justification. (ibid. 261)
It is absurd to believe that God can begin to make us holy [i.e. sanctify us] while we are still under God’s wrath and dead in sins. God must first reconcile us through Christ’s blood [justification] before he can give us life and make us holy.
We could state the Arminian case as follows:
1) One cannot experience justification or regeneration apart from union with Christ.
2) We come to be in union with Christ by faith.
3) Therefore, faith precedes justification and regeneration.
1) We cannot experience life (regeneration) while still in our sins.
2) We remain in our sins until we are justified on the merits of Christ’s blood.
3) We are justified by faith.
4) Therefore, faith precedes regeneration.
I believe that the reverse of what James White said above equally holds true. Since it can be Biblically demonstrated that faith must, and in fact does, precede regeneration, then we have every reason to reject the Calvinistic system that necessitates such an unscriptural conclusion as the doctrine of regeneration preceding faith.