What Purpose Does Regeneration Serve in Calvinism?

Calvinists make a big deal out of the need for regeneration before one can believe.  For them this is the primary function of regeneration.  Regeneration irresistibly causes a faith response, and without this regeneration, faith would be impossible.  I have explained in numerous posts why I disagree with this Calvinist ordo salutis, but I am wondering why, if God controls the will, that regeneration would even be needed before one could turn to God in faith?

Calvinists like to cite Prov. 21:1,  “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will”, as a proof text for God’s exhaustive control over the human will.  God can (and does) turn the will wherever he wants, according to the Calvinist use of this passage.  So why must God regenerate a sinner in order to create faith in him?  Why can’t God just control the will from unbelief to belief without regard to regeneration?  And isn’t God controlling the will to unbelief prior to regeneration?  If not, does this mean that God is not “sovereign” over unbelief according to the Calvinist accounting of sovereignty?

I am not suggesting that I have found a fatal flaw in Calvinism.  I am just expressing confusion.  I welcome any Calvinists to explain this to me.

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16 Responses

  1. Regeneration serves to change the person from spiritually dead to spiritually alive. A person must be spiritually alive before they can respond to God’s call on their life. Dead people (physical or spiritual) can’t do anything so they must first be made alive, then they can respond.

    Tom
    http://www.sanctification.wordpress.com

  2. Hello Ben,

    Great post some very good points.

    “I have explained in numerous posts why I disagree with this Calvinist ordo salutis, but I am wondering why, if God controls the will, that regeneration would even be needed before one could turn to God in faith?”

    Great question and point.

    “So why must God regenerate a sinner in order to create faith in him?”

    One answer of theirs would be that due to the effects of sin, the sinner is incapable of having a faith response unless made alive/regenerated first.

    “Why can’t God just control the will from unbelief to belief without regard to regeneration?”

    According to them, he does control the will at all times, but again they would suggest that the will is so corrupted by sin that it must be regenerated first in order to have a faith response.

    “And isn’t God controlling the will to unbelief prior to regeneration?”

    According to them Yes.

    “I am not suggesting that I have found a fatal flaw in Calvinism. I am just expressing confusion. I welcome any Calvinists to explain this to me.”

    I would add one other important point that you did not discuss here and yet I believe is a major factor as to why some necessatarians argue for the regeneration precedes faith doctrine.

    They use it as an argument for the rest of the system in particular for unconditional election.

    If people are so affected by sin as to be incapable of a faith response (total depravity) [even if the Holy Spirit works on them for the necessatarian this is sufficient to enable a faith response]) then they would have to be regenerated first to enable and necessitate a faith response (i.e., irresistible grace). But then the question would become and who is regenerated in this way? And their answer would be that those who have been unconditionally elected to salvation ALONE are regenerated in this way. So what it amounts to is that this regeneration precedes faith doctrine becomes essential to establishing the doctrine of unconditional election. And notice how the various elements of “TULIP” work together and are used to mutually reinforce one another. It is all part of justifying and proving the necessitarian system. This is in fact the bottom line: everything must be made to fit and support and defend the necessitarian system of “TULIP”. If we understand **that** then we will usually understand why they argue the way they argue.

    Robert

  3. Tom,

    I understand the typical Calvinist response. I guess my question would be why can’t God just turn the will towards belief? Are you suggesting this is impossible for God prior to regeneration? You say dead people (spiritual or physical) can’t do anything, but that is plainly false with regards to spiritual realities. Spiritually dead people sin. Spiritually dead people reject the gospel. Spiritually dead people resist the Holy Spirit. Right there are three things that spiritually dead people do. So your strict parallel between physical death and spiritual death with regards to inability is invalid.

    Regardless of that, I still don’t see why God must give spiritual life to a person in order to control that person’s will toward faith.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  4. Tom,

    Also, you negelected the second part of my question which I think is directly related to the answer you gave. The question I asked was,

    And isn’t God controlling the will to unbelief prior to regeneration? If not, does this mean that God is not “sovereign” over unbelief according to the Calvinist accounting of sovereignty?

    Would you contend that the Proverbs passage is only a reference to God controlling the will to evil? Maybe your view would be like seeing our will as a steering wheel that God controls. He can control it any which way, but when he tries to turn it toward faith, it gets stuck. Try as He may, God just can’t turn the wheel that way. The only way He can turn it toward faith is to apply a little “spiritual life” oil to the steering wheel. Only then can God control the will towards faith. Does that accurately reflect your view?

    God Bless,
    Ben

  5. Not to shine too bright of a light on my lack of knowledge in these areas, but I’ll give it a shot.

    Not trying to dodge the question, but I think your question is a bit misplaced. Why does God need prevenient grace, according to the Arminian position? After all, couldn’t God save people in any manner he chooses?

    To ask “Why God must [fill in the blank]?” Seems to be searching for something that will never be answered. God didn’t “have to” do anything, but thankfully he has been gracious! Surely God could have decided to only save Israel. Afterall, he didn’t have to allow for salvation of Gentile sinners like me.

    It seems to me (as unlearned as I may be in the areas of all things theological) that one issue is the level and/or result of regeneration. You say prevenient grace, I say regeneration. They are the same in that the Spirit opens eyes to see, ears to hear, and gives life to the dead. They are different in that I say once alive, that person will trust Christ, you say they may or may not, it depends.

    Which brings to mind another question(s): can God control man’s will? If so, why would he choose not to? Why must he give man a choice in salvation (God never gave the other nations that choice in the OT – he specifically chose Israel as his people).

    From where I sit, it looks like we can ask these questions, but to get an actual answer is probably not going to happen. That’s my .02. I’ll stop now, before I give Robert a run for longest posts! :0)

  6. Aric,

    I understand God can do things however He pleases to do them. But Calvinists are the ones who say God must first regenerate a sinner before he can turn to God. They make it sound like the response of faith after regeneration is free, when it is not (since regeneration necessarily causes faith). Furthermore, Calvinists insist that God controls the will at all times, else He would not be “sovereign” over man’s will.

    So if God wants to regenerate someone before He turns his will, then He certainly has the right to do so. I am just wondering why He would “need” to do that, and Calvinists seem to insist that regeneration is necessary (needed) for the will to be turned to God. Why?

    Let me put it this way. Could God turn the will towards belief without first regenerating a person? What do you think?

    Also, you are mistaken in the way you understand prevenient grace in Arminianism. Prevenient grace does not give life. Life (regeneration) is consequent to faith in the Arminian ordo and prevenient grace precedes faith. Prevenient grace enables faith, but not by giving life (regenerating).

    God Bless,
    Ben

    Oh, and would you admit that in Calvinism God controls the will to evil and unbelief, or would you say that is inaccurate? If it is inaccurate then doesn’t that challenge the Calvinist notion of sovereignty? Just wondering.

  7. Hello Ben,

    Didn’t I predict that the necessitarian response would be to appeal to the sinner being spiritually dead (according to the Calvinist conception) and thus regeneration must precede and enable faith according to the necessitarian? I told you so! 🙂 That is exactly Tom’s response:

    “Regeneration serves to change the person from spiritually dead to spiritually alive. A person must be spiritually alive before they can respond to God’s call on their life. Dead people (physical or spiritual) can’t do anything so they must first be made alive, then they can respond.”

    The purpose then of regeneration is in order to overcome total depravity. Total depravity as seen here in Tom’s comments **assumes** inability of a sinner to have a faith response to the gospel unless **first** regenerated. Notice that the necessitarian conception of depravity is **assumed** as well as the order of events is also **assumed** (regeneration preceding and producing or causing or bringing about the faith response).

    What we have is **assumption** piled upon **assumption**, with all of the **assumptions** coming directly from the necessitarian system not exegesis of biblical texts. As a point of logic, if we assume premises of any argument, then any thing can be logically demonstrated from the unquestioned assumptions/premises.

    What shows the problems with Tom’s conception of depravity is to look at what the bible actually teaches about “spiritual death”/the condition of the unbeliever.
    Start with human anthropology (i.e., what the bible says about human nature, what the bible says about the two aspects of the human person, his immaterial aspect called the soul or spirit and his material aspect called the body). When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden “spiritual death” entered human reality. They did not die physically immediately, their bodies did not immediately die. But they did in fact die spiritually. And in what way did they die? Did their soul/spirit, immaterial aspect of their being cease to function? No, so the “death” they experienced was real, but not ontological, not in regards to their immaterial spirits dying, ceasing to function, being incapable of functioning. So in what sense exactly did they DIE? Throughout scripture “death” refers to SEPARATION. At physical **death** the immaterial (the spirit of man) and physical (the body and brain of man) aspects of man are separated. In the book of Revelation it speaks of the “second death” (which is when the sinner is eternally SEPARATED FROM GOD). The “second death” does not refer to either the physical body dying/ceasing to function or the spirit of the man dying/ceasing to function (which would be the false doctrine of annihilation held by conditionalists such as Jehovah’s Witnesses). Jesus spoke of two resurrections in John 5:25-29 the first referring to spiritual resurrection/conversion, when the sinner is converted to Christianity (Jesus likened this to a dead person hearing his voice and then coming alive from the dead); the second resurrection referring to the physical resurrection of dead corpses from the tombs.
    When we combine and compare these kinds of scriptures the conclusion is that ontologically speaking (i.e. referring to the immaterial spirit and material body of man)”spiritual death” does not refer to the body or spirit dying and ceasing to function. Rather, **death** refers to SEPARATION of some kind. When Adam and Eve died in Genesis neither their bodies or spirits died ontologically (both their spirits and bodies functioned even after they sinned). So their “death” must have been a separation of some kind. We know from other scriptures that sin separates people from God who is Holy and perfect and without sin. What occurred with Adam and Eve when they sinned was that their sin SEPARATED THEM FROM GOD. This then is the biblical meaning of “spiritual death” to be separated from God due to sin.

    In Ephesians 2 the apostle Paul uses the metaphor of resurrection from spiritual death to spiritual life. Was Paul arguing that our bodies and/or spirits had died and ceased to function and then were resurrected? No. He was speaking metaphorically about **conversion** by likening it to a resurrection from death to life. The sinner had been separated from God due to his sin, when the sinner converts to Christianity, this separation from God due to sin is eliminated for that individual (this is clearly seen in Eph. 2 when after giving the metaphor of resurrection he says about Gentile converts: “remember that you were at that time SEPARATE FROM CHRIST, EXCLUDED FROM the commonwealth of Israel, and STRANTERS to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and WITHOUT GOD in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you FORMERLY WERE FAR OFF, have been BROUGHT NEAR by the blood of Christ” Eph. 2:12-13). They are united to Christ through faith alone. God then justifies them, forgives them of their sin, gives them the Holy Spirit who indwells them, regenerates them, adopts them into the family of God, reconciles them with Himself, and sanctifies them while they live on the earth, and at the end glorifies them and takes them to be with Him forever. Paul describes the conversion then of the sinner as being “spiritually dead” (separated from God due to sin) and then “being made alive” (the sinner is reconciled with God and becomes a child of God and is now “spiritually alive”/not separated from God any longer).

    The necessitarian conception of depravity ignores the scriptures that I have discussed here and simply **reads into** biblical texts the assumed inability of the sinner to respond to the gospel unless first regenerated (the logical error is “begging the question”/assuming the very thing that needs to be proved). The necessitarian assumes that the sinner cannot have faith or be enabled to have faith unless regenerated first. But this leaves out a crucial factor, a factor that does in fact enable faith on the part of a sinner WITHOUT FIRST HAVING BEEN REGENERATED.

    That factor is not a thing, but is a person, namely the HOLY SPIRIT WHO IS GOD HIMSELF!! The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of enabling a sinner to have a faith response without necessitating the faith response (and also without regenerating the sinner first). It is the Spirit that convicts the sinner of his/her sin; that shows the sinner who Jesus is and what He did and why He alone is the way of salvation; that illuminates scripture so that the sinner understands it and knows it applies to him/her; that humbles the sinner before the holiness of God, all these things being what enables a sinner to have a faith response. Apart from this work of the Spirit no one could be saved (cf. Jn. 6:44) **On our own** we cannot have a faith response to the gospel message. But God did not leave us **on our own**. Instead He developed and designed a plan of salvation focused on the work of Christ. He sent the Spirit to convict the sinners of the world (cf. Jn. 16:8-11). God developed this “divine rescue operation” so that anyone who responds in faith can be saved, and He sovereignly enables sinners to have a faith response to the gospel.

    The necessitarian gets it half right, **on our own** we are unable to have a faith response to the gospel. But again, God in his love and mercy does not leave us **on our own**, the Spirit comes and enables the sinner to have a faith response. To claim that the sinner cannot be enabled to have a faith response by the Spirit, is just rank unbelief in the power of God. Arminians believe that this work of the Spirit which is called “prevenient grace” because it comes before salvation, enables a faith response, and so is perfectly capable of and sufficient to enable faith without necessitating faith (or regenerating the person first). To doubt that the Spirit can do this is to doubt the very power of God.

    Robert

  8. Hi Ben. I don’t think the answer to this is all that difficult when you consider what faith is. I’ve taken a moment to respond to you on my own blog: ‘What purpose does regeneration serve?’

    Regards,
    D Bnonn Tennant

  9. Aric asked:

    “Not trying to dodge the question, but I think your question is a bit misplaced. Why does God need prevenient grace, according to the Arminian position? After all, couldn’t God save people in any manner he chooses?”

    A couple things on your comments here. First, it is not a question of God **needing** prevenient grace, it is a question of US NEEDING PREVENIENT GRACE. Because **on our own** we will not have a faith response to the gospel. Unless the Spirit does this work we cannot have faith. Second, God is sovereign, and so His plan of salvation is HIS PLAN not ours. If He designed us to freely make choices and if He designed a plan of salvation that takes into account things such as: that we must freely choose to trust Him, that God desires personal relationship with us based upon the work of Christ on the cross, that God’s holiness and character must be satisfied in this way of salvation, etc. etc. Then He sets the table, not us. If He set it up so that able minded persons must have a faith response, then why cannot He Himself be the one to enable that fiath response (i.e., give prevenient grace to an individual person when He wants to)??

    “To ask “Why God must [fill in the blank]?” Seems to be searching for something that will never be answered. God didn’t “have to” do anything, but thankfully he has been gracious!”

    God is not obligated to save us at all, if He operated according to strict justice, then the consequence for Adam and Eve for their sin would have been death and eternal separation from God. That would have been the end of the story. But God does not relate to humans strictly upon justice alone: He also operates according to **mercy**. It is God’s mercy that sinners are not instantly destroyed and eternally separated for their sins. God has been merciful all along and in His mercy developed and is carrying out a plan of salvation that He designed and that He is bringing to pass. You are right, “God didn’t have to” do anything, He is not obligated to us or to save us, He is sovereign. But fortunately for us, in His sovereignty He also has a character of love and mercy. From His character He designed the plan of salvation by which we are saved today.

    “Surely God could have decided to only save Israel. After all, he didn’t have to allow for salvation of Gentile sinners like me.”

    Right again, He did not have to, but He says that He has mercy on all: “For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Rom. 11:32). This verse is part of the Romans 9-11 unit which is often intentionally ignored or neglected by necessatarians intent to proof text from Romans 9 alone their necessitarian views. But the apostle Paul culminates his discussion in Romans 9-11 with this verse (which is then followed by a doxology of praise that God is like this, that God truly wants to save all and have mercy on all).

    “It seems to me (as unlearned as I may be in the areas of all things theological) that one issue is the level and/or result of regeneration. You say prevenient grace, I say regeneration. They are the same in that the Spirit opens eyes to see, ears to hear, and gives life to the dead. They are different in that I say once alive, that person will trust Christ, you say they may or may not, it depends.”

    You are confusing categories here. The work of the Spirit which enables a faith response, which Arminians call prevenient grace since it comes before conversion and enables the faith response on the part of the sinner is not the same as regeneration. Regeneration is the supernatural giving of new life by God to the sinner, when God gives the sinner the Spirit to permanently indwell him.

    You wrote:

    “They are the same in that the Spirit opens eyes to see, ears to hear, and gives life to the dead.”

    You are correct that the Spirit opens eyes to see, ears to hear, but that is what enables a person to have a faith response to the gospel message. A person cannot have faith unless the Spirit has first given him the ability to see and hear, to be able to know that Jesus alone is the way of salvation. To be able to see and hear and know and understand that he is a sinner separated from God by his sin, to illuminate scripture for him so that he can know and understand the bible promises about justification by faith alone, etc. etc. You cannot have a saving and biblical faith unless the Spirit shows you these things. “giving life to the dead” is both Jesus and Paul’s metaphor for conversion, when the sinner is reconciled with God and becomes a child of God part of the family of God.

    “Which brings to mind another question(s): can God control man’s will? If so, why would he choose not to? Why must he give man a choice in salvation (God never gave the other nations that choice in the OT – he specifically chose Israel as his people).”

    Again this question goes to God’s plans and designs. He designed us to be capable of making our own choices of performing our own actions. He did not design us to be totally controlled puppets with him as the puppet master or radio controlled humans with Him as the controller! 🙂

    If God designed us to be like this, then His plan of salvation is not going to contradict his design of human nature. You’ve got to remember that He designed BOTH human nature and the plan of salvation of these humans with the human nature that He designed them to have!

    “From where I sit, it looks like we can ask these questions, but to get an actual answer is probably not going to happen. That’s my .02. I’ll stop now, before I give Robert a run for longest posts! :0)”

    I’ve given you answers to your questions. You may not like the answers because they come from a non-necessitarian framework. But oh well, at least I wrote the longer post! 🙂

    Robert

  10. Hi all,

    I have a question relative to the ability to believe, the Apostles, and the Calvinistic perspective. How is it possible that Peter was able to make his great confession in Matthew 16? It seems to me that the Apostles were not regenerate men since according to John 14:17 the Spirit was not indwelling them yet. Doesn’t that mean they were still spiritually dead from the Calvinist perspective since the Spirit was not indwelling them yet?

    bulldog

  11. Aric said:
    “Why must he give man a choice in salvation (God never gave the other nations that choice in the OT – he specifically chose Israel as his people).”

    God’s choice of Israel was not a choice regarding eternal salvation. It was a choice for a particular role within God’s own purposes. Scripture makes it clear that God was also interested in nations other than Israel. He sent Jonah to Nineveh – an act that resulted in repentance and God turning away from His intended judgment. Why send one of his prophets to warn a gentile nation? Because the gentiles are ALSO part of His eternal plan.
    Israel was chosen so that they could be a blessing to the gentiles. An obedient and blessed Israel would demonstrate the goodness of God to the nations. But Israel continually chose the path of obedience and instead of standing apart from the nations as a demonstration of God’s blessing, they turned away from God and followed gentile ways, bringing upon themselves the curses God had promised would be the result of their disobedience.

    Why must God give man a choice in salvation? Because God wants a willing people to be part of His eternal purposes. If He didn’t desire that willingness, He would have STARTED with a people programmed to be exactly like HE wanted them to be.
    Or does God take pleasure in the damnation of billions of sinful people who are sinful entirely because He caused them to be born with a sinful nature that they can’t avoid?

  12. bulldog,

    I think that is a fair question. I don’t see any reason to believe that Peter was regenerated at that point and yet he was enabled by the Father’s revelation to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  13. An excellent question, Ben, for which you have not been given an excellent answer.

  14. Dominic,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response at your blog. I have much to say concerning your post. I will leave a reply in your combox when I find the time.

    You mention that their is a fatal flaw in the Arminian ordo. I wonder if you would like to address the problems I raised concerning the Calvinist ordo? I also wonder if you would affirm that in Calvinism, and according to the Calvinistic understanding of Prov. 21:1, that God turns the will towards unbelief?

    Thanks,
    Ben

    Here is the first response to Dominic: https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/addressing-dominics-response-to-the-purpose-of-regeneration-in-calvinism/

    From there you can find a follow up post to his response as well.

  15. Hello Bulldog,

    “How is it possible that Peter was able to make his great confession in Matthew 16?”

    I would suggest that he was able to make that confession in the same way we are able to make that confession: the Holy Spirit has to reveal that to us individually. Only by the work of the Spirit can we know and understand spiritual truths.

    “It seems to me that the Apostles were not regenerate men since according to John 14:17 the Spirit was not indwelling them yet.”

    Very good point.

    Dominic is mistakenly arguing that a person cannot have faith unless indwelt by the Spirit first. That is **his principle**, but that principle is contradicted by scripture (your example of Peter before he was indwelt by the Spirit, we could add all of the Old Testament saints who certainly had faith but were not indwelt by the Spirit; the anomaly of the Samaritans in Acts who had a faith response to the gospel but did not receive the Spirit/get indwelled by the Spirit until later, etc.).

    “Doesn’t that mean they were still spiritually dead from the Calvinist perspective since the Spirit was not indwelling them yet?”

    Not necessarily from the Calvinistic perspective (some calvinists believe that faith and regeneration occur simultaneously, they do not make Dominic’s mistake of arguing that regeneration must precede faith, nor do they make Dominic’s mistake that a person cannot have faith unless indwelt by the Spirit first). But your point still stands, the apostles themselves were people who had faith BEFORE THEY WERE INDWELT BY THE SPIRIT. I believe the coming of the Spirit occurred at Pentecost in Acts 2, which was when the apostles were indwelt by the Spirit. If this is true, then again Dominic’s principle (that a person cannot have faith unless they are indwelt by the Spirit first) is falsified by scripture.

    Robert

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