Examining A Rather Strange “Proof Text” For Irresistible Regeneration

, posted by Patron

The content of this post was authored by Ben Henshaw and is posted on his behalf.

I believe that I have sufficiently demonstrated that the Biblical ordo salutis (order of salvation) is not that regeneration precedes faith. I gave both a positive argument, and negative arguments (ed.s note referring to the author’s blog). Before moving on to examine the other petals of our favorite little flower, I wanted to give some brief attention to what I believe to be a rather odd proof text often urged by the proponents of irresistible grace.

This argument focuses on the grammar of two related passages in 1 John. James White makes use of these passages in The Potter’s Freedom. He sets up his argument by first quoting 1 John 5:1,

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.”

He then explains that while one might interpret this text to mean that belief precedes the born again experience, it should properly be understood as “The one believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” [pg. 287-emphasis his]. The reason for this interpretation has to do with the verb tenses of “believing” (present tense participle- emphasizing continuous action) and “born” (perfect passive tense- indicating an action that took place in the past with ongoing results in the present). He then attempts to bolster this argument with the following comments:

      Some Arminian exegetes might object to this interpretation [that the above exegesis leads to the conclusion that “Belief in Jesus Christ” is the “inevitable result of being born again”]. A means of testing the consistency of the exegesis offered of this passage [1 John 5:1] would be to ask how such a person interprets these words from John:

“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” (1 John 2:29)

James White then attempts to put the strangle hold on anyone who might disagree with his conclusions regarding 1 John 5:1,

    Every consistent Protestant would say, ‘the reason one practices righteousness is because they have already been born of Him. We do not practice righteousness so as to be born, but instead the birth gives rise to the practice of righteousness.’ And such is quite true. But, this means that in 1 John 5:1 the belief in Jesus Christ is the result of being born of Him. The verbal parallel is exact: in 1 John 2:29 ‘the one practicing righteousness’ is a present participle; in 1 John 5:1 ‘the one believing’ is a present participle. In both passages the exact same form is used…Therefore, sheer consistency leads one to the conclusion that divine birth precedes and is the grounds of both faith in Christ as well as good works. (ibid. 288- emphasis his)

I appreciate Mr. White’s attempts to find support for his doctrine in the parallel grammar of these passages, but I must disagree with his conclusions [1]. The grammar in no way forces the conclusion that one must first be born again in order to believe in Jesus Christ. Allow me to offer an alternative interpretation:

Mr. White’s argument from parallel grammar between 1 John 5:1 and 1 John 2:29 is, in my opinion, a plain case of misunderstanding the text and misapplying the implications. The Greek says nothing more than that the one presently “believing” has been born of God (5:1), and the one who is presently practicing righteousness is born of God (2:29). Of course someone who is presently believing and practicing righteousness has been born of God. The word gennao [born] is in the perfect indicative tense. All this tells us is that an event that occurred in the past has continuing results now in relation to the time of the speaker. While dealing with the past to some extant, the perfect tense is primarily concerned with present time. The perfect tense of gennao can be simply be expressed as “he is now born of God”. The Greek grammar does not help the Calvinists case here. The verses do not say whether one became born of God before or after one believed (5:1). All that we can honestly conclude is that if one is now “believing” we can be certain that same person is (and “has been”) born of God. The same is true of 2:29. One who is presently practicing righteousness plainly demonstrates that he or she is born of God.

One of the main issues being addressed throughout 1 John is how one can determine whether or not one is truly saved (“born of God”]. The Gnostics (i.e. anti-christs) were teaching that there was no connection between behavior and salvation. They believed that the human spirit was incorruptible and could in no way be affected by the sins of the flesh. John directly opposes such teaching numerous times in his epistle (1:5-10; 2:1, 3-6, 9-11, 15; 3:4-11, 15, 17, 18, 24; 4:7, 16, 20, 21; 5:1, 2). This is the context in which we need to consider 1 John 2:29 and 5:1. John is not trying to give us a lesson on the order of salvation. He is encouraging his readers to reject the false teachings of the “anti-christs” who are teaching that one can sin with spiritual immunity, and helping them to understand the true characteristics of God’s children.

While these passages fail as proof texts for irresistible grace, I personally see further evidence in 1 John 2:29 that one must first believe to be born again. The passage reads,

“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.”

Why does John begin by saying, “If you know that He is righteous”? Because we can only be righteous by being in Him, and if we are in Him we will inevitably practice righteousness as His life and power flows in and out of us. The question then becomes, “How do we come to be in Christ in the first place?” I believe that we have already conclusively demonstrated that we come to be “in Christ“ and that Christ comes to be “in us” through faith in Him, and not before (Eph. 1:13; 3:17).

Mr. White’s conclusion that, “sheer consistency leads one to the conclusion that divine birth precedes and is the grounds of both faith in Christ as well as good works” simply does not follow necessarily from the context of the epistle or from the comparison of Greek grammar in the above passages. That Calvinists have to look to passages like this to support their doctrine is further testimony to the fact that the doctrine of irresistible grace is a doctrine derived not from the pages of Scripture, but from a prior commitment to a theological system.

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[1] White’s appeal to “sheer consistency” is entirely undone when we condsider 1 John 5:10. This passage has the same construction but clearly puts the participle logically prior to the main verb:

“…the one who does not believe God (is not “believing”, present participle) has made (perfect) Him a liar.” (1 John 5:10)

The construction is the same, a present participle followed by the main verb in the perfect tense. Obviously, the making a liar of God (has made: perfect) did not precede the “not believing” (present participle). Rather, it is because one is “not believing” that he has made God out to be a liar. So with the exact same construction we have as in 1 John 5:1 and 2:29, we have the participle (present) taking logical precedence over the main verb (perfect). So the argument just doesn’t hold water. John wasn’t giving a theological discourse on the ordo salutis. He was giving various markers for identifying those who truly belong to God and are His children. God’s children can be identified by their righteous acts and their faith.