Jesus met a man named Nicodemus one evening and a dialogue about spiritual issues ensued. Jesus got right to the heart of the matter by stating, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3 NRSV). Nicodemus had just informed Jesus that he and some others knew with certainty that He was “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2 NRSV). They knew such because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2 NRSV). Instead of taking the opportunity to claim Himself as the LORD’s Christ, Jesus cut to the heart of the issue. He realized that mere acknowledgement of Himself as the Christ (mere mental assent) does not save a sinner. The truth is that sinners must be born again.
Many Calvinists suggest Jesus is teaching Nicodemus that regeneration must precede faith. They take this stand, noting that to “see,” in this case, strictly means to “perceive.” Thus no one can perceive the kingdom unless God first regenerates him or her. I want to quote from a few popular Study Bibles in order to gain a popular perspective on this issue. Commentary from the Reformation Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul, teaches the following:
Jesus says that unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven. Without the grace of God, sinners cannot find the door, let alone force their way in. . . . Regeneration is the gift of God’s grace. It is the immediate, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit wrought in us. Its effect is to quicken us to spiritual life from spiritual death. It changes the disposition of our souls, inclining our hearts to God. The fruit of regeneration is faith. Regeneration precedes faith.1
He also claims that God could and perhaps does regenerate infants — entirely apart from faith in Christ Jesus (or at least its fruit) — by the work of the Holy Spirit. Five-Point Calvinist and Dispensationalist John MacArthur, on the contrary, comments, “In context, this is primarily a reference to participation in the millennial kingdom at the end of the age, fervently anticipated by the Pharisees and other Jews.”2 MacArthur’s explanation eliminates the need for “perception” of the kingdom of God. Moderate Calvinist and Dispensationalist Charles Ryrie adds, “The new birth, or regeneration (Titus 3:5), is the act of God that gives eternal life to the one who believes in Christ. As a result, he becomes a member of God’s family (1 Peter 1:23) with a new capacity and desire to please his heavenly Father (2 Cor. 5:17).”3 Ryrie’s motif places faith prior to regeneration.
That faith precedes regeneration is not some Arminian heresy invented four hundred years ago. Historically, the universal Church since the first century has generally maintained that a person is born again (and thus saved) subsequent to faith in Jesus Christ, and hence, doctrinally, faith precedes regeneration (and thus salvation): no one is regenerated apart from first believing in Jesus Christ because no one can be saved or justified apart from faith in Jesus Christ. A person is not saved and regenerated in order to have faith; a person is saved and regenerated by faith. We are not saved to faith but by grace through faith. Hence faith precedes regeneration. The witnesses of the early Church fathers were unanimous on this issue, briefly quoted here:
Having received the forgiveness of sins, and having placed our trust in the name of the Lord, we have become new creatures, formed again from the beginning. — Barnabas (c. 170-130, E), 1.147.
He says, “Everyone who does righteousness is born of God” — being regenerated, that is, according to faith. — Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.576.
When the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption is taken away. — Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.221.
Christ is called the Resurrection. For He causes those who sincerely attach themselves to Him to put away their deadness and rise again and put on newness of life. — Origen (c. 228, E), 9.319.4
Regardless of the fact that most of our early Church fathers connected one’s regeneration with the waters of baptism, the main point for our subject is that early orthodoxy had established that a person could not be regenerated (born again) until he or she had placed one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Even from a biblical perspective, faith appears to precede regeneration (cf. Col. 2:13 — justification is prior to regeneration, yet one is only justified by faith; therefore, faith precedes regeneration). But let us take issue with the Calvinist’s insistence that regeneration is necessary if one is to “see” (i.e., perceive) the kingdom rather than the natural reading of one actually (or literally) seeing and entering the kingdom of God or heaven (cf. John 3:5).
The Greek word for “see” at John 3:3 is eidon (εἶδον). It is a primary verb (an aorist infinitive, which does not signify the time of the action) and is used only in certain past tenses. Properly, it means “to see (lit. or fig.); by impl. (in the [perfect tense] only) to know by perception.”5 This verb is not placed in the perfect tense but is an aorist infinitive. This verb suggests fullness of knowledge, not progressive knowledge by experience (as in ginosko). In other words, unless one is born again, he or she cannot have fullness of knowledge of the kingdom of God as one is granted by experience (i.e., by literally seeing it and entering into it).
Moreover, at John 3:3, according to the popular Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, edited by Spiro Zodhiates, eidon means to “see, i.e. to experience either good (meaning to enjoy) or evil (meaning to suffer), referring to death in Lk 2:26; Jn 3:3; Ac 2:27, 31; 13:35; Heb 11:5; Rev 18:7; 1Pe 3:10.”6 Its synonym in Greek is blepo (connecting it with “seeing” and “entering” the kingdom of God at John 3:5), which means to “see, take heed, look earnestly, behold with wonder.”7 Without doubt, fullness of knowledge of the kingdom of God will be seen by only those who have been born again.
Concerning the new birth, John Piper comments:
Any good thing that we do is a “result” of the new birth, not a “cause” of the new birth. This means that the new birth is taken out of our hands. It is not in our control. And so it confronts us with our helplessness and our absolute dependence on Someone outside ourselves. This is unsettling. We are told that we won’t see the kingdom of God if we’re not born again. And we’re told that we can’t make ourselves to be born again. This is unsettling. (link)
It certainly is unsettling — for the alleged “non-elect”! While it is certainly true that a person cannot regenerate him- or herself, the only “unsettling” aspect of this truth would be if God were opposed to regenerating people. But, thankfully, He is willing to regenerate (save) those who will trust in His Son Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21). Note Peter’s teaching that by God’s great mercy he “has given us [or willed] a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5 NRSV). Neither a sinner nor a believer could (or does) cause his or her own regeneration; it is caused by God. He wills or grants (1 Pet. 1:3) salvation (regeneration) to the one whose faith is in His Son Jesus.
However, salvation (regeneration) does not happen apart from faith in and union with Jesus Christ. Paul teaches: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7 NASB). Do not miss the connection between salvation and regeneration as taught by Paul. God “saved” us by means of “the washing of regeneration.” This accomplishment is the work of the Holy Spirit, whom God poured out upon those who are in union with Jesus Christ, having already been justified by His grace through faith.
Furthermore, Paul teaches, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV) Again, Charles Ryrie comments that “the old has gone (aorist tense indicating the decisive change salvation brings); the new has come (perfect tense indicating abiding results of the new life in Christ). The grace of God not only justifies but also makes a new creation, which results in a changed style of life (v. 15).”8 One is not first a new creation (i.e., born again / regenerated) and then spiritually placed “in Christ” apart from faith. The biblical order is, first, one is spiritually (positionally) placed “in Christ” (via faith via grace), and then the person becomes “a new creation” (i.e., is born again / granted salvation). These experiences or realities, no doubt, happen simultaneously, but there is a logical order; and we believe the biblical order places faith in Jesus Christ as the beginning of salvation for a person, but that God’s enabling grace precedes the whole process.
If a person must be born again in order to “see” the kingdom of God (in the sense that most Calvinists insists, i.e., perceive or have faith in Christ), then that would contradict the biblical model. Yet, a person must be born again in order to, literally, “see” and “enter” the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5), for Paul teaches that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50 NRSV). This is why a person must be born again in order to see and enter God’s kingdom. When Jesus Christ returns, to collect God’s children, we who are alive “will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52) — we will be “caught up together” with those who have gone before us and meet them and the Lord in the air (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17). Those who have been born again by faith in Jesus Christ will “see” and “enter” the kingdom of God (which exists as an “already-not-yet” reality). I do not believe that Jesus, at John 3:3-5, was explicitly teaching Nicodemus the ordo salutis (order of salvation, i.e., that regeneration precedes faith or vice versa). Yet there is ample evidence throughout the New Testament that faith in and union with Jesus Christ commences the believer’s salvation. The believer is then justified, adopted, regenerated and sanctified.
1 The Reformation Study Bible, ed. R. C. Sproul (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 1514.
2 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2006 ), 1547.
3 Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1994), 1623.
4 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercott (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 471.
5 James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 1059.
6 Hewbrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, ed. Spiros Zodhiates (Chattanooga, TN: AMG International, Inc., 2008), 2149.
8 Ryrie, 1787.