The following is taken from a larger essay, exegeting Colossians 2:13, by Brian N. Daniels1, a Ph.D. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a four-point Calvinist.
“Of the many issues that divide Arminians and Calvinists, one of the more interesting has to be the relationship between regeneration and faith. The question may be put like this: which comes first and grounds the other, new life given by the Spirit or belief in Christ? This question is important because of its connection to many other points of soteriology. One’s answer generally reveals much about what he believes regarding the nature of grace and depravity, as well as the more difficult issue of election and predestination.
“In this short essay I’d like to take a look at an important verse in the NT that I believe connects well with this issue. Though a good deal of theological and exegetical argumentation has been offered in the historical discussion (and it must be acknowledged that each side in the debate has its scriptural support), I think another glance at Colossians 2:13 may help us as we continue to reflect on and articulate a theology of regeneration. As far as I know, the point I hope to make about the text has not entered the discussion, but there seems to be good reason for considering this verse’s teaching as foundational for the matter at hand.
“Colossians 2:13 comes at an integral point in Paul’s epistle. At 2:8 the apostle warns his readers of man-made, un-Christian philosophy, the kind of teaching that was invading the congregation at Colossae. Following this, he begins an exposition of the sort of philosophy that is “according to Christ” — one that recognizes, among other things, the exalted position of Jesus as the God-man and the need of all men to be united with him in burial and resurrection. And then in v. 13 Paul elaborates on the experience of his readers: “But you, who were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (ESV). It goes without saying that Paul’s primary point here lies beyond the scope of the question we’re considering, but what he says is still important as we think about how to relate regeneration and faith. Why? Because this verse likely indicates, via the syntax, an assumption that Paul has about the order of these two things.2
“Notice again what he says. “God made [you] alive together with him, having forgiven [charisomenos] us all our trespasses.” The aorist participle translated “having forgiven” is significant, for as grammarians have noted, a participle of this tense usually points to an action occurring prior to that of the main verb.3 In this case that verb is “made alive” [sunezōopoiēsen]. If this use of the aorist participle occurs in Col 2:13, we may conclude that since forgiveness is a gift bestowed in response to faith (Rom. 4:1-8)4, and since “made alive” in this verse most certainly means regeneration, faith precedes regeneration.
“I say “if this use occurs” because we must acknowledge that this particular function of the aorist participle only covers most occurrences in the NT.5 We must also take note that, as Wallace says, “if the main verb is also aorist, this participle may indicate contemporaneous time.”6 And indeed, sunezōopoiēsen is aorist. But does this cast serious doubt over the interpretation presented here? I think not. Two reasons: First, there is nothing in the context that militates against an antecedent action. Second, as O’Brien notes, it’s probably best to see charisomenos as standing in a causal relationship with sunezōopoiēsen. That is, we find the explanation of the latter in the former. O’Brien makes the point that “[b]ecause he had remitted all (panta) our sins the cause of spiritual death was done away.”7 Therefore, if God’s forgiveness is the cause of our spiritual rebirth, faith precedes regeneration.
“Before closing, I’d like to say that I am in substantial agreement with Calvinist soteriology, but as this essay shows, my study of Scripture has raised some serious questions about the soundness of the traditional Reformed take on regeneration and faith. To be sure, the Calvinist has his reasons for believing what he does (and I believe that a good case can be made for effectual calling, though I wouldn’t equate it with the idea that regeneration precedes faith). The strongest of the Calvinist’s supports is, in my opinion, the testimony of 1 John 5:1, though this text may not be as clear as the Reformed interpretation of it might suggest. But therein lies another discussion for another time. Suffice it to say at the present that Col 2:13 furnishes yet another reason to question the traditional Reformed understanding of regeneration and faith.”
1 Brian Daniels earned an MDiv at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, where he is earning his PhD. The idea of this essay originated in a paper on Col 2:8-15, delivered at Southeastern College at Wake Forest, Spring 2008, as per the requirements for the class GRK 3620: Greek Syntax and Exegesis II.
2 I’m grateful for the help of Dr. Pete Schemm, assoc. prof. of theology at Southeastern Seminary, for helping me clarify this point.
3 David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, exp. ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 138; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 614.
4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 725.
5 Black, 138; Wallace, 614.
6 Wallace, 614; emphasis his. Wallace states in a footnote on this page that “[f]rom my cursory examination of the data, the aorist participle is more frequently contemporaneous in the epistles than in narrative literature.”
7 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 123.