Regeneration Precedes Faith, and Faith is the Gift of God?

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In his book How to Be Born Again, Billy Graham states, “Jesus said that God can change men and women from the inside out. It was a challenge -a command. He didn’t say, ‘It would be nice if you were born again,’ or, ‘If it looks good to you you might be born again.’ Jesus said, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3.7).”

The most controversial aspect of the teaching that Regeneration precedes Faith in Christ (that one must first be born again in order to exercise faith in Christ) actually comes from Jesus’ own statement to Nicodemus that a person must be born again in order to “see” and “enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus did not say that a person must first be born again in order to have faith in Him, but in order to “see” and “enter the kingdom of heaven.”

To some, the new birth is the means which God uses to grant faith to His elect. To others, the new birth is the goal, and it is reached by faith in Christ. If a person has not been given the new birth, then he or she cannot be justified before God, nor be counted righteous, a child of God, sanctified, seated with Christ, raised up with Christ, a recipient of the Holy Spirit, or be a participant in any of the myriad blessings which are found solely in Christ (Eph. 1.3).

Some want to contend that faith is God’s absolute gift, given absolutely to His elect. Why? Because in their system, expressing faith in Christ will rob God of the glory He deserves, regardless whether or not the Bible states so (Rom. 4.4-5).

And lest we forget, in that system of thought, faith must be God’s gift given solely to His elect due to the spiritual condition of “death” inherent in all people -meaning that every single person is in a “corpse-like” state spiritually; no one will ever understand the gospel unless God regenerates them (regardless of the fact that Cornelius pursued God before he was born again -Acts 10, as did Lydia -Act 16).

They will also tell us that people outside of Christ are God-haters. They paint a portrait of humanity worse than what the Bible even paints, in my opinion. Yes, people are depraved. Yes, they are (some inadvertently) enemies of God (not everyone thinks of himself or herself as an aggressive God-hater).

But when one paints such a portrait of humanity with such broad strokes, and makes every sinner seem like a zombie from a “Dawn of the Dead” movie, hell-bent on sin, full of hatred towards God and everyone else, and seeking only destruction, then he or she can only come to the conclusion that their theological system, that being Calvinism, is the correct one.

What does the Bible say about Faith? A list of proof texts was offered to me by a friend stating that regeneration precedes faith. Let’s look at each one and ask, Is the author trying to convey to his audience that regeneration must precede faith? Acts 3:16; 15.9; 18.27; Rom. 12.3; Phil. 1.29; 1 Tim. 1:14; Heb. 12.2; 1Pet. 1.21. (I’m sure there are others.)

Acts 3.16

“By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see” (TNIV, and throughout).

This has to do with healing and not regeneration. Even though some view the statement as suggesting that faith comes to a person from Him, that is, Christ, the verse still verifies that the subject is healing, not regeneration nor salvation.

Acts 15.9

“He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”

The fact that God justifies (here, purifies) our hearts by faith is mentioned throughout the New Testament. But as anyone can clearly notice, faith is not spoken of as a gift which God gives solely to His elect; and to read such a thing into this verse is nothing short of eisegesis.

Acts 18.27

“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.”

All Arminians believe that people have faith by grace -salvation comes by grace through faith. Still, this verse does not explicitly state that faith is God’s gift given solely to His elect, and hence regeneration must precede faith. One can philosophize his or her way to force the verse to mean such, but it clearly was not Luke’s intention to communicate that sentiment here.

Romans 12.3

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

By a surface reading of this verse some say, “See, God distributes faith to those whom He has chosen.” However, in context (imagine someone paying attention to context!) the faith spoken of here has to do with exercising spiritual gifts -a commentary, by the way, which Reformed study Bibles “The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible,” “The MacArthur Study Bible,” and “The Reformation Study Bible” [ed. by R. C. Sproul], also admits. This verse does not speak about saving faith, but faith granted by God to accomplish spiritual tasks within the body of Christ.

Philippians 1.29

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

This letter was written to Gentile believers in Philippi. God had “granted repentance that leads to life” even to the Gentiles (Acts 11.18), which was His plan all along. So God has granted the privilege not only to believe in Christ for salvation, but also to suffer for Christ. Honestly, some are straining at a gnat here to make the verse mean that God gives saving faith solely to His elect.

1 Timothy 1.14

“The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

The TNIV Study Bible offers this comment: “faith and love . . . in Christ. See 2Ti 1:13 and note . . . faith and love through union with Christ -another way of saying ‘Christan faith and love.'” At the parallel passage of 2Tim. 1.13, John MacArthur states, “‘Faith’ is confidence that God’s Word is true, and ‘love’ is kindness and compassion in teaching the truth (cf. Eph. 4.15).” Again, to say that Paul’s point was that faith is a gift given to His elect in this passage is stretching the text beyond the author’s intention.

Hebrews 12.2

“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

The TNIV nails that translation. Jesus is the One in whom our faith is placed and He is also the perfecter of it. But, once again, faith is not spoken of by the author as a gift given solely to His elect.

1 Peter 1.21

“Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.”

Some Bible teachers want you to believe that it is through the gift of Christ to God’s “elect” that explains why one believes in Christ Jesus. Guess what? That is not what the text says. Do you recall Jesus’ statement: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” at John 14.1? It is through our faith in Christ Jesus that we are said to come to believe in God. Notice the end of v. 21: “and so your faith and hope are in God.”

Notice also how the Bible ascribes faith as “belonging to” a person. Faith is “our” faith (also “her” faith, “their” faith, and “you of” little faith, etc.). God is not the One who is having faith for a person -they must truly believe within and for themselves in Christ Jesus.

Now, having said that, we do believe that God must “grace” a person in order for them to believe in Christ Jesus. There is a sense in which Arminians actually do believe in Total Depravity, meaning, Total Inability. The inability lies not, however, in the sinners’ lack of comprehension of the gospel message, but in the sinners’ inability to desire salvation at any given time he or she wills. That would be Pelagianism.

This is the major division between us and Pelagians. If God waited for the sinner to desire to be saved, He would wait indefinitely. Humanity’s problem is not an inability to understand the gospel; the problem lies in the desire for the gospel to be applied to the individual (a belief also verified, but nuanced, by Jonathan Edwards). This is why it takes the grace of God to free an individual who is in bondage to sin to make a free choice to receive Christ Jesus as Savior. This is Arminianism par excellence.

I have addressed several times the question often presented to Arminians: Why, then, do some people respond positively to God’s invitation and others do not? Jesus spoke about such things at Matthew 13.12; 18-23. I suggest you read His response to that question.

My Personal Evangelism professor gave us some rather disturbing statistics. The population of the world was 6,697,000,154 as of January 22, 2008, according to the estimates of the SBC Mission Board. Among that number, the people who were hearing and believing the gospel totaled 737, 027, 848. However, the people who were hearing and not believing the gospel totaled 2,587,256,758. Moreover, the people not having an adequate opportunity to hear the gospel totaled 3,372,967,912.

Now, let’s talk about Election and God’s granting of faith to His Elect. As it stands today, in our culture, if Jesus were to come back tonight and separate the sheep from the goats (not taking into consideration a Rapture or a Tribulation), out of 6.7 billion people on planet earth, God only “elected” to save 737 million of those present, and chose not to save over 5 billion people. Why? According to Calvinism it is in order to bring God glory.

How is God glorified in electing the damnation of billions upon billions of creatures made in His image? That is a far more difficult question than to ask the Arminian why one person believes the gospel and another does not.