The Equivocation of Regeneration

, posted by Godismyjudge

In the order of salvation, which comes first, faith or regeneration? Before we can answer that, don’t we first need to understand what regeneration is? In this post I plan on contrasting Charles Hodge’s view with that of Arminius. Hopefully, in the process we can clarify the issue of monergism vs. synergism.

Hodge’s Order of Salvation

  1. Common Grace – a “moral suasion” that brings good works, but is insufficient to enable justifying faith
  2. Regeneration – God’s supernatural and immediate change of a person’s nature
  3. Vocation – same Gospel as the one in common grace, but it is effectual on the changed man.
  4. Conversion – faith and repentance “first conscious exercise of the renewed soul”
  5. Justification

Two Definitions of Regeneration
Hodge provides two alternative definitions of regeneration. Sometimes regeneration means just the imparting of life, other times it means the whole process including the things coming before and after the imparting of life. 1 Hodge says that these two different senses are not just used by Bible commentators, but in the Bible itself. He cites 1 Corinthians 4:15 and 1 Peter 1:23 as examples of the broader definition of regeneration. Since regeneration is God’s immediate act on the soul, and these texts speak of a means (i.e. the Gospel and God’s word), they indicate a broader definition of regeneration which includes conversion.

Arminius’ Order of Salvation

  1. Prevenient Grace – common grace plus enablement of justifying faith
  2. Vocation – Gospel call
  3. Conversion – Repentance and faith
  4. Justification
  5. Regeneration – Mortification and Vivification

Everyone gets excited that Hodge says regeneration comes before faith and Arminius said it comes after. But before we discuss when regeneration happens, we must understand what regeneration is.

Using Hodges’ broad definition of regeneration, both Arminian and Calvinistic regeneration is synergistic. There’s a call and a response – God acts, man reacts. But in the narrow sense of regeneration, Hodge states that man is a passive, not an active participant. God omnipotently imparts spiritual life. The same is true in the Arminian system. Faith doesn’t cause or merit regeneration. God mercifully regenerates the sinner. So in the broad definition of regeneration, it’s sysnergistic, and in the narrow definition it’s monergistic.

Both Hodge and Arminius said enablement comes before faith, so both affirm total depravity and deny semi-Pelagianism. But Hodge said enablement is part of regeneration2 and Arminius said its part of prevenient grace. But Arminius doesn’t completely disconnect regeneration and prevenient grace. He describes those under prevenient grace as “under the process of the new birth” but “not yet regenerate”.3

To me, the difference between Arminians and Calvinists on the order of salvation is far too subtle for all the fuss made over it, particularly when there’s a much bigger issue just under the surface: the difference in their understanding of enablement.

Before prevenient grace (in an Arminian system) and before regeneration (in a Calvinistic system) a man can only say no to the Gospel. However, in Arminianism, he can say no for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. In Calvinism, he can only say no for one reason and in one way. Both prevenient grace (in Arminianism) and regeneration (in Calvinism) change our nature, such that we can say yes to the Gospel. But in Calvinism, we can only say yes. In Arminianism, we can say either yes or no. In Calvinism, given our nature, only one response is possible; in Arminianism, our nature contains a range of acts possible for us to perform.

So in the final analysis, the resistible/irresistible debate boils down to the issue of libertarian freewill vs. compatible freewill. Only the context has changed to “under grace”.

Even though the issue of order is a lesser point, God willing, I will explore it in the next post.

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1There are two senses in which it may be said that we are begotten by the truth. First, when the word to beget (or regeneration) is meant to include the whole process, not the mere act of imparting life, but all that is preliminary and consequent to that act. The word “to beget” seems to be used sometimes in Scripture, and very often in the writings of theologians in this wide sense. And secondly, when the word ‘by’ expresses not a cooperating cause, or means, but simply an attending circumstance. Men see by the light. Without light vision is impossible. Yet the eyes of the blind are not opened by means of the light. In like manner all the states and acts of consciousness preceding or attending, or following regeneration, are by the truth; but regeneration itself, or the imparting spiritual life, is by the immediate agency of the Spirit. (link)

2The truth involved in this doctrine was so important in the eyes of the Apostle Paul that he earnestly prayed that God would enable the Ephesians by his Spirit to understand and believe it. It was a truth which the illumination and teaching of the Holy Ghost alone could enable them duly to appreciate. . . . The Apostle Paul, who glories so much in the gospel, who declares that it is by the foolishness of preaching that God saves those that believe, still teaches that the inward work of the Spirit is necessary to enable men to receive the things freely given to them of God; that the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit, that they must be spiritually discerned. . . . when God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good. (link)

3For the word, “the unregenerate,” may be understood in two senses, (i.) Either as it denotes those who have felt no motion of the regenerating Spirit, or of its tendency or preparation for regeneration, and who are therefore, destitute of the first principle of regeneration. (ii.) Or it may signify those who are in the process of the new birth, and who feel those motions of the Holy Spirit which belong either to preparation or to the very essence of regeneration, but who are not yet regenerate; that is, they are brought by it to confess their sins, to mourn on account of them, to desire deliverance, and to seek out the Deliverer, who has been pointed out to them; but they are not yet furnished with that power of the Spirit by which the flesh, or the old man, is mortified, and by which a man, being transformed to newness of life, is rendered capable of performing works of righteousness. (link)