Although I argued that “what” regeneration is is more important than “when” regeneration happens, we do still need to touch on the question of the timing of regeneration. These passages show that regeneration comes after faith. (Ephesians 1:13, John 1:12-13, Romans 5:18, John 5:24-28, Romans 6:2-6, Galatians 3:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18)
By grace we are:
- sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,
- given the right to become children of God,
- not condemned but given justification of life,
- given everlasting life, and we shall not come into judgment, but have passed from death into life,
- our old man was crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin,
- recipients of the Spirit,
- and transformed into the Lord’s image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
All these blessings are given to us only:
- after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed,
- to as many as receive Christ and believe in His name,
- by faith,
- to those who hear Christ’s word and believe in Him who sent Christ,
- in Christ and through union with Him,
- by the hearing of faith,
- and to him who with unveiled face, beholds as in a mirror the glory of the Lord.
In short, after we come to faith, we are transformed from death to life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. These passages are direct and clear, so I will spend the bulk of my time trying to explain three texts Calvinists use to support the opposite opinion (i.e. that regeneration precedes faith).
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Calvinists argue that since the new birth must precede the kingdom of God, regeneration must precede faith. (link) Turretinfan notes that some people say the “kingdom of God” means heaven, and that this interpretation invalidates his conclusion that regeneration precedes faith. But he argues “that the “kingdom of God” has a primary reference to salvation of one’s soul.” Perhaps it doesn’t mean that here, but for the moment let’s grant that in John 3 the “kingdom of God” means the salvation of one’s soul. That still doesn’t mean regeneration precedes faith. It just means that regeneration precedes the salvation of one’s soul. Faith and salvation are distinct. Both faith and regeneration precede the salvation of one’s soul. This argument is like saying since 2 comes before 3, 1 can’t come before 3. Just because regeneration comes before entering the kingdom of God, doesn’t mean faith can’t come before regeneration.
1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Calvinists argue that dead men can’t have faith, so they must be made alive (regenerated) before they can believe. But as the passage continues, it moves away from their interpretation:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Faith is the instrument through which God saves us. Verse 5 equates making us alive to being saved by grace. Verse 8 explains we are saved (made alive) through faith. So the passage is teaching that faith precedes being made alive.
But what of the argument that the dead can’t believe? “Dead” in what sense? Does “dead” mean man’s totally depraved state? If it did, this verse might be a case for Calvinism. But Paul often uses death to mean a state of condemnation due to sin. Consider Romans 5:18-21:
18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. 20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul opposes condemnation with justification – death with eternal life. This is the same sense he uses in Ephesians 2. Death isn’t total depravity; it’s condemnation.
1 John 5:1
1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.
How this passage is used by Calvinists to support the idea that regeneration precedes faith is unclear from just reading the text in English. But looking at the Greek we find that “believes” is a present active participle, and that “is born” is perfect passive indicative. Perfect tense indicates a completed action or existing state. So Calvinists argue that if someone believes in the present, their regeneration was competed in the past. Further, it seems that the act of believing is a result of regeneration.
The Calvinist argument could be a case of trying to stretch the grammar farther than what John intended. But if we want to get technical, “believing”, being a present participle, doesn’t refer to a one-time act of faith, but rather the habit of faith or endurance in faith.
This can be seen in verse 5:4
4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.
Just as in verse 1, “is born” is in the perfect tense, indicates completion, and “overcomes” is present indicative. But “overcomes” appears twice in the verse. The second “overcomes” is an aorist active participle, which indicates action in the past. So “overcoming,” which John equates with faith, is in both the past and the present. We are talking about an ongoing believer – someone persevering in faith.
Similarly, we can see this playing out in 1 John 3:9:
Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.
Here, sin is also a present active indicative. John is talking about habitual sin, not sinning one time.
So John is saying that regeneration precedes and is the reason for habitual faith, but not for initial faith. God regenerates when we first believe. Those that have been regenerated become habitual believers. The order can be seen in John 1:12-13:
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Here’s the verse with the Greek tenses added:
12 But as many as received (aorist active indicative: i.e. past one-time action) Him, to them He gave (aorist active indicative: i.e. past one-time action) the right to become children of God, to those who believe (present active participle: i.e. ongoing action) in His name: 13 who were born (aorist passive indicative: i.e. past one-time action) , not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
So the order is: at one point in the past we received Christ. After that, but still in the past, we were regenerated. Now in the present we are habitual believers.
I have to come back to the thought that we have to understand what regeneration is before we grapple with when regeneration happens. I think that’s the real source of controversy between Calvinists and Arminians. But given the biblical evidence it does seem that regeneration (strictly defined) comes after faith.