Does regeneration precede faith?

by Daniel Spratlin
and Matt Slick

Yes, regeneration precedes faith, but before explaining why this is so, the terms “regeneration” and “conversion” should be explained briefly.

Regeneration means that a person has been made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  He has been born again, or born from above (John 3:3, 5, 7, 8).  The new birth is the work of God, so that all those who are born again are “born of the Spirit,” (John 3:8).  Or, as 1 Peter 1:3 says, it is God who “caused us to be born again to a living hope.”  The means God uses to grant such new life is the gospel, for believers “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” (1 Pet.  1:23; cf. James 1:18).  Regeneration, or being born again, is a supernatural birth.  Just as we cannot do anything to be born physically--it just happens to us--so too we cannot do anything to cause our spiritual rebirth.

Conversion occurs when sinners turn to God in repentance and faith for salvation.  Paul describes the conversion of the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”  Sinners are converted when they repent of their sins and turn in faith to Jesus Christ, trusting in him for the forgiveness of their sins on the Day of Judgment. 

Paul argues that unbelievers “are dead in trespasses and sins,” (Eph. 2:1; cf. 2:5).  They are under the dominion of the world, the flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:2-3).  Everyone is born into the world as a son or daughter of Adam (Rom. 5:12-19).  Therefore, all people enter into this world as slaves of sin (Rom. 6:6, 17, 20).  Their wills are in bondage to evil (1 Corinthians 2:14).  Therefore, they have no inclination or desire to do what is right or to turn to Jesus Christ.  God, however, because of his amazing grace, has “made us alive together with Christ,” (Eph. 2:5).  This is Paul’s way of saying that God has regenerated his people (cf. Tit. 3:5).  He has breathed life into us where there was none previously, and the result of this new life is faith, for faith too is “the gift of God,” (Eph. 2:8).

Several texts from 1 John demonstrate that regeneration precedes faith.  The texts are as follows:

  • “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him,” (1 John 2:29).
  • “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God,” (1 John 3:9).
  • “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God,” (1 John 4:7).
  • “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him,” (1 John 5:1).

We can make two observations from these texts.  First, in every instance the verb “born” (gennaô) is in the perfect tense.  The perfect tense means that action has begun in the past and is continuing in the present.  For example, "I have eaten" is in the perfect tense.  The action is not completed in the past which is the pluperfect, "I had eaten".  The perfect tense, in the verses in 1 John above, denote an action that precedes the human actions of practicing righteousness, avoiding sin, loving, or believing.  In other words, avoiding sin, loving, or believing come after being born of God.  His writing says those who "have been born of God" or "has been born of God."

Second, no evangelical would say that before we are born again we must practice righteousness, for such a view would teach works-righteousness.  Nor would we say that first we avoid sinning, and then become born of God, for such a view would suggest that human works cause us to be born of God.  Nor would we say that first we show great love for God, and then God causes us to be born again.  No, it is clear that practicing righteousness, avoiding sin, and loving people are all the consequences or results of the new birth.  But if this is the case, then we must interpret 1 John 5:1 in the same way, for the structure of the verse is the same as we find in the texts about practicing righteousness (1 John 2:29), avoiding sin (3:9), and loving God (4:7).  It follows, then, that 1 John 5:1 teaches that first God grants us new life and then we believe Jesus is the Christ.

Regeneration precedes faith just as electricity precedes light

In a light bulb, electricity must be in place in order for light to occur, but it is not true that light must be in place for electricity to occur.  The light is dependent on the electricity, not the other way around.  Therefore, the electricity is logically first, but not temporally first because when the electricity is present, light is the necessary and simultaneous result.  Likewise, regeneration must be in place in order for believing to occur.  When regeneration is in place, faith is the necessary and simultaneous result.  Therefore, we say that the logical order must be that regeneration precedes faith.  It is not a temporal order, but a logical order.  Furthermore, regeneration and faith are so closely united that they cannot be separated, and can be considered to occur at the same time.

The exact nature of regeneration is a mystery.  We know that God changes us and indwells us (John 14:23; 1 John 1:1-4).  We are made new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), and because we are made new, the old things pass away.  The old things consist of a rebellious heart against God, our hatred for him and his ways, our blindness before him, our deadness in sins, and our enslavement to sin. These are all done away with.

Lydia

We see the same truth in Acts 16:14.  First, God opens Lydia’s heart and the consequence is that she pays heed to and believes in the message proclaimed by Paul.  Similarly, no one can come to Jesus in faith unless God has worked in his heart to draw him to faith in Christ (John 6:44).  But all those whom the Father has drawn or given to the Son will most certainly put their faith in Jesus (John 6:37).

God regenerates us and then we believe, and hence regeneration precedes our conversion.  Therefore, we give all the glory to God for our conversion, for our turning to him is entirely a work of his grace.

 

 

 

 
 
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