I believe that salvation is a gift of God based upon no work which man may do. Long ago I was convinced of this based upon Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” I humbly accepted this when I was young, with great wonder at the kindness of God. Another well known verse that helped shape my beliefs was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” In the same vein, I had the short statement of Paul to the Philippian jailor memorized: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). At that early age, these verses constituted the extent of my understanding of the doctrine of salvation. I would often run them through my mind and ponder their significance. “God is so gracious,” I would say to myself. “He requires nothing for us to be saved. Nothing, that is, but faith.”
Faith alone! The great battle cry of the Reformation. As I grew in my understanding of this salvation, I added many verses and passages to my “soteriological repertoire.” Among the more significant of these were the shocking statements made in Romans 9 and John 6. These verses gave me my first exposure to the doctrines known as “election,” “sovereign grace,” or “Calvinism.” I was again humbled by what these doctrines taught. Not only does God not require anything but faith for salvation, but He is the one who is solely responsible for salvation, having predestined people before the foundation of the world. Wow! As I wondered upon such marvelous yet confusing doctrines, there was a question that continually resurfaced. If God does not require any works for salvation, and if He is in control of the process to such an extent that He predestined all of this to occur, why does He require that one thing? As Bono says in “Though I don’t know why, I know I’ve got to believe.” Why does God require something so seemingly trifle as faith?
Don’t confuse my question. I am not asking if faith is a work. That is a different issue. I am speaking of faith as a requirement. Why, if God has worked everything out to such an extent that He is the one within people who is sovereignly and irresistibly calling them to a new life in Christ, does He initiate His plans with a human response of faith? It just seemed rather trivial to me. Not that I thought faith was unimportant, just as I don’t think that love, hope, or service are unimportant. But I thought that it was a little odd for God to require anything at all.
I accepted it, living with the tension for the time. At this time, my ordo salutis (order of salvation) looked like this:
Of all the components here, the only one before justification that is the responsibility of man is faith/repentance. All of the others are brought about and accomplished solely by God. The final goal is glorification, while the primary instrument of bringing this about is faith. God predestines people before the foundation of the world, and at some point in time He calls them to respond in faith. In response to this faith, God regenerates them and they enter into a justified standing. God accomplishes everything but the final instrumental link—faith. Later I made the discovery that there are other possible models of the ordo salutis and that there is a poswesible solution to my dilemma.
Many (if not most) Reformed theologians subscribe to an ordo salutis that places regeneration before faith. Their model, using the same components, looks like this:
The reason most Reformed theologians come to this conclusion is not necessarily because they have the same difficulties that I expressed above. Their reasons are much more complex and philosophical. It is my purpose in this here to briefly evaluate the Reformed ordo salutis with respect to regeneration preceding faith.
First, I will state their position, giving it biblical and philosophical defense. Second, I will deal with problems that arise from the position. Finally, I will evaluate the position.
Statement of the Position
As stated above, most Reformed theologians believe that regeneration necessarily precedes faith. They would not, however, make the sequence a temporal one, but logical. Temporally, it may be stated that all of the events in the ordo salutus stated above happen at the same time. But Reformed theologians would see a necessary logical order in these components of salvation. John MacArthur put it this way: “From the standpoint of reason, regeneration logically must initiate faith and repentance. But the saving transaction is a single, instantaneous event.” Regeneration is seen as a sovereign act of God by which He causes a person who is spiritually dead to become spiritually alive. We sometimes call this “monergism.” This act is not in anyway dependent upon man. Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema puts it this way: “Regeneration must be understood, not as an act in which God and man work together, but as the work of God alone.”
Why do Reformed theologians insist upon an ordo salutis in which regeneration precedes faith? There are two primary reasons. First is because of their strong stance on total depravity. Second is because certain Scriptures seem to support the view.
First we shall deal with regeneration’s relationship to total depravity. According to Scripture, man is unable to do any good whatsoever. Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah also states that just as a leopard cannot change its spots, neither can man change his evil heart (Jer. 13:23). Paul also states in Romans 3:10–11, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” There are two primary Scriptures that would be used to defend this belief:
“But you were dead in you trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
1 Cor. 2:14
“But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (emphasis added).”
The convincing argument is then made that if man is in such a position that he is evil (Jer. 17:9), does not ever seek to do good (Rom. 3:10–11), and that he cannot change his position (Jer. 13:23), how can anyone expect him to do the greatest good and accept the Gospel? Furthermore, man is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1). A dead person cannot respond to the Gospel any more than a blind person can respond to light. As Best puts it, “What is good news to a dead man? As light cannot restore sight to a blind man, so the light of the gospel cannot give spiritual light to one who is spiritually blind.”
Finally, a non-spiritual person cannot receive the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). How can anyone be expected to receive the Gospel, which is spiritual, in an unconverted state? The person must first become spiritual—the person must first be regenerated. Sproul sums up the logic, “If original sin involves moral ability, as Augustine and the magisterial Reformers insisted, then faith can occur only as the result of regeneration, and regeneration can occur only as a result of effectual or irresistible grace.” A good illustration to describe this way of thinking is physical birth. As a baby cries out only after it is born, so also believers cry out in faith only after God has regenerated them.
There are also many other Scriptures that seem to explicitly teach that regeneration comes before faith.
“A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond [regenerated her] to the things spoken by Paul” (emphasis added).
Lydia, here, is portrayed as a woman who had her heart opened to receive the Gospel before she received it.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born [regenerated], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (emphasis added).
The will of man is here shown to be uninvolved in the regenerating process of God.
“So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs [or strives], but on God who has mercy” (emphasis added).
Again, the will of man is taken out of the picture in the saving process of God.
Problems with the Position
The problems connected with believing that regeneration preceds faith are primarily biblical. Even Erickson, a moderate Calvinist who does not subscribe to the Reformed ordo, states, “It must be acknowledged that, from a logical standpoint, the usual Calvinistic position makes good sense. If we sinful humans are unable to believe and respond to God’s gospel without some special working of his within us, how can anyone, even the elect, believe unless first rendered capable of belief through regeneration? To say that conversion is prior to regeneration would seem to be a denial of total depravity.” Erickson and others, however, do oppose the Reformed ordo. Bruce Demarest, another moderate Calvinist, supports the opposite position that regeneration is initiated by faith, “God grants new spiritual life by virtue of the individual’s conscious decision to repent of sins and appropriate the provisions of Christ’s atonement.” Those who, like Erickson and Demarest, affirm this would even state that regeneration is entirely a work of God, and that man cannot, by nature, respond to the Gospel. Therefore, some initial, or preparatory, work of God is necessary to make man able to respond to the Gospel. Erickson and Demarest believe that this preparatory work is God’s effectual calling, not regeneration. In response to this calling, man initiates faith and conversion, and then he is regenerated.
In this scheme, the effectual calling can be likened to the Arminian understanding of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the way that Arminians can hold both to total depravity and human choice. Even they recognize that man, left in his natural condition, must be made alive in some sense in order to have the ability to respond to the Gospel. The only difference between Erickson and Demarest’s scheme is that the spiritual awakening brought about by the calling is always effectual whereas previenient grace is not.
Nevertheless, the reason why those Calvinists who stand with Erickson and Demarest as well as Arminians would stand opposed to the Reformed ordo is because certain Scriptures seem to suggest that faith is a necessary component for regeneration. Norman Geisler, in his book Chosen But Free, emphatically denounces the Reformed position stating, “As anyone familiar with Scripture can attest, verses allegedly supporting the contention that regeneration preceds faith are in short supply.” He then goes on, “It is the uniform pattern of Scripture to place faith logically prior to salvation as a condition for receiving it.” Among the passages he sites are:
(1) Rom. 5:1
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Faith is here stated to be the source of justification. But most Reformed theologians place justification after faith as well (see chart). They do not equate regeneration with justification. Geisler seems to have misunderstood the Reformed position at this point.
(2) Luke 13:3
“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
But this does not speak to the issue of regeneration. Geisler’s statement, “Here repentance is the condition for avoiding judgment,” would also be affirmed by those who hold the Reformed position, for they would state that repentance logically preceds justification which results in salvation. Therefore, this verse presents no conflict with the Reformed ordo. Again, Geisler seem to have misunderstood the Reformed position.
(3) 2 Peter 3:9
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
This, again, cannot be used to suggest either ordo. It is difficult to see why one would use such a verse to support their position. The verse could have as well stated, “God wills all to be regenerated.” This would not prove that regeneration comes before faith!
(4) John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
This verse does teach that belief in Christ is the instrumental act in salvation, but it says nothing about when the act of regeneration occurs in the process.
(5) Acts 16:31
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
The order here is presented as faith first, then salvation. An initial, unbiased reading of this verse would suggest to anyone that faith is a condition of salvation. Of all the verses put forth above, only the last presents some merit in suggesting that faith precedes salvation, but not regeneration. I will explain below.
Evaluation of the Reformed Position
If one is to adhere faithfully to the doctrine of total depravity, understanding that man is unable to come to God on his own, he or she must insist that there must be some initial act of God by which He enables a person to accept the Gospel in faith. The Reformed position explained in this study, in my view, is the most consistent and biblically defendable position. The option that God’s effectual calling is that which enables a person to come to faith and thereby be regenerated is attractive but difficult to substantiate. The Scriptures do not anywhere indicate that faith comes before regeneration. In fact, one may state that salvation in the general all-encompassing sense (predestination, atonement, calling, regeneration, faith, and justification) is completed after faith, and therefore remain faithful to the plain reading of the text that suggests faith is before regeneration. For he or she would not then be suggesting that faith is before regeneration, but that faith logically occurs before the savific process is complete. In other words, the word salvation would be used to describe the entire complete package with all of the ordo (excluding sanctification and glorification) included. This would be a good way to explain the last Scripture (Acts 16:31) stated above and remain consistent to the Reformed position.
But Scripture nowhere suggests that faith initiates regeneration in the restricted since. Grudem’s statement is helpful at this point:
“The reason that evangelicals often think that regeneration comes after saving faith is that they see the results . . . after people come to faith, and they think that regeneration must therefore have come after saving faith. Yet here we must decide on the basis of what Scripture tells us, because regeneration itself is not something we see or know about directly: ‘The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).”
Previously I mentioned my dilemma concerning God’s requirement of faith and nothing else for salvation. This study has helped me to get a better handle on the issues that are involved. I have come to the conclusion that I am in agreement with the Reformed camp concerning the ordo salutis. I believe that regeneration is a sovereign act of God by which He places a new life within a person so that the person naturally responds in faith. At the same time, I am not entirely dogmatic about this. I hope that as I continue to study Scripture, I will gain more insight.
Charles Wesley painted the picture beautifully of the Reformed ordo salutis in one stanza of the great hymn “And Can It Be.” (Though, I know, he was must certainly speaking about prevenient grace.)
Long my imprisoned spirit lay [alienation from God]
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night [total depravity].
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray: [regeneration (Reformed) or prevenient grace (Arminian)]
I woke—the dungeon flamed with light! [enlightening]
My chains fell off, my heart was free, [salvation]
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee. [faith]