So, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, alternatively, what comes first, man or God? It seems kinda stupid when one asks it in that fashion, but then again, when translating that into the way that God saves people, some seem to say that man comes first.
Whenever my family meets new people, we are of course curious whether they are Christians or not. Some turn out to be. At some of my children’s sports practices, I have seen people bring their Bibles to do some reading, and that of course leads to some conversations, and the swapping of church information. Having been to quite a few churches in the area, I always look at the websites to try and get a feel for the beliefs of the different churches that our new friends attend.
I was astounded last week to read this under the “What we believe” section of a local church:
We affirm that repentance from sin and faith toward God (Jesus Christ) results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit (becoming “born-again”).
This is the classic Arminian order of salvation, in which natural man retains the moral capability to recognize his own sin and turn from it, thereby enabling God to do His bit. For the sake of clarity, the complete Ordo Salutis of the Arminian looks like this: 1. outward gospel call 2. react to the gospel call with faith and is therefore elected on the basis of that foreseen faith, 3. repent from sin, 4. be regenerated by the Holy Spirit, 5. justification, 6. perseverance, 7. glorification
Clearly this boils down to the question, does faith precede or follow regeneration? The outcome of the ordo is justification, perserverance and sanctification, and glorification, and seems to be broadly similar between the Reformed and Arminian camps.
To answer this question, we need to know what regeneration is. Regeneration comes from the Greek paliggenesia which roughly means “a being born again”. Being born again in this sense is a change in our moral and spiritual nature, and therefore also needs to assume certain facts about human nature.
This spiritual rebirth is described as being “born of the Spirit”, “born of God”, “born again”. We see the necessity of the rebirth in John 3:
Joh 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Joh 3:4 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?”
Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Joh 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Joh 3:7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
Joh 3:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So then, on to the question posed by the beliefs of the local church, does rebirth by the Spirit follow or precede faith? Can one have faith without being reborn? Can the human will bring about the potential, the possibility for the Holy Spirit to bring about change? Or is it entirely a work of God, by His mercy and will? Is the gift of grace something merited by the faith of man, or is it by the will of God?
Scripture says this:
Jam 1:18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
1Pe 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
We were brought according to God’s will, and are born again through His mercy. But the clearest indication of how the rebirth works in the fallen nature of man is here:
Eze 36:26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Eze 36:27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Man has a heart of stone, and through the work of the Spirit, man is given a new heart, the very seat of man’s nature and morality throughout the Bible.
In conclusion, man cannot be drawn to God, cannot have faith in God, unless God has granted him the gift of faith:
1Co 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Col 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
Joh 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
Joh 6:65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Our new friends seem to think that their own will and nature can be the cause of the Holy Spirit working in them. It is pretty arrogant to think that man can choose God so that God must choose him. Because if man has faith, then what option does he leave God? If human faith is the starting point, then God must surely be obliged to follow?
Fortunately for us, our salvation is not built on the weak and fussy whims of human will, but on the unchanging and omnipotent mercy and purpose of God. Rebirth is a dramatic and complete change, it is a completely new spiritual being as a result. If faith was present before, why would such an encompassing change be needed?
God saves us by His mercy and grace, not because of our own efforts. We humbly accept and praise His grace, and stand justified before Him because He willed it so.