Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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