Bad theology has bad consequences for living. One particular area that some Reformed people struggle with is regeneration. Some Reformed believers, especially in the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, have been led to think of regeneration (or being born again) in only one way. They have been led to believe that you need to be born again every day. Regeneration is something that takes place over and over again in the life of a Christian. Rather than an event that takes place once, they view it as an ongoing daily process.
I have addressed this confusion in an earlier blog post. I pointed out that the confusion mostly arises from overlapping language in our confessions. Nevertheless, Scripture and the Reformed confessions are clear that there is an initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus was describing to Nicodemus in John 3. This is what Peter was writing about in 1 Peter 1: “since you have been born again…” This is what the Canons of Dort are speaking about in chapter III/IV. In these places, regeneration (being born again) is a one-time event where the Holy Spirit miraculously takes a heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh.
The problem comes when that initial regeneration is confused with sanctification. Lord’s Day 33 speaks about the “true repentance or conversion of man” and describes it in terms of “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.” That is about sanctification, the process whereby a Christian grows in holiness. You can see that it’s a process from the words: dying and coming to life. The important point is that Lord’s Day 33 is speaking about something distinct from John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23, and Canons of Dort III/IV.
If these things are not kept distinct, one runs into serious theological fog on human responsibility and activity. Let me explain. When it comes to regeneration, there is a Subject and an object. There is One who acts and one who is acted upon. There is One who is active and one who is passive. The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for bringing a dead sinner to spiritual life. The dead sinner does exactly nothing. He or she is completely passive in regeneration. You don’t cause your new spiritual birth anymore than you caused your physical birth. You were born, you didn’t birth yourself. Similarly, in regeneration, the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing. As dead sinners, that is all we can do.
Regeneration always has an effect upon the object. The dead sinner comes to life. The unbeliever becomes a believer. He or she takes hold of Jesus Christ through faith, also worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit. Having taken hold of Christ by faith, there is justification. A believer is declared righteous by God. The person so declared no longer relates to God as their Judge, but as their Father. They are in his family as beloved children and nothing and no one can change that. Your justification and adoption are not renewed every day in some type of process. If God has once declared you righteous and his child, then you are forever righteous and his child. Through Christ, we are secure.
This is the context where we consider the process of sanctification. If we look at it in terms of Lord’s Day 32, it’s clear that sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us. He renews us by his Holy Spirit. However, even there, we are involved. We are the ones who “show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits.” This becomes clearer in Lord’s Day 33. The dying of the old nature is something that we do: “It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow” — who does the grieving? “…And more and more to hate it and flee from it” — who does the hating and fleeing? Obviously, this is referring to the activity of a Christian. The coming to life of the new nature is also something that we do: “It is a heartfelt joy in Christ” — who has this joy? “…And a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” — who does the loving, delighting, and living? This is speaking about how a Christian is active in their sanctification. There’s zero passivity here.
Are you beginning to see the problem if we merge together initial regeneration and sanctification? In the first, human beings are completely passive. In the second, human beings are involved and active on a daily basis. God is still at work, but we work with him, in his power and by his grace. When these things get muddled what happens more often than not is that people believe themselves to be passive in terms of their sanctification. This leads to fatalism. People say to themselves, “When God wants to change me, he’ll do it. I have to wait for him to do it. My holiness is not up to me. I’ll just sit back and wait for him to do his thing.” This is the type of thinking that people can fall into when they hear that being born again is something that has to happen every day. If being born again is the same thing as what’s described in Lord’s Day 33, and if being born again is something that is done to you apart from your involvement, then your sanctification must necessarily be something in which you are completely passive. That is really bad theological reasoning! It gives people excuses to continue in sinful habits and patterns of life.
We need to be clear about this, because it does have an impact on how we live. Theology has consequences. This is the reality: if you have taken hold of Jesus Christ by true faith, you can be sure that you have been born again (to use the words of 1 Peter 1:23). Having been born again, the Holy Spirit lives in you and he empowers you each day to pursue holiness. Since the Holy Spirit has given you a heart of flesh, your will, which was dead, has been made alive. Moved and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, your will is “able to produce the fruit of good works” (Canons III/IV, art. 11). By God’s grace, we have gone from utter passivity to fervent activity. True, it comes in fits and starts, it’s still stained with sin and plagued with inconsistency, but yet there is no denying that something has changed with a Christian. In Christ, we are a new creation. Thus, when it comes to our sanctification, we also must put to death all notions of passivity.