(All Scripture references are from the CSB.)
“Regeneration precedes faith!”
This statement has become a popular slogan among some contemporary Calvinist Christians. It summarizes the theological view that before anyone is able to put their faith in Jesus for salvation, they have to have already been spiritually born again (or regenerated) by a prior work of God within them. Then, and only then, are they capable of exercising faith.
Those who teach that regeneration precedes faith do so because of passages like Ephesians 2:1-10, where Paul says that we were dead in sin until God made us alive and saved us by his grace. The assumption is that because everyone starts off spiritually dead (with a very specific understanding of “dead” assumed), Christians were unable to exercise saving faith until after God caused them to be born again as spiritually-living beings.
But it turns out there are some very major problems with this view. Not only does it go against what the Bible actually teaches, but it is also a very recent idea that was not accepted or taught throughout most of church history — not even by most Calvinists, including John Calvin himself!
I’ll explain all this below. But at the start, let me just say to everyone reading this that if you personally lean more Calvinistic, this post is not intended as a tearing-down of Calvinism in general. Please keep in mind from the outset what I just wrote: most Calvinists throughout history have not taught or believed that “regeneration precedes faith!” It’s actually important for you to know that this doctrine is not essential for a Calvinist theological system. And, as I will seek to show below, it is also not biblical.
First we’ll examine the biblical passages often put forward to argue that regeneration precedes faith and show why they actually teach the opposite. Then I’ll briefly mention the curious case of where this doctrine came from historically.
For a systematic treatment of this topic by two modern Calvinists who conclude that regeneration does NOT precede faith, see Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 264-65, and Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., 944-59. For much of the below, I’m indebted to the discussion in David Allen, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” JBTM 11:2 (Fall 2014).
Biblical Support for the Doctrine?
First, we must look at the key passages of Scripture that are frequently cited to support the idea that regeneration precedes faith. These typically include Ezek 36:25-27; John 1:11-13; John 3:3-8; 6:39, 44, 63-65; Rom 9:16; Eph 2:1-10; and 1 John 5:1.
I’ll look at each in turn and show how they actually don’t support the notion that regeneration precedes belief.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 — I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.
Because this passage talks about God giving the Israelites a new heart and a new spirit without any mention of their involvement, some assume that it thereby denies human involvement. But that doesn’t logically follow. As others have pointed out, “In order for this passage to fit the bill, it must teach that God gives one a new heart and fills that person with His Spirit unconditionally. The text does not teach that. It is a mistake to assume that whenever a condition is not stated it therefore means that the actions being described take place unconditionally.” (Ben Henshaw, “Is the “New Heart” of Ezekiel 36:26-27 a Reference to Regeneration Preceding Faith?”).
Ezekiel 36 is describing the new covenant, which Jesus inaugurated. The NT makes clear that entrance into that new covenant is conditioned upon faith in Christ (Rom 3:23-28). It also explicitly teaches that cleansing from sin and justification are results of faith and conversion; they do not occur prior (Acts 3:19; Rom 6:22). The promise of a new heart is also conditioned upon prior faith (Acts 15:8-9). Thus, by the analogy of faith, we see that later Scripture makes clear that the cleansing and renewal Ezekiel describes is not an unconditional regeneration apart from the condition of faith.
John 1:11-13 — He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.
These verses say that those who receive Christ and believe in his name become children of God and are born of God. Those who say that regeneration precedes faith make a big deal about the contrast between being born by “the will of man” vs. by “the will of God,” but John is not making a point about human inability. He’s making a point about the privilege of being adopted by God rather than being the object of a human father’s plans. There’s nothing said here about rebirth taking place before belief. Even serious Calvinist scholars like D. A. Carson don’t use this text to support the idea of regeneration preceding faith. At most, it simply reveals that the right to be born of God is clearly tied to whether one receives Jesus by faith or not.
John 3:3-8 — Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus here tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. But just because a person’s final salvation must involve regeneration, nothing about this text implies that regeneration must precede faith. The rest of the NT makes the order clear: 1) Faith — 2) Rebirth — 3) Seeing the kingdom (final glorification). In the rest of the chapter Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus that belief is the necessary condition for receiving eternal life (3:12-18).
1 John 5:1 — Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves the one born of him.
Those who use this verse to argue that regeneration precedes faith will point out the verb tenses: “Everyone who believes” is present tense, while “has been born of God” is perfect tense. They then deduce from this that being reborn precedes faith.
Two problems with that. First of all, we only need to look a few verses down, to 1 John 5:10, for a verse that has the exact same grammatical structure but clearly describes a result, not a cause, with the perfect-tense verb: “The one who does not believe has made God a liar.” They aren’t unbelieving because they’ve made God out to be a liar; they’ve made God out to be a liar because they didn’t believe in Jesus.
Secondly, John’s letter overall is concerned not with the initial exercise of faith in conversion, but with an ongoing life of faith that proves one’s profession of being a Christian. In that context, 1 John 5:1 is saying that present, ongoing belief proves one really has been converted. That’s the point of the verse in its context. It has nothing to suggest that regeneration precedes faith.
John 6:37-40, 44-47, 63-65 — “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out…. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. Truly I tell you, anyone who believes has eternal life…. The Spirit is the one who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who don’t believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning those who did not believe and the one who would betray him.) He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father.”
I’ve addressed this passage at length in a previous post, but suffice it to say that the Father’s action of “drawing” people to Christ is not the same thing as regeneration. Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike are agreed that people must be drawn to Christ by God’s grace before they can believe. Where we differ is in our interpretation of who is drawn and how it works. To the Calvinist, only those who are unconditionally elected are drawn, and they cannot resist. For the non-Calvinist, God draws all people through the Spirit and the preaching of his word (see 6:45, 63; 12:32) and those who respond in faith to this prevenient grace are saved; it’s resistible. Either way, John 6 does not refer at all to regeneration. Drawing is a separate activity.
Romans 9:16 — So then, it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.
Neither this verse nor its immediate context in Romans 9 directly addresses the topic of regeneration, yet it is still often appealed to in this debate. Why? Because essentially it seems to rule out any role for human will or decision-making in the conversion process, requiring us to view it as solely God’s action. But even so, Rom 9:16 has nothing to tell us about the order of regeneration and faith. Even if you choose to read Rom 9-11 as supporting unconditional, individual election, it says nothing about the mechanics of how God saves individuals and in what order the events take place.
Besides, I and many other interpreters see the overall context of Rom 9-11 as in fact stressing the idea of conditionality in election. In the flow of Paul’s argument, what is really being addressed here is the potential issue Jewish readers would have with him saying that justification is by faith and not by being part of ethnic Israel. This would seem to make God unjust, if he had promised the nation of Israel the blessing but then “changed the terms” to make it not about ethnicity but about faith in Jesus. Paul basically says, “No, you can’t argue that God is unjust here, because it’s never been just based on ethnicity, and you can’t question his right to set the terms.”
So Paul’s whole point here is not that God can save whatever individuals he chooses, but that he can set whatever condition he chooses (in this case, faith in the gospel of Christ, as 9:30-11:24 goes on to make abundantly clear!). It’s not that human choice plays no role in conversion; it’s that God’s decision regarding the criteria for receiving mercy is fully up to him, not us.
Ephesians 2:1-10 — And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
This is often the linchpin that supporters of the regeneration-precedes-faith doctrine hang their hats on. The claim boils down to something like this: “See?! We were dead and God made us alive. We were corpses. A corpse can’t exercise faith — a corpse can’t do anything! God has to make us alive before we can believe! Regeneration precedes faith!”
Too bad it’s not nearly that simple, despite claims that this is “the plain meaning of the text.” It is correct that regeneration takes place “when we were dead.” But this in itself does not prove that regeneration precedes faith. Those who want to interpret it that way must assume their pre-existing definition of spiritual death and read it into the passage. They assume that when the Bible speaks of spiritual death, it’s identical with physical death (i.e., the complete inability of a corpse), rather than looking at how Scripture explains the “spiritual death” metaphor.
It turns out that the regeneration-first reading is pressing the “death” metaphor too far. When Paul speaks of spiritual death, it is not equivalent to the total inability of a physical corpse; rather, it refers to the condition of being alienated from God and condemned to die. Notice how “death” is paralleled with “condemnation” in Rom 5:16-21. Also notice that when Adam and Eve first sinned in Genesis 3, they didn’t immediately drop dead, nor were they completely cut off from interacting with God. Rather, they were immediately condemned to die and exiled from access to the tree of life. This is what spiritual death is — standing under the sentence of condemnation and alienation from the hope of eternal life.
If you take a look at Romans 6:1-11, you’ll see this metaphorical use of “death” continued, but not as total inability. Paul says believers have “died to sin,” but it’s clear believers can still choose to sin. Death in this sense is a metaphor for being separated from under sin’s authority. It doesn’t mean we have a total inability to go back to sin.
Likewise in Eph 2:1-10 — spiritual death is alienation from God, but that doesn’t mean unbelievers have no ability to respond to God’s grace. The rest of Scripture makes clear that the Holy Spirit’s drawing and the preaching of the gospel actively communicate preemptive grace from God to which unbelievers can respond in faith (John 16:8; Rom 10:8-17). There are examples in Scripture of “spiritually-dead,” unregenerate people responding to God’s grace and seeking him prior to believing the gospel (Nicodemus in John 3; Cornelius in Acts 10).
To interpret Eph 2:1-10 rightly, a quick look at the parallel passage in Colossians 2:12-13 is also useful. There Paul says that believers are raised from spiritual death “through faith.” Faith is the instrumental cause through which people are raised. Logically, an instrumental cause necessarily precedes its effect. Therefore, faith precedes regeneration. (Allen, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” 45.)
Paul gets to this in Eph 2:8 — salvation (which includes regeneration) is through faith, not to faith. In Eph 2:5, Paul equates “saved by grace” with being “made alive,” and since we’re saved by grace “through faith,” it is clear we are also “made alive” or regenerated on the basis of faith — not the reverse. Ephesians 2:1-10 does NOT support the idea that regeneration precedes faith.
Biblical verses that clearly contradict the notion that regeneration precedes faith:
Aside from disproving the regeneration-first reading of the above passages, there are multiple statements in the NT that explicitly state just the opposite — that faith precedes regeneration and is the necessary condition for it.
1) In John 12:36, Jesus tells his listeners to “believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is as unmistakable as it gets. Jesus himself says the order is 1) Believe, then 2) Become sons of light (regeneration).
2) In Galatians 3:2 Paul implies that his readers received the Holy Spirit by hearing with faith. But if the Holy Spirit wasn’t in them until after they exercised faith, then how were they regenerated prior to faith? Who regenerated them — someone besides the Holy Spirit?? Acts 2:38 is likewise explicit — Peter tells his listeners they must repent in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
3) According to Colossians 2:12, faith is the instrumental cause through which believers were “raised” from spiritual “death.” Faith is the cause; regeneration from death is the effect. Logically, an instrumental cause necessarily precedes its effect. Therefore, faith precedes regeneration.
4) Romans 10:9-10 explicitly states that righteousness is a result of belief/faith. It comes after. So if regeneration precedes faith, this would mean that God causes people to be born again as an unrighteous new creation prior to them exercising faith and then becoming righteous. But that seems rather nonsensical. Does God create unrighteousness? But if faith precedes regeneration and conversion and justification (as the Bible actually teaches), there is no problem. Once the condition of faith is met, God regenerates the believer and incorporates them into Christ so that they share his righteousness.
5) In Luke 8:12 Jesus teaches that the devil tries to prevent the word/gospel from taking root in people’s hearts, so that they will not “believe and be saved.” Salvation is the result of belief.
6) In Acts 11:18, the Jewish Christians explicitly describe repentance as leading to, or resulting in, spiritual life (aka regeneration). Conversion first, rebirth second. And when they say here that God has “granted repentance leading to life” to the Gentiles, we should understand it as an idiom for “has given them the opportunity to repent and be saved,” since it’s a way of stressing God’s graciousness in the matter rather than stressing meticulous determinism (so also in 2 Tim 2:25).
So, putting all this together, the Scriptures are clear: We are saved “by grace through faith,” not “by grace to faith.” Faith precedes regeneration. Let no one deceive you otherwise.
So Where Did This Doctrine Come From?
Not only is the Bible against it, but church history also stands against the false notion of regeneration preceding faith.
Prior to the Reformation, no one saw this idea taught in Scripture. Even after the Reformation, it was the view of only a small minority. None of the major classical theologians taught it — neither Augustine, nor the early church councils, nor Aquinas. Not even such figureheads of Calvinism as Calvin himself, Beza, Edwards, or Spurgeon taught it! (See Allen, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” 48-51.)
So why did this doctrine arise? According to David Allen, it rose to popularity among more recent Reformed theologians in order to advocate infant baptism. So that they could consider that babies of Christian parents could be regenerate apart from the preaching of the Word, modern teachers like W. G. T. Shedd, Louis Berkhof, and R. C. Sproul developed the doctrine. And while infant baptism has a long pedigree in the history of the church, traditional understandings of the relationship between regeneration and infant baptism is a bit more complex (probably worthy of a separate post). In any case, the early church did not seem to feel a need to explain it by recourse to a doctrine of regeneration always preceding and causing faith.
In sum, the idea that regeneration precedes faith does not come from the clear exegesis of Scripture, nor is it accepted Christian tradition. Rather, it is read into Scripture by a small minority of extreme Calvinists who want the Bible to support their system.
So, here’s the takeaway. If you’re a Calvinist, you could still argue that individual election and an effectual calling precede both faith and regeneration. You can argue from verses like Rom 8:28-30 or 1 Cor 1:26-31 that God effectually and irresistibly calls those whom he has unconditionally elected, and that the effectual call produces faith within the elect so that they can then be saved/regenerated. In that sense, God would still be granting the elect their faith. Non-Calvinists will debate that interpretation and deny the notion of an irresistible call, but you’d at least have a case to present. But don’t say the Bible teaches that regeneration precedes faith. It doesn’t.
If you’re not a Calvinist, don’t let anyone confuse you by throwing a bunch of verses around out of context and trying to say that regeneration precedes faith. Christians can still affirm the reality of spiritual death and our inability to save ourselves without thereby having to deny any human moral agency in salvation.
And for all of us, remember that one thing we can all agree on is that salvation is by God’s grace through faith. Keep in mind that we are all simply trying to make sense out of how it is that God’s grace saves us, and how it “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
See you down the path.