Does Regeneration Precede Faith? | John Calvin

The question at hand of which comes first, regeneration or faith, is full of obvious assumptions. If our faith precedes our regeneration, then it might be quite easily assumed that salvation is a synergistic work by which we extend a hand of desperation to God and He, in turn, rescued us. And if our regeneration precedes our faith, we may conclude that apart from God granting us a new heart and raising us to life we could never believe in Christ in the first place. Faith-then-regeneration, therefore, seems to emphasize our act of believing in God, while regeneration-then-faith seems to highlight nothing but grace. It should also come as no surprise that former is typically associated with Arminianism and the latter with Calvinism.

Yet we should also address an easy misunderstanding with the faith-then-regeneration thought. Care should be given not to make an immediate association with Pelagianism or Semipelagianism, which both teach that we must begin our own salvation by reaching out to God. Both beliefs were condemned as heretical, since they essentially make God little more than a supporting player in our salvation. To say that faith precedes regeneration, however, does not necessitate that we initiate salvation, so long as it is conceded that God’s grace enables our saving faith, which then results in regeneration. God as the Giver and Initiator is the key element. If He Himself grants the faith to believe in Him, then salvation is by God’s grace and not our works (even our faith).

I would certainly argue that it is much easier to misconstrue grace’s role in faith-then-regeneration than in regeneration-then-faith, which is why I would rather use the language of the latter than the former. Yet I do think there is value in the notion that regeneration precedes faith logically, not temporally. This idea posits that faith and regeneration occur simultaneously in time, but according to the logical working, regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration results in faith, but both occur in the same moment in the believer. The idea is that both are so intrinsically bound to one another that any separation would be ridiculous. Can anyone have faith without also being regenerate (even for a moment), or can anyone, even temporarily, be regenerate without also having faith? So it is concluded that they both occur together, even though faith is reasoned to flow from regeneration.

Even though I’ve already revealed my leanings toward regeneration-then-faith, what exactly are my personal views on the matter? Rather than answer an either/or question with a yes, as I have done on occasion, I will allow Calvin to provide that very answer for me from his commentary on John 1:13 (you will notice that he ultimately reminds us that however God chooses to save us, we are saved by grace alone in Christ):

The will of the flesh and the will of man appear to me to mean the same thing; for I see no reason why flesh should be supposed to signify woman, as Augustine and many others explain it. On the contrary, the Evangelist repeats the same thing in a variety of words, in order to explain it more fully, and impress it more deeply on the minds of men. Though he refers directly to the Jews, who gloried in the flesh, yet from this passage a general doctrine may be obtained: that our being reckoned the sons of God does not belong to our nature, and does not proceed from us, but because God begat us willingly, (James 1:18,) that is, from undeserved love. Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God.

It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later. I reply, that both statements perfectly agree; because by faith we receive the incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23,) by which we are born again to a new and divine life. And yet faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in none but the children of God. So then, in various respects, faith is a part of our regeneration, and an entrance into the kingdom of God, that he may reckon us among his children. The illumination of our minds by the Holy Spirit belongs to our renewal, and thus faith flows from regeneration as from its source; but since it is by the same faith that we receive Christ, who sanctifies us by his Spirit, on that account it is said to be the beginning of our adoption.

Another solution, still more plain and easy, may be offered; for when the Lord breathes faith into us, he regenerates us by some method that is hidden and unknown to us; but after we have received faith, we perceive, by a lively feeling of conscience, not only the grace of adoption, but also newness of life and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. For since faith, as we have said, receives Christ, it puts us in possession, so to speak, of all his blessings. Thus so far as respects our sense, it is only after having believed — that we begin to be the sons of God. But if the inheritance of eternal life is the fruit of adoption, we see how the Evangelist ascribes the whole of our salvation to the grace of Christ alone; and, indeed, how closely soever men examine themselves, they will find nothing that is worthy of the children of God, except what Christ has bestowed on them.

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