The Convicting Work of the Spirit in Faith Preceding Regeneration

"Besides," writes Jacob Arminius (1559-1609), "even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken ... For Christ becomes ours by faith, and we are ingrafted into Christ, are made members of His body." We are not saved by grace to faith, as in Calvinism, but by grace through faith, as Scripture teaches (Eph. 2:8). Arminius concludes:
[B]eing thus planted with Him [by grace through faith in Him, being rightly related to the Father in the Son through the work and agency of the Holy Spirit], we ... are united together, that we may draw from Him the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, by which power the old man is mortified and we rise again into a new life."1 
This has been the view on the matter of the relationship between faith and regeneration or salvation since the era of the apostles and their successors. Never has the notion that regeneration must precede faith been accepted as orthodox among the early Church fathers. Regardless, how do we know that faith precedes (occurs prior to) regeneration (or being born again)?

We believe that Scripture informs us that faith is required prior to God's sole act of regeneration. This faith, however, is not a work (Rom. 4:4, 5), nor is this faith what is called "blind faith," for faith is, by its very nature, a response to the gracious activity of the Holy Spirit. Because of our fallen nature, or our total (and not utter) depravity, and because of our total inability to first seek Christ, the Holy Spirit must "prove the world wrong about sin" (John 16:8 NRSV); the word "prove" in Greek, ἐλέγξει, referring to convincing with compelling evidence: expose, rebuke, show. (link)

He works in the hearts and minds of unregenerate sinners, not in order to regenerate a person monergistically, but to excite a faith-response. If the Spirit of God were to merely regenerate a person monergistically, granting such a one faith (whatever that means) His convicting work would appear as entirely gratuitous. One does not convict the already regenerated individual of his or her sins in order to lead one to faith; conviction is intended to lead one to an act of repentance and a response of faith in Christ for salvation (Rom. 2:4). 

Incidentally, there is no "neutral state" in the Arminian system, whereby the Holy Spirit delivers one from his or her bondage to sin, bringing such a one to a "neutral state," in order for the person to freely choose Christ. A person is enabled to freely respond to grace and thus choose Christ from an unregenerate state.

Regeneration is just one element within the framework of salvation. Other elements include justification, sanctification, redemption (and being forgiven of sins), adoption, union with Christ, being made a co-heir with Christ, and receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit, to name a few. Hence for Calvinists to ask, "If regeneration is not for the bestowal of faith in Christ, then what is it for?" is telling: they have 1) restricted the act of regeneration merely to a bestowal of faith; 2) deconstructed regeneration merely to a monergistic response and act of God to His own prior eternal decree to unconditionally save one person and not another; and 3) entirely detached regeneration from the other elements of salvation named above. 

In other words, "what regeneration is for" can be answered thusly: God's act of regeneration is His response and sole act to our response of faith -- in itself a response to His prior work of grace by the convincing attestations of the Holy Spirit -- an act which is directly related to our being justified, sanctified, redeemed (and being forgiven of sins), adopted as a child of God, being united with Christ, being made a co-heir with Christ, and receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit. While faith does not cause regeneration, the response of faith, which is in itself a response to God's prior work of grace through the Spirit, is the condition upon which God's gracious work of regeneration is grounded. Is this supported biblically?

If faith is the condition by which God regenerates and thus saves an individual (cf. Titus 3:5, He saved us ... by the washing of regeneration) then faith precedes regeneration (Jn. 1:12; 3:16, 18, 36; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:22, 28; 4:1-25; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:1-18; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Jn. 5:13). Again, Calvinists would have us believe that we are saved to faith, not through faith, as Scripture explicitly teaches (Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8). While we must be enabled, granted or graced, to respond with faith (cf. Phil. 1:29), we are the ones who respond with faith, in that, God does not respond with faith for us, nor does He "plant faith in the heart," since faith is not a substance but a response to His grace.

F. Leroy Forlines notes: "There are also places where repentance ... is mentioned as the condition of salvation (Lk. 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 6:6; and 2 Pet. 3:9)."2 He qualifies that statement by quoting three passages of Scripture which bear this truth (Mk. 1:15; Acts 20:21; Heb. 6:1). We believe that faith and repentance are merely two aspects of one truth. Where faith is present, repentance or a turning away from sin and unto Christ is also present. We know from Scripture that God's grace is "meant to lead you to repentance." (Rom. 2:4) What the text does not teach us is that regeneration is the cause of faith and repentance.

In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul reminds the believers: "And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses." (Col. 2:13 NKJV, emphases added) The chronology of the events of regeneration are granted here: God made alive, together with Christ, those whom He, beforehand, forgave of their sins. Again, we are forgiven of our sins by grace through faith in Christ first, and then we are made alive, or regenerated, in Christ.

Jesus emphatically states that a person must first receive Him, believe in His name, before one can be granted the privilege of becoming a child of God, which occurs at regeneration (John 1:12, 13). Such believers (those who have faith in Christ) are born not by the will or power inherent within themselves but by the will and power of God (John 1:13).

The apostle St John emphatically states: "Everyone who believes," believes being a present active participle (i.e., the one continually believing), "that Jesus is the Christ has been," has been being a perfect passive indicative (or is; cf. ASV, Darby, Geneva Bible, Douay-Rheims, KJV, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, RSV, Wycliffe), "born of God" (1 John 5:1). This is merely an obvious statement: Those who are believing that Jesus is the Christ are also born again (regenerated) children of God; and those who love Him also love His children.



To suggest, however, that the apostle is here attempting to teach the notion that regeneration must precede faith betrays not only the Greek tenses, obliging them to support a preconceived notion, but also authorial intent. Calvinist James White, appealing also to 1 John 2:29 by way of parallel to 1 John 5:1, would have us think that the apostle was teaching this very notion that regeneration must precede faith (regardless of context):
Every consistent Protestant would say, "the reason one practices righteousness [noted at 1 John 2:29] is because they have already been born of Him. We do not practice righteousness so as to be born, but instead the birth gives rise to the practice of righteousness." And such is quite true. But, this means that in 1 John 5:1 the belief in Jesus Christ is the result of being born of Him. The verbal parallel is exact: in 1 John 2:29 "the one practicing righteousness" is a present participle; in 1 John 5:1 "the one believing" is a present participle. In both passages the exact same form is used … Therefore, sheer consistency leads one to the conclusion that divine birth precedes and is the grounds of both faith in Christ as well as good works.3
While White is correct regarding the grammar, he is very conveniently neglecting to read and to interpret it properly, erroneously making a grammatical mountain out of a mere mole hill, if that. Tragically, taking the time to unpack and debunk Calvinistic errors on this subject is unfortunate, as such clouds the doctrine in negativity from our perspective. Not merely refuting Calvinistic errors, we must also present the positive aspect of the subject. I will approach these two verses positively.

At 1 John 2:29 we learn that those who are continually practicing righteousness (present active participle) manifest that they have been regenerated or are now regenerate (perfect passive indicative); while at 1 John 5:1 we learn that those who are continually believing (present active participle) manifest that they have been regenerated or are now regenerate (perfect passive indicative). But who could deny that those practicing righteousness and believing in Christ have not been regenerated? Of course such people have been regenerated and are now regenerate! But to insist that regeneration was the primary cause of their righteous acts, or their faith, and that therefore regeneration precedes faith, is to miss St John's point entirely.

Look at the context of both passages. At 1 John 2, the apostle warns against false teachers or antichrists (1 John 2:18-26), assuring believers that they have an indwelling "anointing," namely, the Holy Spirit, and He teaches us the truth as it is in Christ (1 John 2:27). So he encourages us to abide in Christ, so that we will not be ashamed when He returns (1 John 2:28). He then grants us insight as to who is and who is not a child of God: the one who practices righteousness is the one who has been born of God and is a child of God (1 John 2:29). This is all he was conveying.

At 1 John 4, the apostle informs us that God is love (1 John 4:8), and that "those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." (1 John 4:16) Hence if someone claims to love God, but hates a brother or sister in Christ, that person is a liar. (1 John 4:20) We have been commanded to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. (1 John 4:21) He continues that thought by insisting that those who are believing in Christ have been born of God, and therefore whoever loves the child of God also demonstrates that he or she loves God. (1 John 5:1) This is all he was conveying.

Moreover, he continues, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments." (1 John 5:2, 3) Desiring to teach us about recognizing true believers, and that such demonstrate love for both God and their brothers and sisters, was all he was conveying. To suggest any more than this is speculative at best and agonizingly deceptive at worst. Besides which, there are other places throughout the Christian scriptures where the perfect passive indicative is used and is not the primary cause of any said prior action: cf. Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26; James 3:7. So White is abusing the Greek tenses to his own presuppositional advantage.

At James 3:7, for example, what would the perfect passive indicative have caused in any prior action? "For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be [is] tamed and has been tamed by the human species ..." If we use James White's Calvinistic method of interpretation, the perfect passive indicative has been tamed must be the direct cause of the mere existence of every species of beast, bird, reptile and sea creature. If the perfect passive indicative of 1 John 5:1 is the direct cause of the prior action of believing, thus forcing a concept that regeneration precedes faith, then the perfect passive indicative of James 3:7 must be the direct cause of some prior action regarding animals -- perhaps their existence. This would be "sheer consistency," as White himself claims, even though it is absolutely absurd.

Here is the crux of this debate: Calvinists do not need a theory of regeneration preceding faith in order to substantiate Calvinism. In Calvinistic philosophy, God would still be capable of bringing His alleged unconditionally elect to Himself, through Christ, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit changing a person's mind about sin, righteousness, and judgment; such a one would, on that account, believe in Christ by His work, and then God would, by the act of the Holy Spirit, regenerate the person. To labor so diligently to the point of strenuously bending authorial intent and abusing Greek grammar and tenses in order to support this gratuitous theory is entirely unnecessary.

What a fallen and depraved individual needs in order to believe and thus be regenerated by the Spirit of God is not regeneration itself, or what Calvinists refer to as particular, efficacious, or irresistible grace, so we Arminians argue, but sufficient grace. Since a person is saved by grace through faith in Christ (Acts 2:21; 4:12; 11:14; 14:22, 27; 15:9, 11; 16:30, 31; 20:21; 26:18; Rom. 1:5, 16, 17; 3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30; 4:5, 9, 11, 12, 16, 22; 5:9, 10; 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Eph. 2:5, 8, 2 Thess. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 3:5; Heb. 10:39), and since salvation itself is interrelated with God's act of regeneration (Titus 3:5), then in order to be regenerated and thus saved one must first place his or her faith in Christ. Hence faith precedes regeneration.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Dissertation on the True and Genuine Sense of the Seventh Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:498.

2 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. Matthew J. Pinson (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 251.

3 James White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen but Free (Amityville: Calvary Press, 2000), 288.