The Potter's Freedom: Irresistible Grace as Regeneration

Chapter twelve of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "Irresistible Grace is Resurrection Power," in which he expounds upon a theory he has already briefly addressed: regeneration precedes faith. He continues the same theme in the fourteenth chapter, "Irresistible Grace." The comments, "exegesis," and arguments made in the fourteenth chapter need to be addressed in another (and following) post. There is too much information proffered to address both chapters here in this response.

Beginning with a quote from Calvinist Charles Spurgeon, White begins, "The doctrine of irresistible grace is easily understood. Once we understand the condition of man in sin, that he is dead, enslaved to a corrupt nature, incapable of doing what is pleasing to God, we can fully understand the simple assertion that God must raise the dead sinner to life." (283) He explains that irresistible grace refers to that one idea: "God raises dead sinners to life." (284) God must, in the Calvinistic scheme, perform the act of regeneration in order for a person to believe in Christ. Thus a person must be saved to faith, and not through faith, as Scripture explicitly states (Eph. 2:5, 8).

I make that biblical argument because the act of regeneration is noted as a saving act in Scripture: "he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." (Titus 3:5, emphasis added) How does God save a person? By the act of regeneration. In Calvinism, someone must first be saved before one can have faith. Thus the one who believes in Christ has already been saved, which is a complete reversal of the biblical data on the matter.

Now, if Scripture actually taught us the Calvinistic concept, Arminians would believe the same. But we disagree with the philosophy of the Calvinist here and see in Scripture the exact contrary position. For example, let us examine closely some passages which mention this very subject. At Colossians 2:13, we find one of the most explicit references to the fact that faith precedes regeneration in all the Christian scriptures: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses." (Col. 2:13 ESV) The Greek phrase νεκροὺς (accusative plural masculine) ὄντας (a present participle) is, lit., being dead. St Paul begins his explanation of our redemption in terms of our present state: that of being dead in sins, separated from the life of God, and a right relationship with Him (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:32; Eph. 2:1, 2, 3, 12). This is what being dead is referring to: a separation from God, from His spiritual life, and from our once-spiritual relationship to and with Him -- not "dead as a corpse."

Note that while being in this state -- "dead" in transgressions and an unregenerate nature (the "uncircumcision of your flesh") -- God συνεζωοποίησεν, made you all (plural) alive, together with Christ (a resurrection new-life), having forgiven, χαρισάμενος (aorist middle deponent participle), all of us our transgressions. Are White and Calvinists suggesting that God regenerates and thus saves a person not only apart from initial faith in Christ, contrary to the teaching of Scripture (cf. 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; and 1 Jn. 5:13), but also apart from initial forgiveness of our sins, contrary to the teaching of Scripture (Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 26:18; Eph. 1:7; 4:32; 1 John 2:2)? Do they expect us to believe that God regenerates and thus saves a person in order to give that person faith -- to believe in Christ -- and then to forgive the person of sins? If so, then the answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30, 31) is "Nothing: God will regenerate and save His alleged unconditionally elect in His own time. You must wait for that occurrence in order to be saved; and if you are one of the unconditionally elect, you will believe in Christ in God's timing."

Thankfully, we know from Scripture that this concept of Calvinism is false. In order to be forgiven of one's sins, one must first trust (have faith, believe) in Jesus Christ. Because of our fallen condition, God understands that we cannot, in and of ourselves, believe on Christ. Thus the ministry of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:8-11). God must enable us to freely believe in Christ (cf. Phil. 1:29). If we believe in Jesus Christ, He will grant us authority to become a child of God (John 1:12), having forgiven us our sins (Col. 2:13), both of which God performs and then regenerates us (Titus 3:5). Faith, then, clearly precedes regeneration.

Classical Arminians believe in the total depravity and total inability of sinners. Such was demonstrated in the third and fourth posts in response to White's third and fourth chapters. We also believe that, due to our fallen and depraved state, the "deadness" to which White and other Calvinists refer, an action on the part of God must occur if one is to believe on Christ for salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification and ultimate glorification.

In this "dead" state, White admits that the sinner remains quite "active" in his or her rebellion against God. (284) He writes, "Man is incapable of doing what is pleasing in God's sight. It is this inability that renders the myth of 'free will' an empty phrase: who cares if the will is 'free' when the nature that provides it with the desires upon which it acts is corrupt and evil?" (284) True, there are semi-Pelagians and other non-Calvinists who make much ado about free will, but classical Arminians do not. Our doctrine of prevenient grace presumes the truth of total depravity and total inability. We argue for a free response to God's pro-active grace: we argue for a freed will that enables this free response to His grace rather than haphazardly to free will in toto.

But White frames the discussion of irresistible grace strictly in terms of regeneration, and that act of regeneration preceding faith. He then argues that the Arminian suggests that a person can resist the regenerating act of God. This is absurd. We in no sense whatsoever believe that anyone could resist God's act of regeneration. We merely insist on biblical grounds that God does not regenerate a person prior to one's faith. When we insist that God's grace is resistible, we are not referring to God's act of regeneration. White is being entirely negligent in this argument against the Arminian, since the Arminian and the Calvinist do not maintain the same referent for the word and the work of "grace."

White then appeals to the false "dead" analogy in perpetuating his error of regeneration preceding faith. Beginning with the dead corpse of Lazarus, White (and others) misuse this text in suggesting that, just like a dead corpse can do nothing unless resurrected, so a dead sinner can do nothing unless regenerated by the Father. (284-86) I find this analogy not only an overt abuse of Scripture but also an embarrassing logical fallacy. How one could refer to a corpse and use it as an analogy of our literal spiritual state is irresponsible at best.

No, Lazarus did not perform a "self-resurrection," nor did he grant "permission" to Jesus by his free will to raise him to life. (284-85) A corpse can do nothing, that is true, and nothing refers to doing no thing. In other words, a corpse can do nothing good or bad. While a corpse cannot believe and receive Christ Jesus, nor can a corpse disbelieve and reject Christ Jesus. This corpse analogy is not merely a poor one, but a failed one.

We have already seen that while being in our fallen state, we can trust in Christ by the grace of God and be forgiven of our sins (Col. 2:13a); and we know that we are forgiven of our sins when we first have faith or trust in Christ (Acts 16:31). Therefore, while being in our fallen, unregenerate state, we can believe in Christ Jesus by the gracious enabling of the Spirit of God, and faith precedes regeneration. In other words, regeneration is not the causal agent of our faith, and is not a necessary prerequisite. When we believe in Christ, God then makes us alive, or regenerates us, with or in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Col. 2:13b) Again, faith precedes regeneration. We see evidence of this in the life of Cornelius.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the [Jewish] people [cf. Acts 10:22] and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God." (Acts 10:1-5 NRSV, emphases added)
Let us observe the activity of James White's "dead" man Cornelius. Remember: he and his family had not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ, had not yet trusted in Him, nor yet been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. According to White's and the Calvinist's own doctrine, Cornelius was not regenerated by God until he heard the gospel and the Spirit of God manifested His presence. This "dead," unregenerate man was devout to and feared God "with all his household." (10:2) In other words, Cornelius, his wife, his children and his servants all worshiped the God of Israel. Cornelius also gave eagerly and generously to the cause of the Jewish people (10:2). One day, God grants Cornelius an angelic vision, from which we learn that God was listening to his prayers, had taken note of his generous giving to the Jewish people, and thus directed him to call for St Peter, who would bring him the good news of salvation. Not bad for a "dead" man!

Now, we classical Arminians account for the acts of Cornelius prior to his conversion to the gracious work of God -- not merely to what some call "common" grace, but to the pre-regenerative work of grace in the heart of a fallen sinner. We simply cannot avoid the facts here in this text: Cornelius was still "dead in his sins" while having a heart for praying to and fearing the God of Israel and giving financially to the Jewish people -- and God took notice of it!

But while we Arminians can attribute these acts of Cornelius to the operative grace of God through the Holy Spirit, to what can Calvinists like White grant the same? The "dead" sinner can do nothing until regenerated. We understand that Cornelius' acts did not merit him grace from God, nor was such counted as any inherent goodness within him, for he was a sinner in need of salvation like the rest of us. But that is a missing of the point entirely. He was "dead as a corpse," an evil rebel with a heart that hates God, according to White and Calvinists, yet he prayed to and feared the true and living God of Israel, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, prior to being regenerated by God. White and Calvinists cannot sufficiently explain this. 

We believe, however, that other texts besides this one of Cornelius -- which contradicts the claims of Calvinism -- also undermine the Calvinistic notion that regeneration must precede faith. (cf. John 1:12, 13; 3:16, 17, 18, 36; Acts 16:30, 31; Rom. 1:17; 3:22, 25, 26, 30; 4:4, 5; 5:1, 2; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 2:8; 3:17; Col. 2:13; Heb. 7:25; 11:6) While White perpetuates the typical references to John 6, he also postulates that John 3:3 supports the claim: "Yet Jesus taught that the unregenerate person cannot even see the kingdom of God." (286) Faith does not result or automatically bring about or cause one's regeneration, contrary to White's complaint about what "Arminians contend." (287) White is a sloppy thinker when he is assessing Arminian theology. God causes our regeneration, not faith, and yet He regenerates and thus saves the one who believes in His Son Jesus Christ. White does not exegete John 3:3 at all; he merely presents it as a proof-text for supporting his presupposition. 

Unless a person be born again, regenerated by grace through faith in Christ, that person cannot ὁράω -- see, look upon, experience, discern, beware -- the kingdom of God (John 3:3). Jesus expounds further: "unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (John 3:5 NASB) In lieu of "see," ὁράω, Jesus uses "enter," εἰσελθεῖν -- go in (to), come in (to), enter. In both instances Jesus uses βασιλείαν θεοῦ, the kingdom of God. (John 3:3, 5) How, then, shall we interpret ὁράω, "see" (John 3:3)? Shall we interpret ὁράω, "see," with a Calvinistic presupposition (i.e., "perceive the principles of the gospel, which will require regeneration") or with Jesus' own qualification of εἰσελθεῖν, "enter" (John 3:5)? We believe Jesus is stating that no one can see or experience and enter into, εἰσελθεῖν, God's kingdom without spiritual rebirth by grace through faith in Him through the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we believe that to admit any further notion than what Jesus has explicitly taught here is to eisegete this text. What I have offered in this brief paragraph is leaps and bounds more exegetical in nature than any attempt at exegesis of John 3:3, 5 from White. 

White does attempt, however, to exegete 1 John 5:1, a text he and other Calvinists have historically held as teaching the concept -- a concept which would clearly contradict Colossians 2:13. St John, having informed us as to how to recognize a child of God (1 John 2:29; 3:1, 2; 4, 5, 6), and how to test the spirits speaking on behalf of God (1 John 4:1, 2, 3, 4), insisting that the one who loves God will also love his brother and sister in Christ (1 John 4:20, 21), then writes: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child." (1 John 5:1) This very simple statement is turned on its head by White and other Calvinists. Here is what White wants the text to convey: "Everyone who believes and keeps on believing that Jesus is the Christ was first regenerated by God." What is the problem with such an interpretation? 

First, it betrays the Greek text, which he himself should know! Everyone believing (present active participle) in Christ, γεγέννηται, is born of God (cf. Amplified, ASV, Darby, Geneva 1599, KJV, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, RSV, Wycliffe); or, as some offer, has been born of God (cf. ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT, NRSV). The perfect passive indicative γεγέννηται, however, no more explicitly or implicitly suggests that the person was regenerated prior to belief than that belief occurred prior to regeneration. This is a simple statement: the one believing in Christ has been born of God.

Given its context, with John informing us as to who is and who is not a child of God, are we, then, to believe that he was now teaching us that regeneration precedes our faith? Does that make any sense in the context at all? Of course the one believing in Christ has been born of God! Who could contest this fact? We certainly do not! But for White and Calvinists to force this text, by even appealing to the Greek tenses, in order to perpetuate this presupposition is very poor scholarship indeed. As a matter of fact, such only reveals the lengths one will strive in order to demonstrate the viability of one's presuppositions. 

Second, White claims, "If a person is now believing that Jesus is the Christ in a true and saving fashion, they are doing so because, as a completed action in the past, they were born again through the work and agency of God." (287-88) There is little with which to actually disagree here. We, too, believe that the person believing in Christ Jesus, right now, was born again as a completed action at some point in the past. What this text will not afford White, or any other Calvinist, however, is the notion that regeneration was the cause of belief. That concept is not in the text, no matter how much White protests. 

White attempts to bolster his argument by appealing to 1 John 2:29: "If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him." (emphasis added) White agrees with the comment: "We do not practice righteousness so as to be born, but instead the birth gives rise to the practice of righteousness." (288) He uses the comment to support the preconceived idea that the new birth "gave rise" to faith in Christ in the same manner that the new birth "gives rise to the practice of righteousness." Never mind that, contextually, John was not teaching the origins of either faith or righteousness. Context does not seem to matter here to White. All that matters is that White and Calvinists can find some parallel in order to promote the theory. 

Let us keep White consistent with his exegetical method. If the perfect passive has been refers to a causative act at 1 John 5:1 (and 1 John 2:29), that act being mentioned prior to the indicative or participle, what, then, shall we make of the following passages?

  • The righteousness of God has been disclosed (Rom. 3:21); 
  • God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5); 
  • the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret (Rom. 16:25); 
  • Christ our Passover has been sacrificed (1 Cor. 5:7); 
  • the time has been shortened (1 Cor. 7:29); 
  • Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12); 
  • the spirit of Titus has been refreshed by the Corinthian believers (2 Cor. 7:13); 
  • Paul &c. wished to make known the grace of God which has been given in the churches (2 Cor. 8:1); 
  • when a covenant has been ratified, no one sets it aside (Gal. 3:15); 
  • St Paul hoped to never boast except in the cross of Christ, through which, he admits, "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14) 

Not even one of these and other such passages will grant us the notion that the perfect passive was the cause of any action which preceded it. Sadly, for Calvinists, this fact will be intentionally ignored and dismissed altogether. What matters is an appearance of viability for their presupposition, not context, and certainly not exegetical consistency. 

But let us properly understand what the Calvinist is consistent with in the theory that faith is subsequent to regeneration: determinism. God is the all-controlling Being in the universe, who turns one person one way and another person another way. White decries: "Sovereign grace is offensive to the Arminian." (291) No, Calvinism's redefinition of sovereign grace is offensive, not only to the Arminian, but also to the nature and character of the God of the Bible. Calvinists pervert the grace of God into something other than grace and then complain against our opposition. The very conception of "irresistible grace" itself is an oxymoron. Grace is defined as a gift, and no gift is ever given irresistibly. 

Not so with Calvinistic ideology: faith itself is a gift given strictly to the alleged unconditionally elect. (291) Never mind that this concept is unsupportable by Scripture. While we agree that the gracious activity of the Spirit of God enables one to believe in Christ (Phil. 29), we certainly see no scriptural warrant to suggest that the Holy Spirit irresistibly "gives" people faith. Faith, by its very nature, is a response, not a substance, not something that can be "given," not an ethereal force from outside (contra White, 292) 

F. Leroy Forlines explains the two main elements of faith: "(1) acceptance of redemptive truth, and (2) trust. In the history of God's people, the content of saving faith involved the redemptive truth with which God had confronted people at a given time in history. They were to accept this revelation to be true."1 "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him." (John 1:6, 7, emphasis added) "He [Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God." (John 1:11, 12, emphases added) If a person is to be redeemed, forgiven of one's sins, and thus saved (regenerated), then that person must accept and receive redemptive truth, and then trust in Christ Jesus alone. The conditions are given: a person by grace responds with reception and faith or does not. This biblical method may not resonate with Calvinists and their Calvinistic system, but there it is. 

The Holy Spirit is called "the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29). What does that inform us as to His nature and Personhood? I am not referring to the Holy Spirit interfering with "free will," or any such notion, since we frame our language about the will in terms of freed will. My question is contextualized within the parameters of the Spirit's character. If grace is defined in the Christian scriptures as a gift, then we can in no sense reconcile a Calvinistic imposition of such a grace-gift with passages insisting the personal reception of such grace; we cannot reconcile regeneration preceding faith with passages which insist that faith in Christ and the forgiveness of one's sins happens prior to being made alive in Christ by the Spirit (Col. 2:13). This is the same Spirit who can be grieved (Eph. 4:30), as well as quenched (1 Thess. 5:29), and resisted (Gen. 6:3; Acts 7:51). Such attributes of the Holy Spirit appear to be contradictory with the portrait painted by the Calvinist.

Finally, William MacDonald writes, "God cannot -- and to say the same thing -- will not regenerate a heart that will not admit him."2 But this is just the type of theology that Calvinism proffers: God regenerates a person who has not yet confessed or even received Christ as Lord and Savior; has not yet repented of his or her sins and asked for forgiveness; has not yet been forgiven of sins; has not yet been indwelt by the Spirit of God; has not yet been justified, sanctified, and certainly not glorified; has not yet been united with Christ spiritually. This is the person that the Calvinist argues is fit for regeneration. This is a false and entirely unbiblical concept. 


1 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 255.

2 William G. MacDonal, "The Spirit of Grace," in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 86.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.