Calvin on Faith Preceding Regeneration

Arminius, in his Dissertation on Romans 7, insists that faith in Christ precedes regeneration: "Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification [renewal, bringing to life] of the new man."1 He then states: "as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith."2 If Calvin himself, the founder of Calvinism, also believes that faith precedes regeneration then the theory of regeneration preceding faith is disclosed as an entirely gratuitous and unnecessary tenet within the neo-Calvinist scheme.

While investigating the claim of Arminius, from Calvin's Institutes, I stumble upon a fascinating comment. First, regarding regeneration Arminius writes, "But two things must be here observed. The First is, That this work of regeneration and illumination is not completed in one moment; but that it is advanced and promoted, from ... time to time, by daily increase."3 (emphasis added) R.C. Sproul criticizes Arminius: "Perhaps this is a mere slip of the pen, intended to convey the idea that the fruit of regeneration is ongoing."4 Prior to this comment, Sproul allows for a qualified exposition, which he later betrays:
When Arminius expands on this point, he seems to mean that what is begun in regeneration is continued in the process of life-long sanctification. For example, the divine illumination that occurs at the onset of conversion is a work that continues through the Christian pilgrimage. What is jarring here is Arminius's reference to [the act of regeneration] not being completed in one moment.5
What is odd from Sproul here is how he can properly assess Arminius' qualifying his statement on regeneration, and its relation to illumination (with a nod toward sanctification), and then betray that assessment with a contrary conclusion. Even more telling, however, are the words of Calvin to the exact same effect:
Accordingly through the blessing of Christ we are renewed by that regeneration into the righteousness of God from which we had fallen through Adam, the Lord being pleased in the manner to restore the integrity of all whom He appoints to the inheritance of life. This renewal [by regeneration], indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow, progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in His elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as His temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.6 (emphases added)
Where is Sproul's criticism of Calvin's alleged "slip of the pen" now? How can Calvin be granted this obvious pass but not Arminius? How can Calvin be perceived as expounding upon sanctification, with regard to regeneration and the mortification of the old nature, and not Arminius -- especially given the most obvious fact that both men are using the exact same language? Could the blindingly Calvinistic bias of Sproul not be the culprit here? But there is more.

Arminius expounds upon his comment regarding regeneration and illumination not being completed in one moment, stating, "For this reason, in regenerate persons, as long as they inhabit these mortal bodies, 'the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.' (Gal. 5:17) Hence it arises that they can neither perform any good thing without great resistance and violent struggles, nor abstain from the commission of evil."7 Yet he also acknowledges: "The Second thing to be observed is, That as the very first commencement of every good thing, so likewise the progress, continuance and confirmation, nay, even the perseverance in good, are not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit."8 Calvin and Arminius are speaking the same Reformed language here.

Both are also "speaking the same language" regarding the order of faith preceding regeneration. Having referred to "certain learned men, who lived long before the present day, and were desirous to speak simply and sincerely, according to the rule of Scripture," Calvin notes his agreement with them to the effect that a quickening, which he terms as "that desire of pious and holy living which springs from the new birth," is "produced by faith."9 (emphases added) Both the mortification of the old nature and the quickening of the new nature "we obtain by union with Christ."10 So, apart from faith and union with Christ, the new birth, being born again, or regeneration is not obtained.

Moreover, Calvin argues that, if we are "partakers in His resurrection [cf. Phil. 3:10; Rom. 5:1; 6:4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 17, 22], we are raised up by means of it to newness of life which conforms us to the righteousness of God." He continues: "In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration, the only aim of which is to form in us anew the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam."11 Again, being partakers in Christ's resurrection, and desiring pious and holy living, which "springs from the new birth," is all produced first by faith in Jesus Christ, according to Calvin.

Furthermore, commenting on the ministry of John the baptizer, Calvin states: "By inviting them to repentance, he urged them to acknowledge that they were sinners, and in all respects condemned before God, that thus they might be induced earnestly to seek the mortification of the flesh [sinful nature], and a new birth in the Spirit."12 Calvin insists that this announcement of the kingdom of God being near is a call "for faith," since, "by the kingdom of God which he declared to be at hand, he meant forgiveness of sins, salvation, life [new life, eternal life], and every other blessing which we obtain in Christ."13 In other words, faith in Christ brings about all the blessing of Christ, including regeneration: hence faith precedes regeneration. Calvin argues (emphases added):
Repentance is preached in the name of Christ, when men learn, through the doctrines of the Gospel, that all their thoughts, affections, and pursuits, are corrupt and vicious; and that, therefore, if they would enter the kingdom of God they must be born again. Forgiveness of sins is preached when men are taught that Christ "is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30), that on His account they are freely deemed righteous and innocent in the sight of God. Though both graces are obtained by faith (as has been shown elsewhere), yet as the goodness of God, by which sins are forgiven, is the proper object of faith, it was proper carefully to distinguish it from repentance.14
Even more explicitly, Calvin argues that those whom God intends to monergistically rescue from eternal death He also "quickens by the Spirit of regeneration; not that repentance is properly the cause of salvation, but because, as already seen, it is inseparable from the faith and mercy of God."15 (emphases added) Though Calvin notes that "the mind of man cannot be changed for the better unless by His preventing grace,"16 so does Arminius confess the same, "The Mind of man, in this [fallen] state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God."17 But, in case Calvin is not clear enough on this matter of faith preceding regeneration and, thus, salvation, he writes:
But as faith is His principal work [i.e., that of the Holy Spirit], all those passages which express His power and operations are, in a great measure, referred to it [the work of faith], as it is only by faith that He brings us to the light of the Gospel, as John teaches, that to those who believe in Christ is given the privilege "to become the Sons of God, even to them that believe in His name, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12, 13). Opposing God to flesh and blood, he declares it to be a supernatural gift, that those who would otherwise remain in unbelief receive Christ by faith.18
Calvin concludes quite explicitly: "Therefore, as we have said that salvation is perfected in the person of Christ, so, in order to make us partakers of it, He baptizes us 'with the Holy Spirit and with fire' (Luke 3:16), enlightening us into the faith of His Gospel, and so [or thereby] regenerating us to be new creatures."19 (emphases added) Again, an explicit reference of Calvin toward the same is found in his commentary on John, "But if faith regenerates us [and certainly the former would, by absolute necessity, precede the latter], so that we are the sons of God, and if God breathes faith into us from heaven, it plainly appears that not by possibility only, but actually -- as we say -- is the grace of adoption offered to us by Christ." (link) (emphasis added)

For Calvin, faith, even though a gift of the Holy Spirit granted to the unconditionally elect,20 still precedes the act of regeneration. Regeneration is not granted in order that the alleged unconditionally elect might believe, as neo-Calvinists falsely presume; but faith is given to the so-called unconditionally elect so that such a one might be regenerated and perfected in the salvation of God. What is the primary distinction between Arminius and Calvin on this issue?

Calvin assumes that God has unconditionally elected to give faith and, thus, salvation to only some people. This Arminius denies: God has conditionally elected to save those who, by grace, trust in Jesus Christ. This grace can also be resisted. But both seem to use the same logic and scriptural reasoning by suggesting that the only aspect in God's scheme which precedes faith is grace: hence the ordo salutis regarding this issue for both theologians is grace → faith → regeneration → forgiveness of sins → justification → sanctification. The final three acts of God may be argued differently among many scholars attempting to properly parse their placement within the theology of Arminius and Calvin; but what appears to be true for both Reformed ministers is that grace precedes faith and faith precedes regeneration.


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, 1996), 2:498.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 2:195.

4 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 129.

5 Ibid., 128-29.

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 3.3.9, 516.

7 Arminius, 2:195.

8 Ibid. He states, in the same section, "But this, whatever it may be of knowledge, holiness and power, is all begotten within him by the Holy Spirit."

9 Calvin, 3.3.3, 511.

10 Ibid., 3.3.9, 515.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 3.3.19, 525.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 3.3.21, 527.

16 Ibid., 3.3.24, 530.

17 Arminius, 2:192.

18 Calvin, 3.1.4, 465-66.

19 Ibid., 3.1.4, 466.

20 Calvin writes: "Faith is the special gift of God in both ways -- in purifying the mind so as to give it a relish for divine truth, and afterwards in establishing it therein. For the Spirit does not merely originate faith, but gradually increases it, until by its means He conducts us into the heavenly kingdom." (Ibid., 3.2.33, 499)