‘Regeneration’ is a key word in Reformed theology. As with other key words it is possible to approach an understanding of it from a number of different directions. From the point of view of the work of Christ it may be said that regeneration takes place in a human soul as a result of Christ’s ascension in glory and triumph to the right hand of his Father. Just as he purchased forgiveness and righteousness for his people, so he purchased all that was necessary to apply forgiveness and righteousness to them. It is as a result of Christ’s work that people come to recognise their guilt and pollution, and to experience forgiveness and cleansing. God exalted Jesus with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31).
Looked at from the perspective of God the Father, regeneration is the first element in the effectual calling of those for whom Christ died. As we are in the divine purpose united to Christ in his death, God has ‘quickened us together with Christ’ (Eph 2:5). And looked at from the point of view of the Holy Spirit, regeneration comes about as a result of his activity in the soul. A man is born again ‘of the Spirit’.
Regeneration, then, is the result of the immediate exercise of divine power in the soul. Life comes to a dead soul. It is not brought about by baptism, nor is it the inevitable accompaniment of baptism, but it takes place usually in conjunction with the preaching of the Christian gospel. Believers are born again, Peter says, by the incorruptible seed of the word of God (1 Pet 1.23). Usually, it is as the gospel is apprehended that God sovereignly regenerates.
An understanding of regeneration in this way makes it clear that it is to be carefully distinguished from what is usually called ‘conversion’. Conversion refers to the conscious experience of repentance and faith, the turning to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). Regeneration, as it has been sketched above, immediately precedes and produces conversion. It is not identical with conversion, nor does conversion bring about regeneration. The baby cries when it is born; it is not born because it cries.
What can be said about the character of the change that we call regeneration? What is it like? What is involved? How is it to be understood? How the divine agency immediately affects the soul of man, producing conversion and a changed life, will never be completely fathomable. But this does not mean that nothing can be said about it, that Scripture leaves us either to silence or speculation.
All Reformed theologians agree that two elements are involved in regeneration. It consists in intellectual and moral renovation. The mind that once was blinded and darkened by sin now is enlightened to appreciate the divine reality of the gospel and of human need. The ‘eyes of the understanding’ are opened (Eph. 1:18). God shines into the darkened heart (2 Cor. 4:6). The soul receives what Jonathan Edwards, using the terminology of John Locke, called a ‘new simple idea’. Further, the will, enslaved to sin, is freed from that slavery, and sees in the gospel message of the ‘glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ its own best and chiefest good. God’s people are made willing in the day of his power. He works in them to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Although Reformed theologians have agreed that these two elements are present in regeneration, they have not always agreed on which element should be emphasised. Is regeneration to be understood primarily in intellectual, or in moral terms? This question might seem at first to be a theoretical quibble, with no practical bearing. But as is usual with theological differences, even abstruse ones, considering them does help to clarify the debated issue, and to bring out some of its practical implications.
Dabney and Shedd are examples of theologians who have argued that regeneration is primarily, though not exclusively, moral in its character. It is because the Holy Spirit revolutionises the disposition of the will that the soul prefers what it understands. Dabney argues that whether or not the individual is attracted by what he hears depends on what he wants. However truly and persuasively the Christian message is presented, and however fairly and adequately it is understood, it will not have any effect on an individual who has no taste for it.1
By contrast Hodge (in his Systematic Theology)and Archibald Alexander (in Thoughts on Religious Experience) claim that regeneration is primarily intellectual. It is because, through the illuminating agency of the Holy Spirit, the truth is seen for what it is that it is embraced. ‘So the New Testament writers represent the change consequent on regeneration, the opening the eyes on the certainty, glory and excellency of divine things, and especially of the revelation of God in the person of his Son, as comprehending almost everything which pertains to spiritual life. Inseparably connected with this knowledge and included in it, is faith, in all the forms and exercises in which spiritual truths are its objects. Delight in the things thus revealed is the necessary consequence of spiritual illumination’.2 According to Hodge spiritual knowledge is represented in the Bible as the whole of conversion, and he claims that the Scriptures `make all religion, and even eternal life, to be a form of knowledge’.
The debate between these theologians on this issue is an involved one, embracing not only the exegesis of passages of Scripture but also difficult questions in human psychology. There is no point in reviewing the whole of the debate here. For one thing, it can readily be studied in the books that have been cited. However, I wish to suggest that Dabney’s view is to be preferred, for two reasons. In the first place, Dabney argues that in certain places the New Testament itself assigns an order to the elements in regeneration. For example Ephesians 4:18 states that the Gentiles are alienated from the life of God through ignorance on account of blindness or hardness of heart. That is to say, it is because they were blind or hard that they were ignorant. Secondly, Dabney shows that his understanding of the matter has greater explanatory power; it throws light on matters that would otherwise be difficult. For example, take the phenomenon of religious rebellion. Here there is a situation in which an individual understands or appreciates the significance of the gospel, but continues in rejection of it. It is because he sees it for what it is that he rejects it, and his rejection springs from a will that is ill-disposed to God.
As an example of this, take Matthew 21:45. ‘And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet’. Here there is discernment or understanding on the part of the Pharisees, but a discernment that does not lead them to embrace Christ, but to plot against his life. What they lack is not spiritual illumination, but the right disposition of heart. It is more difficult to account for this phenomenon on the Hodge-Alexander view.
If regeneration is primarily a matter of a change in the inclinations of people, this serves to throw light on the following familiar problem: the situation in which people know what the Christian faith is, but do not receive Christ. It may be said that this shows that they do not really understand what Christianity is. But they may give so many signs of knowing it that it would be unrealistic to deny the fact. If we are prepared to say that someone who can give an account of the Christian faith but who is not a Christian, does not understand what he is talking about, then we are driven to the idea that the words of Scripture have some secret meaning known only to some. And then what happens to the ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture? And are we not forced to say that, under such circumstances, no one ever rejects the Christian faith, because it is only possible to reject what one understands, and these people do not understand? It seems fairer and saner to say that some people know all too well what the Christian faith is, and do not like what they know. This is not the situation of all non-Christians, of course, but it is a plausible account of some. Perhaps, for example, of Agrippa (Acts 26:28).
Take another kind of case. The history of the Church shows how fashion-conscious the Church can be. We see it at present amongst ourselves, on a small scale. At one moment all the talk is about revival. The next moment about the nature of the Church. Then the ‘charismatic’ gifts. Then the Second Coming. We see it on a much larger scale as well. How quickly Puritanism in the seventeenth century degenerated into deism and unitarianism in the eighteenth century! How quickly the seemingly solid evangelical ‘establishment’ (Anglican and non-conformist) crumbled when exposed to various kinds of liberalising in theology in the nineteenth century! How are seemingly sudden and pervasive shifts to be accounted for? No doubt partly by the fact that evangelicalism itself decays into legalism and worse. Partly by the fact that the Christian community is unprepared for difficulties posed by philosophy or science. And partly also by the presence of a ‘bandwagon’ effect.3 But one factor we ought not to neglect in our thinking is that one generation is simply not interested in, no longer wants, the gospel message of an earlier generation. The shifts cannot be explained simply in terms of knowledge and ignorance. No doubt many of the deists and unitarians were catechized in Puritan homes as children. They would know the faith of their fathers well. But they did not want it. Their moral and religious ideals and goals were different.
This can be applied to our present situation. In Britain the Reformed Faith is small and insignificant. Such renewed interest as there has been has taken the form, largely, of an interest in doctrine. This is as it should be. The Christian faith is primarily God’s revealed truth, and that truth should be understood as accurately and fully as possible. But we must recognise that to expose people to divine truth, and to instruct them in it, though necessary, is not sufficient. If the cause of Christ is again to flourish in Britain this will only be when men know God’s truth and are utterly inclined to receive it.
- Dabney discusses this point in Lecture 47 of his Lectures on Systematic Theology (reprinted 1972) and in his review of Hodge’s Systematic Theology reprinted in his Discussions.
- Systematic Theology 111.34 (Emphasis added)
- In their preaching on hypocrisy and sincerity the Puritans showed themselves to be well aware of the existence of a ‘bandwagon’ effect in the other direction.