Last semester at school, I wrote a paper about regeneration, which can be found on the essays page of this blog. It was by far one of my favorite and best papers, and as such I think its thesis argument may be worth summarizing here for anyone who is interested in the doctrine of regeneration but doesn’t have the time or inclination to read 20 pages.
The thesis of the paper is that the standard Reformed treatment of regeneration is weak on three counts—its association with the origin of faith, its relationship to justification, and its redemptive-historical nature—and that all of three of these problems can be remedied by constructively ressourcing the regeneration theology of the early Reformers, particularly Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.
I first examine the three issues in more detail. First, what is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Is the awakening of faith part or all of the effect of regeneration? Second, what is the relationship between regeneration and justification and union with Christ? Does one cause the other? If so, which? Third, how does regeneration relate to redemptive history? Does it pertain to the ordo salutis, the historia salutis, or both? Armed with these questions, I move on to interrogate the early Reformers.
The first witness is Luther. Luther seemed to place regeneration after faith, for he allowed no proper graces to be received except through faith. He did, of course, acknowledge the necessity of the Spirit’s work for faith, but this he did not connect to regeneration. Luther also apparently placed justification before regeneration, or perhaps even identified the two. However, I could not extract from Luther any clear answers on regeneration’s place in redemptive history.
The second witness is Calvin. Calvin usually spoke of regeneration as a process, nearly synonymous with sanctification. Yet he did on occasion also speak of regeneration more as a one-off event. This equivocation led to the odd situation where Calvin seemed to place regeneration both before and after faith. This he explained by noting that, while regeneration should be seen as a gift we receive from Christ through faith, it is also proper to speak of the grace which first raises our hearts and minds to believe as part of regeneration. On the second question, Calvin put union with Christ at the head of salvation, with justification and regeneration as benefits of this union. Finally, it appears that Calvin may have seen regeneration as something new to the New Covenant, brought about by the new situation of the Spirit’s full coming.
Third on the stand is Zwingli. For Zwingli, “regeneration” was more or less synonymous with faith and its reception of the Holy Spirit. “Faith is regeneration.” This makes regeneration both a momentary change (a man moves from unbelief to belief and receives the Spirit) but still also an ongoing process which bleeds into sanctification. Zwingli thus employed something of a relational ontology in which a man’s “new nature” was simply the result of a new tri-fold relationship: faith toward God through Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Zwingli never clearly tied this doctrine to redemptive history.
With the examination of the Reformers concluded, I reviewed the possible answers to the three major questions. Conclusions:
- There is no biblical reason to associate regeneration with the act by which the Holy Spirit elicits faith. While obviously faith comes from the work of the Spirit, the Bible never connects this to regeneration. Neither did two of our three Reformers, and the exception, Calvin, only ever did so infrequently. This means regeneration must have some other kind of significance besides a role in the ordo as faith-maker.
- If we employ a relational ontology, recognizing that our relations to others (particularly God) define who and what we are (that is, our nature), then we can understand justification by faith as effecting regeneration. When God declares us righteous, our relational state to Him and to everything else changes, and this change constitutes a change of nature, a new birth, a re-generation. This means regeneration can flow from justification which flows from a union with Christ effected by faith.
- Finally, regeneration should be contextually placed in redemptive history. There were hints in the Reformers that they may have regarded regeneration as a blessing unique to the New Covenant. This is on solid biblical footing. The New Testament connects regeneration with the eschatological character of Christ’s death and resurrection as initiating the new creation which God’s history with Israel had been designed to produce, and which Israel had so desparately needed to reach her destiny, whcih of course had to be in and through Christ.
I’ll finish by quoting the paper’s concluding paragraph:
In sum, then, the project of resourcing Reformed regeneration has led to an account along these lines: with Luther, part of Calvin, and sort of Zwingli, regeneration can be placed after faith, for faith effects union with Christ. This faith results in justification, as all the Reformers taught. In turn, with support from Luther and perhaps even Zwingli, this justification may be seen as effecting regeneration, but by means of a relational ontology which does not involve ambiguous metaphysics. All of this originated with the accomplishment of Christ in His obedient life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection which inaugurated the eschatological kingdom and added unto them the promise and future of new creation. When a man by faith is united to Christ, God declare him righteous, and this declaration sets him in a relationship which effects his participation in kingdom and in new creation. This result is a thoroughly Reformed, thoroughly biblical, and thoroughly consistent account of regeneration. It could use improvement or supplement, especially in relation, for example, to baptism in dialogue with Luther, but that remains for another time. Amen.