Reformed Theology and Regeneration


Reformed Theology and Regeneration


This paper is by David Dunlap, Bible & Life Ministries, Inc. (3116 Gulfwind Drive, Land O'Lakes, FL  34639.  It is taken from a larger work entitled Limiting Omnipotence--The Consequences of Calvinism--A Study of Crucial Issues in Reformed and Dispensational Theology.  This paper is reproduced with the author's permission.


In 1883 on the island of Krakatao, in the Straits of Sunda, a volcano erupted, splitting mountains from top to bottom and scattering rock, landscape, and debris into the sea. Nothing was left of the island but a lifeless mass 100 feet deep of lava and volcanic ash. Observers estimated that 36,000 people lost their lives, thereby making this one of the deadliest eruptions in history. Scientists declared positively that no animal or vegetable life would be able to survive. Nevertheless, over the next three years, flowers and ferns began to sprout out of the dark soil. Seeds had been carried there by the wind and the sea. By 1897, many portions of the ground were covered with vegetation. Soon the entire island was covered with plant growth, and an array of birds, animals, and insects populated the island. This account vividly illustrates what takes place spiritually when the life of God completely transforms the sin-darkened souls of men through faith in Christ. The name the Bible gives for this experience is regeneration or “quickening” (KJV).

The term “new birth” never occurs in the Bible; the noun “regeneration” occurs only twice in the Bible (Titus 3:5, Mt. 19:28). The Greek word translated “regeneration” is “palingenesia”, which, when broken down into its component parts, means “born-again” (“palin”= again; “genesia”= birth). While the term new birth never occurs, related words occur many times, such as “new creation”, “born again”, and “new man”.

What is regeneration? Regeneration is the one-time experience of receiving new life in Christ, when the work of a new creation is begun, and the process of sanctification is set in motion. The regenerate man is no longer the man he once was. By virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit, the new life (created after the image of God) has come into the souls of men. This new nature has its own desires, affections, and interests—they are all spiritual, rooted in Christ, and God-centered. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit”; the new nature is spiritual, for it shares the nature of the One who imparts it. The believer is made “a partaker of the divine nature...” (2 Peter 1:4). However, the old nature remains within the believer, struggling with the new.

The Reformed View of Regeneration

Students of Holy Scripture offer differing views on the divine order in regard to the new birth. This debate is not merely an academic exercise, but one which has far-reaching consequences. Clear biblical thinking in this area greatly helps the serious Christian. Current Reformed theology teaches that regeneration, or new birth, must precede faith. It maintains that since unregenerate man is dead and unable to respond to the gospel, he must first be “born again” so that he can receive the gift of faith. This regenerative work of God will only take place in the lives of the elect as God irresistibly draws them. This all must take place in this order; otherwise biblical salvation, it is maintained, is no longer of God in His grace, but rather of man through self-effort. Calvinist professor Dr. R. C. Sproul sets forth this position when he writes:

In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination. He plants a desire for Christ in our hearts. We can never trust Christ for our salvation unless we first desire Him. This is why we said earlier that regeneration precedes faith. [R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1986), p. 118]

In a similar vein, concerning regeneration Reformed psychologist Jay Adams writes:

Only God can bring life to dead souls to enable them to believe. He does this when and where and how He pleases by His Spirit, who regenerates, or gives life leading to faith...As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died. [Jay Adams, Competent To Counsel, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), p. 70]

On the other hand, non-calvinists teach that new birth occurs after an unregenerate man exercises faith in Christ. The unregenerate man, after he is drawn by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, enlightened by the power of the Word of God, gripped by grace, and prodded through prayer, is then enabled by God to exercise faith in the finished work of Christ. Although unregenerate man is dead in trespasses and sin and at enmity with God, this does not mean that he is unable to express faith. God's sovereign design does, however, lay emphasis upon the infinite power of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, the will of God, and the Word of God. Without this work of God, no man would ever be saved.

Regeneration and Infant Salvation

Calvinism also teaches that infants, when yet unborn, are regenerated, even though they have no knowledge of Christ; and that, upon birth, infant baptism is to be practiced as a sign that the child is regenerate. John Calvin believed that all the children of believers were spiritually regenerated in the womb. To complete the salvation process Calvin also suggested that God granted a unique, supernatural faith to these infants in the womb. This would certainly add a new twist to the term “child-like faith.” But how is this all possible? John Calvin writes:

But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null. Infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be regenerated by the Lord. ...Many He certainly has called and endued with true knowledge of Himself, by internal means, by the illumination of the Spirit, without the intervention of preaching. [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol.11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1962), p. 541,542]

The issue of the salvation of the children of the elect soon occupied the minds of many leading Calvinists. How could one know if the children of the elect would eventually come to Christ, or might some never come to trust Him as Savior? Calvinists reasoned: if only the elect are regenerated and only the regenerated can be saved, is there any way of knowing if children are elect? John Calvin, comforted the hearts of many by stating that God had already made provision for that need. He suggested that all the children of the elect will be saved. Calvin writes:

Our children, before they are born, God declares that He adopts for His own when He promises He will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. In this promise their salvation is included.  [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol.11; (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1962), p.525]

What are the spiritual consequences of such speculation? First of all, if this is true, we need not concern ourselves with the spiritual condition of our children and our grandchildren. Why? Because if we are elect, our children are also elect, which means their children are also elect, and so on, until our family line comes to an end. While a Calvinist may find comfort in this view, he needs to flip the coin to see what lies on the other side. If it follows that a “Calvinist” child is elect and will be saved because of his parents' election, would it not also be true that if that child never believes in Jesus Christ, this proves that the parents were never elect? If a parent proves not to be elect, it would mean that his father could not be elect either. The Calvinist “election domino” must logically fall in both directions. Furthermore, Scripture stresses that children are not saved because the parents were elect but because children themselves possessed faith in Jesus Christ unto salvation (Acts 16:31-32,2 Tim. 3:14-15).

The Reformed View and the Scriptures

Many have noted that the Reformed view of regeneration is in stark contrast to Scripture. The Bible clearly establishes that the blessings of salvation, the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, eternal life, and regeneration never precede faith, but are always the result of faith.