30 August 2003

regeneration and faith

I would never question what I take to be crucial biblical truths:• God's sovereign and ultimately monergistic work in salvation, electing and saving whom he chooses.

• The absolute priority of God's grace in Christ over any response on the part of the individual who is, apart from that grace, unable to respond.

• The nature of salvation as total "gift" even in regard to the gift of faith by which salvation is received.
And these are the truths that the "traditional" Reformed doctrine of regeneration is quite rightly designed to protect.

What I do question is whether the overall shape of that doctrine of regeneration is the best way of doing that, either biblically or theologically. In particular, it seems to me that the overall biblical data suggest that regeneration is as much "by faith" as justification and thus cannot be placed (logically? causally?) prior to faith or justification. Moreover, it seems to me that the central concerns of Reformed theology are in agreement with me on this.

With regard to the biblical data, the central scriptural passages that speak of regeneration's transition from death to life do so in way that indicates that faith is the instrumental means of this transition. This is clear not only from Ephesians 2:5-9 and other Pauline texts, but also is strongly suggested in the discussions of being "born from above" in John 3:3-15 and of being "born anew" in 1 Peter 1:22-25.

As R.B. Gaffin says with regard to the relevant texts, Paul is able to speak of "the inception of the application of redemption without recourse to the terminology of regeneration or new birth understood as 'a communication of a new principle of life'" which is, among other things, logically prior to faith (Resurrection and Redemption, 136). Indeed, Paul's discussion indicates that "there is a correlation between Christ as life-giving and the sinner as life-receiving (i.e., Christ-receiving) which carries back to the very point of inception of salvation, a correlation which characterizes the single act of being joined to Christ" (141).

And it seems that, biblically speaking, the single act of being united to Christ by faith is not susceptible to analysis as a series of discrete acts, causally and logically prioritized in relation to one another, even if there are various aspects of that single act that can be analyzed and interrelated.

Turning from the biblical data to wider theological concerns, we can reflect upon the notion of salvation as a "gift" that is only to be found "in Christ." Some formulations of regeneration seem to require that the inception of salvation must be, first and foremost, an interior change wrought by the immediate power of the Spirit. Yet, this focus could be construed as odd given the wider emphasis within the Reformed tradition upon the monergistic work of God from outside of us, the blessings of the covenant as being "in Christ" and shared with us, the notion of a iustitia aliena that is extra nos, the instrumentality of external means of grace, the legal and the forensic, and so on.

Furthermore, Reformed theology has taken "union with Christ" to be a central organizing motif, an emphasis shared by both Paul and Calvin. The latter writes, "Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued" (Institutes 3.11.10).

If all the blessings of salvation are to be seen as possessed only "in Christ,' then do we not have a strong prima facie reason for supposing that "regeneration" should be countenanced only as possessed "in Christ" as well? Detaching regeneration from union with Christ and, moreover, conceiving it as a necessary precondition for that union, turns regeneration into a "thing" to be possessed as (inalienably?) inhering in the individual.

When the nature of what is wrought in regeneration is conceived in too "metaphysical" terms, moreover, salvation no longer remains "grace," since it only persists under the rubric of "gift" in its initial moment of conception, whereas salvation is entirely a gift from its beginning until it is consummated on the final day. Despite attempts to resist a metaphysical or substantialist notion of grace, it appears that on this point much Reformed theology has arguably retained a problematic residuum from earlier theological ontologies.

One thinks here of Kuyper's remarkable claim that the regenerate ego, "was dead and has been made alive, was diseased and has been made healthy, lay under God's wrath and now basks in his favor, and is now utterly holy...[it] is entirely holy and therefore sinless; it is indeed cut off from all sinfulness. It can no longer fall away, is inclined to all good and incapable of any evil. It is as sanctified as ever it will be in eternity" (De Gemeene Gratie, volume 2, 312).

Moreover, by placing regeneration prior to faith and the other benefits of salvation, regeneration is being conceived outside of Christ. Yet, the New Testament at every point presents all saving benefits as something that we have only in union with the crucified and resurrected Christ. Even the term "grace" in the New Testament, when explained further, is predominantly "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" or "the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus," so that it is Jesus who is God's grace for us. Calvin is correct, then, when he writes that Jesus is "the source and substance of all good" and that "so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us" (Institutes 3.1.1).

Consequently, regeneration, as with all other saving benefits, is presumably better thought of as regeneration "in Christ," as one aspect of that single reality of union. To place regeneration outside of union with Christ, in some discrete work of the Spirit that remains prior to and necessary for that saving union, encourages us to seek our salvation and assurance somewhere other than in Jesus Christ himself, to depend upon a work of God in us, rather than in a work of God for us. As such, the contours of the reformational understanding of the Gospel can too easily become distorted.

But surely it is Jesus who ultimately is the one who was "born from above" in whose resurrected life the "new creation" is found, who is the new "heart of flesh" and the "new man." I do not, of course, want to neglect the need for new life in the personal, individual reception of salvation, but I would argue that any such new life must be conceived as one aspect of the total gift of salvation that is received in Christ and thus comes to us as much from the "outside in" and it does from the "inside out." Indeed, the Christian life is one of ongoing struggle more and more to become, by faith, what we already are reckoned to be in Christ.

Finally, I think it is useful to note that the earliest strata of the Reformed tradition did, in fact, approach regeneration in much the way I have suggested. Calvin, for instance, writes, "Now both repentance and forgiveness of sins—that is, newness of life and free reconciliation—are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith" (Institutes 3.3.1). And, in the words of the 1561 Belgic Confession, "We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a 'new man,' causing him to live the 'new life' and freeing him from slavery to sin" (Article 24). Amen.