by W.G.T. Shedd
The speculative difficulties connected with the doctrine of regeneration arise from the fact that men put their questions, and make objections, from the view-point and position of the unconvinced sinner. They deny that they are helpless sinners ; or they deny that sin deserves endless punishment ; or they deny that sin requires vicarious atonement in order to its remission. Λ mind that is speculative!}· in this state is not " prepared " for regenerating grace. These are not the antecedents of regeneration. Such opinions as these must be given up, and scriptural views must he adopted, before the Holy Spirit will create the new heart. Or even if there be no heterodoxy, yet if the orthodox truth be held in unrighteousness; if the person docs not reflect upon the truth, and makes no effort to know his guilt and danger, but lives on in thoughtlessness and pleasure ; this state of things must be changed. By a serious application to his own case of the law of God, the person must become an anxious inquirer, as a " preparative" to regeneration. The questions about man's relation to regeneration will give no serious trouble to any convicted man; to any one who honestly acknowledges that he is a guilty and helpless sinner, and seeks deliverance from the guilt and bondage of sin. The questions will then answer themselves.
1. It is objected that the prayer of the unregenerate is sinful. This proves too much, because it would preclude any action whatever by the unregenerate man. The hearing of the word by the unregenerate is sinful. But the unregenerate is not forbidden to hear, upon this ground. The thinking of the wicked, like his plowing, is sin. All the acts of the unregenerate are sinful, because none of them spring from supreme love to God, yet some of them are better " preparatives " for, or " antecedents" to, God's work of regeneration, than others. Attendance upon public worship is better adapted to advance a man in the knowledge of his spiritual needs, than attendance upon the theatre. Prayer is better adapted than prayerlessness, to bring a blessing to the soul. " Behold he prayeth," was mentioned as a hopeful indication in the case of Saul of Tarsus. " An act," writes Owen, ** may be good as to the matter of it, though sinful as to the form: for example, hearing the word by the unregenerate. And an act may be bad both as to the matter and the form : for example, pleasure-seeking on the Sabbath by the unregenerate. The former act is to be preferred, rather than the latter. The former act is positively commanded of God ; the latter is positively forbidden." The Westminster Confession (XVI. vii.) teaches that " works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, yet because they do not proceed from faith, are sinful, and cannot please God. And yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God [than their performance of them]." If the presence of sin in the soul is a reason why an unregenerate man may not pray for regenerating grace, then it is a reason why the regenerate man may not pray for sanctifying grace. A regenerate man's prayer is mixed with sin. If, then, a person may not pray until he is regenerated, neither may he pray until he is perfectly sanctified.
If the existence of sin is a reason for not praying in one case, it is in the other.
2. It is objected, secondly, that only the prayer of faith is infallibly granted. But this is no reason why a prayer that will probably be granted should not be offered. Prayer for sanctification supposes previous regeneration. This is the prayer of faith, and is heard in every instance. But it does not follow that the prayer for regeneration, which God is able to answer, and which he encourages convicted sinners to hope that he will answer, should not be put up, because infallible certainty is not connected with the answer. Probability of an answer is good reason for asking for regenerating grace. The fact that the prayer of the un regenerate does not deserve an answer does not prove that God will not answer it. The prayer of the regenerate does not deserve an answer on the ground of merit.
(a) The first reason why prayer for sanctification is infallibly certain to be granted, while that for regeneration is not, is, that God has bound himself by a promise in the former case, but not in the latter. The former is connected with a covenant; the latter is not. God has promised to sanctify every believer without exception who asks for sanctification ; but he has not promised to regenerate every convicted sinner without exception who asks for regeneration. Regeneration is according to the purpose of God in election ; and election does not depend upon any act of the creature, be it prayer or any other act. Consequently the convicted sinner's prayer cannot infallibly secure regeneration, as the believer's prayer can sanctification. Whenever regenerating grace is implored, the sovereignty of God in its bestowment must be recognized. The words of St. Paul apply here: " If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth," 2 Tim. 2:25. The words of the prophets also: " Let every man cry mightily unto God; who can tell if God will turn and repent, that we perish not," Jonah 3: 9. " Bend your heart, and turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him," Joel 2:13,14. The words of the leper must always be a part of the prayer for regenerating grace: "If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean," Mark 1:40. When it is said that "whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved" (Joel 2: 32 ; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10 :13), the prayer of the convicted may be meant, and the general fact is that it will be answered.1 Or the prayer of the regenerate for sanctification may be meant. Whosoever shall believingly and penitently call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
(b) A second reason why the answer to prayer for regeneration is optional and sovereign, while that for sanctification is not, is, that in the latter instance it is a means to the end, while in the former it is not. The prayer for sanctification is a part of the process of sanctification, but the prayer for regeneration is not a part of regeneration. Prayer as a divinely appointed means infallibly secures its end; but prayer as an appointed antecedent, and not a means, is accompanied with probability, not absolute certainty.
Because God has not bound himself by a covenant to hear the prayer of every convicted sinner without exception, it by no means follows that he does not hear such a prayer, and that it is useless for such a person to pray. He has heard the cry of multitudes of this class. It is his general rule under the gospel economy to hear this cry. The highest probability of success, therefore, attends the prayer of an anxious and convicted person for regenerating grace. And this is ample encouragement for him to call upon the
merciful and mighty God for what he needs, immensely, a heart of flesh in place of the stony heart. It is not true, that God never granted the prayer of an unregenerate man. Such men in peril have called upon God to spare their lives, and have been heard. This is taught in Ps. 107: 10-14. Convicted men, from a sense of danger and the fear of the wrath to come, have prayed for the salvation of their souls from perdition, and God has saved them. In such cases, God has granted the petition, not because it was a holy one, or because it merited to be granted, but because the blessing was needed, and because of his mercy to sinners in Christ. Calvin (III. 20. 15) mentions the prayers of Jotham (Judges 9 :20), and of Samson (Judges 1G : 28), as instances in which " the Lord complied with some prayers, which, nevertheless, did not arise from a calm or well-regulated heart. Whence it appears that prayers not conformable to the rules of the Divine word sire nevertheless efficacious."
But in addition to the fact that the prayer of a convicted sinner may have an effect upon God, and be answered favorably, it also has an effect on the person himself, and prepares for the regenerating act of God. No man can study the divine word, and receive legal illumination from it, without having some sense of danger awakened, and giving utterance to it in prayer. Even if the prayer be only the cry of fear, and is not accompanied with filial trust and humble submission, it is of use. The prayer, by its very defects, prepares for the new birth by showing the person his need of it. The person in distress asks for a new heart. The answer does not come immediately. The heart is displeased, is perhaps made more bitter and rebellious. By this experience, the Holy Spirit discloses to the unregenerate man more and more of the enmity of the carnal mind, and the impotence of the self-enslaved will. This goes towards preparing him for the instantaneous act of regeneration.
"It is," says Owen (Holy Spirit, IV. iii.), "in no way inconsistent that faith should be required previously unto the receiving of the Spirit as a spirit of sanctification; though it be not so as he is the author of regeneration." And the reason he assigns is, that in the instance of sanctification prayer is a means; while in the instance of regeneration prayer is not a means but a preparative. He discusses the point in the following manner: "May a person who is yet unregenerate pray for the Spirit of regeneration to effect that work in him ? For whereas as such he is promised only to the elect, such a person not knowing his election seems to have no foundation to make such a request upon. Ans. 1. Election is no qualification on our part which we may consider and plead in our supplications, but is only the secret purpose on the part of God of what himself will do, and is known to us only by its effects. 2. Persons convinced of sin, and a state of sin, may and ought to pray that God, by the effectual communications of his Spirit unto them, would deliver them from that condition. This is one way whereby we ' flee from the wrath-to come.' 3. The especial object of their supplications herein, is sovereign grace, goodness, and mercy as disclosed in and by Jesus Christ. Such persons cannot indeed plead any especial promise as made unto them. But they may plead for the grace and mercy declared in the promises as indefinitely proposed unto sinners. It may be that they can proceed no further in their expectations but unto that of the prophet, * Who knoweth if God will come and give a blessing?' Joel 2: 14. Yet is this a sufficient ground and encouragement to keep them waiting at the throne of grace. So Paul, after he had received his vision from heaven, continued in great distress of mind praying until he received the Holy Ghost. Acts 9: 9, 17. 4. Persons under such convictions have really sometimes the seeds of regeneration communicated unto them, and then as they ought to so they will continue in their supplications for the increase and manifestation of it."' When our Lord (John 14: 17) asserts that "the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it sees him not neither knoweth him," the reference is to the Holy Spirit as the spirit of sanctification. Christ is speaking of him as the " Comforter" who augments and strengthens already existing spiritual life. But if the " world," that is, the unregenerate, are incapable of receiving the Holy Ghost in his regenerating office, they cannot be regenerated.
There is the highest encouragement in the Word of God to pray for the regenerating grace of the Holy Ghost. It is a duty enjoined upon all men without exception, like that of hearing the word. " If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him," Luke 11:14. " Thou, Lord, art plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee," Ps. 86: 5. " The Lord is nigh to all them that call upon him," Ps. 145 :18. "The Lord is rich unto all that call upon him," Rom. 10:12. " Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near," lea. 55:6. "I will that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting," 1 Tim. 2:8. " Behold he prayeth," Acts 9: 11. "Thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come," Ps. 65: 2. These and other similar texts relate to spiritual gifts. They invite and command men universally and indiscriminately to ask God for the Holy Spirit in any of his operations, as the first and best of his gifts. " Prayer, being one special part of religions worship, is required by God of all men." Westminster Confession, XXI. iii.'
While regeneration is a sovereign act of God according to election, it is an encouraging fact both for the sinner and the preacher of the word that God's regenerating grace is commonly bestowed where the preparatory work is performed. This is the rule, under the gospel dispensation. He who reads and meditates upon the word of God is ordinarily enlightened by the Holy Ghost, perhaps in the very act of reading, or hearing, or meditating. "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word," Acts 10 : 44. He who asks for regenerating grace may be regenerated perhaps in the act of praying. God has appointed certain human acts whereby to make ready the heart of man for the divine act. Without attentive reading and hearing of the word, and prayer, the soul is not a fit subject for regenerating grace. By " fitness" is not meant holiness, or even the faintest desire for holiness; but a conviction of guilt and danger, a sense of sin and utter impotence to everything spiritually good. Such an experience as this " breaks up the fallow ground," to employ the Scripture metaphor. Jer. 4:3; Hosea 10:12. When the Holy Ghost finds this preparation, then he usually intervenes with his quickening agency. The effect of prevenient grace in conviction is commonly followed by special grace in regeneration; the fact of the outward call is a reason both for the sinner and the minister of the word, for expecting the inward call. Yet regeneration, after all the preparation that has been made by conviction and legal illumination, depends upon the sovereign will of God. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, so is every one that is born of the Spirit," John 3: 8. Regeneration rests upon God's election, and not upon man's preparative acts; upon special grace, and not upon common grace.
It follows, consequently, that the unregenerate man should be extremely careful how he deals with common grace. If he suppresses conviction of sin, and thus nullifies common grace, then God may withdraw all grace. This was the case with some of the Jews. " For they being [willingly] ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God. And because of unbelief were broken off," Rom. 10:3; 11:20. The same is true of some nominal Christians. God has sovereignty and liberty in respect to regenerating grace. When a person has stifled conviction, God sometimes leaves him to his self-will forever. Yet observation shows that the Holy Spirit Buffers long, and is very patient and forbearing with convicted men; that he does riot hastily leave them, even when they disobey his admonitions, but continues to strive with them, and finally brings them to faith and repentance.
Upon this general fact in the economy of Redemption, that the right use of common grace is followed by regenerating grace, both the sinner and the preacher should act. In this respect, both arc like other men. The farmer has no stronger motive than that of probable success, for sowing grain ; the merchant, for sending out ships; the manufacturer, for erecting factories. Salvation is in the highest degree probable for any person who earnestly and diligently uses common grace, and the means of common grace. It is to be confidently expected that a convicted man will be made a new man in Christ Jesus. Every lost man ought to be thankful for such an encouraging probability, lint to insist beforehand upon infallible certainty-—and especially a certainty that is to depend upon his own action—is both folly and sin. It is folly, to suppose that so weak and fickle a faculty as the human will can make anything an infallible certainty. And it is sin, to attempt to divide the glory of regenerating the human soul between the Holy Spirit and the soul itself.
3. It is objected, thirdly, that to pray for regeneration is to delay faith and repentance. The sinner is commanded immediately to believe on Christ, and turn from his sin with godly sorrow; but praying for regeneration is dallying with the use of means. It is an excuse for procrastination. To this it is to be replied: That prayer for regeneration is a prayer that God the Holy Spirit would work instantaneously upon the heart, and would immediately renew and incline the will. There would be force in this objection, if the sinner were taught that there are means of regeneration, and were exhorted to supplicate God to regenerate him at some future time through his own use of these means. But he who truly prays for regenerating grace, despairs of all agency in the use of means, and precludes all procrastination, by entreating an immediate and instantaneous act on the part of God by which he shall, this very instant, be delivered from the death and bondage of sin, and be brought into the life and liberty of the gospel. He implores " God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, to shine in his heart, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," 2 Cor. 4: 6. He asks the Son of God, " who quickens whom he will" (John 5 : 21), to enliven his spirit now " dead in trespasses and sins," Eph. 2: 1. Consequently, prayer for regenerating grace is an evidence that the convicted person has come to know that the word, sacraments, and prayer—all the means of grace—are inadequate to reanimate the soul and make it alive to righteousness. It is not until he has discovered that legal conviction, legal illumination, resolutions to reform, external reformation, reading and hearing the word, and prayer itself cannot change the heart, that he leaves all these behind him, and begs God immediately and instantaneously to do this needed work in his soul. The prayer for regenerating grace is, in truth, the most energetic and pressing act that the sinner can perform. It is the farthest removed of any from procrastination. It is an immediate act on the part of the sinner, and it entreats God to do an instantaneous work within him.
In this manner, prayer for the instantaneous gift of regenerating grace harmonizes with the gospel-call to immediate faith and repentance. Faith and repentance naturally arid necessarily result from regeneration. Whoever is regenerated will believe and repent.1 To pray therefore for instantaneous regeneration is, virtually, to pray for instantaneous faith and repentance, and vice versa. He who prays: "Help thon mine unbelief; take away the stony heart, and give the heart of flesh," prays that God would " renew and powerfully determine the will," which is the definition of regeneration. At the same time, prayer for regenerating grace must not be substituted for the net of faith and repentance. The direction is: " Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." This is the Biblical answer to the question : " What must I do to be paved ?" But when the convicted person discovers that the act of faith is hindered and prevented by the blindness of his understanding, and the bondage of his will to sin, and asks if he may implore the "enlightening and quickening energy of the Holy Spirit, to persuade and enable him to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered in the gospel" (S. C., 31), he is to be answered in the affirmative. In imploring the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, he is " striving to enter in at the strait gate ; " he is endeavoring to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The act of faith in the blood of Christ, in its own nature^ is simple and easy. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," Matt. 11:30. But considered in reference to the pride and self-righteousness of the natural heart, faith is impossible without regeneration. Hence the frequent statement in Calvinistic creeds, that man needs to be persuaded and enabled to this act.*1 The regenerate child, youth, and man, believe· and repent* immediately. The regenerate infant believe· and repent· when hi· faculties will admit of the exercise and manifestation of faith and repentance. In thU latter instance, regeneration ib potential or latent faith and repentance.
«Westminster Confession, VII. iii.; VIIL riiL ; IX. iv.; X. i.; XIV. L Larger Cateohiau, Q. 33; Q. 59; Q. 67; Q. 73.