by Geerhardus Vos
1. What is regeneration?
Regeneration is an immediate re-creation of the sinful nature by God the Holy Spirit and an implanting into the body of Christ.
2. Is it a judicial or a re-creating act?
The latter. In regeneration the condition and not the state of man is changed.
3. Does regeneration occur in the consciousness or below the consciousness?
Below the consciousness. It is totally independent from what occurs in the consciousness. It can therefore be effected where the consciousness slumbers.
4. Is regeneration a slow process or an instantaneous action?
It is an instantaneous action that is the basis for a long development in grace.
5. Is regeneration concerned with the removal of the old or the enlivening of the new?
Regeneration includes both. However, one can rightly maintain that the latter has prominence.
6. Is regeneration a mediate or an immediate act of God?
It is immediate in the strict sense. No instrument is employed for it.
7. Which words in Scripture designate regeneration?
a) The first term is γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν, which appears in John 3:3, 7; γεννηθῆναι ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος (John 3:5); παλινγγενεσία (Titus 3:5); ἀναγεννηθῆναι (1 Pet 1:3, 23); ἐκ θεοῦ γεννηθῆναι (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).
1. Concerning the places where gennēthēnai appears, the passive meaning of this term must be noted first. It literally means "to be generated." By this is expressed as strongly as possible that regeneration is an act of God, in which man remains passive. When one considers the birth of a child it could perhaps still be maintained that it is accompanied by some movement of the child itself. But "to be regenerated" excludes any such movement in principle and fixes us on the activity of the one who regenerates.
2. Ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι does not mean, as Meyer and others assert, "being born from above." It is certainly true that ἄνωθεν can have this local meaning, but the context shows that this is not the case here. After all, in John 3:4 ἄνωθεν is replaced by δεύτερον, "for the second time." And Nicodemus is not surprised by the fact that this birth must come from above, but by the fact that it must take place a second time. If he had thought "from above," he could not have posed the question, "Can someone enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" "Again," however, has the deeper meaning "anew" here, so what is required is an absolute beginning. Not that half of what is connected with generation or birth must be repeated, but man must again undergo being born anew. Compare Galatians 4:9: "which you want to serve again [πάλιν] anew [ἄνωθεν]."
3. Thus, something occurs that is a repetition of the first birth. The point of similarity is this: In natural birth man has received from his father and mother a carnal, corrupt nature: "What is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6); "… are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man" (John 1:13). In regeneration he receives a spiritual nature. The similarity does not go further. It is by no means being denied that the first birth is connected with the genesis of the substance of the soul and the formation of the person, while by regeneration the substance is not removed and replaced by another, but, like the person, it remains the same as it was before.
4. It is a birth ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, "of water and Spirit." This refers to baptism, and, according to a sacramental manner of speaking, what is attributed to the sign belongs to the thing signified. Baptism portrays two things: the washing away and cleansing of what is sinful, and the imparting of what is pure and new. "Water" and "Spirit" thus stand for the two sides of God's re-creative work: "the removal of the old" and "the imparting of the new." Compare Ezekiel 36:25–27, where they are likewise placed side by side: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean.… And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.… And I will give you my Spirit." One should note that "water" and "Spirit" occur here without an article, because baptism does not so much have in view a specific application of water and a specific activity of the Spirit as the character of water and Spirit in general. The water is the cleansing element; the Spirit is the generator of life. Thus, all told: "For someone a renewal of nature must take place, in which he is cleansed of sin and receives new life within himself."
5. The same sense is present in Titus 3:5. Baptism is a bath from which one emerges washed and renewed. Thus, the work of regeneration has two sides: cleansing and renewal. The Holy Spirit is the one who effects this, and He is richly poured out by Jesus Christ the Savior (Titus 3:6). The palingenesia spoken of here puts the emphasis more on what occurs in man; it is literally "regeneration."
We believe, accordingly, that by regeneration is to be understood: (1) an act done exclusively by God; (2) a renewal of nature; (3) an act that has two sides—the removal of the old life and an imparting of a new life; (4) an act in which the Holy Spirit appears as the one who produces this new life; (5) an act in which the Holy Spirit works out of Christ and jointly with Christ.
b) In Paul we have a series of terms that clearly express the same matter: "For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation [καινὴ κτίσις]" (Gal 6:15). "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17). "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Eph 2:10). "Even when we were dead in trespasses, He made us alive with Christ" (Eph 2:5). "From Him you are in Christ Jesus, who has become to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor 1:30). "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2). "We then were buried with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too should walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).
Here, too, we reach the same result: (1) Regeneration is an immediate work of God by which man is totally passive, a new creation; (2) it effects a renewal of nature; (3) it has two sides, a burial of the old man and an enlivening of the new; (4) the Holy Spirit is the one who produces this new life; (5) the Holy Spirit does this jointly with Christ; it is the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ that frees from the law of sin and of death.
c) Particular mention is due those scriptural passages that speak of regeneration as a renewal of the heart. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit deep within me" (Psa 51:10). "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh" (Ezek 11:19). It is necessary at this point to keep in view accurately the biblical concept of "heart," לֵבָב, לֵב, καρδία, in contrast to ψυχή and πνεῦμα, נֶפֶשׁ, and רוּחַ, which were already discussed earlier. The heart is the seat of the potency that determines our nature, the center of our being that indicates the direction and predisposition of all that occurs in our spiritual life. It is therefore something that lies still more deeply than personal self-consciousness, for the latter is merely the reflection in the conscious life of the unity and uniformity of the soul, as we saw earlier in the scriptural terms ψυχή, נֶפֶשׁ. What is meant by "heart" can become clear from Proverbs 4:23, "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for out of it flow the issues of life." The heart is therefore also the place where the Holy Spirit, who renews the nature and governs the new life, makes His abode. "The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). "God has sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts" (Gal 4:6). To the heart is ascribed the predisposition and basic inclinations in which the personality and nature manifest themselves: "according to your hardness and your impenitent heart" (Rom 2:5); "an honest and good heart" (Luke 8:15); "love from a pure heart" (1 Tim 1:5); "an evil, unbelieving heart" (Heb 3:12); "a true heart" (Heb 10:22); "the pure in heart" (Matt 5:8). In all these cases, ψυχή could not be used. The "heart," therefore, is something that man cannot judge, that evades our observation, and that only God in His omniscience knows and searches (Matt 15:8; Luke 16:15). All that is good wells up from the heart, and all that is evil arises from the heart. "The good man brings forth good out of the good treasure of his heart" (Luke 6:45). "For from within, out of the heart of man, arise evil thoughts, sexual immorality, etc." (Mark 7:21).
It is now of the greatest importance for the doctrine of regeneration that it is presented as a renewal of the heart. Over the heart lies the veil, and in the heart shines the light (2 Cor 3:15; 4:6; 2 Pet 1:19); with the heart one believes (Rom 10:10); the heart is directed to the love of God (2 Thess 3:5). Therefore, by this, every conception that in the renewal of man God works from the circumference to the center is excluded. On the contrary, He works from the center to the periphery, regenerates the heart, and by this in principle the nature is reversed in all its expressions, or at least given a formative capacity that works against the old nature.
8. How is the usage of scriptural language regarding "calling" connected with the doctrine of regeneration?
As we know, many older theologians treat regeneration under "calling." They speak of a twofold calling: an external calling (vocatio externa) that occurs through the preaching of the Word, and an internal or effectual calling (vocatio interna, vocatio efficax) that occurs through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart. These terms are not chosen arbitrarily. They occupy a rather large place in scriptural usage, and since theological terminology ought to keep as closely as possible to God's Word, we may not push them aside. However, the question arises whether in Scripture "calling" is in fact understood as the same thing that we have come to know as "regeneration." The answer to this must be twofold: yes, concerning the essence of the thing; no, concerning the viewpoint from which the same thing is considered. The difference is in the following two points:
a) Regeneration occurs below the consciousness; it cannot be observed by man himself and is altogether independent of every relationship that he could adopt toward it. To speak with complete precision, one cannot assume a stance toward his regeneration, since it is not placed objectively before his consciousness. It is otherwise with calling. This occurs in the consciousness, is directed to the consciousness, and demands a certain relationship to the consciousness. This is already contained in the term "calling." A calling comes from outside; a rebirth works from the inside out.
b) Connected with this, regeneration is a physical act. Calling is a teleological act, directed to a certain end. One is regenerated from one condition into another; one is called to something. With calling a certain endpoint is brought into view, with the prospect that one would reach this endpoint, or also a certain rule prescribed that one should follow. One would now be able to say that if this representation is correct (as will presently be shown in detail), then it is a contradiction in adjecto [in terms] to speak of an "internal calling." If "calling" is always something that comes from outside and presupposes a hearing, then calling cannot be internal, and it is a misuse of the word to indicate regeneration by it.
It cannot be doubted that by the use of "calling" in the sense described above, the older theology has obscured the two points of difference mentioned. Still, in this use it was led by a correct consideration. What drove it was the conviction that the working of God's grace may not be detached from the Word of God. If one speaks solely of regeneration, that still does not include anything that recalls that the Word is a necessary concomitant element of re-creating grace. If, on the other hand, one speaks of calling, everyone immediately senses that saving grace closely follows the proclamation of objective truth and does not go beyond the limits drawn by this proclamation, even though it is not coextensive with the external hearing of the gospel. Hence some have spoken of an "external calling." To that is then tied the internal calling, in order by the similarity of the name to be reminded anew what connection God had laid between His Word and grace.
With that, however, the use of the term "internal calling" for "regeneration" is not yet fully justified. While a thing may be always accompanied by another thing, I still have no right to designate it by the name of the other, especially if the specific essence of the thing is thereby overlooked. Thus, there must be another ground for the designation "internal calling." That ground is as follows: One can present God's work of grace under two viewpoints—as it occurs below the consciousness, and as it is reflected in the consciousness. The former is a more complete and theological view, the latter a more partial and practical view.
Now, the fact that the first Christian congregations were mostly gathered by the sudden conscious addition of believers led inadvertently to the last, more practical view. The implanting of life in the heart and the hearing of that newly awakened life at the calling of the gospel occurred practically in the same moment. There were no reasons to presuppose a passing of time between the two. Because it coincided in this way with calling, regeneration could appropriately be termed "calling." Or, expressed more precisely, regeneration, as the invisible background, could for the moment be left out of consideration. The first thing one noted about it was calling. And now it needs to be granted that calling did not enter the consciousness as an external, general conception and offer of the gospel. It entered the consciousness of those who were being added as it was applied (made personal and compelling by the Holy Spirit), so that they immediately realized that an internal change had taken place that had been accomplished by an act of God's power. When a sinner hears this calling of God, he does not deliberate or reason, but is drawn and irresistibly compelled to follow. Thus a certain reflex of the nature of regeneration appears in his consciousness, and that is calling. One will therefore easily perceive what ground there is for continuing to speak of an internal calling and to place it next to external calling as distinguished from it and yet closely connected with it by name. When regeneration has worked on the consciousness, it immediately manifests itself as a totally new perception of the omnipotent might of the Word of God, to which one must submit, a Word that speaks as a word of power and, as it were, creates the obedience of faith. Thus, as one is called with power in his conscious life and comes, so at the center of his being one is called out with creating omnipotence from death and brought over into life as by a powerful creating word of God. And both lie so closely to one another that one may designate them with one name.
By this, however, is indicated the particular limitation of the concept of "calling." It cannot be applied everywhere. Only in a place where, without remaining hidden for a long time, internal re-creation immediately manifests itself in the consciousness can one rightly speak of regeneration as "internal calling." [It is] not with the same right, on the other hand, when one has to do with children. For them, regeneration does not as yet take the form of a calling—that is, it does not manifest itself in their consciousness as an act of God by which, also for their own awareness, they are called out from the one condition into the other. Of a child one says that it is regenerated and not that it is called.
The question now is only whether one has grounds to assume for adults that regeneration and calling are separated by a considerable period of time. A further distinction must be made here. For those who do not yet live under the administration of the covenant of grace, there is no ground to suppose such an interval. There the seed of regeneration is implanted and usually sprouts immediately. With the children of the covenant, the possibility always exists that they were born again long before their consciousness is awakened. If such is the case with those who die before they are able to comprehend, it is difficult to see why this could not also be the case with many who later give evidence of true godliness and yet who are unable to point to a specific time in their conscious life at which they were effectually called. Conversely, however, there is no evidence that such early regeneration is the rule for children of the covenant. We cannot bind God here. In particular, the idea that someone would be regenerated, and yet in his own consciousness would remain uncalled for years on end, seems unacceptable, for it presupposes an illusory connection between what is internal and what is external.
9. Show from Scripture that calling is viewed in this way.
a) First, concerning the use of the term for external calling, that is, the proclamation of the gospel, we have the use of the word as of an invitation to a wedding (Matt 22:3, 9; Luke 14:8; cf. John 2:2, "and Jesus was also called," that is, invited; 1 Cor 10:27). In Matthew 20:16 [Textus Receptus] we have a contrast between the many "called," κλητοί, and the few "chosen," ἐκλεκτοί. Here, external calling is not only distinguished from internal calling but even separated from it. What is spoken of is a calling of sinners to conversion (Luke 5:32).
b) That calling is a work of grace taking place in the consciousness is established from Romans 8:30, as developed above. Besides, it follows from the imagery of 1 Peter 2:9: "So that you may proclaim the excellencies of the one who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." Clearly, light nowhere stands for life as something unconscious, but always for life as it manifests itself in the consciousness. To be brought out of darkness into the light thus means to be brought from the alienation of the consciousness from God into clarity in the awareness of being allied with God, and to a clear knowledge of the truth.
c) Next, as we have said, calling is an act directed to a certain goal and revealing that goal to the consciousness of the one called. Also, where the word of internal efficacious calling is present, it clearly never loses this character of a concept of purpose, as already appears from the fact that it can be connected with the preposition "to," εἰς, or "in," ἐν. God calls believers "to" eternal life (1 Tim 6:12); "into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor 1:9); "to freedom" (Gal 5:13); "not to impurity but to sanctification" (1 Thess 4:7); "to peace" (1 Cor 7:15); "to one hope of calling" (Eph 4:4); "in one body" (Col 3:15); "so that you may inherit blessing" (1 Pet 3:9).
Calling, then, is also always presented by Paul as a ground of comfort for the believer that enables him to look beyond his own shortcomings and instances of unfaithfulness and to the unfaltering faithfulness of the God who calls. In calling, God, as it were, has bound Himself to the believer and established the covenant bond, so that from now on there is no longer any doubt whether he will reach the goal. "The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29). "He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it" (1 Thess 5:24). The idea of calling deserves more attention than it has so far had. The fact that it has become the general name for regeneration has caused its specific meaning to be lost from sight. And yet in its distinctiveness it is a rich concept that in the letters of Paul, for example, occupies a prominent place.
d) Naturally, all this does not detract from calling as an act of power. This is already included in the word. "Calling" is not persuading or discussing, but bringing about an instantaneous effect by a word or the naming of a name, so that the one who is called comes. In this sense calling—as internal, efficacious calling—extends just as far as election. "Those He foreordained, these He also called, and those He called, these He also justified" [Rom 8:30]. The called are the same as the elect. They are "called according to His purpose" (Rom 8:28); named "called saints" (1 Cor 1:2; Rom 1:7; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7). It is expressly said, then, that calling is an act of omnipotence: "God calls the things that are not as though they were" (Rom 4:17, where the reference is to the extraordinary birth of Isaac). And in Romans 9:11, it is said "that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls." Here calling stands as God's work par excellence over against man's work, and it is testified of God's election that it is intended to reveal how salvation is entirely of the God who calls.
10. How then can you define external calling?
As the presentation of the gospel to sinners in general by the preaching of the Word.
11. How, on the other hand, can internal or effectual calling be defined?
As the transferring of the elect sinner in his own consciousness from the state of alienation from God into the state of fellowship with God (the covenant of grace), and that certainly by means of the external word, applied internally by the Holy Spirit.
12. How can one relate internal calling and regeneration to each other?
By saying that:
a) If we consider the one who calls, God, regeneration is an effect of calling. "Calling" then means the act of calling, as it is in God and as it embraces the sinner.
b) If we consider being called as what occurs in the one who is called, then calling is the effect of regeneration, for the ear is first opened by the latter so that it can recognize the voice of the God who calls. "Calling" then means being called and knowing oneself to be called.
c) If we take the matter in its full scope, we must say that calling, as it were, encompasses regeneration from beginning to end. It precedes and follows it, according to whether one draws attention to the consciousness of God or to the consciousness of the sinner who is called. It hardly needs to be mentioned that this preceding and following is not to be taken in a strictly temporal sense.
13. Is it necessary to say that the sequence of the acts of grace is: (1) calling, (2) regeneration?
Some have proposed that in order to, in this way, arrive at a clear distinction. Although one can now readily say, in the sense just described, that regeneration follows calling, there are still objections to this manner of representation.
a) In doing this one runs the danger of losing sight of the fact that calling has an essential significance for the consciousness of the sinner. In fact, one then restricts the name to the action of God in order to call the other, the effect of the action as that which causes change, regeneration.
b) On the other hand, it is wrong to so restrict regeneration that it becomes only the product, the outcome, the transition, while the activity of God is omitted. Scripture emphasizes that we are regenerated, that God regenerates us according to His will, etc. (Jas 1:18).
14. What ground does one have to understand the concept of regeneration in the wider sense, which, for example, Calvin ascribes to it?
This is based on some scriptural passages that do not speak directly of regeneration but of "a putting off of the old man" and "a putting on of the new man" and "a being renewed in the spirit of the mind" (Eph 4:22–24). Romans 12:2 speaks of the same thing. Second Corinthians 4:16 speaks of a renewal in the inner man that takes place day by day.
All these expressions, however, have in view more the transformation of something old than the creation of something new. And it is just the new principle of life poured into the sinner that in its outworking brings about this transformation of the old. Renewal is not regeneration, but presupposes regeneration. Thus the command can come to man that he must make for himself "a new heart and a new spirit." However, nowhere in Scripture is the command directed to someone that he must regenerate himself. That command always comes in the form of "arise from the dead."
15. Who is the author of regeneration?
a) It is God the Father by way of eminence. Since regeneration appears as something completely new, it fits with the economy of the Father that regeneration is ascribed to Him. "According to his great mercy, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet 1:3; cf. also Jas 1:18; Eph 2:5; and the expression "born of God," 1 John 5:1, 4, 18).
b) The Son is related to regeneration in more than one way.
1. He is the meriting cause. He has obtained the Holy Spirit, who works all subjective grace, and so has also obtained regeneration (Rom 5:18).
2. He is the head to whom believers are joined as members by regeneration, and who thus lives in them and expresses His life in them (Gal 2:20).
3. He is the image into which the believers are transformed in regeneration and to which continually they are also being increasingly conformed (1 Cor 15:49; Gal 4:19).
c) The Holy Spirit is the one who effects regeneration for the sake of the Father and the Son in the heart of the sinner, as He in general organizes the mystical body of Christ.
16. Is regeneration a mediate or immediate act of God? Is it or is it not brought about by any instrument?
God does not use any kind of instrument in regenerating a sinner. An instrument is never used to create something new, but always only to effect a change in what already exists. With a surgical instrument some part of a living body can be treated, a diseased part removed, but the most advanced instrument cannot possibly produce life in a dead body.
17. Is not the Word of God an instrument by which regeneration is achieved?
No. On the one hand, this would lead us to the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view, or, on the other hand, cause us to revert to the Lutheran idea of an inherent magical capacity for the Word of God. In order to reach clarity on this point, one must make plain how truth works on man. It in fact works in a spiritual sense, as every physical instrument does in a physical sense, but then not in such a way that the act would lie entirely in the cause. It is always the case that the cause acts, and that to which it is directed then reacts, and so the effect occurs. The result, therefore, depends as much on the object that undergoes the action as on the acting cause.
Now, if the truth is the cause, then it will only produce effects in us because our soul responds, reacts to it. If the truth is to have an effect in which there is life, then this can only be as it brings about an expression of life in my soul as the response. So, in order for the truth to become effective instrumentally for life, I already need to have life in me. Therefore, anyone who has the truth accomplishing regeneration through motivations teaches that man is not entirely dead. That is, he teaches in a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian fashion. A motivation works on me only through what I am. A motivation that awakens a reaction in me will leave my neighbor unmoved, not because the motivation is different, but simply because the person with whom it is brought in contact differs from me. If we want to escape this Pelagianism, then nothing remains except, with the Lutherans, to locate life in the Word.
However, one may then perceive clearly that every analogy between the Word as causa efficiens [efficient cause] and every ordinary causa instrumentalis [instrumental cause] collapses. Not one instrument works in this way, by causing an overflowing of an inherent power. On close inspection, then, for Lutherans, too, the Word is no longer a means of grace or an instrument of grace; it has become a source of grace. It takes the place of God, for it belongs only to God to act so immediately on things that His effective power does not engage their reaction. Rather, as He works entirely alone, He imparts qualities to them or changes their habits. Basically, therefore, the Lutherans gain nothing when they suppose they are maintaining the instrumentality of the Word. The Word slips out of their hands and becomes a magic wand.
18. What by nature is the disposition of man toward the truth?
Scripture declares that by virtue of his natural birth, man is flesh, and the mind of the flesh is enmity against God [Rom 8:7]. Now, it is in the truth that God Himself is brought into contact with this sinful flesh. For this reason already, the result of this contact cannot be the beginning of spiritual life. Indeed, it cannot change hate when the hated object is brought nearer. That would rather incite hate. Yet, according to this instrumental understanding of regeneration, it would be sufficient to place the object of enmity before the inimical consciousness in order immediately to change enmity into love.
19. Does the concept of truth allow that one may consider the Holy Spirit as a higher power bound to it at certain times?
No, the concept of truth includes in itself the elements of immutability and universality. Truth remains fixed and is objectively the same for all. Thus it will not do to confine the efficacious action of the Holy Spirit within the truth and yet still want to maintain that the Holy Spirit does not work everywhere in the truth or by the truth. Once accepting this concept, one must be consistent and say, "Everywhere this supernaturally equipped Word is and works, there the Holy Spirit also is and works." The Spirit, then, comes and goes with the Word and is in the wake of the Word. And then from that it follows further that, again, the reason why the one and not the other is regenerated must be sought in man. After all, the same power of the Spirit comes to all, and nothing comes other than it. Yet it is not effective in all. Thus, the one must act differently toward it than the other.
20. Does Scripture teach that there is a working of God in the heart of man that is not instrumentally connected with the working of the truth?
Yes. Of Lydia it is said, for example, that the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14). The psalmist prayed, "Incline my heart to your testimonies" (Psa 119:36).
21. Does not James 1:18 teach that the word is God's instrument in regeneration?
At a first glance this passage indeed appears to teach that. It reads, "According to His will He gave birth to us by the word of truth, so that we should be as the firstfruits of his creatures." However, we observe:
a) That in the context itself the word for "give birth" occurs in a broader sense. In verse 15 we read, "Desire, having conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin being complete, gives birth to death." Here there is naturally no mention of the absolute beginning of sin, for desire is already sin, and death, too, is already resident in sin. To "give birth," then, means to "bring into the world," and is in fact something already present in principle and with which one is pregnant.
b) In the Greek here, in both verses 15 and 18, a word is used that expresses the feminine act " 'give birth to," and not so much the masculine act of "generation" or "begetting of life." In verse 18 the wording is βουληθεὶς ἀπεκύνησεν ἡμᾶς λόγῳ ἀληθείας. Now κύω or κυέω means "to be pregnant," and ἀποκυέω means "to bring out of the darkness of the womb into the light of the day."
With these two observations, the argument that some intend to derive from this text fails. The words simply mean that the life generated within believers is drawn outwardly and brought to light by the word of truth. Everyone will agree that Scripture is instrumental for this, and that God does this through the Word. But "giving birth" is something entirely different from "generating life" or "regenerating." It is somewhat regrettable that our [Dutch] word wederbaren does not do justice to this distinction as well as, for example, the English "regeneration." In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul even says that he had "fathered" the Corinthians in Christ through the gospel (γεννάω is used here). This, too, is of course only to be understood of drawing life outward by the preaching of the Word, as he speaks in Galatians 4:19 of "being in travail" (ὠδίνω), because through his work with them Christ ought to be formed in them.
22. Does not 1 Peter 1:23 teach that the Word is instrumental in regeneration?
Here, too, this interpretation has no more than the appearance of truth. The text reads, ἀναγεγεννημένοι οὐκ ἐκ σπορᾶς φθαρτῆς ἀλλὰ ἀφθάρτου διὰ λόγου ζῶντος θεοῦ καὶ μένοντος: "Being born again not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the Word of the living and (eternally) abiding God." One should note that two things are distinguished here: (1) a "from which," "out of" imperishable seed; (2) a "whereby," "through" the Word of God. But the "from which" is not the "whereby." The light that shines on the field and the sunshine that warms it are not the seed that is buried within it and germinates and sprouts under their influence. That Peter does not equate the two can already be inferred with certainty from the fact that, according to 1 Peter 1:3, he sees in the resurrection of Christ from the dead the instrumental cause of regeneration. The "seed" must therefore be the seed of life from Christ, planted in us by the Holy Spirit. This seed is incorruptible because it communicates the eternally abiding life of Christ. Viewed in this way, this much-misused verse from Peter also does not teach regeneration through the Word of Scripture.
23. Is there perhaps another instrument than the Word used in regeneration?
The Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches teach that baptism is the means ordained by God to effect regeneration.
a) According to Rome, regeneration, which is given in baptism, includes: (1) removal of the guilt and pollution of sin—so, justification as well as the source of sanctification in a negative sense; (2) the infusion of new qualities of grace—that is, sanctification in a positive sense, at least in principle; (3) adoption as children—that is, the positive side of justification as we understand this word.
b) According to many in the Episcopal church, regeneration, in distinction from conversion, is accomplished by baptism. It also makes conversion superfluous, except for those who after baptism again fall into great sin. All this, however, is not the official confession of the Episcopal church.
c) The Lutheran opinion has been discussed above.
24. Why is this conception, that baptism achieves regeneration, unacceptable?
a) Scripture nowhere teaches that baptism brings regeneration, but only that the church presupposes internal calling and regeneration for adults to whom it administers baptism. For baptism it still demands faith, and true faith is only possible where God has worked a new source of life in the heart. "If you believe with all your heart, then it is permissible" (Acts 8:12, 37).
b) There is absolutely no concurrence between the means and the effect. This already applies to the Lutheran view, but still more to the Roman Catholic view. Water is physical in nature and, unless its nature changes, cannot possibly cause other than a physical activity. It can cleanse the body but cannot touch the soul.
c) When Scripture sometimes speaks as if baptism stands in the closest connection to the grace of regeneration, then this can be satisfactorily explained from a sacramental way of speaking. This sacramental way of speaking reflects that sometimes what is only present in the thing signified is ascribed to the sign and seal itself. Baptism is the bath of regeneration; one is regenerated out of water and Spirit because the symbolism of baptism in fact points to regeneration. Inasmuch as the water of baptism and washing with the same have in view both inner cleansing by the Holy Spirit as well as the cleansing of guilt by justification, it is in all respects fitting when Scripture mentions baptism and regeneration together. That, however, does not at all mean that baptism effects regeneration.
25. Is regeneration a renewing of the substance of the human soul?
No, this view has its home in the system of the Manichaeans. It demands as its opposite that sin is something substantial. If regeneration produces a change of substance in the soul and at the same time is a renewing of its nature, a removing of the old nature, then this old nature, which is replaced by the new substance, must have also been something substantial. At a later time it was Flacius Illyricus (1520–1575) who advocated this view. He arrived at it as a reaction against the weakness of the synergistic conception of many in his time. It has already been shown above how in his battle against the Manichaeans Augustine went somewhat too far when he taught that sin is a mere privation. It is not substance; in that, Augustine was no doubt right. But it is also not a mere privation. Between the two views, sin is a positive moral quality or disposition that inheres in the substance of the soul. From that it directly follows: Regeneration is not the renewing (more precisely, the changing) of the substance of the human soul, but the renewing of the inherent nature or moral disposition of the soul.
One can still ask: How is the renewing of the nature or the disposition possible without the renewing of the substance? The answer to this must be: Man is not simple in the sense that the disposition of his soul could only be changed by a change of his substance; he is not absolutely simple. Absolute simplicity is only an attribute of God. With God, being and attributes coincide such that we cannot conceive of a separation between them. Therefore, if a change were possible in God's nature, this would at the same time be a change in His being. He is the absolute good by virtue of His being. And if He could cease to be good, He would also change in being. With man, it is entirely different. He is composite. His attributes cohere with his being, but not as that is so with God. The omnipotence of God can change them without therefore needing to create a new being, a new substance. It really lies already in the concept of substance that it can be detached from attributes that form antitheses, like good and evil. But precisely for this reason we do not ascribe a substance to God, but rather speak of essence, "being."
26. Does regeneration consist in a change of the soul's capacities, of either one or more of these capacities?
This, too, cannot be said. Such a change does indeed flow from regeneration. When God re-creates man, there is in fact an enlightening of his mind, a reversing of his will, and a purifying of his affections. But these three sides of the spiritual life of man are most closely tied to each other; in its root, they are one. That unity may be incomprehensible and inconceivable for us, since it never comes into the light of our consciousness. And all of which we ourselves are aware is always thinking, willing, and feeling. But still, that unity exists as surely as the unity of our soul exists. There is a hidden source from which our life springs where these three streams are one, a stem from which these three branches sprout. At this source, God performs His miracle of regeneration. There He infuses the new principle of life. And since it is the source that pollutes the water, the stem that sends up the sap of life into the branches, so from this implanting of life a new disposition and efficacy flows for our understanding, our will, and our affections (Matt 12:33, 35; 15:19).
27. Can you show that the re-creation of a single capacity is not sufficient to regenerate the sinner if God does not renew the root of his life and thereby also regenerate the other capacities?
This can easily be shown. If we assume, as some have done, that God produces only an enlightening in the intellect of the sinner and leaves the person's will unchanged, what will be the consequence of this? Man, with his enlightened intellect, will then see for himself the things of God, all the truths of salvation in their proper objective relations, and be able to explain the ins and outs of everything in the minutest detail, as a mechanic takes apart a machine and puts it together. His will, however, will directly oppose the truth, even though he grasps with his intellect the obligation to submit himself to it. The intellect alone cannot overturn the will or incline it. One is indeed accustomed to saying [that] the intellect pronounces its judgment, and then the will follows the final judgment of the intellect. This, however, is very misleading without further explanation. Clearly, the will follows the judgment of the intellect in a moral being, but what this final judgment of the intellect will be depends again, in turn, on the will. In expressing its judgment, the intellect is subservient to the will. Our will has a certain tendency: good or evil, holy or unholy, acting with God's will or against it. Our intellect judges what decision of our will squares with it, and on that basis the will follows this judgment of the intellect. The opposite view is purely rationalistic. Our will does not simply let itself be commanded by the intellect. The known truth always works through the reaction of the inclinations of our will. If, now, every good tendency is lacking in the will, then there is nothing on which the truth can act and to which it can react, and all the knowledge of angels will not produce a better disposition of the will. A sinner whose intellect was enlightened and who kept his old, completely sinful will would be the most miserable and terrifying creature in the world—the victim of the most dreadful disharmony—for his sinful will and his sinful pure knowledge would constantly work against each other. But such cases do not occur. God gives no one a saving enlightening of the intellect without at the same time renewing the will.
The situation is no different with the relationship between the will and the affections, or the capacity for emotion. Our will does not work apart from our emotional life any more than the intellect works apart from the will. In all the operations of the will, the impulse of the emotions plays a part that accompanies every spiritual function to a greater or lesser degree. He whose will is united with God's will engenders a delight in the law of God according to the inner man [Rom 7:22]. On the other hand, he whose will works against God's will finds enjoyment in sin.
If we now were to assume that God has re-created the will but left the capacity for emotion unchanged, the result would again be an untenable situation. Man would will what God wills, but it would leave him entirely unmoved and unfeeling, without any involvement of the heart. He would fulfill the commandments of the Lord with his will like a machine. Every warmth and ardor would be absent. Indeed, worse than this, if his uncleansed affections were still in him, at the same time he fulfilled the Lord's will he would detest it, so that his condition would be called most lamentable.
Finally, without an enlightened intellect neither a sanctified will nor a cleansed emotional life would avail. It is true: Someone who has a good will and pure emotions knows more and better than someone whose will is hardened and whose emotions are depraved. But that is only true where the condition of the intellect is the same for both. The best will and purest emotions cannot enlighten a darkened intellect. The light must come, not from within the will, but from outside it. And as long as that is lacking, the will and the emotions cannot work rightly.
28. To what extent can one say that the enlightenment of the intellect precedes the operation of the will and emotions?
It does not precede so far as proper, immediate regeneration is concerned. In regeneration, the re-creation of intellect, will, and emotion occurs simultaneously in a single moment, without one of these three preceding the others. On the other hand, certainly one can speak of a precedence concerning the manifestation of regeneration in the consciousness. The will and the affections cannot operate unless they have content, an object with which they are occupied. This object, this content, must have been given to them by the capacity to know, and certainly been given in the right form—that is, by an enlightened intellect. For this reason, the enlightened intellect is first in order of the three capacities in which regeneration manifests itself. And so it can appear that the will only need be suffused with the light of the intellect in order to reach out immediately toward what is known. However, this is no more than appearance. Basically, the will was already changed, for that will, too, was embedded in the root of life, in which the miraculous change was wrought by God's Spirit.
29. Show that regeneration produces an enlightening of the intellect.
This is presupposed everywhere, even to the extent that the images in which regeneration is pictured to us are often derived from the noetic life. "For God, who said that light should shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). "The natural man does not understand the things that are of the Spirit of God … and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned. But the spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one" (1 Cor 2:14–15). In this last passage it is even said of believers that they have the mind, the gift of spiritual discernment, of Christ (1 Cor 2:16; cf. further Eph 1:18; Phil 1:9; Col 3:10; 1 John 4:7; 5:20).
The difference between this knowledge of one who is regenerated and that of a natural man may only be experienced and can never be sufficiently described. It does not exclusively consist in the degree of more or less clarity, but it is a difference in quality. It rests on the entire change of being. Before regeneration, one can certainly have in himself and reproduce logical concepts and the connection of these concepts—indeed, make himself thoroughly familiar with them—but the right consciousness of the reality to which they correspond is lacking. One cannot empathize with them and penetrate them. It is, in a word, an external and not an experiential knowledge that one has of the truth. This analogy cannot be maintained in all respects, but still it has been said: As someone blind from birth cannot form a conception of colors, so someone who is unregenerate has no comprehension of the spiritual sense of God's truth.
30. Show that regeneration produces a renewing of the will.
This is taught, among other places, in Philippians 2:13: "It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." If this applies to the continuation of spiritual life, so will it apply all the more to its beginning (cf. Heb 13:21; Psa 110:3; 2 Thess 3:6).
31. How does God move the will of man?
In a manner that accords with the freedom and the spontaneous character of the will—not, therefore, by placing Himself against the will and bending it with force; also not by a physical or unspiritual power that occurs in baptism, as the Roman Catholics contend; but by bringing about a reversal in the root of life, out of which the will itself arises. The result of this, then, is that the will of itself works in the opposite direction than was previously the case, and that no longer unwillingly but spontaneously, willingly.
32. Do we mean that the Holy Spirit only changes the expressions of the will—"willing"—or that He also renews the more deeply lying will, the direction of the will, the tendency of the soul?
The latter is meant. What takes place is not merely a change in actions but a change in the permanent disposition of the will. Even if for an instant there is no expression of the will—if, for example, a regenerate person is in an unconscious condition—even then there is a great difference between him and an unregenerate person in an unconscious condition. The will of the former is directed toward God; the will of the latter away from God. Single actions of the will are only manifestations of this difference in disposition. The so-called "exercise scheme" of Emmons teaches that there is nothing in the soul but a succession of expressions of the will, "exercises," and that to initiate such a succession is the work of regeneration. This is both theologically and psychologically wrong. There is much more in the soul than its substance and expressions of conscious life. The substance has its capacities, and these have their dispositions that must first be reversed before a good action can begin.
33. Show that regeneration also produces a re-creation of the emotional life of man.
Scripture speaks of believers having a joy in Christ Jesus that is inexpressible and glorious (1 Pet 1:8). Through regeneration, a life comes into existence that can hunger and thirst after God and His righteousness. Hunger and thirst presuppose not merely a tendency of the will toward God but also that emotion accompanies it. Natural hunger and thirst create a physical feeling; spiritual hunger and thirst a spiritual feeling (Psa 42:1–2; 63:1–2). No less is spiritual sorrow mentioned as the characteristic of a regenerated person (Matt 5:4; Psa 34:18; Isa 66:2).
34. Is the entire nature of man renewed by regeneration, so that nothing remains to be renewed?
No, for everything would then be included in regeneration, and sanctification would become superfluous. The conception of Scripture is much more that the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit does not immediately remove all evil from us and replace it with a completely holy and good person, but that He effects renewal at one point in order from there to cause His renewing and sanctifying work to take hold in increasingly wider circles. Thus, there is sin within the regenerate as well as within the unregenerate. Also, as long as the former is here on earth, he cannot perform anything into which sin does not flow. His best works are still tainted with evil. But while in the sinner before his regeneration there cannot be a single thought or motion of the will or expression of emotion that arises from a good foundation, since evil always lurks in the deepest foundation of life, in the regenerate person another foundation has now been laid, a new principle created; spiritual life is present. Now, it does remain true that all the actions of this spiritual life, as soon as they press toward the circumference of life, inevitably become tarnished by the sinful remnants of his nature. But in their origin they are still something entirely different than the most pleasing deeds of the sinner dead in sin. It is also true that this new principle of life, worked by the Holy Spirit, does not have the power in itself to be able to survive. If it were left to itself, it would soon be overgrown and smothered by the weeds. But it does not exist on its own. The eternal power of life of the Holy Spirit is behind it and works in it. Therefore, not only can it not die, but it must also prove to be more powerful than the sin that has remained in its nature.
Every attempt, however, to try explaining psychologically how this new principle of life relates to sin committed after regeneration will certainly have to fail. We only know from Scripture and experience that in the regenerate a noticeable conflict exists, so that occasionally some have spoken of two persons, which of course can only apply in a very figurative sense. Still, to make the matter clear, one perhaps gets the farthest with images. We are reminded of the grafting-in of a cultivated sprig on a wild stem, by which the latter, although not immediately becoming completely cultivated, still so functions that it produces cultivated fruit. Some have used the image of a body maimed, damaged, and already in the process of disintegration, in which by a miracle the principle of life has been restored. The body will start to move and raise itself up; a dead body cannot do that. In no way, however, will the mutilation and the traces of disintegration therefore disappear. More likely, for a long time these will still recall death and will hinder the body in its expressions of life. Although such images remain deficient, they still provide a general idea of the characteristic situation in which the regenerate is placed by his re-creation.
The apostle has depicted the discord meant here in Romans 7:14–25. The facts established by him here are the following:
a) In the regenerate there is sin not only existing in single actions but a deeply rooted evil: "I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" [Rom 7:18]. The apostle has called this sin "indwelling sin" (Rom 7:17, 20), which proves sufficiently that it is continually present; it is a sinful disposition, inherited pollution. It is a law in the members, thus something permanent.
b) Yet in the regenerate there is also something good. That already appears from the specific form in which the previous statement was expressed—"in me, that is, in my flesh" dwells no good (Rom 7:18). Thus, the apostle can speak of himself from two angles. If he spoke of himself as he was in himself, apart from the activity of the Holy Spirit, thus as flesh, then no good dwells in him. If, on the other hand, he spoke of himself insofar as the Holy Spirit maintained a new life in him, then there was something good in him.
c) This new principle, worked by the Holy Spirit and based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and only maintained by that indwelling, touches the deepest ground of his life. It was deeper than indwelling sin. That appears from the words with which the apostle sets these two against each other. He no longer does it (namely, the evil), but the sin that dwells in him. Thus: he over against the sin that dwells in him. This is not said to excuse the evil, but only to show that the power of sin was still so great and even at work against the new life. So, in verses 22 and 23, the "inner man" and "the mind" are against "the members." The "inner" here is what is regenerated and new in man (cf. 2 Cor 4:16; Eph 3:16; 1 Pet 3:4). The "members" are the same again as "flesh"—that is, the depraved nature as it is apart from the new implanted principle of life. The "mind" is the same again as the "inner man." All this shows that the new principle of life in the regenerate Christian confronts his still-sinful nature (both soul and body) as a living soul confronts a dead, decomposing body. This, then, is also the image the apostle uses in verse 24. Indwelling sin is like a body of death. It is as if a hideous corpse embraces and captures him. He cannot save himself from that embrace.
d) Nevertheless, the new life within him also pervades his conscious thinking, willing, and feeling. After all, in him there is a willing of the good (Rom 7:19) and a not willing of the evil, a taking delight in the law of God after the inner man, a disapproval of what he himself does, a consenting that the law is good. These are all expressions of the new life, however much the apostle also had to add that it was not granted to him to fulfill this good to which his new man testified.
e) The conclusion that the apostle finally draws from this state of affairs is that only the grace of God can deliver him from this indwelling corruption. It is not by the native activity of the new life in obedience to the law that the corruption is purged, but by the continuing grace of God. The law alone does not bring about sanctification. As the Holy Spirit has created the new life, He must also continue working it out and mortifying the flesh (cf. Gal 2:20; 5:17).
35. Is regeneration to be viewed such that in it this new principle of life is infused into man and what is contained in that principle now comes to expression of itself?
No. Also, this coming-to-expression of the life once given—its impact on the intellect, will, and emotional life—cannot occur independent of the ongoing grace of God. But the difference lies in this: that in regeneration proper, the soul is wholly passive. It does not work, but is worked on, undergoes change, while in further stages this soul, made alive by God, becomes itself the subject of its expression of life. Nevertheless, it is also the case that it must be continuously enabled for these expressions by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
36. In what relation does regeneration stand to the subsequent saving actions of God?
It has already been noted that in these subsequent actions man himself is made the thinking, willing, and feeling subject of what takes place in him. Conversion and faith, worked by God, do not merely pass from God onto the root of his life (like regeneration), but through the root of his life outwardly. It is man himself who repents of his sins, who exercises faith, is with Christ, etc., while it is not man himself who regenerates himself or lets himself be regenerated. Clearly, these spiritual activities of repenting, believing, etc., presuppose a principle of spiritual life that in fact has become man's own. The renewed life must be his life if he is to be able to manifest repentance and exercise faith. However, to possess life in general is not sufficient. Or, expressed more precisely, life in general and in the abstract without some determination of powers and capacities does not exist. It belongs to the nature of life that it comprises a multiplicity in unity. In every seed the functions of life are present, and therefore we must assume that in the regenerate and in the life of the regenerate God also gives the capacity in principle to be able to perform the different activities of life. Thus, regeneration first makes possible all that subsequently takes place in a sinner. It not only precedes but is in a living connection with all that takes place subsequently. However, one may not think of the capacities of this spiritual life as developed dispositions. They are only present as a predisposition, as potentiality in seed form. Indeed, the seed of what a child learns to do later is given at its birth. But that does not mean that the habitus to perform certain activities is the same with a child as with an adult. This is the same in regeneration. With and in the spiritual life infused, a regenerated child certainly receives the disposition to believe. But that disposition develops. A regenerate adult, who has exercised faith for years on end, possesses that disposition in a much different condition. And yet in principle, the habitus in both is one.
37. What distinguishes more recent views concerning regeneration?
a) First, we have here the theory of trichotomy, which develops a distinctive doctrine of regeneration from its basic tenets. There are three parts in man: "body," "soul," and "spirit." In general, sin has its seat only in the life of the soul, not in the pneuma, or "spirit." As soon as it penetrates to the spirit, man becomes incapable of being saved, for that is to commit the sin against the Holy Spirit. The angels are incapable of being saved, since being only spirit, they are completely imprisoned in sin. In regeneration the Spirit of God produces a strengthening of the pneuma in man. This is no longer sinful, but still weakened. All that is necessary exists in this strengthening. When the spirit, thus strengthened, begins to govern the lower passions again, man has become "spiritual."
One sees immediately that this is merely a "refined rationalism." Sin in man, the depravity of his nature, is sought in a discrepancy between the lower and higher capacities. He is saved as the higher capacities of his reason (for this concept of "spirit" finally amounts to that) suppress the lower. He is called "spiritual," not because the Holy Spirit has made His abode in him, but because he again is led by his own "spirit" or "reason."
b) Then we have the decidedly pantheistic or pantheistically tinted soteriology of the "mediating theologians." Their Christology is false and, like it, their soteriology also proceeds from the idea of the unity between God and man. In the Mediator there are not two unmixed natures, but one mingled divine-human nature. God and man are melded together into a third entity: a divine-human life. This is the same life, then, that is communicated to man in regeneration. He partakes of the life that is in Christ. Not in our sense—as he is united to Christ the Head by the Spirit and as the Spirit, who is at work from Christ, works and maintains a personal life in him—but literally, as a part of the life of Christ passes over into him. Here, therefore, the mystical union is misused in a pantheistic sense.
It is accompanied, further, by another misconception: that this life, since it is the same in substance in each regenerated person as in Christ, need not be generated anew each time by the Holy Spirit, but that it is resident in the Church and passes from the Church to the individual. Communion with the Church brings the higher life. This is a return to Romanism. The entire judicial work of the Mediator is pushed to the background.
Finally, on this view, one cannot speak of regeneration so long as the divine-human life of Christ did not yet exist. During the Old Testament dispensation, no one was regenerated. All this is sufficient to make us see that here we no longer have to do with a Christian but with a philosophical system that, as much as it still can, uses Christian terms in order to be accredited within Christian circles and to preserve for itself the name of Christian.
38. What name do the theologians use to express the uniqueness of regenerating grace?
They use the word "physical." Regeneration consists of a physical action wrought by God. "Physical" here contrasts with "moral." They intend with that to emphasize that God's work is not morally persuasive. Currently, however, the word "physical" is currently used in a sense that can lead to misunderstanding. Physics is a natural science, and it is usually knowledge of material nature. Physical is what works in a natural or material way. In that sense, regeneration is the opposite of physical. It is therefore better to say that it is supernatural, hyperphysical. Also, God's omnipotent activity is not the same everywhere as to its manner of working. It works differently on matter than on spirit. But on the spirit it can work in a twofold fashion: by means of the consciousness, and below the consciousness. The latter occurs in regeneration.
39. Is regeneration resistible—that is, can a person resist it and undo it?
It is irresistible. And not in the sense that regeneration is merely more powerful than all resistance, but that even the thought of resistance is out of the question. Regeneration lays hold of the subject that would wish or be able to offer resistance, even in its deepest depth, and changes it. Saying that it can be resisted would always be based on the conception that it confronts its object. It does not do this, but works immanently within the heart of man.
Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics.. (A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans., R. B. Gaffin, Ed.) (Vol. 4, pp. 29–57). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.