Regeneration: from Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology

 by John H. Gerstner

Effectual calling, conversion, repentance, and regeneration were approximately synonymous terms for Edwards. An important statement in Original sin shows the identity of the last three terms.

I put repentance and conversion together, as the Scripture puts them together, Acts iii. 19, and because they plainly signify much the same thing. The word metanoia (repentance) signifies a change of the mind; as the word conversion means a change or turning from sin to God. And that this is the same change with that which is called regeneration (excepting that this latter term especially signifies the change, as the mind is passive in it), the following things do show….1

This is a rather unfortunate and unscientific way of proceeding. While it is true that Scripture tends to use these different terms synonymously, there are significant differences. Edwards himself notes that the mind, active in repentance, is passive in regeneration. Edwards often notes that conversion too has reference to the passivity of the mind as well as its reflex activity. He especially observes that repentance is a change of the mind, which we shall soon see he constantly attributes exclusively to God, the mind of man being passive (if not hostile) at the time of the change. Man’s active turning away from sin and toward God is, again, a reflex of God’s activity in changing. So, in Edwards, regeneration, repentance, conversion, and effectual calling possess this feature of passivity, though they are all followed by a human response, of course.


Regeneration or efficacious grace’ itself is characteristically decisive, immediate, and solely supernatural. This is the main difference between Calvinists (who affirm it) and Arminians (who deny it).

A favorite term in eighteenth century theology was physical regeneration meaning that the influence of the Holy Spirit in regeneration consists in infusing a new nature (phusis) and not merely a moral influence on the old nature.2 Daniel Whitby, the Arminian, also speaks of the Spirit’s work as physical,’ but it is clear that he construes physical regeneration as merely a natural effect.3

If ever men are turned, God must turn them.4 God in his Word is especially insistent on this.5 ‘I know of no one thing in Scripture wherein such significant, strong expressions are used, in so great variety, or one half so often, as the testament of this benefit of true goodness and piety of heart.’6 ‘If God be not the proper bestower, author, and efficient cause of virtue, then the greatest benefits flow not from him; are not owing to his goodness, nor have we him to thank for them.’7 In fact, ‘There is more of God in it than in almost any other work’8 If God is stronger than the world, how else could he be so? Ephesians 2:5-10 spells out the divine character of grace: We are saved by grace; grace is God’s gift;

We are, therefore, his workmanship; and we were foreordained to it. ‘I know not what the apostle could have said more.9 Metaphorically, this truth is stated in Romans 7:14: There is no lawful principle in us before we are married to Christ any more than in a remarried woman whose husband still lives.10 Again, metaphorically speaking, ‘In saving conversion they that are blind and in darkness have their eyes opened and are turned from darkness unto light.’11 This grace is impossible with men but possible with God, who is able to overcome all resistances.12


At the same time, Edwards is equally insistent on the saints’ reflex activity resulting from regeneration or efficacious grace. He calls on the converted to live the converted life.13 ‘In efficacious grace,’ he explains in his treatise, ‘we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some, and we do the rest. But God does all and we do all. God produces all, and we act all. For that is what he produces: our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are, in this respect, wholly passive and wholly active.’14

Efficacious grace as the gift of God is quite consistent with vigorous activity. Titus was forward in his concern for the saints because God put it in his heart.15 The human soul voluntarily determines to do good, but this is what the influence of God’s Spirit determines.16

One of Edwards’ most comprehensive and clear descriptions of efficacious grace occurs in his sermon on Romans 2:10:

Indeed the saints in themselves have no excellence as they are in and of themselves…. They are in themselves filthy, vile creatures and see themselves to be so. They have an excellence and a glory in them because they have Christ dwelling in them…. Tis some thing of God. This holy heavenly spark is put into the soul in conversion, and God maintains it there. All the power of hell cannot put it out…. Though it be small … ’tis a powerful thing. It has influence on the heart to govern that, and brings forth holy fruits in the life, and won’t cease to prevail ’til it has consumed all the corruption that is left in the heart and ’til it has turned the whole soul, as it were, into a pure, holy and heavenly flame.

The principle, once born, grows: ‘In conversion this spiritual principle begins again to be restored, though it be but in an imperfect degree . . . gets more and more powerful. The house of David waxes stronger and stronger and the house of Saul weaker and weaker.’17 Again, like infants in the womb, all parts of the person are present from the beginning.18 Conversion is a universal change, as this principle affects all of life, including the body.19 Conversion is some times seen as act, sometimes as process; but it is apparent that Edwards is not lapsing into Arminianism but is thinking of each new act of sanctification as a veritably new moral creation.

Probably the reason Edwards will not let go of the active character of this principle is that he dreads anyone thinking of it in an antinomian fashion. (According to the antinomians, the law was of little or no value for the man of faith. Thus the sanctified life lived under the law is not necessarily authentic evidence for justification. Edwards and other Calvinists reacted against this, of course, claiming that a converted man can and must perform good works as a manifestation of faith.) In his sermon on Deuteronomy 5:27 he says that there is ‘nothing in heaven or on earth of a more active nature’ than the converted man’s good works. ‘Godliness in the heart has a relation to practice as much as a fount has a relation to streams.’ Grace is ‘infused.’ It is this infused principle which makes actions right and not actions that make the principle right (as the Arminians erringly suppose). Likewise, regeneration is the result of predestination: ‘Conversion or efficacious calling . . . in this the decree begins to bring forth with regard to elect persons.’20

Consequently, ‘there is a great difference between converted and unconverted men.’21 First, there is a vast difference in understanding. The unconverted hear about holiness but see no excellency in it as the converted do. Second, the unconverted lack conviction of the reality of spiritual things. They are unpersuaded, aware only of problems but unwilling and unable to grasp the solution. Third, unlike the converted, they have no love for God or any desire for any of his qualities. These are real differences because only through spiritual knowledge is one ‘assimilated’ to God. Fourth, relational differences between converted and unconverted are also indicated: union with Christ; freedom from guilt; removal from divine wrath. Fifth, these vast differences which obtain between converted and unconverted argue the necessity also of their ultimate separation.22


We noted Edwards’ preference for the term efficacious grace, but how did he feel about the expression irresistible grace?

The dispute about grace’s being resistible or irresistible,’ he remarks, ‘is perfect nonsense.’23 The reason is that this grace produces new life and will; therefore, asking whether it is resistible or irresistible is tantamount to asking whether the will opposes the will. If this grace is thought of as enlightening the understanding, then it could be resistible. That would mean that the mind sees so well that it could will it or nil it. If it is objected that the person can still ‘will what he pleases,’ this is simply saying that he can will what he wills, which is rather obvious. But, the objection continues, could he not have willed otherwise? Yes, comes Edwards’ answer, if he had willed otherwise. The whole dispute is nonsense because it only says that man can do what he can do.


‘The Arminians found effectual calling to be indecisive, gradual, and natural.’24 This is the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which is a certain meekness or teachability that is not conversion, but leads to conversion.25 This is the ‘drawing of the Father.’ Thus a good and honest heart is the fruit of the Spirit’s assistance before actual obedience.

Edwards remarks of this interpretation that Arminianism ‘comes to the ground.’26 This cryptic comment seems to mean either that the Arminian is here capitulating by seeing ‘preventing grace’ as actual grace (thus taking the Reformed view) or that it conceives of virtue existing before virtue exists (thus contradicting itself). In the same vein, Arminianism construes ‘becoming as little children’ as prior to efficacious graciousness.27 The new birth is entrance into the kingdom of God,28 but it comes about by nurture and culture.29 What it all comes down to, as the Arminian Daniel Whitby puts it, is that efficacious grace amounts to God’s giving motives to obedience and virtue.30 George Turnbull (1698­1748), a Scottish philosopher, likewise thinks that ‘sudden conversions’ in apostolic days were miraculous.31 But miracles, according to Turnbull and Bishop Butler, are only natural phenomena operating according to unknown laws, which means that angels could affect conversion and God would be unnecessary.32

Edwards’ critique of the Arminian view of conversion is many splendored:

  1. Nature cannot change nature; only super-nature can (John 3:10).
  2. In the Arminian view, God can do no more than the Devil,33 angels,34 the Pharisees,35 and obviously men themselves; only the meaner parts of the process are allotted to God,36 who can only sow while the Arminians give the increase.37 God who, according to Scripture, is absolute, sole, and sovereign in this work, is really left out of it.38
  3. The Arminians have yet to show how righteousness can come to the souls of men without a truly ‘physical’ work of the Holy Spirit.39
  4. If this work depends on the sinner then, as Stebbing admits, the work may fail to occur.40
  5. If it were imagined thus to occur, it would mean that man who came into grace on his own could fall out of it the same way.41
  6. Repentance is specifically called a sovereign gift of God.42
  7. Paul, the classic case of conversion, was surely not gradually changed.43
  8. Apostates,44 who ‘went out from us’ (like Simon the sorcerer)45 on these principles were still in a converted state.
  9. Edwards deals with the favorite illustration of Arminians – the beggar accepting alms – by noting that the disposition to receive the proffered gift is the point at issue.46
  10. If being born again means being admitted to the kingdom, then John 3:5 means that unless a man is born again he cannot enter the kingdom.

Many of the Edwardsean arguments rest on one fundamental principle, fully developed in the Freedom of the Will and stated in Efficacious Grace in briefer form. The principle is this: Virtuous acts can only come from a disposition to virtue. On Arminian principles they come from nothing, because sinful man has no such disposition.47 If, on the other hand, Arminians assume that man has a good heart before he comes to Christ in order to be accepted by Christ, then Christ is really unnecessary. If the demands of the law must be reduced to man the sinner’s ability to meet them, then why did Christ have to die for sins they were unable to avoid? Actually Arminians have no conception of a good (or evil) heart, because each volition is spontaneously generated apart from any inclination which would destroy a free volition. Consequently, Arminianism comes to oppose the teaching of Scripture because of an underlying false metaphysic, tacitly assumed.


1. Original Sin, 362.

2. Works, 2:553.

3. Ibid., 2:543.

4. Ibid., 2:543f.

5. Ibid., 2:554f

6. Ibid., 2:549.

7. Ibid., 2:548.

8. Sermon on Ephesians 2:5 7, ‘When a sinner is converted, ’tis so glorious and blessed a work that it is worthy never to be forgotten but to be celebrated forevermore,’ December 1734.

9. Works, 2:556.

10. Ibid., 2:564.

11. Four sermons on Acts 26:18, November­December 1747.

12. Works, 2:562.

13 Cf. the sermon on John 3:8: ‘God is sovereign in the work of conversion,’ yet this does not deny that those most desirous of conversion are most likely to obtain it.

14. Works, 2:557.

15. Ibid.,2:558.

16 Ibid., 2:559.

17. Two sermons on Romans 7:14, ‘That men are they are by nature are perfect slaves to corruption or they are entirely under the dominion of sin,’ Winter­Summer 1730.

18. Two sermons on John 1:47, ‘ ‘Tis a great thing to be indeed a converted person,’ September 1739.

19. Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:23, ‘In true conversion men’s bodies are in some respect changed as well as their souls, ‘July 1740.

20. Lecture on Romans 8:29,30, ‘The things which God does for the salvation and blessedness of the saints are like an inviolable chain reaching from a duration without beginning to a duration without end,’ December 1 739.

21. Sermon on Matthew 15:26, ‘There is a great difference between converted and unconverted men,’ Summer­Fall 1729.

22. Cf. Helm, Treatise on Grace.

23. Works, 2:551.

24. Ibid., 2:544, 553.

25. Ibid.,2:561.

26. Ibid., 2:557, 558.

27. Ibid., 2:562.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 2:550.

30. Ibid., 2:543.

31. Ibid., 2:561

32. Ibid., 2:543.

33. Ibid., 2:544.

34. Ibid., 2:543.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid., 2:544.

37. Ibid., 2:562.

3a Ibid.,2:555.

39. Ibid., 2:558,559.

40. Ibid.,2:553.

41. Ibid., 2:554

42. Ibid.,2:551.

43. Ibid., 2:553.

44. Ibid.,2:543.

45. Ibid.,2:565.

46. Ibid.,2:551,552.

47. Ibid.,2:551,558, 562.

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