Regeneration Necessary to Perceive the Beauty and Excellency of Divine Things

by Charles Hodge

The following excerpts are from an essay written by Charles Hodge entitled "Regeneration and The New Divinity Trend" taken from the Princeton Review: First Series, published in New York by Wiley and Putnam in 1846. It was written in review of "Regeneration and the Manner of Its Occurrence, A Sermon from John 5:24". Preached at the Opening of the Synod of New York, in the Rutgers Street Church, on Oct 20 1829, by Samuel H. Cox, D.D., Pastor of the Laight Street Presbyterian Church. Hodge takes on some common philosophic arguments against the doctrine of monergistic regeneration. He successfully refutes the synergistic teaching that the natural man's decision to trust Christ must come from an indifferent moral disposition, as often claimed. Hodge shows that the only reasonable explanation for holy decisions is that they must spring from holy first causes and inclinations. The ideas in the following excerpts of Hodge's essay must be mastered by anyone who intends on teaching a gospel that is faithful to the Scripture. The essay is not a biblical exposition (that is done elsewhere), but rather, a response to philosophical opposition to the truth of the Spirit's monergistic work of grace in the soul of the elect.


...[Jonathan] Edwards not only admits that moral principles and habits may and must exist in the soul prior (in the order of nature) to moral action, but his whole system of practical theology, as it seems to us, rests on this foundation. The great fundamental principle of his work on the affections is this: All gracious or spiritual affections presuppose and arise from spiritual views of divine truth. These views the natural man neither has, nor can have, while he remains such. Hence arises the necessity of such a change of being wrought in the state of the soul that it can perceive the beauty and excellence of divine things. This change consists in imparting to the soul what he calls 'a new sense' or a new taste, or relish, or principle, adapted to the perception and love of spiritual excellence.

...After having stated that the exercises of the true Christian are specifically different from those of unsanctified men, he infers that if the exercises are different, the principle whence they proceed must be different, or there must be, 'as it were, a new spiritual sense, or a principle of a new kind of perception of spiritual sensation.' And he hence explains why it is that 'the work of the Spirit of God in regeneration is often in Scripture compared to giving a new sense, giving eyes to see and ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf and opening the eyes of them that were born blind, and turning them from darkness to light....'

...[The question is] why does one man see and feel a beauty in certain objects when others do not? Is there is no difference between the clown and the most refined votary in the arts, but in their acts? Is any man satisfied by being told that one loves them, and the other does not; that it is in vain to ask why; the fact is enough, and the fact is all; there is no difference in the state of their minds antecedent to their acts; there can be no such thing as a principle of taste of sense of beauty, distinct from the actual love of beauty?

We are disposed to think that no man can believe this: that the constitution of our nature forces us to admit that if one man, under all circumstances and at all times, manifests its quick sensibility to natural beauty, and another does not, there is some difference between the two besides their acts; that there is some reason why, when standing before the same picture, one is filled with pleasure and the other is utterly insensible. We cannot help believing that one has taste (a quality, principle, 'or inward sense') which the other does not possess. It matters not what it may be called. It is the ground or reason of the diversity of their exercises which lies back of the exercises themselves, and must be assumed to account for the difference of their nature.

Now, there is moral as well as natural beauty, and it is no more unintelligible that there should be a 'sense', or taste, for the one than for the other. The perfect character of God, when exhibited to different men, produces delight and desire in some, repugnance in others. We instinctively ask, why? Why do some perceive and delight in his moral beauty, while others do not? The answer, some love, and others do not, is no answer at all. It is merely saying the same thing in other words. There must be some reason why one perceives this kind of beauty, to which the others are blind; why one is filled with love the moment it is presented, and the other with repugnance. And this reason must lie back of the mere exercise of this affection, must be something besides the act itself and such as shall account for its nature.

It may be said, however, that the cases are not analogous: that the emotion excited by beauty is involuntary, while moral objects address themselves to the voluntary affections; and that it is admitted that there is not only 'something' back of each exercise of love, but we are told distinctly what it is, namely, the soul with its essential attributes, its ultimate or supreme choice, or dominant affection, and the object in view of the mind. Accordingly it is easily accounted for that when the character of God is presented, one man is filled with love, another with repugnance. The reason of the difference in these acts does indeed lie back of the acts themselves; for it is found in the ultimate of supreme choice of the different individuals.

But how is this to be accounted for? If there is no necessity for accounting for the particular character of the first or ultimate choice (if so it must needs be called), there is no need of accounting for the others. The difficulty is not at all met by this statement. It is only pushed back from the secondary and subordinate to the primary and dominant preference. There it returns. The question still is, why does the soul of one man make this supreme choice of God, or in other words, love him, while another sets his affection on the world? There is precisely the same necessity for assuming some ground or reason for the nature of the first choice, as for any acts subordinate and subsequent to it.

Let us suppose two individuals called into existence, in the full maturity of their faculties; each has a soul with the same constitutional powers, or essential attributes; the one is filled with delight the moment the character of God is presented, and the other is not; or the one loves his Maker as soon as the idea of His excellence is presented, the other does not. According to this theory, there is no reason for the difference. There is nothing back of the first act of choice that is not common to both.

If instead of two individuals, we suppose two millions, one portion having their affections spontaneously called forth on their first view of their Maker, the other unaffected; we have only a greater number of effects without a cause, but the case is the same. It will not do to answer that the choice is made under the influence of the desire of happiness, for this being common to all, is no reason for the difference or the result, which is the very thing to be accounted for. To say that the choice is made under the influence of the desire of happiness is only to say that when the character of God is presented it gives pleasure. But the same character is presented in both cases, the same desire exists in both, yet in one it gives pleasure, is an object of desire; in the other not.

This is the fact which is left entirely unaccounted for on the theory in question, and for which the mind as instinctively seeks a cause, as it does for any other effect. To account for the difference from the nature of agency is to assume the liberty of indifference. For if the choice be made prior to the rising of desire towards the object, then it is made in indifference and is of no moral character. If the desire rises, it is love; which is the very thing to be accounted for. We are at a loss to see how this theory is to be reconciled with the Calvinists' doctrine on the will, which is not peculiar to Edwards, but constituted the great dividing line between Calvinists and Arminians from the beginning.

We feel, therefore, a necessity for assuming that there is 'something' back of the first moral act besides the soul and its essential attributes, which will account for the nature of that act, which constitutes the reason why, in the case supposed, the soul of the one individual rose immediately to God, and the other did not; and the 'something' assumed in this case is no more indefinite and indefinable than the constitutional propensity to live in society, to love our children, or the mental quality called taste, all which are assumed from a necessity not more imperious then that which requires a holy principle to account for the delight experienced in view of the character of God. And if our Maker can endow us not only with the general susceptibility of love, but also with a specific disposition to love our children; if He can give us a discernment and susceptibility of natural beauty, he may give us a taste for spiritual loveliness. And if that taste, by reason of sin, is vitiated and perverted, he may restore it by the influences of his Spirit in regeneration. Neither, therefore, the objection, that what is not an act must be an essential attribute; nor the unintelligible nature of a 'principle of nature' is, in our view, any valid objection to the common doctrine on regeneration.

There is [another] objection, however, to this doctrine, and that is that it renders the sinner excusable, because it makes regeneration to consist in something else than the sinner's own act. This objection, as it seems to us, can only be valid on one or the other of two grounds; the first is that the common doctrine supposed sin to be a physical defect, and regeneration a physical change; and the second is that man is responsible solely for his acts, or that there can be no moral principle anterior to moral action. With regard to the first, it is enough to say that no physical change, according to the constant declaration of Calvinistic writers, is held to take place in regeneration, and that no such change is implied in the production of a holy principle ...

The second ground is inconsistent with the common notions of men on the nature of virtue, and if true would render the commencement of holiness or regeneration impossible. It is according to the universal feeling and judgement of men that the moral character of an act depends upon the motive with which it is done. This is so obviously true that Reid and Stewart, and almost all other advocates of the liberty of indifference, readily admit it. And so do the advocates of the theory on which this objection is founded, with regard to all moral acts excepting the first. All acts of choice, to be holy, must proceed from a holy motive, excepting the first holy choice which constitutes regeneration: that may be made from the mere desire of happiness or self-love.

We confess that this strikes us as very much like a relinquishment of the whole system. For how is it conceivable that anything should be essential to the very nature of one act as holy, that is not necessary to another? Is not this saying that that on which the very nature of a thing depends may be absent, and yet the thing remain the same? Is it not saying that that which makes an act what it is and gives it its character, may be wanting or altered, and yet the character of he act be unaffected?

It is the motive which gives the moral character to the act. If the motive is good, the act is good; if the motive is bad, the act is bad; if the motive is indifferent, so is the act. The act has no character apart from the motive This, it seems, is admitted with regard to all moral acts excepting the first. But the first act of a holy kind is an act of obedience, as well as all subsequent acts of the same kind. How then is it conceivable that the first act of obedience performed from the mere desire or self-love can be holy, when no other act of the same kind and performed from the same motive, either is or can be? How does its being first alter it very nature? It is still nothing more than as act done for self-gratification, and cannot be a holy act.

It is said we must admit this, from the necessity of the case, or acknowledge that there can be holiness before moral action. We prefer admitting the latter and believing that 'God created man upright', and not that he made himself so. That there was a disposition, or relish, or taste for holiness, before there was any holy act, which to us is far more reasonable then that an act is holy because the first of a series, which, if performed from the same motive at a different point of the line, would have a different character.

...By the power of the Holy Spirit the truth may be so clearly presented and so effectually applied as to produce that change which is called regeneration; that is, as to call into existence a taste for holiness, so that it is chosen for its own sake, and not merely as a means of happiness.

It is evident, therefore, that the theory which denies the possibility of moral distinctions being carried back of acts of choice forces its advocates to adopt the opinion that the first holy act is specifically different from all the others... for the difficulty still remains, why the character of God should appear desirable to one being and not to another, if both are called into existence in puris naturalibus (with purely natural qualities).

[Edwards's replies]

"...It is agreeable to the sense of the minds of men in all ages, not only that the fruit of effect of a good choice is virtuous, but the good choice itself from which that effect proceeds; yea, and not only so, but also the antecedent good disposition, temper or affection of the mind from whence proceeds that good choice, is virtuous. This is the general notion, not that principles derive their goodness from actions, but that actions derive their goodness from the principles whence they proceed; and so the act of choosing that which is good is no further virtuous than it proceeds from a good principle or virtuous disposition of mind; which supposes that a virtuous disposition of mind may be before a virtuous act of choice; and that therefore it is not necessary that there should first be thought, reflection, and choice before there can be any virtuous disposition. If the choice be first, before the existence of a good disposition of heart, what signifies that choice? There can, according to our natural notions, be no virtue in a choice which proceeds from no virtuous principle but from mere self-love, ambition, or some animal appetite." - 140 Jonathan Edwards, Works, vol 1 (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 177.


From the book: Princeton Versus the New Divinity: The Meaning of Sin, Grace, Salvation, Revival  published by Banner of Truth


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