Spiritus Recreator

This is an excerpt from the outstanding book "The Holy Spirit" by Sinclair B. Ferguson (G. Bray, Ed.) (pp. 115–138). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996

by Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson

The union with Christ into which the Spirit brings us is multi-dimensional in character. To be 'in Christ', says Paul, is to enter a 'new creation' (2 Cor. 5:17); the old order of sin and death, the age dominated by the flesh and the devil, have given way to a new order of reality in the resurrecton of Christ. Thus the mutual bonding between Christ and his people in the Spirit is the fulfilment of all that was adumbrated in the old covenant bond between Yahweh and his people in the Exodus and entrance into the land of rest; grounded in the work of the Messiah, it is forged through the ongoing work of the Spirit creating a new humanity.

Because it is multi-dimensional, life in union with Christ is necessarily viewed from various perspectives in the New Testament. It involves identification with him in his death, resurrection and ascension; but it also involves a correlation of the action of God with the action of man. As we have seen, Scripture stresses its monergistic roots (God is its author); it is bilateral in nature, with faith as its other polarity. The threads of regeneration and faith are inextricably intertwined. In both dimensions of activity the Spirit is active. These strands are capable of separate analysis (indeed, they ought not to be regarded as identical), but they cannot be existentially separated from each other. They belong together in such a way that we cannot mark a join where the monergistic action of God ends and the activity of the believer begins. It is significant in this context that both regeneration and the elements of conversion are regarded in the New Testament as gifts of God.


Union to Christ is inaugurated by the renewing work of the Spirit in which he begins the transformation into the image of Christ which will be completed at the eschaton. The ancient promise is thus fulfilled that God would give his people new hearts and spirits through the indwelling of his Spirit, resulting in a new lifestyle (Ezk. 36:24–27).

This transition was marked in the New Testament by the rite of baptism. By the time of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the late second century AD, regeneration already seems to have become so closely associated with its symbol of baptism that the two were thought of as coincident. This link became so refined that the sign and the thing signified were related in a sine qua non fashion, and a sacramentalist view of regeneration came to dominate the theology of the church. Even for Augustine, to whom the Reformers looked as the great theologian of grace, the idea of regeneration apart from water baptism was unthinkable. The doctrine of the limbus infantum for those who died in infancy unbaptized thus became virtually a dogmatic necessity for the medieval church.

While the mainstream Reformation thinkers continued to emphasize the role and necessity of baptism as the sign of regeneration, they argued that any identification of the two must be seen as sacramental and not mechanical; the sign and the thing signified must not be confused, as though the grace indicated by the sign were contained within it.

Particularly in the teaching of Calvin the term 'regeneration' was used to denote the renewal which the Spirit effects throughout the whole course of the Christian life. For him it describes the same reality denoted by 'conversion' and 'repentance' but viewed from a different perspective. Later, in many seventeenth-century writers, effectual calling and regeneration tended to be treated as synonyms. Only in the continuing development of evangelical theology did the term come to be used in the more limited and particular sense of the inauguration of new life by the sovereign and secret activity of God. While this served to focus attention on the power of God in giving new life, when detached from its proper theological context it was capable of being subjectivized and psychologized to such an extent that the term 'born again' became dislocated from its biblical roots.

But what does the New Testament itself mean when it speaks about 'regeneration'? In the structure of evangelical soteriology, regeneration has occupied such a central role that 'second birth' has been regarded as the definitive element of genuine Christian experience. Yet the New Testament term for regeneration, palingenesia (from palin, 'again', and genesis, 'beginning') occurs only twice in the New Testament. In Matthew 19:28, it refers to the 'renewal of all things', the final rebirth of the universe, a meaning that stands in marked contrast with its use in Stoic thought as the periodic restoration of the world.

Palingenesia here is the final resurrection, the realized adoption of God's sons, the redemption of their bodies and of the entire groaning creation (Rom. 8:19ff.), and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13). It is cosmic in its effects.

The only other occurrence of palingenesia is in Titus 3:5, where Paul speaks of the 'washing of rebirth [palingenesia] and renewal by the Holy Spirit'. It is difficult to be dogmatic about the meaning of this phrase. Does the washing consist in rebirth, effect rebirth, or symbolize new birth (through baptism)? Does the statement refer to two actions (washing and renewal), or is it a hendiadys (in which a single idea is denoted by two expressions)?

This latter interpretation seems likely and, if valid, suggests a striking connection between the regeneration of the individual and the dawning of the new age, since Paul's only other use of 'renewal' (anakainōsis, Rom. 12:2) serves the function of emphasizing the contrast between the present world order and that of the age to come. Furthermore, as H. N. Ridderbos has pointed out, the outpouring of the Spirit to which Paul refers in this context is 'typical eschatological terminology'. It underlines the fact that Paul sees regeneration within a broader context as a share in the renewal-resurrection which has been inaugurated by the Spirit in Christ. The renewal which is effected in regeneration (and symbolized in baptism) is, therefore, not merely an inner change; it is the incursion of a new order into the present order of reality. Thus regeneration (palingenesia) and the cognates (anagennaō; gennēthēnai anōthen) denoted not merely the phenomenon of spiritual change from within, from below as it were, but transformation from without and from above, caused by participation in the power of the new age and more specifically by fellowship through the Spirit with the resurrected Christ as the second man, its firstfruits, the eschatological Adam (ho eschatos Adam, 1 Cor. 15:45). This is the note which became muted in the teaching of the postapostolic church but which must be recovered.

New creation—new life

While the term 'regeneration' is not strictly associated with the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the idea of inauguration into the kingdom of God as a Spirit-wrought new birth is widespread and is in fact foundational in Johannine theology: 'To all who received him [Christ], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God' (Jn. 1:12–13). That this birth is the work of the Spirit is later underlined by Jesus' words to Nicodemus: 'No-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit … the Spirit gives birth to Spirit … So it is with everyone born of the Spirit' (Jn. 3:5–8). Being 'born of God' (i.e. through the Spirit) becomes as characteristic a description of being a Christian in Johannine theology as is the expression 'in Christ' in the Pauline corpus (cf. 1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).

Elsewhere in the New Testament similar language is used of the renewing work of God. While reference to the Spirit is less direct, his sovereign action is nevertheless implied (e.g. in Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23). Paul views Christians as being like Isaac, children of the promise 'born by the power of the Spirit' (Gal. 4:29).

Regeneration is causally rooted in the resurrection of Christ (1 Pet. 1:3). Like produces like; our regeneration is the fruit of Christ's resurrection. In union with him it is effected here and now, and will be consummated at his return. He is the firstfruits of the resurrection-regeneration of the end time; we will participate in the final harvest, but already, through the bond of union in the Holy Spirit, we share in the firstfruits (Rom. 8:23).

Here then, in the deep structures of New Testament thought, the eschatological nature of regeneration is underscored. The Spirit who has come at Pentecost is the Spirit of the future age; the world into which he brings believers is marked by the powers of the aeon to come (Heb. 6:4–5), as was the ministry of Jesus in the sense that his miracles were themselves confirmatory signs that the anticipated future age of the Messiah and his Spirit had already arrived.

Divine monergism

The New Testament's statements on regeneration emphasize the sovereign, monergistic, activity of the Spirit. The metaphor of birth itself implies not only a radical new beginning, but one which is never autonomous. The divine monergism behind it is spelled out elsewhere in antitheses: we are born, not of our own will, but of God's decision (Jn. 1:12); from above, not from below; of the Spirit, not of the flesh (Jn. 3:3, 5–6); of God, not of man (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18); by God's choice, not our own; through his word, not out of the energies of an autonomous will (Jas. 1:18). The priority here is accorded to God, not to man. The reason for this is that man is 'flesh'.

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says that he ought not to be surprised that he 'must be born again/from above' (Jn. 3:7). This necessity is universal: without the new birth, no-one can either see or enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3, 5). Here the accent is placed heavily on man's inability. The denial of human ability (in the negative of the verb dynasthai, 'to be able, to have the power') occurs five times in John 3:3–10. As flesh, man gives birth only to more flesh. He cannot give birth to spirit, or to what is spiritual. Only the Spirit of God can do that (Jn. 3:6). Since the kingdom of God is the kingdom of the Spirit, no flesh has access to it.

It is widely accepted that 'flesh' (sarx) probably has a different nuance in John from Paul's characteristic use (sarx = human nature debilitated by sin). Since, for John, the eternal Logos became sarx (Jn. 1:14), sarx must have in view the weakness and frailty, rather than the sinfulness as such, of human nature. E. Schweitzer's comment is representative: 'The nuance of that which is sinful or which entices to sin is quite absent.' Man is thus being viewed apart from and in contrast with God in his inexhaustible spiritual energy.

Such a use of sarx does not negate human sinfulness as the root cause of the Spirit-less condition, but it is the effect rather than the cause that is in focus. Sarx stands for man viewed apart from God. As flesh we require new birth because we are bereft of the life and energy of the world of the Spirit. If we are to belong to the kingdom, or family, of the Spirit, we must be 'born from above' by the Spirit. Only thus will we be able to 'worship in Spirit' (Jn. 4:23–24).

As flesh, men and women cannot see (i.e. experience, Jn. 3:36; 8:51) or enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3, 5). To be flesh is to be blind and insensitive to the realities of the Spirit-governed kingdom of God, and to fail to understand or accept the nature of spiritual reality (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).

Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus provides a striking illustration of this. Nicodemus asks how new birth is possible. He cannot understand Jesus' words. The 'secret of the kingdom of God' is a complete mystery to the man who comes 'at night' (Jn. 3:2); he still needs to come out of the noetic darkness common to all those who do not have the Spirit-given birth (cf. Jn. 3:2, 19–21).

This is taken one stage further. Man is not only spiritually blind, but spiritually powerless to enter the kingdom: 'Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God' (Jn. 3:5, RSV). Leaving aside for the moment the enigmatic phrase 'of water and the Spirit', this statement clearly stresses man's inability. Although in Christ the kingdom has come, man is powerless to enter it by the will of the flesh' (cf. 3:3: not able to see, ou dynatai idein; and 3:5: not able to enter, ou dynatai eiselthein). No-one can come to Christ (i.e. believe in him) unless drawn (sovereignly) by the Father (Jn. 6:44–45).

As a consequence, regeneration is regarded in John as the sine qua non of eternal life. This can be accomplished only from above. Apparently we can no more bring ourselves into the kingdom unaided than we can be conceived and born unaided.

What, then, is involved in the Spirit's work of regeneration?

Aspects of regeneration

What is regeneration? The Spirit's work of radical renewal involves several elements.

Firstly, it implies intellectual illumination: the kingdom of God, which before stood unrecognized, now becomes clearly visible.

John explains this in terms of the 'anointing' Christians have received which results in their knowing the truth (1 Jn. 2:20). They do not need anyone to teach them (1 Jn. 2:27). Now, in Christ, all believers share in his anointing with the Spirit and have knowledge of the Lord without human mediation, in distinction from old covenant knowledge of God which was mediated through prophets, priests and kings. This is what was in view in the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:33).

This no more means that the regenerated individual understands everything at the moment of regeneration than that a blind man receiving his sight sees everything immediately and simultaneously. He sees what his eyes are fixed on when sight is given to them, and this is then placed in the wider context. So it is with those who are born from above, and have their spiritual understanding illuminated. This is one reason why the consciousness of individuals at regeneration is bound to differ from one person to another.

Secondly, regeneration involves liberation of the will from its bondage in a nature dominated by sin. Man is incapable of entering the kingdom of God without regeneration. It follows that a central element in regeneration must be the Spirit's empowering of man's will in a kingdom-orientated way. Before regeneration he will not come to the light (Jn. 3:5, 20). Now he comes to the light; indeed he will not refuse it.

Thirdly, there is a cleansing aspect to regeneration. This is the most probable meaning of the difficult phrase 'born of water' (3:5). Various interpretations of this have had currency in the church, ranging from equating it with baptism (implying baptismal regeneration), to the view that the reference here is to natural begetting, as in John 1:12, since water, rain and dew are used variously in ancient thought to refer to male semen, in which case Jesus is simply emphasizing the necessity of being 'twice-born' men and women.

The reference to water is, however, best interpreted in the light of the probable background to this section of Jesus' teaching in the new covenant promise of Ezekiel 36:25–27: 'I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols …'. In the rest of the passage, Jesus speaks of only one birth, the birth from above (3:3, 6–7). 'Water and Spirit' probably refers to the two-fold work of the Spirit in regeneration: he simultaneously gives new life and cleanses the heart.

In any event, the cleansing which takes place in regeneration is underlined in Titus 3:5, and perhaps also in 1 Corinthians 6:11: 'You were washed, … sanctified, … justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.' Here 'washed' and 'sanctified' are tantamount to regeneration. In regeneration desires are renewed and cleansed by what Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) called 'the expulsive power of a new affection'. The Spirit gives birth to spirit (Jn. 3:6), in the sense of creating an appetite for the new age and its realities. As Ezekiel beautifully expressed it, the Spirit's renewing work makes its recipients 'careful' to do the Lord's will (Ezk. 36:27).

The Spirit's work in regeneration is thus total in the extent of its transforming power. It is the individual as an individual who is regenerated, the whole man. For regeneration is the fulfilment of God's promise to give us a new heart (Ezk. 36:26; cf. Je. 31:33), indicating that the Spirit's renewing work is both intensive and extensive: it reaches to the foundation impulses of an individual's life and leaves no part of his or her being untouched.

Regeneration is, consequently, as all-pervasive as depravity. On the basis of such statements as 'the heart is … beyond all cure' (Je. 17:9), theologians have spoken of total depravity, meaning not that man is as bad as he could be, but that no part of his being remains untainted by the influence of sin. Regeneration reverses that depravity, and is universal in the sense that, while the regenerate individual is not yet as holy as he or she might be, there is no part of life which remains uninfluenced by this renewing and cleansing work. Indeed, just as total depravity leads to moral and ultimately even to physical disintegration, so total regeneration leads to moral, but also ultimately to physical renewal, in the regeneration of the whole being in the resurrection (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:42–44). The new man is put on; he is constantly being renewed by the Spirit (Col. 3:10), and finally will be resurrected and glorified through his power.

Older theologians spoke of this radical change as 'physical'. Although the expression now seems infelicitous, their concern was to emphasize that regeneration is not merely intellectual persuasion; it is a transformation of fallen nature (physis). It penetrates deeply. It is the gift of a new heart.

The Sovereignty of the Spirit

How does the Spirit effect new birth? His work is both mysterious and sovereign. Jesus compares his activity to the wind, perhaps reflecting the words of Ecclesiastes 11:5: 'As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.' We hear the sound the wind makes as it catches objects in its tracks, but we do not know from where it comes or to where it goes. The Spirit's presence is recognized exclusively by its effects. In one sense, therefore, we do not have access to the divine activity in regeneration, only to its immediate accompaniments. We hear 'the sound' the Spirit effects in expressions of faith and repentance. Those formerly unwilling to trust Christ now do so freely and willingly.

At this juncture, the classical Protestant formulations of regeneration rightly refuse to compromise either the integrity of the human person (we are not 'forced' by external pressure) or the necessity of divine monergism (we are 'dead' spiritually and cannot bring ourselves to life by an act of our own will). They thus note that God enlightens men's minds

… spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

The tension point we encounter here—those who are unwilling being made willing—is, in fact, a sub-set of the larger question of the divine-human engagement, and in many ways parallels the similar mystery of the interplay of the divine and the human in both providence and the inspiration of Scripture. The most common mistake made in attempts to resolve this tension is to seek to divide up the field of activity between the Spirit and man (is this a work mostly from the Spirit, but partly from man? or equally from the Spirit and from man?). It is a common assumption that if it is the monergistic work of the Spirit then the will of the human person must be forced. We thus fail to recognize the underlying biblical principle that the Spirit and the individual are both active on the same field—a human life—simultaneously. But the free coming to Christ in faith is dependent on the sovereign drawing of the Spirit. Because the Spirit works in us we are able freely to respond. Sovereign divine activity does not negate the necessity for human activity; rather it grounds it and renders it possible.

Scripture does not view the Spirit's operations on the mental, volitional and affectional powers as independent of the integrity of the individual, as though the regeneration of the individual is an abstract event. Rather, the individual is a thinking-willing-affective creature, a whole person. The Spirit works within the broad context of mind, will and emotions. Consequently, although regeneration is seen by John as a sovereign and monergistic activity, it does not take place in a vacuum, but is effected through the ordinances of God directed to the whole person. There is appeal through the word of the gospel to the mind, the senses are affected by Christian testimony and care, so that faith is constrained. At one level of analysis, the individual changes his or her mind (repentance), and turns to Christ (faith). But that—which he does although he was impotent to do it—he does through the renewing work of the Spirit.

It is already clear, then, that the sovereignty of the Spirit in regeneration is not antithetical to a thoroughgoing emphasis on the role of faith in salvation; for faith is born within the context of the word (Rom. 10:14).

This is underlined in the New Testament by statements which suggest that regeneration itself takes place by means of the word of God (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:23; Jas. 1:18; Jn. 15:3, in all of which the word is viewed as instrumental in regeneration). The word of God engages us at the level of our consciousness, evoking a response. It operates at the level of our responsive action.

But how can regeneration take place through the word without this diluting the notion of the Spirit's monergistic, sovereign activity?

Since an emphasis on divine monergism has been a leading characteristic of Augustinian theology, it is not surprising that within this tradition some theologians have been particularly sensitive to this difficulty. The nineteenth-century North American theologian W. G. T. Shedd, for example, argues that what is in view here is the 'gospel dispensation'. Others equate the word with Christ himself, who sovereignly calls into action the seed of new life implanted by the Spirit.

A common resolution is to view regeneration as having a narrower and a broader dimension, a subconscious and a conscious aspect. Thus B. B. Warfield notes:

At the root of all lies an act seen by God alone, and mediated by nothing, a direct creative act of the Spirit, the new birth. This new birth pushes itself into man's own consciousness through the call of the Word, responded to under the persuasive movements of the Spirit; his [man's] conscious possession of it is thus mediated by the Word.

For the New Testament writers, however, there is no hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause. This is signalled in the New Testament by the use of the preposition ek to indicate the divine originating cause (e.g. Jn. 3:5; 1 Jn. 3:9; 5:1) and dia to express the instrumental cause (e.g. Jn. 15:3; 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Pet. 1:23).

Since the Spirit's work in regeneration involves the transformation of the whole man, including his cognitive and affective powers, the accompanying of the internal illumination of the Spirit by the external revelation of the word (and vice versa) is altogether appropriate. Since faith involves knowledge, it ordinarily emerges in relationship to the teaching of the gospel found in Scripture. Regeneration and the faith to which it gives birth are seen as taking place not by revelationless divine sovereignty, but within the matrix of the preaching of the word and the witness of the people of God (cf. Rom. 10:1–15). Their instrumentality in regeneration does not impinge upon the sovereign activity of the Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together.

Individual regeneration is therefore analogous at this point to the final regeneration of all things. Eschatological regeneration and resurrection will take place through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11), as an act of undiluted sovereignty. Yet at the same time it will be effected by the word of God: 'The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command … and the dead in Christ will rise …' (1 Thes. 4:16). He will say, as he said at the tomb of Lazarus: 'Come out' (Jn. 11:43). But then, as now in regeneration, the instrumental use of the word does not compromise the sovereignty of the Spirit's regenerating actions.

Faith a gift

This is further emphasized in the New Testament by the fact that faith is the fruit of the Spirit's ministry and is seen in the New Testament as a gift of God. Here, again, there is an apparent tension between the Spirit's activity and human response. Paul provides an important perspective for us in this respect by drawing a further analogy between believing and suffering: 'It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him' (Phil. 1:29). Suffering, like faith, is a grace-gift in Christian experience. But the gift of suffering is not a commodity given to us as a fait accompli. We, not God, suffer. Yet this suffering is a gift from him. In a parallel way, faith is not a package placed in our hands. It is the activity of the whole man, directed by the Spirit towards Christ. God does not believe for us, or in us; we believe. Yet, it is only by God's grace that we believe. His gift is simultaneously our act.

The classic text in this connection is Ephesians 2:8: 'It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.' There is a well-known exegetical crux here; what is the antecedent of 'this' and, therefore, what exactly constitutes the gift?

To the casual reader, 'faith' reads as the natural antecedent (it is the immediate antecedent). But 'this' (touto) is neuter while both of the obvious antecedents are feminine (charis, 'grace', and pistis, 'faith'); so also is 'salvation' (sōtēria), which might be understood as the unwritten antecedent: 'and this [i.e. salvation] is not …').

It is a long-recognized principle that in languages in which the grammatical gender of a noun may differ from the gender of the thing itself, the gender of a pronoun may agree with the gender of the antecedent itself rather than with the gender of the word which denotes it. In this specific context, since both pistis and charis are gender-neutral, either might serve as the antecedent.

Three considerations suggest that the antecedent (i.e. the thing that is the gift of God), is faith (pistis):

(1) It is the immediate antecedent and therefore the most natural one.

(2) It would be an unusual tautology (but admittedly not impossible, as Romans 3:24 and 5:15 indicate) to speak of grace as a gift of God, since by definition grace is a gift from God.

(3) It gives a coherent reading of Paul's thought-pattern, which may be paraphrased as follows:

God made us alive—by grace you have been saved (2:5).

God raised us up—to show his grace (2:6–7).

It is indeed by grace you have been saved (2:8)!

But this grace engages rather than ignores our action

(salvation is by faith, i.e. it engages our active response).

Yet this active faith on our part does not prejudice grace.

For even the ability to believe is not ours independently.

Faith (too) is the gift of God.

Thus: the salvation which is by grace is also by faith.

But, as should now be clear, this salvation,

while received by our action (faith),

is not thereby 'by works'.

It engages our activity,

but it leaves no room for our boasting (2:9).


salvation is not our work;

instead, we are God's workmanship (2:10).

Even if we adopt the view that it is 'being saved through faith' that forms the antecedent (the view favoured by Calvin and others), there would still be a hint that faith is a gift of grace. That faith in any case is viewed by Paul as a gift is confirmed in Ephesians 6:23, when he prays for 'faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ'. There would be little point in praying for what comes from the Father and the Son unless that faith were, in some sense, given by them. Similarly, Peter refers to believers who have 'received a faith as precious as ours' (2 Pet. 1:1), which seems to refer to the content of faith (fides quae creditur) not the act (fides qua creditur). Furthermore, in the New Testament, repentance (from which faith is inseparable) is viewed as a gift (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25); it is no surprise, therefore, if faith is also seen as a gift of grace. Here, then, divine sovereignty is given priority (it is the sine qua non of faith) without minimizing the reality and significance of the believer's activity.

Furthermore, the active exercise of faith (it is we, not God, who believe) does not compromise the grace of the Spirit's work in the application of salvation. It is of the nature of faith that by it we actively receive Christ and justification in him without contributing to it. After all, faith is trust in another. It is the antithesis of all self-contribution and self-reliance.

Paul hints at this when he says that the promise of salvation is by faith so that it might be by grace, and be guaranteed to believers (Rom. 4:16). Faith engages grace without transforming salvation into human merit.

Warfield expresses this in a pointed way when he says:

The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Saviour on whom it rests. It is never on account of its formal nature as a psychic act that faith is conceived in Scripture to be saving,—as if this frame of mind or attitude of heart were itself a virtue with claims on God for reward … It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ … It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith.

We are saved by Christ through faith. The saving power of faith does not lie in itself but in the object of its trust. As G. C. Berkouwer writes in another connection: 'Faith does not possess one single constructive and creative moment; it rests only and exclusively in the reality of the promise.' There is a total engagement of the believer, yet at the same time grace is not compromised. The genius of salvation by grace is that it engages man without diluting the graciousness of the salvation received. Otto Weber puts it well: 'Faith, according to the biblical understanding does not consist of man's being set aside, but of his being involved to the uttermost.'14


It should not now surprise us if the evidences of the Spirit's work in regeneration on the one hand, and the actions of faith and repentance on the other, are one and the same and mirror the union with Christ of which he is the bond. By the work of the Spirit we are joined to Christ; we share in the death of the old man and the resurrection of the new. We have died to sin and been raised into new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1ff.); yet, simultaneously, we ourselves crucify the flesh with its lusts, and put off the old man and put on the new (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9–10; Gal. 5:24). We work out our salvation because, and as, God the Spirit works in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13). Thus, those who have the Spirit live according to the Spirit and set their minds on the things of the Spirit; they set their affections on the things above (Rom. 8:5; Col. 3:1–2). A distaste for the old order, and a desire for the new eschatological order, become evident (cf. Ezk. 36:25–26).

A similar point is made in 1 John 3:9 and 5:18, in the startling statements that anyone born of the Spirit does not sin (hamartian ou poiei). Many commentators and versions understand John to be speaking here of sin as a prevailing habit. But the pointed language he uses (the Christian 'does not do sin') probably refers to the critical and radical deliverance from specific manifestations of the reign of sin which takes place at the point of union with Christ. Instead of remaining captive in concrete ways to the dominance of sin, the Christian becomes righteous precisely in those areas (cf. 1 Jn. 2:29; 3:10). Thus, the regenerate Saul seeks the fellowship, not the slaughter, of believers; the new man Zacchaeus gives money away rather than steals it; the transformed Philippian jailer cares for his prisoners rather than mistreats them; the runaway Onesimus, 'useless' in his old life, becomes a faithful servant and is 'useful' to Paul.

Spirit-birth also transforms the Christian's relationship to the present world order. This is expressed variously by the New Testament writers (e.g. for Paul we have already been 'crucified' to it, Gal. 6:14). For John, everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world through faith (1 Jn. 5:4). Here 'the world' signifies the world in rebellion against God, under the control of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19; cf. Jn. 12:31; 14:30), in darkness and sin (Jn. 1:5; 12:46). The cravings of sinful man, the lust of the eyes, the boasting of what man has and does—all this is the spirit of the world (1 Jn. 2:16). This is overcome by the one who is born of God. In Pauline terms, in the consecration of faith, the believer's mind is renewed and he does not conform to the world or let it mould him (Rom. 12:1–2), or follow its course (Eph. 2:2).

Central to all of these manifestations of new life is faith which has the new birth as its inaugural context. Everyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ is born of God (1 Jn. 5:1). These are two aspects of one and the same reality, viewed from the perspective of the divine action and the individual's response.


It is clear from the preceding that faith and repentance constitute the phenomenological side of the Spirit's work in regeneration. But how is this brought about? After all, it is difficult to conceive of someone coming to faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord without understanding why a Saviour is necessary in the first place, i.e. without a prior sense of personal need for salvation. Without this, the very idea of justification through faith seems incomprehensible. Is there, then, a preparation for justification in which the Holy Spirit is active?

This question brings us back to our earlier discussion of the ordo salutis and to the contrast between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of it.

In the context of Augustine's legacy to the church's theology, in which baptism was seen as the sine qua non of regeneration and justification was understood as justum facere, 'to make just or righteous', medieval theology often emphasized the process of justification.

In this process, 'first justification' was given in baptism, in which guilt and punishment for eternal and actual sin were removed. But the so-called fames peccati (the 'tinder' of sin, which might conflagrate later) remained. For 'final justification', the love of self had to give way to love of God for God's sake. This required the individual to co-operate with God's prevenient grace to do what lay in his powers (facere quod in se est, as Gabriel Biel expressed it). Led from the fear of divine justice to the hope of divine mercy, the individual developed a hatred for sin, or contrition.

The problem was, of course, that men were not perfectly contrite. Hence the provision of the sacrament of penance, which bridged the gap between real but inadequate sorrow (attritio), and the true contrition (contritio) which led to the faith suffused with love (fides formata caritate) which brought (second) justification.

Within this system, assurance of salvation was virtually impossible, and to claim to experience it was potentially heretical. Here we see why: certainty of final justification depended on a sufficient contrition, of which no-one could be certain. The whole ordo was, in fact, a preparation for a future justification. What had not yet been accomplished could not become the ground for a settled confidence.

The Reformation turned this ordo salutis on its head. It distinguished in a biblical way between justification and sanctification, and, following Paul carefully, placed a forensic justification in the foundation of the Christian life, not at its end. It rejected the Roman view of preparation in which penitence prepared the individual for justification.

In doing this, however, the Reformation theologians and their successors did not mean to deny the work of the Spirit prior to actual conversion and justification. They held, in the light of John 16:8–11, that the bringing of the individual to conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment, which found its initial fulfilment at Pentecost, was a continuing activity of the Spirit in the contemporary world. But conviction is not repentance and faith; it does not further dispose an individual to justification.

Yet does not penitence, or repentance, precede and in some sense prepare us for faith and justification? Louis Berkhof's widely-used resource book for students appears to take this position: 'There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precede the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love.'

In Scripture, by contrast, faith and repentance are inseparable gifts of the Spirit. The summons accompanying the preaching of the gospel may be phrased as 'Repent and believe' (Mk. 1:15). But, on other occasions, it is simply: 'Repent!' (Mt. 3:2; Acts 2:38; 17:30). At other times, it may be: 'Believe!' (Jn. 3:16; cf. Acts 16:30–31). Interestingly, in Acts 17:34 (cf. 17:30 above) where the response of repentance was required, the actual reaction of the few converts is described as believing!

It is clear from this that, while denoting different elements in the Spirit's work in bringing about conversion to Christ, both faith and repentance are so essential to it that the one cannot exist apart from the other. As a consequence, the one may be used where both are intended—as though either faith or repentance can function in synecdochal fashion for faith and repentance. Faith will always be penitent; repentance will always be believing, if it is genuine. There is no regeneration which is not expressed in both faith and repentance.

At the conscious level, however, one may predominate over the other, depending on which object has been a central focus in the events surrounding rebirth. If this is a deep sense of sin, repentance, with its attendant sorrow for sin, may be the dominant influence on the emotions of the individual. Alternatively, the individual may have an overwhelming sense of the grace and graciousness of Christ, in which case faith, with a joyful consciousness of forgiveness and acceptance, may predominate. But neither can properly exist in the absence of the other. Depending on the context of active conversion, the level of consciousness of the one converted may be suffused with a sense of one over the other.

A theological clue to understanding this is found in a fine statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith: faith 'acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof [i.e. of Scripture] containeth'. The point is that in the varied work of the Spirit the psychological and emotional accompaniments of conversion are correspondingly diverse. But in no case does real conversion take place apart from the presence of both faith and repentance.

The 'conversion' from which sorrow for sin and turning from it are absent, that receives the word only with joy, but knows no other impact from the gospel, is likely to be temporary faith, according to Jesus (cf. Mk. 4:16–17). By contrast, the 'conversion' that is only sorrow for sin will eventually feed on itself, and die.


What, then, is involved in repentance in this context? Two primary elements:

(1) A recognition of offence against God and the covenant he has made with his people (cf. Ps. 51:4, where David's recognition that his sin is against God reflects this covenantal orientation). Isaiah, for example, pictures the people as covenant sons who have rebelled against their Father. The inevitable consequence is that they end up in the 'far country' of exile, individualized in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:13), but threatened long ago in the Mosaic covenant (cf. Dt. 28:36).

Men are under the covenant judgment of God for their rejection of the obligations of faith and obedience (cf. Am. 4:6–11 with Dt. 28:15). Repentance involves a recognition of this; a realization of the significance of being in the 'far country', separated from the Father.

(2) Repentance also involves a turning away from sin in the light of the gracious provisions of God's covenant. Repentance is returning to a spirit of creatureliness before the Creator, in recognition of his mercy to penitent believers (cf. Dt. 30:11ff.). Ungodliness is thus rejected and righteousness is embraced.

Such repentance is evoked by the Spirit through a sense of who God is, and therefore by an awareness of the true character of sin. It is a God-centred response; indeed, it is the beginning of true God-centredness. It is a turning away from sin in the turning round to God.

Repentance is as necessary as faith for salvation. Salvation is salvation from sin. It involves more than forgiveness. It includes our sanctification. It must therefore engage those who are saved in the turning away from sin which is involved in repentance. There can be no salvation which allows for an unchanged pattern of continuing in sin (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.). But while repentance is as necessary as faith for salvation, it is related to justification in a different way. By faith alone Christ is received and rested on as Saviour. Justification is by faith (alone!), not by repentance. But repentance is as necessary to salvation by faith as the ankle is essential to planting the foot on the ground, or as the beating heart is to the use of the eye for vision. Both are essential, but they are not related to the same act in the same way. Faith is the individual trusting in Christ; repentance is the same individual quitting sin. Neither can exist apart from the other.

We have defined repentance in terms of turning from sin to God in the concrete terms of his covenant relationship with us in Christ. But since that is the activity of self-conscious individuals, it follows that the experience of repentance will vary from individual to individual, just as surely as do their expression and consciousness of sin. God's mercy is not merely a universally applicable medicine for sin; it is prescribed for particular sinfulness and particular guilt. Individual consciousness of repentance, or what we might call the psychology of repentance, is bound to be influenced by this. Here, too, we find the principle which characterizes the ministry of the Spirit: his ways of working are diverse. Herman Bavinck has some wise words in this respect:

Repentance is, despite its oneness in essence, different in form according to the persons in whom it takes place and the circumstances in which it takes place. The way upon which the children of God walk is one way but they are varying led upon that way, and have varying experiences. What a difference there is in the leading which God gives the several patriarchs; what a difference there is in the conversion of Manasseh, Paul and Timothy! How unlike are the experiences of a David and a Solomon, a John and a James! And that same difference we encounter also outside of Scripture in the life of the church fathers, of the reformers, and of all the saints. The moment we have eyes to see the richness of the spiritual life, we do away with the practice of judging others according to our puny measure. There are people who know of only one method, and who regard no one as having repented unless he can speak of the same spiritual experiences which they have had or claim to have had. But Scripture is much richer and broader than the narrowness of such confines … The true repentance does not consist of what men make of it, but of what God says of it. In the diversity of providences and experiences it consists and must consist of the dying of the old and the rising of the new man.

But within this general framework, there are several elements we can trace that will be common to all incidences of the repentance which is effected in us through the Spirit.

Marks of Repentance

In repentance the Spirit produces a new attitude to sin, which will inevitably be accompanied by a sense of shame and sorrow for it (Rom. 6:21; cf. Lk. 15:19). Such an attitude to sin will be as concrete as the sin to which the new attitude is directed. Repentance means returning in a spirit of obedience along the path one has trod in a spirit of disobedience, and is worked out in the specific terms of concrete obedience to the commandments of God (cf. Dt. 30:2). Thus, in the Gospels, the repentance to which the rich young ruler was summoned was to take the concrete form of developing self-denial in the very area he had developed self-indulgence; in the case of Zacchaeus, it meant the returning of what had been taken unjustly (cf. Mk. 10:17–31; Lk. 19:8).

In this sense, Paul describes the repentance which issues from the regenerate heart when he says that the righteous requirements of the law are met in those who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:3–4).

It follows from this that repentance is not limited to the act of the moment, but develops into a permanent lifestyle.

In repentance the Spirit also evokes a changed attitude to oneself. Repentance is dying to the old ways and crucifying one's flesh. Initial repentance is simply the beginning of mortification. It is a deeply radical change. It involves concurring with God's judgment of all reality, including oneself—justifying God in his righteousness and condemning oneself in one's sinfulness. It is taking up the cross and denying oneself—not by ontological self-abnegation, but by the putting off of the old man (Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:22), and by the crucifying of the flesh with its lusts (Gal. 5:24). This too is a permanent change with perpetual implications. It means making no provision for the flesh to fulfil its lusts (Rom. 13:14).

It is worth noting in passing that this has a profound bearing on the issue of the Christian's view of himself or herself. It must always be both simple (we become new men and women in Christ) and yet complex (we are imperfectly renewed). The Christian therefore sees himself or herself as one who has died to sin and been raised to new life. But this mortification and vivification characterize the whole course of his or her life, as we shall later see.

Repentance also has at its root a changed attitude to God brought about through the work of the Spirit. Neither of the first two elements could exist without this. Repentance is rooted in a true view of God. If he should mark iniquities, none could stand; but there is forgiveness with him that he may be feared (Ps. 130:4). Evangelical repentance, the inauguration and continuance of the life of godly fear, is always suffused with the promise and hope of forgiveness. In the theology of Scripture, a sense of sinfulness on its own is never equated with repentance. Thus, the encouragement towards repentance is that 'there is still hope for Israel' (Ezr. 10:2). Peter's genuine repentance after his denial of Christ (which seems to be set in deliberate contrast with Judas' worldly sorrow-repentance and ultimate despair) is produced by his remembering the word of the Lord, which in this case included the promise: 'I will pray for you that your faith fail not, and when you are converted, strengthen the brethren' (Lk. 22:32, lit.; 22:61–62).

The classical pattern of the work of the Spirit in evoking repentance is found in Psalm 51, which, writes Artur Weiser, does not express:

… the fleeting mood of a depressed conscience, but the clear knowledge of a man who, shocked by that knowledge [i.e. of his sinfulness] has become conscious of his responsibility; it is a knowledge which excludes every kind of self-deception, however welcome it might be, and sees things as they really are.

Hence the psalm begins (51:1–6) with a comprehensive analysis of the nature of sin as rebellion (peša', 'transgression'); as distortion ('āwôn, 'iniquity'); as failure (ḥaṭṭā'ṯ, 'sin'); as contrareity ('against you, you only, have I sinned'); as filth that needs to be cleansed ('cleanse me … wash me'); as falsehood and lack of authenticity and integrity ('you desire truth [emeṯ] in the inner parts'). Repentance also unfolds in a recognition of the danger of sin, as that which places us under the judgment of God (51:4), and in danger of being cast out from him (51:11). It involves the uncovering of the deep-seated intransigence of sin (51:5), since it is rooted in our nature, from the womb.

In the light of this, true repentance inevitably involves a broken spirit (51:17). That is not a highly emotional spirit. It is a spirit in which self-sufficiency and self-defence have been penetrated and broken down.

The same psalm also makes clear that repentance arises not only within the matrix of the Spirit's illumination of our condition, but in the hope of pardon to which he draws us. Appeal is made to the steadfast love of the Lord (51:1); the cry of the penitent is directed to the One who is able to save and who does save (51:14).

Furthermore, the reality of such repentance is evidenced in a new concern for holiness: a new desire for heart-reality and a clean life (51:6–7), for purity and renewal (51:10). Coupled with this is the desire to serve and save others (51:13) which flows from broken pride. Finally, true repentance, because drawn out in the context of grace, leads to, and energizes, worship: 'O LORD, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise' (51:15).

David's entire burden is, in one sense, summed up in the plea: 'Do not … take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation' (Ps. 51:11–12). More than official royal anointing is at stake here. David realizes that without the Spirit's ministry there can be neither repentance nor its fruit in the joy of restoration (the verb, significantly, is šûḇ).

The fact that repentance is a gift of the ascended Christ to his people (Acts 5:31) indicates that it comes to us specifically through the ministry of the Spirit. Its nature indicates how manifold and comprehensive his ministry is.

Christ is a 'Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel' (Acts 5:31). When we ask: 'By what means does God bring us to repentance?', the answer must be that it is by the revelation of himself in his word, illumined by the Spirit. A right view of God as holy and merciful is the only foundation for genuine evangelical repentance. His holiness grounds its necessity; his grace and mercy ground its possibility.

Faith and repentance, as expressions of regeneration, are thus not merely inaugural aspects of the Christian life but characteristics and fruits of the Spirit's ongoing ministry. Indeed, the entire progress of sanctification is but regeneration coming into its own, and faith and repentance becoming more and more the dominant notes of life in the Spirit.


Source: The Holy Spirit by Sinclair B. Ferguson (G. Bray, Ed.) (pp. 115–138). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links