Biblical Regeneration and Affectional Theology
"And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19:28)
"He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." (Titus 3:5)
Regeneration is described in the Scripture as a spiritual birth, a spiritual re-creation, and a spiritual resurrection. In Matt. 19:28 it denotes the eschatological "restoration of all things". In Titus 3:5 the word refers to the inner spiritual renewal of the individual. Although the above two biblical texts are the only time the word "regeneration" is used in the New Testament, the concept of regeneration is taught throughout the Holy Scriptures. Regeneration may be defined as the sovereign, supernatural, immediate work of the Holy Spirit in bestowing divine spiritual life to elect sinners. The first effect of regeneration is to open the eyes of our understanding to the excellency and beauty of divine truth. The second effect the going forth of the renewed affections toward that excellency in God perceived.
True religion consists, in large part, in the affections ... and this begins with the initial step of saving faith all the way through to final perseverance. But how can the natural man, who "loves darkness" (John 3:19), work up any affections or desire for God? or apprehend His beauty and excellence? We know that human reasoning is never free from the effects of sin, and that people deny God, not because they lack evidence, but because their hearts are rebellious. So the unbelievers' problem is ethical first and then intellectual and thus he/she requires a supernatural work of God to understand and apprehend spiritual truth as revealed in Scripture. Those who know facts, therefore, are not the same as those who forsake sin and come to love God. We must therefore appeal to the entire person and not merely their intellect. God is hidden from man because he loves sin and remains in hostile rebellion against God. This antagonism for the gospel is seated in the affections, not because we lack data or are not smart enough. So we appeal to the heart because God is not just a precept or an axiom as found in mathematics. To come to faith in Christ one must first desire Christ, perceive and take delight in His unmatched beauty, and have a love for Him that is greater than a love of sin. Faith will never "just happen' out of thin air but actually requires that we desire Him, for we only choose that which we most desire. But to be sure, the Scriptures teach that these holy affections are not produced by our unregenerate human nature (Rom 8:7; 1 Cor 2:14). And since the root of faith cannot be indifferent or neutral, a full orbed gospel is not merely a list of impersonal propositions for our intellectual assent, but it is proclaiming the full person of Christ in His love for sinners shown in His life, death and resurrection. Words are not enough, however, to persuade those bent on rebellion because spiritual knowledge, which is relational, requires a new sense of God's unsurpassed excellence ... and this is possessed only by the regenerate. Paul, when speaking to the Thessalonians makes this clear when he says, "for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction..." (1 Thess 1:5).
The propositions, Christ is Lord and Christ is Savior are obviously understood intellectually by anyone who reads or hears Scripture. The words are written down on the page of the Bible making it an item of knowledge that is objective. But this knowledge would appear to lack an affective element wherein the subject reading the text actually takes delight in or desires it. So true spiritual knowledge only comes as the truth is desired by the subject, a knowledge which subjectively participates in the truth of the propositions and Person of Christ presented. This means illumination and regeneration are required, because prior to conversion a person is incapable of perceiving spiritual knowledge (1 Cor 2:14, 1 John 4:2, 14, 5:20). Instead, humanity willfully attempts to suppress and pervert true knowledge (Romans 1:18). Thus we can see there is no lack of capacity to believe, nor are humans intellectually ignorant, rather it is because sinful rebellion rules their hearts that men refuse to believe. So the difference between the regenerate and unregenerate is the relationship each has with the Holy Spirit. Both know God, one as an enemy and the other as friend ... and only the Spirit can confer spiritual knowledge which the subject delights in. This knowledge is found in the Word of God but is only apprehended through the regenerative work of Holy Spirit. Hence spiritual knowledge is communicated by the Spirit via revelation which is the only way one can be enabled to see the beauty, harmony, truth and excellence of the Scriptural Text. John Calvin, describing this spiritual work said,
"Indeed the Word of God is like the sun, shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect... Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it." (Calvin's Institutes 3.2.34.)
What he is saying is that mankind, which has fallen into depravity, is spiritually unable to sense God's goodness, beauty or any knowledge of a spiritual nature. Obviously our natural faculties are fitting for the outward call of the gospel (preaching), yet due to spiritual impotence which corrupts the intellect and affections, we despise, cannot understand and will not receive spiritual truth. The unregenerate mind, which hates the light (John 3:20), is incapable of spiritual perceptions. So in the same way that the recovery of natural sight is necessary to see, so the mind and heart must be illumined and the disposition re-created if understanding and desire for God is to be possible. In a sermon spiritual understanding, Jonathan Edwards said, "There is a spiritual understanding of divine things, which all natural and unregenerate men are destitute of." (Edwards, A Spiritual Understanding of Divine Things). Likewise in his classic book Religious Affections Edwards says, "...holy affections are not heat without light" but rather, "arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge." He calls this understanding which is peculiar to the saints "a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things." Elsewhere he says, "...the first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration is to give the heart a Divine taste or sense; to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature." It should obviously follow to the reader that no unregenerate man delights in God's beauty and thus will not naturally be willing to turn his hostile mind and heart to Christ in faith. This new sense, rather, must be implanted in the heart and mind by the Holy Spirit.
Criticizing the common teaching that the human will is to be viewed as one of the causes of regeneration (with the help of divine assistance but without a transformation of nature), Edwards said:
...it is impossible for men to convert themselves by their own strength and industry, with only a concurring assistance helping in the exercise of their natural abilities and principles of the soul, and securing their improvement. For what is gained after this manner is a gradual acquisition, and not something instantaneously begotten, and of an entirely different nature, and wholly of a separate kind, from all that was in the nature of the person the moment before. All that men can do by their own strength and industry is only gradually to increase and improve and newmodel and direct qualities, principles, and perfections of nature that they have already. And that is evident, because a man in the exercise and improvement of the strength and principles of his own nature has nothing but the qualities, powers, and perfections that are already in his nature to work with, and nothing but them to work upon; and therefore 'tis impossible that by this only, anything further should be brought to pass, than only a new modification of what is already in the nature of the soul. That which is only by an improvement of natural qualities, principles, and perfections- let these things be improved never so much and never so industriously, and never so long, they'll still be no more than an improvement of those natural qualities, principles, and perfections; and therefore not anything of an essentially distinct and superior nature and kind...
And if we suppose a concurring assistance to enable to a more full and perfect exercise of those natural principles and qualities, unless the assistance or influence actually produces something beyond the exercise of internal principle: still, it is the same thing. Nothing will be produced but only an improvement and new modification of those principles that are exercised. Therefore it follows that saving grace in the heart, can't be produced in man by mere exercise of what perfections he has in him already, though never so much assisted by moral suasion, and never so much assisted in the exercise of his natural principles, unless there be something more than all this, viz., an immediate infusion or operation of the Divine Being upon the soul. Grace must be the immediate work of God, and properly a production of His Almighty power on the soul...
...The Spirit of God may operate and produce effects upon the minds of natural men that have no grace, as He does when He assists natural conscience and convictions of sin and danger ... But He communicates holiness in His own proper nature only, in those holy effects in the hearts of the saints. And, therefore, those holy effects only are called spiritual; and the saints only are called spiritual persons in Sacred Scripture. (Edwards, Treatise on Grace)
It follows that those who come to understand and apprehend correctly the spiritual things of Scripture must be taught of God, that is, if it is to delightfully received as the very Word of God. In his Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther writes, "If you speak of internal perspicuity, the truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures...The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture." In his sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light Jonathan Edwards taught that illumination "gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the Word of God." In like manner John Calvin in his commentaries on the epistles of Paul says, "Until we have been taught by the Spirit our master, all that we know is folly and ignorance. Until the Spirit of God has made it known to us by secret revelation, the knowledge of our divine calling exceeds the grasp of our minds." Later in the same Commentary Calvin said:
"...Only when God shines in us by the Holy Spirit is there any profit from the Word. Thus the inward calling, which alone is effectual and peculiar to the elect, is distinguished from the outward voice of men."
From the unity seen in the comments of these great theologians it should be obvious that the individual's transformation, to bring a person to faith, is something that the Spirit extends and works through the entire man (heart, mind, soul, affections) . John Owen, perhaps the greatest Puritan theologian, confirms this when he said regeneration is "a new, spiritual, supernatural, vital principle or habit of grace, infused into the soul, the mind, will, and affections, by the power of the Holy Spirit, disposing and enabling them in whom it is unto spiritual, supernatural, vital acts of faith and obedience." Of course this means that the natural mind, being blind to spiritual things requires a communication of light by the Holy Spirit. This alone will enable the soul to remove its' prejudices and apprehend the glory of divine things. Without this evidencing of spiritual truth to the mind the natural man would see no truth from the Scripture or from mere rational arguments. In his sermon, Concerning Efficacious Grace, Edwards further distinguishes between persons with and without understanding when he said, "a natural man has no degree of that relish and sense of spiritual things, or things of the Spirit, and of their divine truth and excellency, which a godly man has."
So the essential evidence of true conversion is in the ability to receive spiritual knowledge because this is the direct result of the work of illumination by the Spirit. The Spirit alone can establish this new basis for knowing . The subject of such a spiritual work begins with a hostile mind and is given the ability to apprehend spiritual knowledge that he might trust in it. And because it is of God and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the subject of this work becomes certain of the truth contained in the Holy Scripture. The Word will not find acceptance without the inward call and testimony of the Spirit who alone is a suitable witness of Himself. So if a person is to trust God's benevolence toward us, it must, therefore, be founded upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The Spirit reveals the truth of the Text to those who previously did not see it. And there is a reality and a certainty to which the Spirit testifies within us. The following shows three major ways the Spirit works to convert sinners:
I. Regeneration is described as a spiritual new birth.
1. This is affirmed in the following New Testament passages: John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; I Corinthians 4:15; Philemon 10; James 1:18; I Peter 1:3,23; I John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18.
2. The embryonic stage of regeneration is what is called "quickening", and it is the work of the Holy Spirit alone.
3. The final stage of regeneration is delivery or birth, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit in dependence upon the Word as a means. Consequently, the spiritual knowledge conferred by illumination is the spiritual content or revelation (holy Scripture).
4. J I Packer says, "Infants do not induce, or cooperate in, their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are 'dead in trespasses and sins' prompt the quickening operation of God's Spirit within them."
II. Regeneration is described as a spiritual re-creation
1. The following New Testament passages affirm this: II Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10; 4:24.
2. When an elect sinner is regenerated, he undergoes a second birth and becomes a new creature.
3. While belief in the gospel makes man an active participant in Salvation, the Holy Spirit must first implant the desires which enable Him to see and apprehend God's beauty and excellency. In this respect man is utterly passive since such a sense is not within his independent natural affections, capacity or desires.
III. Regeneration is likened unto a spiritual resurrection.
1. The following New Testament passages affirm this truth: John 5:24-26; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 1:19-20; 2:5; Colossians 2:13; I John 3:14.
2. When he/she is regenerated, the sinner, having been quickened, passes from spiritual death unto spiritual life.
3. Just a Jesus, when calling Lazarus out of the grave, did not ask for permission, so the dead sinner does not play a role in his spiritual resurrection nor make a contribution to God's spiritual work.
Spiritual affections, which give rise to the desire to come to Christ, are only possible though regeneration, the sovereign act of a merciful God. This re-creation generates the effects of repentance and faith. Many modern-day churches have abandoned this biblical teaching which was recovered at the Reformation. Some pastors turn the truth on its head and say that a mans autonomous faith is what produces the new birth. But this fails to account for the existence of spiritual desires ... where did they get them? ... and especially, prior to conversion, why do some men have such spiritual affections and not others? This utterly fails to recognize the depth of our hostile unspiritual heart condition, prior to salvation, nor does it account for the existence of spiritual affections at all. Such a wonderful gift does not appear out of thin air ... no ... it derives its source and benefit from the person and work of Christ alone.
"Without regeneration, the sinfulness of man keeps him away from God, causes him to set his affections upon self and his own pleasure, and to find gratification in things which are opposed to God and holiness. The regenerated heart has new affections and desires and is, therefore, fitted to seek after God and holiness." (Boyce's Abstract of Systematic Theology--Chapter 32)
"There are very many of the most important things declared in the gospel, that are hid from the eyes of natural men." ...but..."as soon as ever the eyes are opened to behold the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things, a multitude of most important doctrines of the gospel, that depend on it (which all appear strange and dark to natural men), are at once seen to be true." (Edwards, Religious Affections)
"True gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things." (Edwards, Religious Affections)
"If salvation is the implantation of a new, infinite life in the soul, it must be a work of God. Self-caused effects can never rise above the character or qualities of their cause. "Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit," Jesus told Nicodemus. This saving grace cannot be caused by the creature, it can only come from God."
- John Hannah (To God be the Glory pg. 34, 35)
"That the sole agent in this effectual calling is the Holy Ghost; that he uses Gospel truth as his instrument; and that, while all sinners are active in resisting the common influences of grace before regeneration, and all believers in co-operating with sanctifying grace after regeneration, nevertheless every new-created soul is passive with respect to that divine act of the Holy Spirit whereby he is regenerated ... voluntary acts of the human soul are determined by, and derive their character from, the affections and desires which prompt them; and that these affections and desires derive their character from the permanent moral state of the soul in which they arise. In the unregenerate this permanent moral state and disposition of the soul is evil, and hence the action is evil. Action positively holy is impossible except as the consequence of a positively holy disposition. The infusion of such a disposition must therefore precede any act of true spiritual obedience. Effectual calling, according to the usage of our Standards, is the act of the Holy Spirit effecting regeneration. Regeneration is the effect produced by the Holy Spirit in effectual calling. The Holy Spirit, in the act of effectual calling, causes the soul to become regenerate by implanting a new governing principle or habit of spiritual affection and action. The soul itself, in conversion, immediately acts under the guidance of this new principle in turning from sin unto God through Christ. It is evident that the implantation of the gracious principle is different from the exercise of that principle, and that the making a man willing is different from his acting willingly. The first is the act of God solely; the second is the consequent act of man, dependent upon the continued assistance of the Holy Ghost." (A. A. Hodge The Westminster Confession of Faith Commentary Chapter Ten Of Effectual Calling)
"Without Christ we are spiritually blind. Men and women without the illumination of the Holy Spirit cannot understand the truth of God (1 Cor. 2:14). The word of God, and salvation by grace alone by faith alone in the death of Christ, are foolishness to the spiritually blind. They are spiritually blind to the truth of God in Christ. Moreover, we are spiritually deaf until the Spirit of God enables us to hear the truth of God. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (John 8:43). Jesus told a great Jewish religious leader, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). The kingdom of God is a spiritual realm. It cannot be seen with the physical eyes. But to the spiritually regenerated He gives sight." (Wil Pounds in his essay "Who is Jesus?")
"The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself." (1 John 5:10)
"Our mind has such an inclination to vanity that it can never cleave fast to the truth of God; and it has such a dulness that it is always blind to the light of God's truth. Accordingly, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing. From this, also, it is clear that faith is much higher than human understanding. And it will not be enough for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart is also strengthened and supported by his power.... In both ways, therefore, faith is a singular gift of God, both in that the mind of man is purged so as to be able to taste the truth of God and in that his heart is established therein. For the Spirit is not only the initiator of faith, but increases it by degrees, until by it he leads us to the Kingdom of Heaven."
- John Calvin, 'Institutes of the Christian Religion', III.ii.33
A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God by Jonathan Edwards
Regeneration Necessary to Perceive the Beauty and Excellency of Divine Things by Charles Hodge
A New Impulse? A Nobler Bent? by Hannah More, "Christianity an Internal Principle"
Illumination, The Holy Spirit Gives Spiritual Understanding by J.I. Packer
Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards
The Holy Spirit Regenerating by A.W. Pink
Coming to Christ with The Will by A.W. Pink
The Nature, Causes and Means of Regeneration by John Owen
John Calvin, Theologian of the Holy Spirit
Books to Read
Growing in God's Spirit by Jonathan Edwards
Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards
The Holy Spirit by John Owen
Bondage and Liberation of the Will by John Calvin
A Treatise on Regeneration by Peter Van Mastricht, Brandon Withrow
Doctrine of the Holy Spirit by George Smeaton