Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

There’s a wide-spread theology, influenced by 16th century theologian John Calvin, which teaches that regeneration (spiritual rebirth) precedes faith. The dogma says that men are so morally depraved that they are incapable of faith until the Holy Spirit first works a miracle on the heart, regenerating it. Well-known, self-proclaimed Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, affirms this idea in his book, What is Reformed Theology?, saying, “[U]nless we first receive the grace of regeneration, we will not and cannot respond to the gospel in a positive way. Regeneration must occur first before there can be any positive response of faith” (p. 186, emp. added).

This doctrine is false. The Bible clearly teaches that faith is produced from hearing the gospel (Rom. 10:17; 1 Thess. 2:13). “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation …” (Eph. 1:13). The gospel is the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Howbeit, if Calvin was right, the gospel can do nothing for salvation; only the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work on the heart can. It may be argued that the gospel does produce faith after the Spirit regenerates the mind, but the point remains the same that the Spirit’s regeneration is the primary enabler of faith, and without it the gospel can do nothing—ever. The power of God unto salvation, according to this view, is the miraculous operation of the Spirit; not the gospel.

However, there are arguments often used to support this error. Three of which we will examine here.

In an article titled “Regeneration Precedes Faith,” Dr. Sproul asserts,

“The reason we do not cooperate with regenerating grace before it acts upon us and in us is because we cannot. We cannot because we are spiritually dead. We can no more assist the Holy Spirit in the quickening of our souls to spiritual life than Lazarus could help Jesus raise him for [sic] the dead” (par. 8, emp. added). 

This is a common comparison. A lifeless body cannot respond to help, and supposedly, because a sinner is “dead” in sin (Eph. 2:5), he, just as a cadaver, is entirely unable to respond to God in faith; therefore, the Holy Spirit must regenerate the lifeless soul and enable faith.

The problem is apparent, and simple reasoning brings the parallel to ruin. A corpse can do nothing. It cannot think, read, talk, walk, eat, pat its head while rubbing its belly, or anything else, but the spiritually dead can do all these. The mental faculties of a physically living man are still intact even while he is dead in spirit. As a matter of fact, those who are spiritually dead, “walk” in sin (i.e., practice sin, Eph. 2:1 – 2), but a corpse cannot walk in anything. It cannot practice anything. No, not even sin! Using this comparison, one could just as well argue that once a person dies spiritually, they can no longer commit additional sin—no more than could Lazarus in the tomb! This analogy presents “spiritual death” with a meaning it does not contain in the scriptures.

The truth of the term is simple. To be “dead in trespasses” is to be separated from God by having sinned against Him (Isa. 59:1 – 2), and thus to be saved is to be “quickened together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5 – 6), having those sins forgiven. Spiritual death is disunion with God due to the condemnation of sin; not a spiritually unresponsive soul, as Calvin’s theology claims. The dead-body analogy must be rejected.

The Acts 16:14 account of Lydia’s conversion to Christianity allegedly cries Calvinism. Edwin H. Palmer, in The Five Points of Calvinism, claims,

“Not only is man unable to do the good by himself, he is not even able to understand the good. He is as blind as Cyclops with his one eye burned out. Lydia, for example, heard Paul preach Christ at the riverside of Philippi. Only after the Lord opened her heart was she able to give heed to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14). Until then, her understanding was darkened, to use Paul’s description of the Ephesian Gentiles (Eph. 4:18)” (emph. added, p. 15).

It is astounding that Palmer and many others have argued this idea from this verse. It is nothing but an assumption that Lydia was incapable of understanding the preaching of Paul, and it is further assumed that the “opening” of her heart was God’s removal of this inability. The text neither says nor implies any of this. Palmer reads these ideas “into” the verse.

Consider that in Acts 26:18, Jesus told Paul that He was sending him to the gentiles to “open their eyes” (Acts 26:18), and we know Paul did this through preaching. He was in the synagogue, “disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8), and again, “There came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus …” (Acts 28:23). To “open” people’s eyes is the same as “opening” their heart—it is to enlighten them to the truth of the gospel. Remember, Lydia “heard” Paul preach. Not only did Lydia have the ability to understand the gospel, she did understand it and was convicted by it, and hence “attended” unto what Paul spoke. The Lord opens a person’s heart, not by a total take-over of the Spirit, but by the persuasion of the gospel.

A popular “proof-text” for the pre-faith-regeneration position is John 6:44 where Jesus says, “No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him….” Dr. Sproul argues this “drawing” is the regeneration of the Spirit(What is Reformed Theology, p.155 – 158), and thus nobody can come to Christ (i.e., believe on Him) unless regenerated first.

Sproul labors much in his text to substantiate this idea, but to no avail, because Jesus elaborates in the next verse: “It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” This is Jesus’ explanation of how God draws. Through hearing and learning? But hearing what?

“[H]ow shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14 – 17).

It is evident that God’s draw is not a miraculous regeneration imposed upon the sinner, but instead, it is the persuasion power of His word. In fact, Paul tells us that the gospel is God’s call to the sinner: “Whereunto he [God] called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14). Men are taught by God through His word, and if they “hear” it, i.e., believe and learn, they come to Christ in faith. In John 6, Jesus’ audience had previously heard His preaching, but did not believe as they should have (6:36); they were more interested in selfish gain (v. 26). Furthermore, the Jews had the Old Testament scriptures, but those who failed to “hear” and “learn” from them did not believe Jesus, as He attested, “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (John 5:46 – 47). The only way for people to believe in Christ is to learn from the gospel. This is how God draws.

Calvinism denies the gospel’s role for producing faith. God to this day is surely opening hearts and drawing souls by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Article by: Andrew K. Richardson