“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” -Ephesians 2:8-9
The idea that in order to become born again, we must first express faith in the gospel, is a popular one. Most Churches today teach that you must choose Jesus, then the Holy Spirit will come in and make some changes in you.
I would like to take a moment to think through this process logically, and see if it is a Biblical concept, or one that simply helps support certain traditions. I invite comments and further discussion, as I feel it’s an incredibly important topic.
Here are a few of the limitations of man in His natural, unregenerate state. Before we are born again:
- we can not submit to God, or do anything pleasing to Him.
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” –Romans 8:7-8
- the gospel is foolishness to us.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…” –1 Corinthians 1:18
- we do not seek for God
“no one understands; no one seeks for God.” –Romans 3:11
With these concepts in mind. Let’s think through what it would look like for a man to believe in Jesus for his salvation, before the Holy Spirit is indwelling that man.
There you are. A sinner, that suppresses the obvious truths of God around you (Romans 1:19-20). Someone comes to you and shares the gospel. They tell you a story about God becoming a man, and dying for anyone who will believe in Him, then coming back to life and ascending into Heaven. Unless you are some exception to the human race, you aren’t interested in seeking this God (Romans 3:11), and this story is sheer nonsense to you (1 Corinthians 1:18).
At the very most, you’ve received information about a religion. You need to make a decision between the Christian religion, the Jewish one, the Muslim one, the Buddhist one, and the secular worldview that everyone else believes. Your gospel-preaching friend shares some historic facts about Jesus, which are nice, but he’s obviously biased. There is no real supernatural help (other than any help God already gives to everyone equally) until you make your profession, so you’re on your own to weigh the facts. Now, let’s say your friend is a good salesman, and is rather persuasive.
Now he commands you to repent and believe the gospel. He’s asking you to do something very strange. You’ve heard what is no more than a fairy tale to you, and in reality, you don’t really believe it. You need to take an absolutely blind leap into darkness and place your trust in something that your mind is convinced is not actually there. You need to lie to yourself, to your kind friend who brought you the message, and indeed to Jesus Himself, and say you believe that Jesus died for you, and rose again.
So you accept the superstition and decide to try it. You recite what is really no more than a God-ordained magical incantation. THEN the Holy Spirit comes in. He basically turns the magical spell into a true statement, and now you REALLY believe Jesus because of your born again experience and all the other applied work of the Holy Spirit.
Is this really how we think it works? Is salvation initiated by a hokus-pokus prayer or confession that gets God to do something? Or is the order that the modern Church has come to embrace actually reversed? Is it actually God who opens your eyes first, followed by your true confession of faith?
What Does Scripture Have to Say About It?
“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” –1 Corinthians 12:3
Scripture tells us that until we are indwelled with the Holy Sprit, it’s impossible for us to make a true confession of faith. We are not told to blindly profess a lie, but that once God has given us His Spirit, we, without exception say “Jesus is Lord”.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” –John 6:44
Again we see that we are incapable of coming to Jesus without God’s doing the work.
“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” –John 3:3
Once again we see the absolute limitation. We “cannot see the kingdom of God”, until we are born again.
We are so spritiually deaf, blind and indeed dead (Ephesians 2:5) that we need to be brought to spiritual life BEFORE we are able to believe, and be saved.
“everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” –1 John 5:1
Even for a moment old believer, they have been “born of God” – past tense.
No Spritual Limbo
One easy misunderstanding that may come from this kind of language is that there is actually some amount of time that a person is regenerated, and hasn’t expressed faith in Christ yet – sort of in between stage. This is not the case.
Regeneration and the subsequent faith are instantaneous in time. Scripture never puts any time in between the two, because they are a package deal
Here’s a helpful way to think about it: Regeneration and faith are like a light switch and a light bulb. God is the one who proactively flips the switch on, and you, the bulb then produce the light of faith. So when I say ‘regeneration precedes faith’ I don’t mean in a temporal sense, but I mean that God makes you spiritually alive first… and a ’spiritually alive’ person necessarily has faith.
The Implications of a Right Understanding
Why does it matter which comes first? The answer is very simple. If we understand who produced the faith in us, then the right person gets the glory for it.
If YOU, in your spiritual sensitivity and wisdom, saw that this gospel business made sense, when all the rest of the world reject it, you deserve some commendation. At least in part, your whole time in Heaven is based on that smart decision you made to choose Jesus. Some of the glory God demands in salvation would go to you.
If, as the Bible tells us, GOD chose to have mercy on you, open your eyes to Him, and give you the gift of faith… then all the glory goes to it’s rightful place. Let’s not attempt to share in God’s glory. Let’s praise God for opening our eyes by grace alone, and not by our own doing or willing (Romans 9:15-16).
Let’s praise God for his Sovereign regenerating work, and not see it as a threat. Because without it, none of us would ever come to Him.
“And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”” –John 6:65