Christians affirm that we are saved by faith alone. That saving faith results in good works, works that are possible and pleasant to us after we are saved. Those works of course do not save us, help to save us or make us "saveable". Christians also recognize the necessity for regeneration, that we must be born-again to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). These two truths bring up a "chicken or the egg" dilemma. Which comes first, faith which leads to regeneration or regeneration which leads to faith?
Traditional Reformed theology holds that faith of necessity follows regeneration, that an unregenerate heart is incapable of saving faith. This is my position. Most evangelicals today (and for much of recent history) would say the opposite, that we are regenerated or born-again when we have in faith. I have been thinking about this since we met with the church last Wednesday and discussed the role of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
Most evangelicals will affirm a couple of key points of doctrine:
- Man is depraved, dead in sins and trespasses.
- Someone who is born again is a new creation, which is something that you cannot undo. You cannot be "un-born again"
The problem is that while the majority of the church agrees with those two points, and rightly so, the disconnect comes when you deal with the necessary implications of those two doctrines if you take them in a vacuum. In other words:
- How does a spiritually dead sinner respond in faith to the Gospel?
- If someone can of their own volition exercise faith, why can't they stop exercising it?
Those questions are impossible to answer if faith precedes regeneration. If man is able to save himself by choosing to exercise faith in Christ, than Jesus died to enable men to save themselves and man becomes the ultimate arbiter of his own salvation. That sounds awfully palatable to our ears but theologically there would be nothing more cruel than for God to leave the "decision" up to spiritually dead sinners and indeed I would argue that if the final decision was left up to man, there wouldn't be a single sinner redeemed and Christ would have died in vain.
The New Covenant in Christ that we celebrate with the Lord's Supper was not that if we have faith, then God would reward us with salvation. It was that God would initiate salvation by creating a new heart in dead sinners (Eze 36:26), that He would put His spirit within us, that He would write His law upon our hearts (Jer 31: 33) and that He would remember our sins no more (Jer 31: 34). That is the Gospel of grace, a monergistic faith that makes salvation truly all of grace, not a cooperative effort. When you gather with the church today you can truly sing "Amazing Grace" because grace that is all of God truly is amazing.
The Reformers had many faults, missed the mark in many places and were flat-out wrong in some. You have to hand it to them though, when it comes to recovering the glorious doctrines of God's sovereign grace in salvation they were right on. I thank God this morning that He didn't leave it up to me or wait for me to save myself. In His mercy, He saved us while we were yet sinners incapable of saving ourselves or even showing faith in Christ.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:4-8)
(See here for an excellent introduction to monergistic regeneration)