Grace, Faith and Regeneration

[Adapted from Beyond Traditionalism: Reclaiming Southern Baptist Soteriology, posted at SBC Open Forum]

There are two profound changes that happen to a man as he is saved. First: the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God. This is what the Calvinists focus on. How profound it is that a man who shakes his fist at God becomes a man on his knees at the altar! Second: God responds to the man who turns from his sin and comes to Him by justifying him, indwelling him with the Holy Spirit and bringing life back to his spirit. This is what non-Calvinists tend to focus on — the “new creation,” being “born again” and restored to communion with God.

Non-Calvinists often fail to recognize the first change for what it is — a profound change — and emphasize only the second change. In this second change, God does respond to the man’s decision to come to Him in faith. However, the second change cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace intervened in such a way as to bring about that change. Men must freely respond to the gospel, but that response does not come out of nowhere. In every man who responds, God has done a work of preparation in his life that resulted in the first profound change.

Calvinists mostly fail to recognize that the two changes are distinct, and reserve only justification for God’s response to the sinner’s faith. But justification is grounded on the reality of spiritual union with the indwelling Christ. Justification provides the initial legal judgment of our salvation, but the union with Christ provides the substance and reality of our salvation — the ground and basis for our justification. While it is plausible that God would have reason to justify prior to union, there is no plausible reason to withhold justification once the believer is united with Christ.

It comes down to the question of how far God must go to effect that first change (from rebellion to repentance). Calvinists think that God, uninvited, must indwell the man so that He can change the man from within, because nothing short of an entirely new nature will suffice. Centrists affirm that God works on him from without, communicating with him (drawing him) without indwelling him, along with orchestrating the events of his life, and that a new nature is not needed in order to bring the sinner to his knees. Repentant belief is not the righteous act of a righteous nature, pleading its own merit; rather, repentant belief is the desperate act of the convicted sinner, with no merit to hope for but that of Christ.

The second change is a change in nature, but it cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace “pursued” the man, through the convictions, revelations, and persuasions of the Holy Spirit (as well as the orchestration of necessary circumstances and events in life). The first change is man’s response to God, and makes the second change — which is God’s response to man — to be ultimately creditable only to God.

Baptist centrists would agree that all men are naturally capable — but the problem remains that they will not come even if capable, unless God overcomes their resistance by fully persuading them. Unless God has so drawn the sinner as to fully persuade him, he will with utter certainty exercise his “ability to choose between two options” by choosing to reject God. In fact, this he does daily.

As for natural freedom or power, of course all men exercise that ability by freely rejecting God from the first moment of moral understanding, until they are either converted or die. It is not the natural freedom or power to embrace God that they lack, but the moral freedom or power. The sinner is morally unable to come to God because, morally, he is sinfully averse to God and will not ever come to Him willingly on his own.

Morally, there is no neutrality, ever. One is either “all-in” with God or one is in the moral enslavement of sin. Morally, it is absurd to think of the sinner as “freely” contemplating the decision of whether or not to embrace God in faith. Any point short of a genuine surrender to God is not a point of freedom but a point where one remains in the moral slavery of resistance to God.

What is overcome by God in those who are saved is the sinner’s willful resistance. But there can be no neutral point between resisting God and embracing God. If one has not yet embraced God, then one is still resisting. The idea that God would bring a sinner to a point where he wants with equal desire to remain in his sinful self-life and to embrace God by rejecting sin, self and the world — leaving the man at that point to decide “for himself” — is based on the misconception that some men in such a position will choose God over self and sin.

First: there can be no equal desire, simultaneously existing, to both embrace God and reject God. Second: there is no neutrality with God — either one has surrendered in genuine faith, or one is still sinfully resisting. Third: every man if left to himself at any point in this process will invariably remain in his sinful resistance. If God takes him 99.999% of the way and then tells him to choose for himself, he will choose sin and self. The only way that any are saved is if God overcomes their unwillingness… and until they embrace God in faith, that unwillingness has not yet been overcome.

Since the fall of Adam, it has not been only the “ability to choose otherwise” that defines human existence; but also, it is the inevitability of choosing otherwise than God that defines human existence, rejecting the gospel in rebellion. God must do more than initiate what will be inevitably rejected. Arminians (and other libertarians) imply that God’s Spirit brings the sinner to a point somewhere just short of actual surrender in genuine faith, and leaves it to the sinner at that point to “decide” and bring himself the rest of the way. However, not only is such a neutral point nonexistent, but it also leaves one without any satisfactory answer against the objection that sinners have saved themselves by their own superior goodness, prudence, wisdom, spirituality, or intelligence, as these are the only possible discriminating factors between those who believe and those who do not.

Who among the household of faith cannot point to the all-powerful, gracious influence of God working in their life as a lost sinner, uplifting them and bringing them to saving faith? Who among us can claim that they came to the cross of their own accord and without any special influence from God every step of the way? Yet, by thinking that there are those who had that same influence as we did and still rejected God, we set ourselves up as a superior breed. The vast majority of libertarians “strenuously object to this charge,”….but it is unfortunately, the only logical conclusion of their system.

The truth is that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners of their sin, reveals the truth of God’s Word, God’s existence, the truth of the gospel, the terrible condition of the sinner, the certainty of judgment, the love of God and the availability of salvation through Christ. God can use any circumstances and events to influence a sinner in these matters. All is under God’s control — even length of life. God knows with complete knowledge everything that there is to know about each and every man. God knows every individual from the point of conception – while he is not yet formed in his mother’s womb. He knows every thought before we think it – every word before we speak it. Every man has complete predictability, as far as God is concerned. No man has ever surprised God, and none will. He knows why every man will do what he will do, and He knows exactly what influence would be necessary to cause that man to do anything. He knows what events to bring about, what circumstances to bring about, and what influences to bring to bear to cause any man to hear what He has to say and bow to Him in repentant faith. As every man’s life is unique, every man requires a different degree of divine influence to bring him to a point of genuine faith and repentance. God is able to bring any man to salvation. No man is too difficult for God to persuade by means of non-coercive influences. Therefore, those whom God has chosen from the foundation of the world He will certainly bring to saving faith.

Ken Hamrick, 2012

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3 responses to “Grace, Faith and Regeneration

  1. Ken,
    From what you have said:
    The first profound change is from being enslaved to sin and/or in moral slavery of resistance to God and a hater of God. The un-drawn sinner is unable to “freely” contemplate the decision of whether or not to embrace God in faith. He is morally averse to God. This change does not affect the nature of man.

    Now when Calvinists speak of man getting a new nature they are speaking of a change in disposition as well as a changed essence. They might say that it is of the nature of man to be morally averse to God. That it is of the nature of man to hate God. That it is of the nature of man to shake his fist at God in rebellion and defiance. That it is of the nature of man to be enslaved by sin.

    And though i have never heard any of them put it like this:
    “it is the inevitability of choosing otherwise than God that defines human existence,” I would think that most would say that, “Yes, that is the nature of man.”

    So it is a curiosity that you define man like that BUT say that in overcoming that in man, God is not changing the person’s nature. You say that man is morally enslaved to sin BUT in overcoming that in man, God is not changing the man’s nature. You say that man is morally averse to God, but that in overcoming that in man, God is not changing the man’s nature.

    One way of defining “profound” is… extending far below the surface; or this… something that is very deep.

    Yet this profound change in man that changes how we would define a human’s existence does not change his nature.

    Curious indeed.

    That aside for a second.
    You mentioned two profound changes. One that follows the other. You put it like this: “First: the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God.”

    I was thrown off at first, off balance that is until I carefully went over what you were saying and then finally I noticed what it was.

    When you write something, you try and make it reflect what you ‘see’. The problem is that no matter how careful you write, others might ‘see’ something different. So, if I get you wrong here, blame it on my bad ‘eyesight’!

    Two changes, the first gets the man ready…

    My bad eyesight reads that and sees space in between the two changes. It was the word, “ready”, that made me think that. After carefully going over the post, i had to go back and find what threw me off [I usually read with high comprehension], and that is when I found the word ready.

    It doesn’t fit. Either you meant to put space in between the two changes [by the use of the word ready] or you need to drop the word altogether.

    Let me explain.
    Here is a paragraph of yours:

    “First: there can be no equal desire, simultaneously existing, to both embrace God and reject God. Second: there is no neutrality with God — either one has surrendered in genuine faith, or one is still sinfully resisting. Third: every man if left to himself at any point in this process will invariably remain in his sinful resistance. If God takes him 99.999% of the way and then tells him to choose for himself, he will choose sin and self. The only way that any are saved is if God overcomes their unwillingness… and until they embrace God in faith, that unwillingness has not yet been overcome.”

    There is no possible space for the word ‘ready’. The ready quote goes like this:
    “First: the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God. ”

    Now according to the paragraphed quote above, there is no room just to be ready to repent and turn to God. Rather once God overcomes the man’s unwillingness, the man embraces God. The key word is ONCE. You could also use the word; IMMEDIATELY. It would be like pushing the ejection button on an F16 fighter jet. There is no time to be ready once the button is pushed. It’s pushed, and you’re OUTTA THERE! (-:

    Now why is that important?
    Well its because you are trying to make a distinction between two profound changes to man that, well, that seem to happen together. How long after the man genuinely embraces God does the second profound change take place? A week? A day? An hour? 5 minutes? 60 seconds? 5 seconds? or BAM!!!

    Now the context you seem to paint [as my bad eyes see it] is that God does His number one on the man which readies the man to embrace God so that God can react to that with profound change number two.
    Lotsa space in there.

    And yet it is more like BAM!!! BAM!!! with God’s finger on the trigger of the double barreled 12 gauge [my apologies to the gun haters]. BAM God overcomes your enslaved to sin will and BAM He justifies you, and BAM he indwells you. In fact its quicker than BAM BAM. The second you embrace is the very moment you are justified and indwelt. So really it is all just ONE…

    BAM!!!

    Here is a Scripture picture:

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    Acts 10

    New American Standard Bible (NASB)

    Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, “Cornelius!” And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

    On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.

    Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” So he invited them in and gave them lodging.

    And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” As he talked with him, he entered and *found many people assembled. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.”

    Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, and he *said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

    Opening his mouth, Peter said:

    “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)— you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”

    While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

    To make clear:
    While Peter was still speaking these words, BAM!!! the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.

    Well that was not meant for proof or anything. I just wanted to put the BAM where it belonged.

    Or how about this passage:
    Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

    As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly BAM!!! a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”

    (-: [see my last comment]

  2. Ken,
    I was having so much fun sticking the word BAM in the Scriptures I forgot to finish.

    God is not reacting to man’s faith.
    You see the process but you chop up into two what really is one. God brings the person to embrace Him. The embracing is the response of man to God’s saving love actions. It happens all at once. God brings you to embrace Him, so as you do, He regenerates you and indwells you. God is not reacting to your faith, but bringing you to faith and salvation. Faith then is not what causes God to react, but the avenue of grace God uses to save.

  3. Let me use another passage from Acts to illustrate:

    But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

    They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

    WHEN will the jailer be saved? When was he saved? WHEN he believed!!! Now when he believed was that not also WHEN he embraced Jesus? Yep. When he believed was not that WHEN he was justified and indwelt by the Spirit? Yep. One BAM and it happened WHEN he believed. ‘Both changes’ happened WHEN he believed.

    You might want to put them in to a logical order, but it isn’t God’s reacting to the jailer’s believing that saved the jailer. It was God saving the jailer THROUGH his believing.

    One BAM!!!

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