Our fathers obviously cite the text inin order to make one point, namely, that we are born again out of incorruptible seed. This, to them, makes the Arminian teaching of regeneration that can be lost and of frequent regenerations of the same individual absurd. That this is indeed the fathers’ purpose in quoting this passage is plain from their reply to the Arminians: “For these deny by this doctrine the incorruptibleness of the seed of God, whereby we are born again.” This, then, is their sole point. In itself it makes no difference what you say about the interpretation of the passage. In itself it makes no difference whether you speak of mediate or immediate regeneration in this connection. Over against the Arminians this passage proves plainly that we are born again out of incorruptible seed, that therefore this regeneration cannot be lost, that thus there can be no necessity of and no room for frequent regenerations. On this single term hinges the truth that once regenerated means forever regenerated, and that there cannot possibly be a falling away of those who are regenerated. You would have to blot this term out of the Scriptures in order to maintain that a single regenerated saint could ever lose his regeneration!
For what does the contrast between corruptible and incorruptible seed mean? Abstractly considered, a corruptible seed is a seed that is subject to corruption from without, able to be corrupted. And the permanence, the abiding character, therefore, of that which is able to be corrupted is, of course, not at all guaranteed. If our life of regeneration were out of corruptible seed, then there would at least be always the possibility that finally the power of corruption would gain entrance into us, and that we would finally succumb to that power of corruption, and thus lose our regeneration. That, as such, is the meaning of corruptible seed. If we were born again out of a corruptible seed, then the very principle and the beginning of our whole existence would be subject to corruption. Concretely, however, the apostle undoubtedly has reference in this passage to the contrast between our first birth and our second birth, and therefore means by this corruptible seed the human seed out of which we are born, the seed of a human being in conception. That human seed is corruptible, that is, subject to corruption. In fact, the seed out of which we are born is corrupted already at the time of our conception. And therefore, it cannot last: it has in it the principle of death. The result is, as far as our first life is concerned, that dying we die.
But now the apostle says that this seed of regeneration, that is, this very first, inner principle or beginning out of which all our life as saints springs, is not a corruptible, but an incorruptible seed. Not only is there no corruption in it, but it is not subject to corruption, is not able to be corrupted. There is no death in it, and it is not subject to death. The reason for this is, of course, the fact that the life principle of this seed is Christ, who is incorruptible. Because Christ died as the prince of life in behalf of His people, He overcame death in their behalf. His life, and our life in Him, is resurrection life, life that is victorious over death in the absolute sense of the word. This life Christ through the Holy Spirit imparts unto His own. And so the seed that is implanted in the elect is incorruptible. Out of that seed that life of regeneration springs. And it can never die. No more than Christ and His life are subject to death, no more are the elect and their life in Christ subject to death. Regeneration can never be lost. And there is never any need for a repetition of regeneration. Once regenerated is always regenerated. And it is all of grace. There is no falling away of the saints.
And now we return to the matter mentioned in the beginning of our discussion of this article, namely, that of mediate or immediate regeneration. As we mentioned, this question arises, or rather, is introduced, in connection with this article. And we are therefore almost forced to discuss it also even though it is not as such pertinent to a treatment of our Canons. Nor would we deny that a discussion of this subject can be beneficial, even for a better understanding of the truth of perseverance as set forth in our Canons. For, in the first place, the more one considers this entire passage in, and that too, in connection with this “incorruptible seed” which our fathers point to, the more one can understand the beauty and the strength of our Reformed position, and the more one can see the utter absurdity of the Arminian position. In the second place, while we certainly would not deny that truly Reformed men have maintained that regeneration is mediate, we believe that the stand of those who maintain mediate regeneration, even though unintentionally, allows room for a misunderstanding that could ultimately land one in the camp of the Arminian. For if one maintains that regeneration is through the means of the preaching of the Word, and then changes the preaching of the Word into an Arminian well-meant offer or invitation, dependent upon the acceptance of the hearer, it is not difficult to become entirely Arminian and to adopt the position which our fathers reject in this very article. Let me emphasize: no truly Reformed man, even though he believes regeneration to be mediate, would countenance this Arminian heresy. But the possibility is there.
And that possibility is not there if regeneration is immediate. And, in the third place, this question is important with a view to the matter of infants in the covenant of grace. For either those who believe in mediate regeneration must exclude the regeneration of infants, or they must allow for an exception in the case of infants of believers—an exception which then becomes much more common than the rule. This latter difficulty many adherents of mediate regeneration pass by without an acceptable and satisfying answer. Hence, we may profitably give our attention to this whole question in connection with this passage from.
First of all, however, I wish to quote from the commentary of Ds. T. Bos on this article of our Canons. He enters into this question at some length, in order at the very end of his comments to deal with the main issue of the article, i.e., the Arminian heresy. I quote in free translation from pp. 250-252:
“Here there is mention of the ‘seed of God,’ which is the seed of regeneration, in connection with Peter’s teaching concerning the ‘incorruptible seed.’ In that connection it becomes plain to us how our fathers, gathered at the Synod, conceived of these words of Peter, in distinction from the interpretation which some give. Peter places the living and abiding word of God over against all flesh and all glory of man: that latter is as the flower of the grass, which withers and falls away, and is thus corruptible. Moreover, he says of the Word of the Lord that it abideth, the word, namely, that is preached unto them.
“Now the Son is never called ‘the word of God,’ only the Word. And that Son can also not be called ‘the seed of God,’ as that seed appears here. The seed of God and the word of God and ‘the word of the Lord’ is the preached word of the gospel. Here then is indeed proof that the preached word, the word of the gospel, is here considered as the seed of regeneration, as the Apostle Paul also speaks of a ‘being begotten’ through the word.
“The connection between regeneration and Word may not be broken because the Scriptures lay that connection and because in our Confessions that connection is maintained.
“That connection, however, does no injustice to the Scriptural doctrine that the Holy Spirit implants the new life in a man, changes the heart, gives conversion unto life, and regenerates. The acceptance of the means is no denial of the operation of the work master. How the Holy Spirit uses the preached word in regeneration will indeed never be fully explained by us.
“To let go of the connection between word and regeneration with an appeal to the case of infants, who can be regenerated before they can ever understand the word—this is to use the one truth of Scripture in order to oppose the other truth, something that is highly dangerous, because then one does not compare Scripture with Scripture, but brings Scripture in conflict with itself. Whoever wants to explain everything in this area, or solve everything for our human understanding, begins something he cannot finish. It is much more in harmony with Scripture in the case of little children to reckon with the word of promise given to the children of the Church; for where the Word, or preaching of the gospel is not, there the promise of the Spirit is also not pledged to the children. The word therefore also in the case of children is before the Spirit; the Holy Spirit follows the Son in the preached word, just as the Son follows the Father with the word according to the line of election.
“In regeneration the Holy Spirit prepares the heart as fruitful soil, through which the seed of the word finds response in the heart, and, being accepted through faith, is kept. Now that word, having fallen in the heart, having been accepted, having become a reality, and having its effects upon the entire heart, on the entire soul life with all its faculties, and thus on one’s entire life; that word abides because it is an incorruptible seed, and so it always continues to work on, in greater or smaller measure, again and again strengthened under the application of the Spirit.”
After thus elaborating on this whole matter of mediate regeneration, the author devotes brief attention to the Arminian error discussed in the 8th article of Canons 5, B. Quite obviously he was bent on putting across the notion of mediate regeneration.
We cannot finish our discussion in the present issue. For the time being, however, we point out:
1) That it cannot be said on the basis of this article that the fathers of Dordrecht were given to the view of mediate regeneration. In this particular article they give absolutely no indication of this.
2) That the issue in mediate versus immediate regeneration is not whether there is a connection between regeneration and the Word. The issue is rather: what is the connection between the two? Is the Word preached the means of regeneration, or must regeneration itself precede any spiritual hearing of the Word preached? The matter must certainly not be presented thus, that the adherents of immediate regeneration deny the general principle of a connection between regeneration and the Word preached. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
3) It is gross oversimplification to say that those who bring up the case of infants are guilty of bringing Scripture in conflict with Scripture instead of comparing Scripture with Scripture. This is simply an easy way of lightly dismissing the problem rather than facing it. If, however, one compares Scripture with Scripture, and then finds that his particular view of regeneration stands in conflict with a plain Scriptural truth, is it not much more correct to say that it is high time to re-examine one’s view? But one must not imply that the adherents of immediate regeneration oppose one truth (supposedly the “truth” of mediate regeneration) with another truth (the truth of infant regeneration).
(to be continued)