Even though in this article the gospel is called the “seed of regeneration”, it is plain from the description of rebirth in the preceding articles, as well as from this very article in which the quoted expression occurs, that the meaning is not that the preaching of the gospel is the means through which the Holy Spirit effects regeneration in the narrowest, principal sense of the word. For regeneration itself is called a new creation, and is the same as the resurrection from the dead. This implies that even as creation is an immediate work of God, as the resurrection is effected by the almighty power of God without any human means, so also the origin of the new life, which is called regeneration or the rebirth, is accomplished directly by the power of God alone, and not through the preaching of the gospel. And only as the sustenance and the prolongation of our natural life requires means “by which God in His infinite mercy and goodness hath chosen to exert His influence,” in the same way the new life, which is immediately created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, requires the means of the preaching of the gospel as “the seed of regeneration”, in order to cause it to flourish into a conscious faith in Christ, to sustain, to strengthen, and to nourish it.
That this is the view of all Reformed theologians and of the Reformed Confessions is shown also by Dr. II. Bavinck in his book “Roeping en Wedergeboorte”, although he himself seems to be inclined toward the view that regeneration somehow is connected with the preaching of the Word. He writes on pp. 26, 27 of the aforementioned book: “Although joined with the external call through the gospel, this grace (of regeneration) is nevertheless not shut up in the Word of the gospel, but it penetrates into the heart of man, touches, so to speak, man in his most secret being immediately, and renews him without his knowledge and without his will in principle according to the image of God. It is absolutely independent of any consent of the mind or any act of the free will of man. Nothing intervenes between this operation of grace and man as he is regenerated: no Word, no sacrament, no church, no priest, no act of the intellect or of the will. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of the elect the grace of regeneration (of faith, of conversion, or however one may call this first moment) directly and immediate, irresistibly.
“To adduce proofs from Reformed theology for this truth may be deemed superfluous. Anyone can find them with every Reformed writer about the internal calling and in every Reformed symbol. It is true that the internal calling, or regeneration, or the gift of faith, is seldom called immediate; almost without exception theologians confine themselves to circumscribe this work as efficacious, irresistible, and nevertheless most delightful. Nevertheless, there is not the least doubt that the grace which works the very first principle of the new life in the heart of the sinner may be called immediate in this sense that, whether joined with the Word or not, it works in man directly, without intervention, and without being dependent upon man’s intellectual consent or an act of the free will of man.”
And on pp. 33, 34 of the same work he writes: “That is the judgment which the Synod of Dordt placed over against the sentiment of the Remonstrants. A prevenient, moral, persuasive grace is altogether insufficient to bring man to faith and conversion. To the power which is exercised by the Word must be added another, internal, hidden work of the Holy Spirit by which is granted, in the first place, the power of faith and of conversion, and which, in the second place, translates with infallible certainty that power into the act of faith and conversion.
“This operation of the Holy Spirit is being circumscribed in different ways, both by the Synod of Dordt and by the different foreign and native delegates. It is called an internal, hidden, mysterious, powerful, efficacious, supernatural, almighty, unconquerable irresistible gracious, and delightful grace.
“But the term immediate grace or immediate regeneration was not used. It is, indeed, used, as we shall see later, by some Reformed theologians. And, understood in a good sense, this circumscription is not to be disapproved; but it is probably intentionally avoided by the Synod of Dordt and by many theologians, because it can easily lead to misunderstanding and be used in favor of a certain objection of the Remonstrants, which we will mention later.
“It is nevertheless established that according to Reformed doctrine the Holy Spirit does not work faith and regeneration in man in such a way that he remains bound to the means of grace, or works through them. On the contrary, He penetrates into the most secret recesses of the heart of man. He opens the closed heart; He works the quickening within us without us; He comes to dwell in man with His divine power, and infuses into the mind, the will, and the inclinations new properties, so that the darkness, the unwillingness, and unrighteousness is removed and replaced by enlightenment, willingness, and uprightness.”
And he concludes as follows: “There may be difference of opinion about the question whether this operation of the Spirit can be called immediate without misunderstanding. But about the matter itself all difference is excluded. It touches the heart of Reformed theology, the very marrow of Holy Scripture in respect to the doctrine of the application of salvation.”
That regeneration, in this sense of the word, is immediate and logically precedes all other work of grace in the heart of the elect is clearly taught by the Word of God. A few passages may be sufficient to substantiate this statement.
First of all, we would call your attention to: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
The term “born again” in the original does not only mean born over again, but also refers to a being born from above. One who is born again does not differ from the natural man merely in a spiritual, ethical sense of the word, so that he is changed from sin into righteousness, from corruption unto holiness, from enmity against God unto the love of God. But he also differs from the natural man in this respect, that while the latter is earthly and seeks earthly things, the regenerated man is heavenly and sets his heart upon the things that are above. But now notice in regard to the question we are discussing, that of efficacious and immediate regeneration, that there are a few things in the text that are especially worthy of our attention. In the first place, note that the Lord says to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This implies without a doubt that the grace of regeneration is first and must necessarily have the precedence over any other work of grace wrought by the Holy Spirit in the heart of man. Without it he cannot even see the kingdom of God. He therefore has no contact whatsoever with spiritual things. Secondly, notice that in answer to the question of Nicodemus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus answered: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The expression “born of water” can only refer to the water of baptism, for the baptism of John must have been well-known to Nicodemus. To be born of water, therefore, refers to the forgiveness of sins and to justification. A man must be objectively justified before God before he even has a right to regeneration. And to be born of the Spirit refers to the new birth itself, without which a man cannot even see the kingdom of God. But what we must especially note here is that this rebirth by the Holy Spirit is presented as immediate. A man that is reborn is born not through the gospel, but simply of the Spirit. Thirdly, the same truth is also evident from verse 6, where the Lord says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Also here the mediacy of the preaching of the gospel is completely left out of consideration. And finally, this is expressed once more in verse 8, where the Lord compares him that is born of the Spirit with the wind, which bloweth where it listeth, but of which one cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. The second birth, or the birth from above, is mysterious in its origin. One who is conscious of the operation of the Spirit and the workings of the new birth in his heart begins to see indeed the kingdom of God, begins to hear, without a doubt, the preaching of the gospel, begins to seek the things which are above; but why he is thus spiritually affected he cannot explain. It is simply the mystery of being born of the Spirit. All these elements in the text plainly emphasize that regeneration in its deepest sense is immediate, that it is not wrought through the preaching of the gospel.
The same truth is clearly taught in: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” Notice, in the first place, that the Lord here teaches that he that hears His Word already has eternal life. The latter precedes the former. Now to have eternal life in principle is the same as to be regenerated. Regeneration, therefore, precedes the hearing of the Word of Christ. This is corroborated by the latter part of verse 24, where it is said that he that heareth the Word of Christ is passed from death unto life. This hearing of the Word of the Savior evidently refers to the Word of the gospel, and therefore the true, spiritual hearing of the gospel is here presented as proof that one has eternal life, or that he is regenerated. One must be reborn before he can even hear the Word of the gospel. This is quite in accord with the text in , where it is said that one cannot see the kingdom of God, except he is born again. Just as there the seeing of the kingdom presupposes regeneration, so here the hearing of the Word of the gospel presupposes the rebirth.
And this is emphasized in verse 25, where regeneration is presented as resurrection from the dead, which, of course, is immediate. And that this rebirth, which is here called the resurrection from the dead, does not take place through the Word of the gospel is also evident from the rest of the text, which speaks of hearing the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live. This voice of the Son of God is evidently not the preaching of the gospel, but the causal, creative Word of God. And it is by this that regeneration is immediately effected.
Again, also the text fromteaches us the same truth, namely: that regeneration in its first beginning is an immediate work of the Holy Spirit. The text reads as follows: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”
This passage has often been quoted as favoring mediate regeneration. Does not the apostle plainly refer to the Word of God (vs. 23) through which we are reborn as “the word which by the gospel is preached unto you?” From this it is plain, so it is argued, that regeneration is wrought through the means of the preaching of the gospel.
However, such an interpretation fails to distinguish properly and sharply between the different concepts of the text. Especially important are the two prepositions: “of” and “by”. These two prepositions are better literally translated by “out of” (ek) and “through” (dia). We are regenerated out of incorruptible seed and through the word of God which liveth and abideth forever. Regeneration, therefore, is here presented as developing out of a seed. This seed is evidently the new principle of life, implanted immediately in the heart by the Holy Spirit. It is wrought in our hearts not only without our will or effort, but even without our consciousness. It takes place in what is often called the subconscious. And the development of the new birth out of this incorruptible seed takes place through the Word of God. The question is, what is meant here? It must be evident that not the preaching of the gospel is meant, for this Word of God is described as the Word that “liveth and abideth forever”, and again, as “the word of the Lord that endureth forever.” And this certainly cannot be said of Scripture or of the preaching of the gospel as such. For as such the written Word of God or even the preaching of the gospel does not live, nor does it endure forever. It is therefore the causal, creative Word of God that is wrought efficaciously in the heart, opening the same, as in the case of Lydia, to hear the Word of truth. And finally, the apostle writes that this living and abiding and ever-enduring Word of God is preached unto men. Conceiving, therefore, of the work of regeneration as a whole, we may distinguish three stages. In the first place, there is the seed that is implanted in the heart immediately by the Holy Spirit. In the second place, there is the Word of God, living and abiding forever, by which the seed of regeneration is developed into the new birth. Finally, there is the preaching of the gospel, through which men are externally called, and in connection with which they are brought to consciousness through the power of the same living and abiding Word of God.
Again, the same truth is taught in the well-known parable of the sower. Also this passage has been frequently adduced as a proof in favor of mediate regeneration. The seed, so it is said, is the Word preached. For in His own explanation of the parable, as it is given in Luke 8, the Lord tells us: “The seed is the word of God.” Luke 8:11. Hence, it is said that the Word as preached is the seed of regeneration.
But again careful distinction is necessary in order to understand the true meaning of the parable in this respect. If by regeneration is meant the first development of the new life into conscious activity, we have no objection to explain that this is meant by the seed as the Word of God. But that this is not the whole of regeneration is plainly taught by the parable of the Sower. For this seed of the Word of God falls at least on three different kinds of spiritual soil without bringing forth proper fruit: the soil that is represented by those that have the seed fallen by the wayside; secondly, the soil that is represented by the ground that is full of thorns and thistles. And only those that are represented by the good ground “are they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” Now, it ought to be very plain that the soil in nature is not prepared by the seed, but rather for the seed. The preparation of the soil is entirely independent of the action of the sowing. But this is no less true in the spiritual sense of the word. The heart is not prepared by the gospel, but for the gospel, and independently of its preaching, that is, by the direct and immediate work of the Holy Spirit in that heart. And thus conceived, it ought to be very plain that also the parable of the Sower teaches not mediate, but immediate regeneration.
We could adduce other proof from Scripture, but let this be sufficient.
Of course, we must remember that when we distinguish regeneration as a seed and its development, as generation and birth of the new life, we use rather a logical than a temporal distinction. At least we cannot agree with the view of some, who maintain that the seed of regeneration can lie dormant in the heart for many years before it sprouts into conscious and active life. They claim that it is possible for a man to live in sin and iniquity, that although all his life he has been under the influence of the gospel he does not have any living part with it and is not able to see the things of the kingdom of God, and that he continue in this state for forty, fifty, or sixty years, while all this time he has the seed of regeneration within his heart. Thus, a person may probably be converted when he is seventy or eighty years of age, although he is regenerated from infancy. We do not believe that this is possible. It may very well be that a seed in nature can continue to live if it has no contact with the soil whatever for many years. But it is quite inconceivable that a seed can be implanted in the soil and be under the influence of rain and sunshine without sprouting into life and bringing forth fruit. And the same may be said of the seed of regeneration that is implanted in the heart and that comes under the influence of the preaching of the gospel. It will certainly reveal itself in faith and conversion, and that, too, without delay. The work of God is throughout characterized by perfect wisdom; and it would be foolish to suppose that the seed of regeneration could lie dormant and inactive for many years, without ever showing any signs of life. And therefore, we repeat, that although we make a logical distinction between the seed of regeneration and its development into the new life, or between regeneration and birth of the new life, this distinction never means separation between regeneration and the Word of God.