The apostle Paul mentions regeneration literally only in one passage, namely, in the well-known passage ofTitus 3:5. God saved us, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” Often in these words an indication of or reference to holy baptism is found. Baptism, according to this explanation, is the washing of regeneration. But although it is true that holy baptism can indeed be conceived of as a washing of regeneration, when regeneration is conceived of in the broader sense of the word, yet it is not correct to say that the apostle here calls baptism the washing of regeneration. Principally there is no objection to calling baptism a washing, or bath, of regeneration. Scripture itself points us in that direction. For according to Scripture, in baptism we are buried with Christ into His death; and through baptism we rise with Him in newness of life. Cf. Rom. 6:4. According to this presentation, the’ old man in principle is left behind in the bath of baptism; and from that bath the new man in Christ arises, justified and sanctified, and therefore regenerated. When, therefore, we conceive of regeneration in the broader sense of the word, namely, a changing and sanctifying of our consciousness and a recreating of us in Christ Jesus to a new man, baptism in its essential significance is indeed the washing of regeneration. Nevertheless, the truth is that in Titus 3:5the apostle probably very indirectly refers to baptism. However, he does not literally speak of it, but he speaks of regeneration only. He does not call baptism a washing of regeneration; but, on the contrary, he calls regeneration a washing. Regeneration itself is conceived as a bath, a washing from all iniquity and from all corruption.
But although the word “regeneration” occurs only once in the epistles of the apostle Paul, the fact itself is referred to in many places in the epistles of Paul. Thus, for instance, he teaches us that he that is in Christ Jesus is a new creature: old things are passed away, and all things are become new. We are the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus, created unto good works, which God has afore ordained that we should walk in them. When the apostle calls the believer a new creature, when he calls the work of grace whereby the sinner is changed and enabled to walk in a!1 good works a new creation, this is not to be understood as if the sinner became essentially another creature. Through regeneration he does not receive a new body or a new soul? or even another spirit. He is the same person both before and after the work of God which is called regeneration. It is plain that according to the apostle Paul the spiritual, ethical change which is wrought by grace in the sinner is effected by nothing less than a creative,—even though it be a recreative—act of God. Besides, we must not forget that the apostle Paul preferably speaks of the calling, in which the work of regeneration is implied and included. By this calling of God the apostle understands that creative and omnipotent act of God by which that which He calls also really comes into existence. For God quickens the dead, and calls those things that are not as if they were. Cf. Rom. 4:17. Those whom He foreknows and ordains to be like unto the image of His, Son He also calls. And those that are called are quickened with Christ, raised with Him, and placed with Him in heaven, enter into death with Him through baptism in order to arise in newness of life. Cf.Rom. 8:30: Col. 3:1-3. He and all the believers with him rejoice: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:1, 5;Rom. 6:3, ff.; Eph. 5:14. The work of God which the apostle denotes by the term “calling,” therefore, is the same as regeneration.
Even as with the apostle Paul the calling stands on the foreground, so the apostle John preferably speaks of regeneration. The main thought in his First Epistle is undoubtedly that believers are partakers of the life of God in the light. For that reason he views believers constantly in the light of the fact that they are children of God. They are born of God: hence, they possess the life of God. And having communion with God through that life, they walk in the light. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” I John 3:1. And again, “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. He that committeth sin is of the devil, but “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” I John 3:9, 10. And once more: “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us, he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” I John 4:6. This being born of God reveals itself in true, saving faith. For: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” I John 5:1. In that faith he that is born of God overcometh the world. I John 5:4. Thus, throughout his epistle the apostle John emphasizes the true, spiritual, ethical sonship of God, caused by the work of regeneration.
It is no wonder, but lies in the very nature of the case, that all rationalistic and Pelagian movements repudiate this radical and fundamental change in man that is called regeneration.
According to them, man is not spiritually dead. He is not totally depraved. He is not wholly incapable of doing any good. He is not inclined to all evil. He is only sick. But his nature as such has remained unchanged, that is, it has principally remained unchanged from an ethical and spiritual point of view. His salvation therefore depends on his own free will, and it is effected by human words of persuasion and wisdom. One must work upon the will of man through appealing to his intellect. He must be persuaded through words and example. And this change in his thinking and willing which is being effected by human persuasion is really regeneration. And this is the only regeneration, according to them, that ever takes place in the heart of the sinner. O, to be sure, they still speak of rebirth. But they attach an entirely different significance to the term than is meant by Scripture and than is meant also by all orthodox confessions. They have no place for regeneration as it is mentioned and explained in Scripture. They have, of course, no place at all for a regeneration that is effected only by almighty grace. They have no place for a regeneration which takes place even below the consciousness of man, that takes place in the very depth of his existence, and which consists in the fact that the sinner receives a new principle of life. They have no place for any regeneration the effect of which is new spiritual powers that are infused into the very depth of the heart of the sinner. As I said, that stands to reason. For by such a conception of regeneration. every possibility that the sinner can at all cooperate in his own salvation is cut off. Regeneration in the Scriptural sense of the word, therefore, leaves the sinner wholly passive, and attributes the work of salvation only to the absolutely sovereign power of grace. God is merciful to whom He will be merciful; and whom He wills He hardens. Of this the rationalistic theologians, even though they appear to preach the truth of the Word of God, must have nothing.
Our Reformed confessions emphasize this work of the new birth. Especially is this true of the Canons of Dordrecht, as we might expect. It is true, also the Confessio Belgica, the Netherlands Confession, mentions regeneration in Article 24. But it is evident that in that article the reference is only to regeneration in the widest sense of the word. The reference is really to sanctification. This is evident from the fact that Article 24 speaks of “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works.” It then continues: “We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.” It is evident from these words that the Belgic Confession does not speak of regeneration in the narrowest sense of the word, but only in the widest sense, .that is, in the sense of sanctification.
The Canons of Dordrecht, however, in the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine give us a beautiful description of that divine work that is called the new birth, or regeneration. In Article 11 we read: “But when God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by his Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
The same we read in Article 12: “And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture, and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed his part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted, or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural. work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do, actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.”
Here, then, is a fundamental difference between the Reformed confession and the Pelagian and rationalistic philosophy.
There always has been difference of opinion, and sometimes a rather heated controversy among Reformed people and Reformed theologians, about the question of the relation between regeneration and calling. In our opinion there is very little cause for such a heated controversy about this question. If only we distinguish correctly and accurately, the difference can easily be obviated. In a certain sense it can indeed be maintained that calling precedes regeneration—if only it is clearly defined what is meant by the calling and what is meant by the rebirth. In another sense, however, it must very definitely be maintained that regeneration is the very first work in the heart of the sinner, and that there can be no question of a saving hearing of the gospel without this regeneration of the heart being accomplished by the almighty power of the grace of God.