All emphasize that regeneration is entirely a work of God through the Holy Spirit. It is always powerful and efficacious, It is wholly effected without the will of man. And therefore they all must admit that logically regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit that precedes all other work of grace—the opening of the eyes to see, of the ears to hear, and the implanting of the seed of the new life in de heart of the elect. Whether, therefore, we maintain that regeneration takes place through the preaching of the gospel or not, it is certain that all Reformed theologians, unless they want to swing over to the Arminian camp, must admit that in a certain sense regeneration is always immediate. It is the very first work of God in the heart of the elect. Logically, it always precedes every other work of grace in the heart of the sinner.
This is also evident from the description of the work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit as we have it in the Canons, III and IV, 11: “But when God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them the 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.”
Also in Article 12 we may read the same thing: “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.”
Regeneration, therefore, in the Canons is certainly described in the strongest terms. It is called a new creation, and is compared to the resurrection from the dead. The Canons do not speak of mediate regeneration, although, of course, when once the work of regeneration is accomplished in the heart of the sinner, it does not exclude, but requires, the use of means. This is plain from Article 17 of the same chapter of the Canons: “As the almighty operation of God, whereby he prolongs and supports our natural life, does not exclude, but requires the use of means, by which God of his infinite mercy and goodness bath chosen to exert his influence, so also the before mentioned supernatural operation of God, by which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes, or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration, and food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles, and teachers who succeeded them, piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to his glory, and the abasement of all pride; and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the gospel in the exercise of the Word, sacraments and discipline; so even to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the church by separating what he of his good pleasure bath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is his work advanced; to whom alone all the glory both of means, and of their saving fruit and efficacy is forever due. Amen.”
We understand, of course, that this article cannot mean that regeneration in the narrowest sense of the word is effected by the preaching of the gospel, or by admonitions based upon the gospel. This is plain from the article itself and also from the articles which we quoted before. In the preceding articles regeneration itself is called a new creation, and is compared with the resurrection from the dead. Now, surely, creation, as well as the resurrection from the dead, is effected immediately by the power of God, and without any human means. It is God alone that calls the things that are not as if they were, and that raises the dead. Romans 4:17. But even as the sustenance of our natural life requires means, so also 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 and to strengthen and to nourish it.
The Dutch theologian, Dr. Bavinck, wrote a book on the subject, Calling and Regeneration. In that work he seems to be inclined to the view that somehow the work of regeneration is always connected with the calling of the gospel. However, regeneration as such is always immediate, also according to him. Writes he (I translate): “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 of 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 immediately, irresistibly.
In the same work Dr. Bavinck 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.”
Dr. Bavinck concludes as follows: “There may be a 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.”
We may say, therefore, that it is indeed very important in Reformed theology that whether the term immediate is used, or not, the idea itself is strictly maintained by Reformed theologians. Regeneration is an efficacious work of God alone, wrought in principle even without our knowledge.
Moreover, this is certainly also the teaching of Holy Writ.
In John 3:3-8 we read: “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 said 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.” We must note here that in the original a word for “regeneration” is used that means not only “born again,” but also “born from above.” Thus it is in verse 3 and in verse 7. We may say indeed that there is a three-fold difference between our first birth and our second birth. The first birth is in corruption, in unholiness and unrighteousness; the second birth is in holiness and in righteousness. In the first birth we are mortal in our entire nature, body and soul; in our second birth we become immortal, and receive eternal life in principle. And, thirdly, through our first birth we become earthly, and bear the image of the earthy; through our second birth, however: we become heavenly, so that we seek the things that are above. Now that this wonderful second birth, which is in holiness and immortality, and which is heavenly, is not wrought through the preaching of the gospel, but is immediate, the text plainly indicates. Notice that the Lord says to Nicodemus not only that man without regeneration cannot enter into the kingdom of God, but that he cannot even see it. This implies, without a doubt, that the grace of regeneration is absolutely first, must have the precedence over any other work of grace wrought by the Holy Spirit in the heart of man. Without it man has no contact whatsoever with spiritual things. He stands over against them. He cannot see the kingdom of God. Note, too, that in answer to the question of Nicodemus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus answers: a man must be born of water and of the Spirit. 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 must be noted here is especially that this work of regeneration, wrought in the heart of man, is not effected by the gospel. The gospel is not even mentioned. A man that is reborn is not born through the gospel, but simply of the Holy Spirit. This is; moreover, evident also from verse 6. Also in this verse, by the way, the preaching of the gospel as the means through which this wonderful rebirth is effected is entirely left out of consideration. And finally, this is also evident from verse 8, where the Lord compares the one that is born of the Spirit with the wind, which bloweth where it listeth, but of which one cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. The second birth, or the birth from above, is mysterious in 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 that are above. But why he is thus spiritually affected, he cannot understand or explain. It is simply the mystery of being born of the Spirit. Certainly, it is plain from this passage that regeneration in its deepest sense is immediate, that it is not wrought through the preaching of the gospel.
Another passage we may consider is John 5:24, 25: “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 into 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 especially the clause, “hath everlasting life.” This implies that he that heareth and believeth bath eternal life. That is, he already has eternal life before he bears and believes. That eternal life, of course, is the life of regeneration. And therefore, regeneration in the narrowest sense of the word precedes the hearing of the Word of Christ. The hearing to which the Lord refers is, of course, the hearing of the gospel. This is also evident from the last part of verse 24, namely: “but is passed from death unto life.” Also this clause undoubtedly expresses that the passing from death into life has been finished before one heard the preaching of the gospel. And this is quite in harmony with the text in John 3:3, where it is said that one cannot see the kingdom of God except he be born again. Just as there the seeing of the kingdom of God presupposes regeneration, so here the hearing of the Word of the gospel presupposes rebirth. In verse 25, however, the reference is evidently not to the preaching of the gospel, but to the efficacious Word of the Son of God Himself. The work of the Holy Spirit in the heart is, of course, never separated from the efficacious Word of the Son of God. While the seed of regeneration is implanted into the heart of the sinner, it is by the efficacious Word of the Son of God that the eyes are opened to see the things of the kingdom of God and that the ears are opened to hear the Word of God, so that the heart is quickened to become receptive for the things of the kingdom of heaven. Hence, in verse 25 regeneration is presented as a resurrection from the dead through the mighty, efficacious voice of the Son of God. That the question here is not of the final resurrection is evident from the clause “and now is.” The reference, therefore, is to the spiritual resurrection, or to the work of regeneration. And that regeneration is effected by the voice of the Son of God. In themselves they are dead, as is evident from verse 25: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God.” By that voice of the Son of God, therefore, regeneration is effected, and that too, immediately, first of all. It may be true that especially in the adults the work of regeneration as a whole is effected by the implanting of the new principle, by the quickening of that new principle by the voice of the Son of God, and finally, by the preaching of the gospel. Nevertheless, the hearing of the voice of the Son of God is something that logically precedes the hearing of the gospel.
This is also expressed in I Peter 1:23-25. This passage has frequently been quoted in favor of mediate regeneration. This interpretation is based on the fact that the apostle in verse 23 refers to the Word of God through which we are reborn; and in verse 25, that Word of God, according to them, refers to the Word of God, which by the gospel is preached unto them. From this they argue that it is plain that regeneration is wrought only through the means of the preaching of the gospel. However, such an interpretation of the text fails to distinguish properly and sharply between the different concepts of the text. Especially important are the two prepositions in verse 23: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed,” that is, out of corruptible seed, and by the Word of God. The elect are born again out of incorruptible seed; and at the same time, they are regenerated, or born again, by the Word of God. The seed of which the apostle speaks in this text is evidently the principle of regeneration that is wrought immediately in the heart of the elect by tile Holy Spirit. It is wrought in our hearts not only without our will or effort, but even without our consciousness. In that seed, as a principle of the new birth, or the new life, the whole of the new life, even unto glorification, is, of course, implied. Just as the acorn is the principle of the oak, so that nothing is added to the acorn in order to develop the oak, so also the seed of regeneration implies all that ever develops into the new man in Christ. But the development of the new birth out of that incorruptible seed takes place by, or through, the living and abiding Word of God. Now this Word is certainly not the same as the Scriptures, or even as the preaching of the gospel. It is the ever-living and ever-abiding Word of God. In itself, the Scriptures, or even the preaching of the gospel, cannot be said to be either living or ever-abiding. This, therefore, can be said only of the causal, the creative Word of God that is wrought efficaciously in the heart of the elect. By that powerful, efficacious Word of God the heart is opened, as in the case of Lydia, to hear the Word of truth. This implanting of the seed of regeneration, as well as the influence of this powerful and living and abiding Word of God, are both in themselves immediate, and therefore can be applied to the smallest infant, as well as to the adult. Then, finally, in verse 25 the apostle writes that this living and ever-enduring Word of God is also preached: “But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” Through that preaching of the Word of the gospel men are externally called and brought to consciousness through the power of the same living and abiding Word of God.
We may also refer to the text in Ephesians 5:14, where we read: “Wherefore he saith, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Here, too, the reference is undoubtedly not to the preaching of the gospel as such, but to the same powerful, ever-living, and efficacious Word of God through Christ, whereby men are quickened and given ears to hear and eyes to see the things of the kingdom of God. And here, too, the work of regeneration is presented as a resurrection from the dead. And this resurrection from the dead is certainly a marvelous work of God, which is effected without the means of the preaching of the gospel.
The parable of the sower also is often used to prove that regeneration is mediate. Those that interpret this parable for this purpose claim that the seed that is sown is the Word preached. Thus the Lord Himself interprets this parable. He tells us in Luke 8: “The seed is the word of God.” And thus it is argued that the Word as preached is the seed of regeneration. But in order to understand the real purpose of the parable, we must certainly carefully distinguish. 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 of the Word of God. But that this is not the whole of regeneration is plainly taught by the parable of the sower itself, as well as in many other passages of Scripture. For the seed of the Word of God falls at least on three different kinds of spiritual soil without bringing forth proper fruit. First of all, there is the seed that is fallen by the wayside. Secondly, there is the soil that is represented by rocky ground. And finally, there is the soil that is represented by the ground that is full of thorns and thistles. 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.” It ought to be very clear that the soil in nature is not prepared bythe seed, abut 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, butfor the gospel, and independently of its preaching, that is, by the direct and immediate work of the Holy Spirit, connected with the living and abiding and efficacious, powerful Word of God. And thus conceived, it ought to be very plain that also the parable of the sower teaches not a mediate, but an immediate, regeneration—taking regeneration, now, in the narrower sense of the word. The preparation of the heart in the work of regeneration precedes the preaching of the gospel, as the seed that must fall into good ground in order to bear fruit.
We must remember that when we distinguish regeneration as a seed and its development, as regeneration in the narrower and wider sense of the word, or as the generation and birth of the new life, we use rather a logical than a temporal distinction. Some maintain that the seed of regeneration implanted in the heart of man may lie dormant for many years before it develops 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 continues in this state for forty, fifty, or sixty years while all this time he has the seed of regeneration in his heart.