Previous article in this series: September 1, 2013, p. 471.
There are people who profess not to be regenerated, but who also say that they desire God to regenerate them. Could this be? Are there any unregenerate people who honestly desire to be delivered from their sin?
To answer that question, let us begin by considering what Scripture says about how an unregenerate person views himself. Does he think of himself as one who is dead in sin, and in dire need of deliverance?
How unbelievers view themselves
An unbeliever never seeks the salvation found in Christ. Blinded in his sin, he actually views himself not to be in need of salvation.
Jesus brought this out when preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth. After making known that He was the promised Messiah, Jesus told the people that He knew full well that they would reject Him. “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself” (a).
Unregenerate sinners are proud and blind. If they hear the word of Christ, they conclude that Christ is the one who needs to be healed, not they themselves.
Jesus mentioned this elsewhere, when He said that He came not for the righteous, but for sinners. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” ().
In this passage, the “righteous” are the unregenerate, who in their blindness view themselves to be righteous. The “sinners” are those whom God has regenerated, and who now see their wickedness, and view themselves to be sinners. Jesus came to call out the regenerate “sinners,” not the unregenerate “righteous.”
That the saving call of Christ comes to the regenerate is made known also by an admonition that our Lord gave repeatedly: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Only the regenerate have spiritual ears, so that they hear, understand, and submit to this call of our Lord.
The unregenerate do not view themselves to be sinners. They do not mourn because of their sin, and they will never call out to God for salvation from sin. They may at times call out for deliverance from a certain punishment that has come upon them for their sin, but they will never call out for deliverance from sin itself.
A hungry dead person?
Strangely, there are some people who say that they are unregenerated, and yet claim that they can and do long to be freed from their sin. If you ask them whether they have been regenerated, they will say no. If you then ask them whether they desire to be righteous, they will say yes. An unregenerate person who desires to be righteous, a dead person who hungers, is what they are actually claiming to be.
This, however, is quite contrary to Scripture, which teaches that everyone who hungers for righteousness is saved. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” ().
There are no unregenerate people who hunger for righteousness. Such hunger is proof that one has been blessed with salvation. Our Reformed fathers believed this, and quoted this very verse when refuting the idea that an unbeliever could desire deliverance from sin:
Error 4: Who teach that the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God.
Rejection: For these are contrary to the express testimony of Scripture. Ye were dead through trespasses and sins (); and: Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually ( ; ).
Moreover, to hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery and after life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed (; ). (Canons 3rd/4th Heads, Rejection of Errors, Paragraph 4.)
To hunger and thirst after deliverance from our misery is “peculiar to the regenerate.” That is the truth that we officially confess to believe.
An erroneous distinction
Those who teach that the unregenerate can hunger for righteousness will sometimes make a distinction at this point.1 They will say that an unregenerate person can have an external desire to do what is righteous, while lacking the internal desire to do so. In other words, a conversation with a professedly unregenerate person who says he wants to be saved might go like this:
Have you been regenerated?
No, I have not.
Do you desired to be delivered from your sin?
Yes, I do.
How can this be, since Scripture says that only a regenerated person desires to be delivered from his sin?
Well, I only have an external desire to be delivered from my sin. I do not yet have an internal desire for this deliverance.
At this point, the following needs to be considered: What is a merely external profession of a desire to obey God? What does Scripture call someone who inwardly rebels against God, while outwardly professing to want to please Him? Is not such a person referred to as a hypocrite?
That does not mean that all those people who speak this way are hypocrites. A person who says this about himself could be a regenerate believer who has been wrongly taught to view himself to be unregenerate. If his desire to do what is pleasing to God is merely an outward show, then he is a hypocrite, and his outward profession is actually a lie. But if he is not a hypocrite, and his desire is really genuine, then it is the inward desire of a regenerate heart.
If the latter is the case, the person needs to come to see this. And what a great joy it is when a person does come to realize this. To recognize that one is forgiven and spiritually alive, and that he will dwell with God forever—that is joy indeed!
1 This is a very common tactic. When it is clearly pointed out how Scripture exposes a certain teaching to be false, those who promote that false teaching commonly invent some distinction in an effort to circumvent what Scripture says.