The Place of Regeneration in the Preaching of the Gospel

We have come to the very heart of the issue that always distinguishes the sound Scriptural preaching of the gospel to the unconverted from all sorts of human philosophies and corruptions of the truth. Here we come to the parting of the ways between those who maintain that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation and those who insist on a mere offer of salvation which man may accept or reject. Here we either consistently maintain that salvation is of the Lord, and entirely so, or we try to introduce something of man into the work of salvation. 

The question can be put very simply: Is there any receptivity in the sinner before the work of salvation wrought by God begins in the heart? Is the lost sinner in any way capable of accepting the gospel message, of showing some willingness to receive the glad tidings, and of accepting Christ? Must this receptivity or this willingness precede the work of grace, so that God and man cooperate together in man’s salvation? 

The position of the predestinarians has always been that grace is always first. Salvation is the sovereign and complete work of God, without any human aid, so that he who glories in his salvation must always glory in the Lord. This is the pure doctrine of the Scriptures. 

And this position has always been opposed and attacked by those who would undermine the truth of Scripture by giving some credit to man. Already in the days of Augustine, Pelagius arose, who taught that man is morally neutral, so that he is neither innately good nor innately bad. He can be influenced by bad examples that lead him in the wrong direction, but he can also reform himself so that he overcomes these bad influences in his life. We readily recognize these Pelagian errors, especially in the modern psychology that is so prevalent in our day. But even after Augustine, at the time of Gottschalk, there were the semi-Pelagians, who taught that fallen man is corrupted, but not to the extent that he is absolutely dead in trespasses and sins. According to this modified form of Pelagianism, man’s will is corrupted but not entirely evil; he walks in the darkness of sin, but he is not blind; he is sick, but not dead; he is perishing, but not perished. And still later Erasmus wrote on “The Freedom Of The Will,” compelling Luther to arise in defense of the truth with his “The Bondage Of The Will.” 

Thus it was long before Calvin that the church struggled against the error of the free will, which error again was published far and wide by the Arminians of Calvin’s day. The Arminians taught that man has a free will to choose the good or the evil, so that the will to believe must precede every work of grace. God does not do anything toward the salvation of the sinner until man is willing to be saved. (See our Canons, III & IV Head of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors, article 9.)

Now I fail to see any essential difference between all these errors of the past and the offer of salvation as it is presented in our day. Billy Graham speaks of regeneration or the new birth as something “that God does for man when man is willing to yield to God.” Man who is dead in trespasses and sins “can come to Christ by faith and emerge a new man.” (Quotations taken from an essay on “The New Birth” by Dr. Graham. See the Standard Bearer of November 1, 1965). The Reformed Journal has repeatedly assured its readers through various writers that God loves all men, makes salvation available to all, and desires to save all men. And this is written in defense of an offer of salvation extended to all men for the very purpose that all men may be saved, if they but will. 

All this is plainly contrary to the Scriptures. Let me only refer you to the well-known words spoken by our Lord to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). 

This text along with many other passages of Scripture teaches that man by nature is dead in trespasses and sins. (See also Ephesians 2:1). He is not morally neutral, as the proud heresy of the Pelagians teaches. He is not sick or suffering from poor eyesight or poor hearing, as the semi-Pelagians sought to describe the natural man. He is not capable of willing either the good or the evil, as the Arminians taught. He is not in a stupor or asleep, so that he can still hear the gospel invitation, yield to it, come to Christ and emerge a new man, as Billy Graham confuses the issue. He is not capable of accepting a well-meant offer of salvation as is taught in the Three Points of 1924 and in the writings of Prof. Dekker and others. He is dead, spiritually dead! 


How can a dead man heed the gospel preaching? How can he ever yield himself to Christ and seek to be saved? One can as well expect a corpse in a casket to respond to the invitation to arise and eat food, as one can expect the dead sinner to heed the invitation of the gospel. 

But I also must hasten to add that the figure of a corpse does not fully describe the spiritually dead sinner. He is capable of willing and thinking and speaking and acting as long as he lives. But he is capable only of willing the evil, thinking the evil, speaking and doing that which is evil. His heart is perverse, his nature is corrupt, so that he is prone only to that which is evil.

The very fact that man was once created as the highest of all God’s earthly creatures makes him so very corrupt and evil in his fallen state. Adam was created in the image of God in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, to know God his Creator, to love Him, and to serve Him in loving devotion as God’s friend servant. When he fell he retained his knowledge, but that knowledge was turned into spiritual darkness. The friend of God became God’s enemy, making an alliance with the devil in opposition to God. Man retained his will, but this will turned in hatred against God to the service of sin. Adam was dead in trespasses and sins, a slave to sin, and produced an offspring that is also prone to all evil. 

That is what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount, when He says, “The light of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness I” Our heart is rebellious, our nature is depraved, our ears are deaf, our eyes are’ blind, our mouth is silenced, our hands are paralyzed. And the result is that we will and think, speak and do only that which is evil continuously. As the apostle Paul expresses it, 

“There is none righteous no, not one; 

“There is none that understandeth, 

“There is none that seeketh after God. 

“They are all gone out of the way, 

“They are altogether become unprofitable; “There is none that doeth good, no not one. 

“Their throat is an open sepulchre; 

“With their tongues they have used deceit; 

“The poison of asps is under their lips: 

“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 

“Their feet are swift to shed blood: 

“Destruction and misery are in their ways; 

“And the way of peace have they not known: 

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:10-18). 

Therefore Jesus tells Nicodemus during his nocturnal visit in no uncertain terms, “Except a man be born again he cannot see (no, not as much as see) the kingdom of heaven, much less enter in. 

That is also the language of our Confessions. Our Book of Instruction that is preached in Reformed circles every Sunday teaches us to confess, “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” (Lord’s Day 2). And again, it teaches us that we are wicked and perverse, our nature is depraved, even so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good, and inclined to all wickedness. And, as the fathers well understood from the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, nothing ever changes that, and nothing can change that exceptregeneration. (Lord’s Day 3). 

“Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good, and inclined to all wickedness? 

“Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” 

Our Canons only serve to confirm this truth. The fathers speak of the fact that since the fall there are “glimmerings of natural light” in man. As a result of these glimmerings (which in recent years have been played up to far more than mere glimmerings by the theory of common grace) our fathers said that man “retains some knowledge of God.” He knows that God is God, and he can never escape that fact. No, he cannot even get rid of God by officially declaring Him dead. Even the devils know that God is God, and they shudder. Man also retains some knowledge “of natural things,” so that he can scan the heavens, probe into the depths of the sea, search out the bowels of the earth, and produce amazing inventions. But it still remains true, that God is not in all his thoughts, so that with all his searching he turns against the living God in wicked rebellion. Natural man also retains some knowledge “of the differences between good and evil.” He knows very well that sin is sin, that murder and adultery and stealing, and. every other sort of sin is transgression of God’s law, so that his own conscience condemns him. He even “discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” This always remains external, since his heart is at enmity with God and the neighbor, but for his own advantage he does maintain an orderly external deportment, even in spite of growing race riots, total disregard for all authority, and indulgence in sins of every sort. But even this natural light with all its glimmerings does not make the dead sinner partially alive, give him some sort of eyesight to see and know God, and to confess that he is a sinner that needs salvation through the blood of the Lamb. As our Canons express it: 

“But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” (Canons III, IV, article 4.) 

There you have it! Natural man cannot see the kingdom of heaven. He cannot see God, he cannot see himself as a sinner before God, he cannot yield to Christ, nor accept the gospel invitation. He renders his natural light wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness. He can only rebelliously say, “No,” as often as that gospel is preached. 

You can take a pig out of its natural surroundings, wash it, dress it up with a pink ribbon around its neck, but at the first opportunity it will return to wallow in the mud. You can take a lion cub as a house pet and train it to obey you, but you cannot change that lion nature. And the same thing applies to the sinner. Except he is born again, he remains a rebellious sinner. 

Rebirth is a wonder of God, who calls the things that are not as though they were. Just as power went forth from Christ as He stood by the tomb of Lazarus before the dead Lazarus could hear Jesus’ voice and respond to His call, so also power goes forth from God into the elect sinner in the work of regeneration. God raises the dead, also the spiritually dead, by the power of His Spirit in the heart. 

This our fathers called a “new creation; a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. 

Indeed, we must be born again. And that must be preached. 

For salvation is of the Lord.