“Most powerful . . . most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable.” With these words the Canons of Dordt celebrate the wonderful work of God’s grace in regeneration (Canons III, IV, 12). In Canons III, IV the truth of Irresistible Grace is taught in close connection with the truth of Total Depravity. Regeneration is not the only work of grace mentioned there, but it receives the emphasis because it holds first place among all the other works of God’s grace in the heart of the sinner.
In connection with Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement we learn of the work that God does for us, when from eternity, according to His good pleasure, He sets apart for us in Christ all spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3, 4); and when at the cross He purchases for us poor unworthy sinners those same blessings of life and salvation. In connection with Irresistible Grace we learn of the work that God doesin us, when with everlasting kindness He applies and gives to us all that has been chosen and purchased for us. The very first work in that application of salvation to the elect, redeemed sinner is the wonder-work of regeneration.
Scripture speaks of regeneration in many different ways. The word itself means “rebirth,” and in such passages as John 3:3ff and I Peter 1:3 we read of being “born again.” This rebirth is not a second physical birth, as Jesus so patiently pointed out to Nicodemus, but a spiritual birth. By our first birth we are born of earthly parents, and thus “of the flesh” (John 3:6); by our second birth we are born from above of God, by water and the Spirit (John 1:3, 3:3, I John 3:9). By our first birth we are born into this world, but by our second into an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and unfading (I Pet. 1:3, 4). The very principle of our first birth is a “corruptible seed,” but the seed of our spiritual rebirth is the living and abiding word of God (I Pet. 1:23). Thus it is that by our natural birth we are spiritually stillborn, dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, Ps. 51:5), while through regeneration we are born again into the fellowship of life everlasting.
That regeneration is a work of grace is evident. It is a work wrought through the power of the resurrection of Christ (I Pet. 1:3) and is the beginning of our resurrection with Christ (Eph. 2:5, 6). It is brought to pass through the Spirit of Christ (John 3:5-8) and is the gracious cause of all our obedience to the truth and love for one another in the body of Christ (I Pet. 1:22). But what is more, regeneration is actually “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). In regeneration Christ Himself, in Whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3, 9), comes to dwell in our hearts by His Spirit. In regeneration the life of Christ which cannot die, the life of God Himself, is imparted to us in all its glory and sweetness. This is proved by the Word of God in I Peter 1:23. That living and abiding Word of God by which we are born again is none other than Christ Himself. It is not the Scripture, for that is neither living nor abiding, but the written revelation of the living and abiding Word. Christ as the Word made flesh, living and abiding forever, dwelling in our hearts by the operations of the Spirit, is the seed of the new life. Regeneration is of grace in Christ.
We also find regeneration described in Scripture as a “new creation” (II Cor. 5:17), a resurrection from the dead (Eph. 5:14, John 5:25), a circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16), a washing and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Tit. 3:5), an awakening (Eph. 5:14), and in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as the giving of a new heart of flesh in the place of our old stubborn and rebellious heart of stone (Jer. 24:7, Ez. 11:19, 36:26). We understand, of course, that regeneration is all of these things because it is first of all “Christ in us.” But what we must see is that in all these different ways Scripture teaches us that regeneration is indeed a work “most powerful.” It is a work of grace which reveals the infinite strength of the Almighty, a sovereign operation of God by which we are infallibly and certainly saved. That is also what we mean when we speak of “irresistible” grace.
To say that the power of this grace is irresistible is to say first of all that regeneration is the only exception to our depravity. Without regeneration “all the imaginations of the thoughts of our hearts are only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Without the grace of regeneration we are neither able nor willing to come to God, or even to desire that which is good. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Jesus meant that apart from regeneration we cannot even believe that there is such a kingdom, as the unbelieving Jews so often proved. The irresistible grace of God in regeneration is the only hope for a totally depraved sinner.
But irresistible grace means also, that though by nature we resist the things of God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, our resistance is always broken by the supreme power of sovereign grace. The dead flesh and stone heart of the sinner cannot stand against the mighty working of the power of God. This is not to be understood in a fatalistic sense as though the sinner is dragged to heaven against his will, kicking and screaming at every step of the way. Rather, we understand that though the very first work of grace which is performed in the heart of the sinner is performed contrary to his own will, that it is also a work which is performed upon his will and heart, so that that which was hard is made soft, what was dead is made alive, what was evil, disobedient and stubborn is made good, obedient and pliable (cf. Canons III, IV, 11).
A beautiful example of the work of regeneration is found in Lydia of Thyatira “whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things that were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14). God did not knock at the door of Lydia’s heart waiting for her to open her heart and accept Jesus as her personal Savior. If that had been the case, Lydia would have continued to serve her idols in the temples of Diana and Jupiter. Rather, the Lord opened her heart and from the heart she received the “Good News” which delivered her from the service of “vanities” and taught her to serve the living God in spirit and in truth.
This work of regeneration is therefore, described in the Canons as a work which is both sweet and powerful. It is sweet in that by the power of grace God heals and corrects our heart and will, but it is also powerful in that it is done irresistibly and effectually (Canons III, IV. 16).
It is the irresistible power of that work that needs emphasis. Most preaching today assumes that regeneration is a co-operative effort between God and man. God knocks and man opens. God offers and man decides. God seeks, man finds. Apart from the fact that such teaching is horrible blasphemy and a denial of the Almighty it is the worst kind of foolishness. A popular example of this foolishness is Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. Besides being a denial of irresistible grace, it is as foolish to write a book of that nature as to write a birthing manual for the child who is yet unborn. The only book that can be written about being born again is the book which God Himself has written, telling us how He conceived us from all eternity in His good pleasure, how He carried us and travailed over us in His Son, and how He brought us to the birth through the irresistible operations of His Spirit. And until we are born again we will not understand one word of what that Book teaches, for it is written in God’s Book that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).
Seeing the irresistible power of the work of God in regeneration, we see also that His work is “mysterious and ineffable (inexpressible).” Regeneration is part of the miracle of salvation and the wonder of grace which God has ordained for the praise of His glory, and therefore is one of His ways which are “past finding out.” As little as we understand of the power of God in the creation of the worlds when He called the things that be not as though they were, so little do we understand of this new creation when once again in us God calls the things that be not as though they were.
But though we do not and cannot completely comprehend this work of God “we rest satisfied with knowing and experiencing, that by this grace of God we are able to believe with the heart, and love our Savior” (Canons III, IV, 13): mysterious indeed, but also “most delightful.” In fact, that is the great purpose of God in regeneration, that through faith and love, delighting in the wonders of God we might show forth the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Nevertheless, the delight that we find in this work transcends this present life, for through regeneration we are not restored to the earthly paradise and the life of our father Adam, but by this work we are lifted up to the heavenly Paradise where we see God face to face in the face of Jesus Christ, and where with eternal astonishment and delight we cast our crowns before the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever.
That eternal delight and wonder we taste even now, for “the life which we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved us, and gave Himself for us” (Gal. 2:20), and we know that “He which hath begun a good work in us will perform it until the day of Christ Jesus” by the power of irresistible grace (Phil. 1:6).