Christians have often been tempted to fall into one of three great errors when it comes to the doctrine of conversion (or regeneration). Historically, the word regeneration has signified two related but distinct ideas:
a) Sanctification, i.e., the progressive Spirit-wrought, graciously given growth of the believer in holiness, i.e., conformity to Christ by the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new. Among the Fathers of the Church regeneration was regularly used in this first sense. The pre-Dort Reformed theologians used the word regeneration in this sense.
b) The granting of new life. Louis Berkhof defines regeneration, used in this sense, thus:
Regeneration is that active God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man , And the governing disposition of the soul is made holy. But in order to include the idea of the new birth as well as that of the “begetting again,“ it will be necessary to complement the definition with the following words:… “And the first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.“ (Systematic Theology, 469, emphasis original)
With the rise of the Remonstrants and the controversy over the doctrine of salvation, the Reformed came to use the word regeneration principally in this second sense.
The first is great error in the doctrines of regeneration is to downplay or even deny the need for regeneration. This is the Pelagianism. One of the reasons that the Synod of Dort regularly characterized the Remonstrant position as “Pelagian” was because the Remonstrants did downplay the need for regeneration in this sense. Pelagius and his followers denied the federal headship of Adam. According to Pelagius, when Adam fell he merely set a bad example. He argued that we did not fall in him and that we are all, in effect, Adam. Each of us is born without Adam’s original sin and able choose not to sin, to obey, to be perfect, and thereby enter into fellowship with God and eternal life. Even when we do fall, he argued, the effects of the fall are not that grave. In short, for Pelagius, we only become sinners when we sin.
According to Augustine, following the Apostle Paul and the prophet Jeremiah, as we have already seen, our relationship to Adam is rather different and the consequences of the fall are rather more grave. Scripture teaches that Adam is the federal head of all humans, that we were all “in” Adam when he chose to disobey God, to transgress his holy law. When he sinned, we sinned. When he died spiritually, we died spiritually. When sin entered the world through Adam, death entered the world. We suffer and die physically in this world because of consequences of the fall. We are born dead in sins and trespasses. After the fall, the human heart is desperately wicked. Our minds are darkened. Our wills are bent in on ourselves. Our affections are perverted. Now, by nature we do not love God and neighbor but rather, by nature, we hate him and our neighbor. We transgress daily and add to our condemnation. Our situation is desperate and, apart from God’s sovereign grace, hopeless.
Another great error in the doctrine of regeneration is to so identify the giving of new life with means and instruments (e.g., baptism) as to think that whoever receives the sign and seal necessarily (ex opere operato) receives new life. The medieval church came to think and speak this way. The Roman communion speaks this way about baptismal regeneration.
The third great error is to think or say that God does not use instruments or means to bring about new life in his elect. This error has been is widely held among American evangelicals for 200 years. The confessional Protestant churches in the 16th century (Lutheran and Reformed) characterized this divorce of new life from the “due use of ordinary means” (to use the language of the Westminster Assembly) as “enthusiasm.”
The Synod of Dort addressed these errors of and problems created by the Remonstrants. In their 1610 Remonstrance (complaint) the Arminians wrote the following under the fourth head of doctrine:
ART. IV. That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.
The words of the Remonstrants must be read carefully. When they thought of grace, they were not thinking (nor speaking) of God’s sovereign, unconditional grace. In Remonstrant (Arminian) theology particular people are not elect. Remember too, that in their system, Christ died to accomplish salvation for no one in particular. In their view, God had established a system and Christ made salvation possible so that whoever exercised his free will to meet the conditions of the system becomes elect and benefits from Christ’s work.
Thus, when they speak of grace they are not defining as we do, as God’s sovereign unmerited favor whereby Christ accomplished salvation for his elect and the Holy Spirit efficaciously applies it to those for whom Christ died. Rather, in the Remonstrant system, grace is “assisting” and “cooperative.” This is the language of the fourteenth-century Franciscan theologian, William of Ockham and the fifteenth-century Franciscan theologian, Gabriel Biel. They had said, in effect, that God is prepared to “co-act” (Ockham) with those who take advantage of the endowments (nature/grace) given to all. Biel notoriously wrote “to those who do what lies within themselves (i.e., capitalize on the natural endowment given to all) God denies not grace.” The Protestant reformers and churches denounced this theology as Pelagian. Indeed, there were medieval Augustinians who denounced this theology as sheer Pelagianism. The Remonstrants brought it back into the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. This is another reason why Synod denounced the Remonstrant theology as Pelagian (and not merely “semi-Pelagian.”) In effect, the Remonstrance said what Ben Franklin said in the 18th century: God helps those who help themselves. That is a lie from the pit. The gospel is that God helps those who are dead in sins and trespasses and utterly unable and unwilling to help themselves.
At Synod, the Remonstrants confessed in their Opinions that it is not only possible but good for people to apply “all zeal, care, and diligence…to the obtaining of salvation before faith itself and the Spirit of renewal” are given. They explicitly denied that such efforts—known as preparationism are “harmful.” According to the Remonstrants, it is in the these exercises are “useful and most necessary for the obtaining of faith and the Spirit of renewal.” In Remonstrant theology, faith is not the product of God’s sovereign regenerating grace (as defined above) but of our cooperation with the natural endowments given to all humans. They confessed: “Therefore sufficient grace for faith and conversion falls to the lot not only of those whom God is said to will to save according to the decree of absolute election, but also of those who are not actually converted.” Sufficient grace is given to all. It is up to each to “do what lies within him.” Remember too, Pelagians deny the distinction between nature and grace. Here, in this denial and in their preparationism, the Arminians departed squarely from the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alonesola gratia, through faith alone (sola fide)
We must remember their conflation of nature and grace when we read their denial that, by nature, in a fallen state, no one has the power to will any saving good. They just affirmed that we do have the power to will saving good. The dialectical (back and forth, contradictory, affirming and denying the same thing at the same time) approach of the Remonstrants was a source of great frustration to the Reformed at Synod. Consider this language by the Remonstrants at Synod:
The efficacious grace by which anyone is converted is not irresistible; and though God so influences the will by the word and the internal operation of His Spirit that he both confers the strength to believe or supernatural powers, and actually causes man to believe, yet man is able of himself to despise that grace and not to believe, and therefore to perish through his own fault.
In one breath they spoke of “efficacious grace,” i.e., of grace that does what it does effectively and powerfully. That is the very definition of efficacious. In the very next breath they denied that grace is efficacious. In their confession it is resistible. In the nature of things, that which is resistible is not efficacious. The reader can easily see how the Remonstrants used the language of the Reformed Church but sought to turn it on its head.
Synod replied by denying the Remonstrant redefinition of regeneration. According to Synod, the Remonstrants were guilty of teaching that “in the true conversion of man new qualities, dispositions, or gifts cannot be infused or poured into his will by God, and indeed that the faith [or believing] by which we first come to conversion and from which we receive the name “believers” is not a quality or gift infused by God, but only an act of man, and that it cannot be called a gift except in respect to the power of attaining faith.”
Synod condemned this proposed redefinition because:
…these views contradict the Holy Scriptures, which testify that God does infuse or pour into our hearts the new qualities of faith, obedience, and the experiencing of his love: “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33); “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring” (Isa. 44:3); “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). They also conflict with the continuous practice of the church, which prays with the prophet: “Convert me, Lord, and I shall be converted” (Jer. 31:18) (CD RE 3/4.6)
According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, regeneration or conversion is more than a
gentle persuasion, or (as others explain it) that the way of God’s acting in man’s conversion that is most noble and suited to human nature is that which happens by persuasion, and that nothing prevents this grace of moral suasion even by itself from making natural men spiritual; indeed, that God does not produce the assent of the will except in this manner of moral suasion, and that the effectiveness of God’s work by which it surpasses the work of Satan consists in the fact that God promises eternal benefits while Satan promises temporal ones.
According to Synod, such teaching is “entirely Pelagian and contrary to the whole of Scripture, which recognizes besides this persuasion also another, far more effective and divine way in which the Holy Spirit acts in man’s conversion. As Ezekiel 36:26 puts it: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; and I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’” (CD RE 3/4.7).
The good news is that in regenerating God brings to bear “that power of his omnipotence whereby he may powerfully and unfailingly bend man’s will to faith and conversion.” The Remonstrants denied this glorious truth. As we have seen, they made grace resistible. Synod condemned the very idea of resistible grace as contrary to the Word of God. They objected
For [the Remonstrant view” does away with all effective functioning of God’s grace in our conversion and subjects the activity of Almighty God to the will of man; it is contrary to the apostles, who teach that “we believe by virtue of the effective working of God’s mighty strength” (Eph. 1:19), and that “God fulfills the undeserved good will of his kindness and the work of faith in us with power” (2 Thess. 1:11), and likewise that “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).
The Remonstrants taught that “grace and free choice are concurrent partial causes which cooperate to initiate conversion, and that grace does not precede—in the order of causality—the effective influence of the will; that is to say, that God does not effectively help man’s will to come to conversion before man’s will itself motivates and determines itself.”
Again, Synod rightly denounced this doctrine for what it was (and is): Pelagian.
For the early church already condemned this doctrine long ago in the Pelagians, on the basis of the words of the apostle: “It does not depend on man’s willing or running but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16); also: “Who makes you different from anyone else?” and “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7); likewise: “It is God who works in you to will and act according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
At the same time, the Reformed churches did not obliterate “second causes” or means or instruments. We have a robust doctrine of what we call “the means of grace,” i.e., those divinely ordained instruments (e.g., the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments) to bring about and nurture faith. The Spirit operates through the preaching of the gospel to give new life and true faith to his elect. This is just one reason why the preaching of the gospel is very important in the life of the church. In Heidelberg 65 we confess: “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.” This was Paul’s doctrine in Romans 10. How will they come to faith unless they have a preacher? God uses the Word to bring about new life and he uses the sacraments to nurture and strengthen that faith.
In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for man to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on man, breathed and infused into him. Nor is it a gift in the sense that God bestows only the potential to believe, but then awaits assent—the act of believing—from man’s choice; rather, it is a gift in the sense that he who works both willing and acting and, indeed, works all things in all people produces in man both the will to believe and the belief itself.
The means are not the gospel. The means themselves are not grace or Christ but the Spirit, by grace, works through the means to accomplish his gracious purposes. Again, we confess:
Just as the almighty work of God by which he brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means, by which God, according to his infinite wisdom and goodness, has wished to exercise his power, so also the aforementioned supernatural work of God by which he regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in his great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul. For this reason, the apostles and the teachers who followed them taught the people in a godly manner about this grace of God, to give him the glory and to humble all pride, and yet did not neglect meanwhile to keep the people, by means of the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. So even today it is out of the question that the teachers or those taught in the church should presume to test God by separating what he in his good pleasure has wished to be closely joined together. For grace is bestowed through admonitions, and the more readily we perform our duty, the more lustrous the benefit of God working in us usually is and the better his work advances. To him alone, both for the means and for their saving fruit and effectiveness, all glory is owed forever. Amen (CD 3/4.17).
Regeneration or conversion is the work of God. When Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3) that he must be “born again” or “born from above” he did not mean “you must do your part.” Rather, he was saying that until God the Spirit worked sovereignly and graciously in his heart, mind, and will to give him new life he would never understand the Kingdom of God nor receive Christ for eternal life. Grace is not a mere potential, it is the free gift of God. It is not nature, an endowment given to all with which we must freely choose to cooperate in order to benefit from Christ and his work. Rather, grace is the favor of God earned for us by Christ and freely given to us. The Spirit does not merely help those who do their part. He grants new life to the dead and raises them from the tomb, as it were, gives them true faith and through faith unites them mystically to the risen Christ and we may be ever thankful that it is so.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido
The translation of the Canons of Dort is taken from the edition published by the United Reformed Churches in North America in Forms and Prayers.