Is regeneration by faith or is faith by regeneration?

What is regeneration?  The word means to be born again.  John 1:12 and John 3:6 indicate that this new birth is not physical but spiritual. Just as we were born into a physical family, we are born into a spiritual family and become children of God (John 1:12). This regeneration is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), who was poured out upon us richly.  Regeneration seems also to be envisioned in the passages that refer to passing from death to life and being resurrected with Christ, although the term is not specifically used in these passages (John 3:33, John 5:24, Ephesians 2:1-10, Colossians 2:12-14).

Some pastors and teachers  teach that regeneration precedes faith and is necessary for it.  They believe that mankind is so fallen that his heart is unable to respond to the gospel or believe in Christ. They say that we must first be regenerated before we can believe. Some believe that regeneration and faith occur simultaneously and that regeneration is only logically prior to faith.  Others believe that regeneration often is temporally prior to faith.  Either way, they believe that regeneration is the condition and means of obtaining faith.

The scriptures do indeed teach that mankind is fallen, radically corrupt, and incapable of saving himself.  No one will come to Christ apart from the calling, drawing, and influence of the Father and the Spirit.  However, scriptures do not teach that faith is by regeneration, but rather that regeneration is by faith.

Also at issue is whether salvation is by faith.  Those who teach that regeneration precedes faith cannot say that salvation in its entirely is by faith.  All will agree that justification is by faith, since that is so clearly taught in scripture.  However, it is also important to recognize that all of salvation, including regeneration,  is by faith since scripture also teaches this.  In the following pages I will present verses that, I believe, argue convincingly that faith is a condition and requirement for salvation and regeneration.

John 1:12-13

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13, NASB95).

This verse indicates that receiving Jesus is what gives a person the “right” to become a child of God.  It then equates receiving with “believing in His name.”  So, believing (faith) is what gives a person the right to become a child of God and become a part of His family.  This is not a physical birth (of blood) into a physical family.  Neither is it the result of a human decision to procreate (the will of man). Rather, it is being born of God, by His will, and into His spiritual family.  So faith is what gives men the right to be born of God and is God’s condition and requirement for regeneration.

John 3:1-21

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and 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. (John 3:3-6, NASB95)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18, ESV)

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. So regeneration is a requirement for entering the kingdom, a requirement that Nicodemus evidently did not understand and had not met.  In verse 16 Jesus tells Nicodemus that, to gain eternal life, he must believe in Jesus. To be born again, enter the kingdom, and gain eternal life he must believe in Jesus.  So Jesus teaches that belief (faith) in Himself must precede and is required in order to be born again (regenerated), gain eternal life (we gain life through regeneration), and enter the kingdom.

John 5:24

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (John 5:24, NASB95)

Here we see an order.  First we hear; then we believe, then we gain eternal life, passing out of death into life.  Again we see that we pass out of death and gain life (are born again) as a result of hearing Jesus’ word and believing in Him.

John 3:36

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36, NASB95)

Those who believe gain life, even eternal life.  Those who refuse to believe remain dead and unregenerate. Again, Jesus states that the condition for regeneration is faith.

John 20:31

but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31, ESV)

Life comes by believing.

Ephesians 2:8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB95)

When we read the word “saved” it is often instructive to ask, “Saved from what?”  In this passage, “been saved” assuredly alludes to the saving work of God that Paul has just described in the previous verses (1-7)—saving us from a life of death in sin, from following the world the flesh and the devil and from the wrath of God that we deserved as children of wrath.  “Been saved” also refers back to God’s making us alive together with Christ, raising us up with Christ, and seating us in the heavenly places so that He can show us his kindness in future ages.  How was this salvation accomplished?  Paul says that we have been saved in these ways “by grace,” “through faith.”  All the salvation just described was “through faith.” Regeneration is certainly envisioned in Paul’s description in verse five of being raised from death to life.  So, it is clear that regeneration (being resurrected from death to life) is through faith, since it is part of the salvation envisaged.  Paul clearly states that faith is the condition for salvation, which in this context includes regeneration. (For a refutation of the argument that Paul uses the metaphor of “death” in Ephesians 1:1-5 to refer to total inability to respond to God or believe, see Dead Men Can Believe.)

Colossians 2:12-13

having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, (Colossians 2:12-13, NASB95)

We were made alive (regenerated) together with Christ in His resurrection.  But we were “raised up with Him through faith.”  Some teach that, since we are dead in trespasses, we must be made alive before we can believe.  Yet this verse shows just the opposite, that we were raised through faith and that we must believe in order to be resurrected with Christ and be made alive.  Our resurrection (regeneration) is “through faith.”

Galatians 3:11 & Romans 1:17

“Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” ” (Galatians 3:11, NAS)

“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” ” (Romans 1:17, NAS)

These verses teach that not only does righteousness (justification) come by faith, but life is gained by faith.  Faith (and justification) are what bring life.  If regeneration preceded faith, these verses would have to read, “The living shall have faith and be justified.”

Galatians 3:26

Galatians 3:26 says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (NASB95).

According to John 1:12, being born again involves becoming a child of God, we are born into God’s family. Galatians 3:26 agrees with John 1:12 that we enter God’s family through faith.

1 Corinthians 1:21

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21, NASB95)

This is one of many verses that show that salvation is accomplished by hearing the message and believing it.  It might be possible to restrict the sense of the word “salvation” in such passages to justification only and not to regeneration.  Yet it seems more natural to include all aspects of salvation, including regeneration, in this and similar  verses.  Salvation as a whole, not simply justification, is by faith.

Luke 8:12

“Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. (Luke 8:12, NASB95)

Jesus’ use of the word “saved” here appears to be broader than merely “justified.” If His sense of salvation was restricted to justification only, then we might envision that a person could be regenerated and then the devil could take away the seed of the Word before he is justified.  Clearly Jesus has a broader sense of the word “saved” than simply justification.  To Jesus, believing is the means of being saved in the broad sense of the word, including regeneration.

Galatians 3:2

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2, NASB95)

By means of a rhetorical question, Paul reminds the Galatians that they received the Spirit, not be the works of the law, but by hearing with faith.  In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born “of the Spirit” to enter the kingdom of God. So, regeneration (being born again) is the work of the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5 says the same thing–that we are saved by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.   Titus 3:5 goes on to say that the Spirit was poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. Since the Spirit accomplishes regeneration, it would seem that regeneration would not be possible unless the Holy Spirit was present within us to regenerate us.  So receiving the Spirit precedes regeneration.  In light of this, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:2 that we receive the Spirit by faith shows that faith must precede receiving the Spirit and regeneration.

Galatians 3:14 & John 7:39

in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:14, NASB95)

But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39, NASB95)

These verses confirm that the Holy Spirit is received by and through faith.

Acts 11:17

“Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17, NASB95)

Peter says that they received the Spirit “after” believing in the Lord Jesus, making it crystal clear that this reception was a result of believing.

Acts 15:7-9

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:7-9, NASB95)

Again, Peter confirms that the Gentiles heard the gospel, believed and received the Spirit.  Then he adds the statement “purifying their hearts by faith.”  This is more than positional justification, but heart transformation as well. Most likely this heart cleansing refers directly to regeneration itself, but even if not, it refers to the results of regeneration. Either way, this cleansing is “by faith.”

1 Corinthians 1:21

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. ” (1 Corinthians 1:21, NAS)

The verse says that God was pleased to “save those who believe,” not “to give belief to those whom He saved.”  Since regeneration is part of being “saved,” this verse shows that God was pleased to regenerate those who believe.

Opposing verses.

Are there any verses that teach that regeneration is the condition for faith or the cause of faith?  I know of none that clearly teach this, although I would love to be informed if there are some.  One I have heard presented as an evidence is 1 John 5:1.

1 John 5:1

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. (1 John 5:1, ESV)

In the context of the letter, this verse presents an evidence that a person is truly a believer and has been regenerated. The statement is analogous to many others in the book of 1 John that give evidences to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian.  So, in this verse, John is not addressing what causes someone to initially believe.  Rather he says that present and ongoing (present tense) belief that Jesus is the Christ is an evidence that a person has been born of God (perfect tense).  For a thorough analysis of this verse, see Does 1 John 5:1 Say that Faith is Caused by Regeneration?

A question of God’s righteousness

Regeneration is God granting life to those who were dead.  The life that God grants is eternal and we have eternal life from the moment that we are regenerated.  But how could God righteously give eternal life to someone who has not yet been justified?  For God to give eternal life to a rebellious, unrepentant, unforgiven sinner would violate His own righteousness.  Such a person remains under the wrath of God. But God is totally righteous and therefore justification must either temporally or logically precede regeneration. Since there is no dispute that justification is by faith and follows upon faith, so it must be with regeneration. It must follow faith and  justification.


4 responses to “Is regeneration by faith or is faith by regeneration?”

  1. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for this post. Are you interested in discussing this topic further? I also hold that faith must precede regeneration. But I’m not sure some of the arguments made here are complete.


    1. Sure, I’d love to hear your thoughts

  2. Great!! I may be slow about it but I will ask some questions which I hope you’ll be able to help me with.


  3. […] All who have been born of God overcome the world, but the means of doing so is our faith.  So it could be that the means of being born again is also our faith, as is taught so clearly elsewhere in scripture (see Is Regeneration by Faith or is Faith by Regeneration? […]

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