We must distinguish between regeneration and conversion; if we are to gain a proper understanding of salvation. Often the two are confused to be the same leading to further confusion in differentiating between that in which the sinner is completely passive (or acted upon) and that in which the sinner in a sense ‘co-operates’ yet by the acting of God!
“In the former the sinner is passive – in the latter he is active, or co-operates with the grace of God. In regeneration a principle of grace is implanted in the soul, and previous to this the sinner is incapable of moral activity; for, in the language of inspiration, he is “dead in trespasses and sins.” In conversion the soul turns to God, which imports activity; but still the sinner only acts as he is acted upon by God, who “worketh in him both to will and to do”. [Westminster]
By Regeneration I mean the initial giving of spiritual life. Also called the new birth, quickening, effectual calling, and irresistible grace are all synonymous theological terms referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in the radical transformation of the soul.” Regeneration is giving of spiritual life to one who has been dead in trespasses and sins.
Immediate-I am not using the term, immediate, here in the sense of being sudden, even though regeneration is a sudden or instantaneous act. The word, immediate, is used here is the sense of “having nothing come between; with no intermediary.” This means that the Holy Spirit is the sole agent in regeneration. Here it will be good to quote A W. Pink from his book, The Holy Spirit, pp. 56,57:
In His work of “quickening,” by which we mean the impartation of spiritual life to the soul, the Spirit acts immediately from within, and not by applying something from without. Quickening is a direct operation of the Spirit without the use of any instrument: the Word is used by Him afterwards to call into exercise the life then communicated…The soul, then, is quickened into newness of life by the direct and supernatural operation of the Spirit, without any medium or means whatever…No, men are not “quickened” by the Word, they must be quickened in order to receive and understand the Word.
Pink says on page forty-nine of the same book:
In regeneration one of God’s elect is the subject, and the Spirit of God is the sole agent. The subject of the new birth is wholly passive: he does not act but is acted upon. The sovereign work of the Spirit in the soul precedes all holy exercises of heart- such as sorrow for sin, faith in Christ, love toward God… This great change is not a gradual and protracted process, but is instantaneous: in an instant of time the favored subject of it passes from death unto life.
Beloved, I want you to bear in mind that amongst sincere Calvinists, there are those who insist in ‘Gospel Regeneration’ and those who contend for ‘Immediate Holy Spirit Regeneration’. I belong to the latter. For the sole reason that in my personal salvation experience I was regenerated without the agency of any preacher or preaching involved!
This regeneration is a Resurrection! Lazarus was helpless and passive until Jesus raised him. Jesus called him with irresistible power. Lazarus could not and did not resist the voice of Christ. Likewise, the one who is dead in trespasses and sins is helpless and passive until Christ by the Holy Spirit calls him from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. The one who is dead in sin cannot and will not resist the call of Christ. This call comes with irresistible power.
It is a New Birth! In natural birth, we know that the one who is born does not will to be born–in fact, he has no decision in the matter whatsoever. He doesn’t decide the time, place, or circumstances of his birth. He has no power to determine the family into which he will be born. The analogy holds true with regard to the spiritual birth. God determines the time, place and circumstances. The sinner can no more resist this than can an infant resist and refuse to be born naturally. This fact is shown so clearly in John 1:13 where speaking of believers it is said, “Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” This verse kills the doctrine of those who teach that men are saved when they exercise their “free wills” and accept God’s “offer” of salvation.
It is a Creative act of God! The impartation of saving grace to individuals is also referred to in the Scriptures as a creation. “For God, Who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (II Cor. 4:6). Here, of course, Paul is referring back to the Genesis account of the creation of the heaven and the earth. How was light created? God commanded it to shine with irresistible power! “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3). There was no resistance here. God was the active agent. The thing created was passive (indeed non-existent) until God called it into being.
So it is in the spiritual creation, says Paul. How does an individual get to know Jesus Christ with saving knowledge? God commands it as He speaks life into the heart by the Holy Spirit. God is just as sovereign in the creation of spiritual life as He was in the creation of the universe. No one helped Him create the heaven and the earth and no one helps Him give spiritual life to His people. Consider the following Scripture which teach this wonderful truth: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (or “creation”–Grk. KTISIS): old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (II Cor. 5:17).
When you search the Scriptures you will notice that nowhere in all of scripture are men commanded to “be regenerated”, but you are commanded throughout scripture to “repent and be converted” (Acts 3:19). Who will be converted? Only the regenerated can obey and follow the commands of God. God keeps regeneration solely under His complete command and control, but He has commanded you to “be converted”.
What does it mean to be converted? The fundamental biblical meaning is “to turn”—usually to turn to God. What do we turn away from when we to turn to God; what do we set aside when we are converted? Or, in different words, why do we need conversion? What separates us from God in the first place? Jesus commissioned the apostle Paul to go to the gentiles and “open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18).
The first thing in conversion is to cast away our misconception of what righteousness is and grasp the true meaning of righteousness. And this is revealed only in the Gospel! Consider the following verse carefully –
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith”! [Rom 1:16,17]
Here is where the Gospel comes into the picture or so to say the Gospel becomes necessary. The Gospel enables the regenerate soul to ‘see’ the righteousness of God which is credited to him whereby he is saved!
By the righteousness of God, is not meant the essential righteousness of God, the rectitude of his nature, his righteousness in fulfilling his promises, and his punitive justice, which though revealed in the Gospel, yet not peculiar to it; nor the righteousness by which Christ himself is righteous, either as God, or as Mediator; but that righteousness which he wrought out by obeying the precepts, and bearing the penalty of the law in the room of his people, and by which they are justified in the sight of God: and this is called the righteousness of God, in opposition to the righteousness of men; and because it justifies men in the sight of God; and because of the concern which Jehovah, Father, Son, and Spirit, have in it. Jehovah the Father sent his Son to work it out, and being wrought out, he approves and accepts of it, and imputes it to his elect; Jehovah the Son is the Author of it by his obedience and death; and Jehovah the Spirit discovers it to sinners, works faith in them to lay hold upon it, and pronounces the sentence of justification by it in their consciences.
Now this is said to be revealed in the Gospel, that is, it is taught in the Gospel; that is the word of righteousness, the ministration of it; it is manifested in and by the Gospel. This righteousness is not known by the light of nature, nor by the law of Moses; it was hid under the shadows of the ceremonial law, and is brought to light only by the Gospel; it is hid from every natural man, even from the most wise and prudent, and from God’s elect themselves before conversion, and is only made known to believers, to whom it is revealed; from faith to faith; that is, as say some, from the faith of God to the faith of men; from the faith of preachers to the faith of hearers; from the faith of the Old to the faith of the New Testament saints; or rather from one degree of faith to another; for faith, as it grows and increases, has clearer sights of this righteousness, as held forth in the Gospel. [John Gill]
To condense all of the above, God Sovereignly saves us in Regeneration and then calls us or illuminates us by the Gospel. “Who hath saved us (regeneration), and called us (by the Gospel) with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace etc”. [2Tim 1:9] As I always say we must beware of putting the proverbial ‘cart before the horse’! A man does not believe the Gospel and get saved but believes the Gospel because he is saved!
This is the reason the Gospel is referred to in the Scriptures as a mystery! Because only to the regenerate it is the ‘power of God unto salvation’. The rest can only behold it, wonder about it and perish! “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a mandeclare it unto you”. [Act 13:41]
Regeneration is a onetime sovereign act of God whereas Conversion is always partial (on this earth) and continual, and can be seen in different parts of our lives at different times. A genuine backslider does not need to be regenerated but he needs to be converted. A backslider no matter how far he has strayed is still God’s son and the Lambs bride! “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you”! [Jer 3:14] (I say this with tears in my eyes, for I was the greatest backslider of them all) Prior to Peter’s backsliding, the Lord told him – “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”! [Lk 22:31,32]
And I may finally add that it is in conversion that we unlearn much of the error which we held on to initially after our regeneration. Errors such as ‘Free will’ Universal Atonement, The Pentecostal errors etc.
The path of the just is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day! Hallelujah!