Does Faith Lead to Regeneration or Vice Versa? Part 2

Regeneration

Part 1 of this article can be found here. 

 

PART 2

EPHESIANS 2:5

One of the verses – perhaps the verse – that is most appealed to in support of the view that regeneration leads to faith is Ephesians 2:5. 

In Ephesians 2:4-5 Paul writes:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in transgressions, made us alive with Christ (by grace you have been saved), . . .’

The argument made

Those who claim that these words show that regeneration leads to faith argue as follows:

Verse 5 speaks about people who are spiritually dead.  Dead means completely unable, so the people in view must be unable to have faith.  Therefore, when this passage tells us that God makes the spiritually dead alive, i.e., regenerates them, it must be without any faith on their part.  Besides, there is no reference to faith in this verse.

This argument is far too simplistic and makes some unwarranted assumptions.  There are several points to make here:

No Greek word for ‘when’

The first point is a minor one.

The Greek clause I have translated as ‘even when we were dead in transgressions’ is literally translated as ‘even us being dead in transgressions’.

I agree that part of the sense is that Paul and his readers were made alive when they were dead in transgressions.  But the idea also seems partly to be that they were made alive although they were dead in transgressions.  ‘Even when we were dead in transgressions’ or ‘even though we were dead in transgressions’ are both possible translations.

My point here is just that there is no Greek word for ‘when’ in the text.  There is therefore a bit less emphasis on the making alive taking place when Paul and his readers were dead than translating with ‘when’ might suggest.

Uncertainty about the meaning of ‘dead’

Ephesians 2:5 includes the phrase ‘dead in transgressions’.  What does the deadness in this phrase refer to? 

It is a mistake simply to assume that it must mean inability to do something.  Romans 6:23 says that ‘the wages of sin is death’, where death signifies liability to condemnation and punishment.  And other verses in the Pauline letters refer to death similarly.

It seems highly likely that in Ephesians 2:5 too ‘dead’ signifies liability to condemnation and punishment.  However, could this be all it signifies in this verse?  If so, the verse would be saying nothing about spiritual inability.

In my view ‘dead’ in Ephesians 2:5 very probably does in part signify spiritual inability.  But I don’t think that is completely certain.  It’s not impossible that the deadness here is just about being on track for punishment from God.

We mustn’t read too much into the imagery

‘Dead’ here is a metaphor.  And metaphors often don’t correspond exactly to the reality that they are portraying.

Furthermore, the Bible uses hyperbole, i.e., language that is deliberately exaggerated for effect, much more extensively than we are used to in the modern West. 

Therefore, even if ‘dead’ in Ephesians 2:5 includes the concept of spiritual inability, it is a mistake to assume that the people referred to as dead should be regarded as literally, totally, spiritually unable. 

Paul is giving a summary

Even if, improbably in my view, those described as dead in Ephesians 2:5 are totally unable in all spiritual matters, it is reading too much out of the text to say that no faith is involved when God makes people alive. 

When Paul says that God made him and his readers alive when/though they were dead in transgressions, he is just summarising what happened to them when they became Christians.  He is not attempting to explain in detail all that went on.  The initial state – being dead – and the final state – being alive – are referred to.  But to assume that God moved Paul and his readers directly from death to life without any faith on their part is completely unwarranted.

If God takes the initiative by awakening dead people and enabling them to have faith, and then responds to that faith by making them alive by regeneration, that would fit perfectly with what we are told in Ephesians 2:5.

Taking account of the context

The context of vv. 1-8 actually fits much better with the view that faith leads to regeneration than vice versa.

In Ephesians 2:5 the statement, ‘[God] made us alive with Christ’, is immediately followed in the Greek, as in some English translations, by the parenthetical statement, ‘(by grace you have been saved)’. 

The fact that these two statements are found one after the other without any words of explanation shows that there must be a close relationship between them.  It therefore doesn’t seem possible to understand the being made alive and the being saved as separate aspects of what goes on when someone becomes a Christian. 

Nor does it seem likely that the being made alive is a wider concept that includes the narrower concept of being saved.  Salvation in Scripture is often quite a broad term.  So to take being saved as a mere part of being made alive seems forced.

Instead, it seems most natural to understand the being saved here either as a rough equivalent of being made alive or as a wider term that includes being made alive.  Very probably, then, the being saved of v. 5 at least includes the being made alive of v. 5.

But we know from Ephesians 2:8 that being saved is through faith.  In this verse Paul says:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith . . .’

So if, as seems highly probable, the being saved of v. 5 at least includes the being made alive of v. 5, then in view of v. 8 we can say that this being made alive is through faith.  In other words, God responds to faith by giving regeneration.

The context in vv. 1-8, therefore, counts against the view that Ephesians 2:5 teaches that regeneration leads to faith.  In fact this context actually suggests that faith leads to regeneration.

Taking account of other passages in the letters of Paul

Most importantly, Ephesians 2:5 needs to be considered in the light of the rest of the Pauline letters, especially the rest of Ephesians itself.

Crucially, we have seen that there are good reasons for believing that Ephesians 1:13 strongly implies that faith leads to regeneration.  Therefore, we would expect 2:5 to be consistent with this.  And we would also expect it to fit with the Pauline Galatians 3:2, which, as we have seen, strongly implies that faith leads to regeneration.

Summing up

To sum up this section, then, not only is it a mistake to say that Ephesians 2:5 teaches that regeneration leads to faith, but there are very good reasons for believing that it teaches the opposite. 

1 JOHN 5:1

1 John 5:1 states:

‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God.’

The argument made

Those who say that regeneration leads to faith often appeal to these words to support their view.  They claim that the words are telling us two things:

(1) Everyone who has faith has also been regenerated.

(2) Everyone who has faith does so because they have been regenerated.

1 John 2:29 and 1 John 4:7 are often brought in to support this argument. 

2:29 says:

‘. . . everyone who practises uprightness has been born of Him [God].’ 

And 4:7 states:

‘. . . everyone who loves has been born of God.’

Those who refer to 1 John 2:29; 4:7 argue that these verses are saying two things: one, those who practise uprightness and love have also been regenerated; and, two, they do so because they have been regenerated.  And then they argue that the same train of thought must apply in 5:1 too: those who have faith have also been regenerated, and they have faith because they have been regenerated.

This interpretation is certainly not a forced way of taking these words in 1 John 5:1. 

However, there are a few points that need to be made:

Caution in drawing conclusions

It is not certain that in 1 John 2:29; 4:7 the author’s purpose is to tell us that those who practise uprightness and love do so because they have been regenerated. It is true that it would be correct theology to say that practising uprightness and loving are possible because someone has been regenerated. But that doesn’t mean that this is the author’s focus in these verses. It is possible that his focus is simply on the fact that those who practise uprightness and who love have also been regenerated.

What is more, even if the author’s purpose in 2:29 and 4:7 is in part to tell us that practising uprightness and love happen because someone has been regenerated, it doesn’t follow that the same grammatical structure must involve the same way of reasoning in 5:1 too.  The most we could say is that, all other things being equal, it is likely that the same way of reasoning would be found in 5:1, but this would need to be weighed against other factors.

Another plausible interpretation

Let me cite again the words from 1 John 5:1 that we are looking at in this section. They are:

‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God.’

I noted above that those who see these words as support for the view that regeneration leads to faith think they are saying two things:

(1) Everyone who has faith has also been regenerated.

(2) Everyone who has faith does so because they have been regenerated.

However, we can just as easily interpret these words to be saying only the first of these things:

Everyone who has faith has also been regenerated.

In this case, nothing would be implied about the relationship between the faith and the regeneration.

This latter interpretation fits well with 1 John 5:13.  This verse states:

‘These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ 

This verse makes it clear that a key concern of the author of 1 John, probably the key concern, is to tell people that if they are believers in Jesus, then they have eternal life.  I suggest that in the words from 5:1 that we are looking at, the author is doing precisely what he says his aim is in 5:13, and is doing no more than that. 

In 1 John 5:1 he starts by referring to ‘everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah’.  He is letting his readers know that he is thinking of people like them, since they believe that Jesus is the Messiah and obviously they know that they believe this.

Then he says, ‘has been born of God’.  He is telling his readers something that he wants them to know, i.e., that all Christian believers have been born of God.  He could equally well have said, ‘has come into possession of eternal life’ or ‘has eternal life’.

We could paraphrase:

‘You need to realise that you, like all Christian believers, have come into possession of eternal life.  You have eternal life!’

Under this interpretation, there is no attempt to comment on the relationship between faith and regeneration.  Regeneration is understood to have occurred at the time of conversion.  And although faith is referred to existing in the present, it too would be understood to have begun at the time of conversion.  Nothing about the relationship between the regeneration and the faith is implied. 

This interpretation is in no way forced.  And it fits perfectly with what we find in v. 13.

Fitting this verse with the rest of the Bible

When forming our views on something in Christian theology, we should always choose the path of least resistance, the solution that best fits all the biblical data.

If we were to interpret 1 John 5:1 as implying that regeneration leads to faith, we would be choosing to interpret it in a way that contradicts all the texts we have looked at which teach that faith leads to regeneration. 

Most importantly, we would be choosing to interpret this verse in a way that contradicts John’s Gospel.  And this is especially difficult, because 1 John and the Gospel of John are part of the same family of New Testament writings. 

Therefore, because, as we have seen, there is a plausible interpretation of this verse that does not suggest that regeneration leads to faith, we should certainly choose that one.

Summing up

To sum up, then, 1 John 5:1 says nothing about the relationship between faith and regeneration.

CONCLUSION

That ends our analysis of the biblical data.  When all that we have discussed is taken into account, we should have no hesitation in saying that according to the Bible faith leads to regeneration.  God responds to our faith by regenerating us, by giving us His supernatural life.

So why is this important?

Not distorting the Christian message

To begin with, if we say that regeneration leads to faith, we are distorting the Christian message.  Part of this message is, ‘Believe and you will have life’, ‘Believe and you will have eternal life’, ‘Believe and you will be become a child of God’.  See John 1:12-13; 3:14-16; 5:40; 6:40; 20:31.  We need to keep this part of the message intact.

Not discouraging laying on of hands

Saying that regeneration leads to faith is also bound to discourage the practice of laying hands on new converts for them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Scripture implies that in the early church one way in which new converts first received the Spirit was through the laying on of hands.  See Acts 8:14-17; 19:6; Hebrews 6:1-2.  And there is no good reason for thinking that God wants us to abandon this practice today.

I am not saying that it is God’s will for every Christian to have hands laid on them for this purpose.  Nor am I saying that if hands are omitted when God wants them to be used, a new convert with saving faith would remain unregenerated. 

Nevertheless, I do think that some Christians today who have never had hands laid on them for this purpose tend to be rather lacking in their experience of the Spirit.  And saying that new Christians have received the Spirit in regeneration before they even had faith is bound to discourage the laying on of hands.

Allowing genuine ability to accept or reject Christ

Finally, if we say that regeneration leads to faith, then regeneration has to be an act of God that doesn’t depend on anything people do.  In other words, people would have no real choice about whether or not they become Christians.  It would be God’s decision alone. 

When we recognise, however, that faith leads to regeneration, we no longer have to say that God alone chooses who becomes a Christian.  We can say that He gives people the genuine ability to accept or reject salvation.

 

See also:

Believing That Regeneration Leads to Faith Is Mistaken and Pointless

New Christians Should Be Baptized Immediately

Laying On of Hands and New Christians

 

Read more articles by Max Aplin

Max Aplin

Max Aplin

Free Lance Writer at The Orthotometist
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a British national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.

You are very welcome to take any of my articles to post on your website, blog etc. If you do this, you may Americanise the English spellings, leave out the links at the end of the article, and change the format of subheadings, quotations etc., if you want. But please attach my name and keep the content of the article unaltered.

Check out my blog, "The Orthotometist" above.
Max Aplin

Max Aplin

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a British national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.You are very welcome to take any of my articles to post on your website, blog etc. If you do this, you may Americanise the English spellings, leave out the links at the end of the article, and change the format of subheadings, quotations etc., if you want. But please attach my name and keep the content of the article unaltered.Check out my blog, "The Orthotometist" above.

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